The story of a two-day hitchhiking adventure to Amsterdam, that proves that the world is a much better place than the media makes it out to be.
‘You think this will work?’ I asked Maggie, as I drew blue wavy lines across the letter T. I put the marker down and stared at the two pieces of cardboard we got from our couch surfing host’s recycling bin and creatively sellotaped together like the crafty lasses we are. A frenzy of bright coloured, dotted, striped, and in other ways decorated letters stared back at me. They spelled ‘Neem ons mee naar’ on the top row, and a capitalised AMSTERDAM on the bottom. Take us to Amsterdam, it meant. (Or at least we hoped so.)
The idea of hitchhiking had been lurking in the back of my mind for a while when my friend, Maggie, and I embarked on a low-budget trip across Western Europe in the summer of 2015, from London through Brussels, Ghent, Bruges, and Amsterdam, to Paris. Armed with a thirst for adventure and positivity, I felt that both the time and my open-minded travel companion would be perfect to take another giant leap out of my comfort zone (after trying Couchsurfing for the first time), and attempt to reach Amsterdam from Ghent solely by the means of human kindness.
Naturally, I had doubts and fears, and family members and friends thinking I was nuts, but I had read and heard so many uplifting stories of bold travellers and kind drivers, that I felt a strong desire to expose myself to such a wild near-life experience. I did educate myself thoroughly, though; Hitchwiki is a great source for this with countless useful tips for first time hitchhikers, including safety and the best places for thumbing, and even city-specific info. As you’ll read in many places, the spot you’re hitching from is essential; never, ever should you go directly on the highway (for obvious reasons), and you should always stand somewhere clearly visible, where drivers have enough time and space to see you, decide that they like you, and stop the car to pick you up. And of course, listen to your gut and politely decline an offer if something seems fishy with the driver (or car).
Hitchhiking is recklessly surrendering yourself to the goodness of man – Christiaan Trieber
If you’re in doubt, I’d wholeheartedly recommend watching the TedX talk that convinced me too. The Beauty of Random Acts of Kindness is a wonderful talk about finding kindness in a world of war and conflicts, the magic of mutual trust, the fleeting ‘little independent world’ you and the driver share for a brief amount of time, why people give, how you can give back, and how these random acts of kindess connect the world.
Even though we had spent two nights in Ghent, we hadn’t yet had the chance to see the historic centre of the city, so we decided to quickly explore it in form of a morning run, before plunging into our grand thumbing expedition. We managed to get up at the cruel hour of six in the morning, whacked on our trainers, and dazed as we were, began trotting the streets of Ghent, blasting Eye of the Tiger on my phone at an embarassingly low volume.
Inspired by the the jogging photography class Zooey Deschanel’s character held in the movie Yes Man, I attempted to snap a few pictures mid
Little did we know how true this was going to be
Frizzy-haired, sweaty-faced happiness
Getting back from our run and preparing everything, we agreed on a sign we would use to convey our concern in case one of us thought the driver or situation was a bit shady, and, taking a deep breath, left the luxurious accomodation we got to enjoy thanks to our super generous Couchsurfing host. Dragging our backpacks out of the city to the road our host had suggested, we picked a spot convenient enough for cars to stop, and after a crucial ‘now or never’ moment, we held our sign up. I tried my best to force a genuine-looking smile on my face, but inside, I was trembling with fear and anxiety. All I could see were frowning faces and judgmental looks. What must they be thinking? Two silly girls just standing on the side of the road. Who even hitchhikes these days? It’s dangerous. It’s dumb. Get out. My mind filled in the silence of those hostile looks.
My self-pity was suddenly interrupted when a car full of giggling girls, indicating with their arms, told us that we weren’t even on the right, northbound side of the road. Being so clueless felt so embarassing that I wished the earth could swallow me up. Yet, experiencing the exact thing I feared – appearing as dumb and ridiculous – for some reason, made me cross the road with an utter lack of care and absolute confidence.
Somehow, as I managed to get over my insecurities, the outer world started to reflect that too. I no longer noticed negative feedback that would feed my self-consciousness. All of a sudden, people started smiling, waving, and winking, instead of resentfully shaking their head.
Within a few minutes, we got picked up by a lady in her thirties who was en route to Antwerp, where her friends threw a leaving party for her as she moved to Prague.
After a toilet break at a gas station, pumped by our great success thus far, we were confident we’d easily reach our destination within a few hours. We weren’t more than three hours away from Amsterdam, after all. We may have been a little too confident, though…
Marguerite the First, Queen of Fanny Packs
With a smile impossible to break down and goofy dance moves, waving Maggie’s multi-coloured peace flag, we waited and waited by the road which we were told was feeding into the highway going north.
Almost two hours passed by the time someone was kind enough to use his few seconds spent waiting at the red light to inform us that, although this road was indeed going north, no one crossing the border would be coming that way. He suggested heading to the other side of the city, where, over a river would be the highway entrance.
Time to slightly freak out
We hoofed for about an hour but found no river, just a lake, where Mags almost lost her debit card mid-pee. Note to self: it is advisable to hide some money and/or your cards in your clothes while hitchhiking (in case you had to leave your backpack behind), but perhaps just sliding them into your leggings isn’t the best idea. But hey, at least we saw some cute black ducks.
Listening to a friendly couple walking their dog nearby, we made our way to another service road.
Searching for the road
Another good two hours passed, but everyone just waved and smiled without stopping. Except for a German truck driver, who – as we managed to understand after a couple of minutes – could only have taken one of us due to driving regulations. Back to the road we went, and burnt medium-rare by the time a lady finally stopped. The lovely mum of two took us to the city centre, where we had a chance of finding an accommodation for the night – this seemed like the only solution as we were absolutely devastated. In the end, however, after settling down at a café for a bit to connect to the Interweb, we decided to give it one more try, and trekked to another road that seemed to connect to the highway.
Girls, you’re doing this wrong!
A lady shouted out of her car. ‘I hitchhiked my way through Europe twenty years ago. Hop in and I’ll take you to a better spot.’
We crawled in without a moment of hesitation.
She even said she’d have offered us a place to stay for the night, had she not needed to care for her daughter that evening. ‘I’m impulsive like that,’ she said. She did set us up with bottles of water and a bucket of mini pretzel snacks, though, (which came in handy after the soggy sandwiches we had been munching on) then left us on a curb by a service road. We had no chance of walking back to the city had the spot proven itself wrong, so it really had to work out. And as miraculous as it seemed, it did. Within ten minutes, a young gentleman with a bright smile and a promising Dutch number plate stopped and offered to take us to Eindhoven.
Saying goodbye to our driver near a big conference place, we stood on the side of the road with renewed enthusiasm. However, as the chilly, post-sunset haze settled on our dust-powdered, sunburnt skin, our once buoyant smile withered into a measly simper. Another hour or two had passed, and with no car even beginning to slow down, reaching our destination that evening began to seem impossible. Having to spend the night at a costly hostel would clash with the low budget aspirations of our trip, but we figured it was a fair price to pay for the overwhelming amount of help we had received throughout the day.
Angels May Not Have Wings, But They Surely Do Exist
Nagging ourselves towards the hostel, a street illuminated with vibrant pub signs caught our attention. As knackered as we were, we couldn’t resist and gave in to our curiosity, deciding to walk towards the luring sounds of laughter before heading to the accommodation.
Hey, are you guys backpackers?
The voice came from a ginger-haired Dutch guy in his early twenties.
“No…?” we replied sarcastically, squinting at our monstrous packs.
“Do you want a drink, or a place to stay for the night?” his bluntness stunned us.
We sheepishly stared at each other, highly suspicious of the bloke. If there’s anything I learnt from films, it is that a proposal like that would shortly escalate into a tale of spiked drinks, kidnap, rape, and/or dismembered limbs. Even though we had spent the day hopping into complete strangers’ cars, this guy’s generous offer seemed too good to be a truly innocent act of kindness.
Before we could answer, a cheerful girl appeared. She turned out to be the chap’s flatmate, and a frequent host for couchsurfers. Their warm smiles eventually convinced us to join them, and within a few minutes, we were happily gulping local craft beer at their favourite bar, Spijker, exchanging heartfelt stories with these strangers-turned-best friends. Before I could fathom our unbelievable luck, the place had completely filled up with uni students easing their exam stress, and we, in our scruffy trainers and sweaty jumpers, found ourselves dancing on table tops to odd remixes of Dutch folk songs.
Normally, I’m not much of a party animal, but this time – probably because of the euphoria of stumbling upon such incredible luck – I somehow failed to care about looking like a hobo amongst the other beautiful girls on the dancefloor with picture-perfect makeup on; and, whilst they stood by the walls, self-consciously clutching their envelope bags, I had the time of my life. Proof we may have partied a little too hard might be the large hole that appeared on my leggings, and the giant, rainbow-coloured bruise that ran down Maggie’s thighs and evolved during our trip, after she attempted (and failed) to jump from one table to another.
Our dreamy night concluded with long hours of storytelling and laughter in our angelic host’s home, excessive consumption of mini pretzels dunked in Speculoos, that delish biscuit butter, and a heavenly sleep in the cushiest bed.
Posing with 1/2 of the duo saving desperate backpackers’ lives
The next morning we stuck our thumbs out by a road going on to the ringroad around the city. A friendly man stopped shortly and offered to take us. He didn’t know very much English, but we gathered he worked as a paramedic, and he was on the way to see his best friend. This friend turned out to be a famous Dutch rapper, Kempi, whom, funnily enough, Maggie actually knew and liked. He had made some sort of contribution to See You Again, the Fast & Furious 7 soundtrack which quickly turned into the hymn of the summer of 2015. There we were, speeding on the Dutch highway, blasting this, and other Dutch rap songs, barely believing our lives.
We did make it to Amsterdam in the end, and it only took two more drivers – a naval officer and a dad of three working in the city – who both picked us up within a minute of holding our sign up. However, in spite of the copious amounts of Gouda I then got to savour, what I’ll remember most fondly from our trip to Amsterdam are these fleeting encounters with people who were bold enough to be kind in a world that roars with distrust and terror.
Who needs weed when you’re high on life?
Have you tried hitchhiking before? What were your experiences? Share them with me in a comment along with other uplifting memories of random acts of kindness – let’s restore people’s faith in humanity for good!