Millo's Musings

Life Lessons From Hitch-Hiking Across Europe Twice

03 December 2012

I went to Croatia earlier this year. It’s a beautiful country with lots to see and do, but far more exciting than the destination was the journey: my (then) girlfriend and I hitch-hiked the entire 1200+ mile distance from Manchester to Pula. For 10 days we lived off service station food, camped on roundabouts or next to motorway on-ramps and survived completely on the kindness of strangers.

Sound crazy? What’s even crazier is it wasn’t the first time we’d done it. In 2011, we hitch-hiked a longer distance in less time, freeriding from Manchester to Morocco in six days. On both occasions we were taking part in the Hitch, an annual event where hundreds of young people from across the UK hitch-hike across Europe to raise sponsorship for the charity Link Community Development

When I explain the idea to people, their responses fall into two general categories:

A minority say “wow, that sounds really cool!”, and, if I’m lucky, “how can I sponsor you?”. (This is usually followed by “wait, how do you get across the Channel?”)

The most common reaction I got, however, goes something like this:

“You’re going to hitch-hike?!?!?! Are you crazy?!??! You’re going to get mugged/raped/stabbed/kidnapped!!! What’s wrong with you? And how the hell do you plan on getting across the Channel?”

(We took the Dover-Calais ferry, in case you were wondering. Some things you do have to pay for.)

Of course, if you’ve ever hitch-hiked yourself you’ll know that these fears are completely unfounded, but then most people have never hitch-hiked, so time and time again I had to put up with this annoying negativity.

I’d like to put forth a different point of view: not only was hitch-hiking across Europe (twice) completely safe, it was just about the best thing I’ve ever done. Nothing has been so exhilarating, so memorable, has taken me so far out of my comfort zone (in a good way) or taught me so much about myself and the world in such a short space of time. I can’t recommend enough that you let go of your baseless fears and do something similar. You might learn a few things:

People Are Basically Good

We’re too scared of everything and everyone we don’t know in the UK. It’s been ingrained into our culture and psyche over the last few decades by a constant barrage of fear-based politics and 24-hour news channels. I, for one, am sick of it, and my life improved the moment I stopped listening to those sources and started trusting my own judgement over that of advertisers.  

The percentage of murderers, rapists and psychopaths in the population is extremely low, but you wouldn’t think it to hear all these people scream to me about the dangers of hitch-hiking. We teach our children about Stranger Danger, but the real danger is that we’re becoming far too scared of the world beyond our windows, clinging on to our comfort zones and refusing to deal with anybody who isn’t background-checked, risk-assessed and providing two references.

Both years on the Hitch, I was blown away by the kindness and generosity of total strangers all across western Europe. From Spain to Slovenia, people from all walks of life drove miles out of their way to help us, bought us food, taught us their language and on one occasion even took us home and let us stay at their house overnight. Nothing weird or bad happened to us, and not once did I fear for my safety or was made to feel uncomfortable, threatened or intimidated.

Sorry to contradict what you were taught in primary school but: talk to strangers. You’ll be amazed how nice they can actually be. We have much more to gain as a society by becoming more open, compassionate and trusting in others than we have to lose by the occasional thing that goes wrong. And who knows, as you start to give the benefit of the doubt to others, you might find that they start doing the same to you.  

The World Isn’t As Dangerous As You Think

Where did this idea that hitch-hiking is so dangerous come from? One driver I met on the 2011 Hitch, an American expat living in France who took us from Poitiers to Bordeaux, hit the nail right on the head:

“I used to hitch-hike a lot when I was younger,” he told me. “It was much more common back then, but I barely see anyone doing it now.”

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“Fear. We have a culture of fear in the States. It drives everything – politics, journalism, business – and it’s only getting worse.”

He was talking about the USA, but it’s just as true on this side of the Atlantic. If you pay attention to the news, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world is a dangerous place. This says less about the world than it does about news media. Fear and negativity are the backbone of modern journalism, and the result of taking in all that nonsense is you start to mistake fear-mongering sensationalism for an accurate depiction of reality. 

About a year ago I made the active decision to stop reading, caring about, or paying any attention to the news or world affairs. It turned out to be one of the best and healthiest decisions I’ve ever made, and I quickly learned:

If these sound like radical claims, try it yourself and notice how much better you feel after a few weeks without your daily dose of negativity. If you still cling to the illusion that reading the news keeps you informed, the book Trust Me, I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday makes a good antidote. It’ll completely change the way you view news media and the Internet. This article is great too, and in case you’re wondering, I read both of those sources long after I quit reading the news, not before. 

I’m not denying that bad things happen, and every murder, rape or abduction is a tragedy and those responsible deserve to rot in prison for the rest of their lives. I just think we need to realise what a tiny, tiny minority of cases these actually are, and adjust our expectations accordingly.

When you start living less fearfully, you’ve got a lot to lose if things go wrong, but you’ve also got a lot to gain if things go right, and the chances of things going right are so much staggeringly higher than the chances of things going wrong that I think you’d be fool not to agree that it’s worth it.

Yes, some people – maybe a friend of a friend of someone you know? – have had bad experiences hitch-hiking. Some people have probably had bad experiences brushing their teeth too, but  what about the billions of people who haven’t? Over 8,000 people have taken part in the Hitch in the 20+ years it’s been running, and in that time there hasn’t been a single serious incident. Not one. I like those odds. 

Avoiding Risk is a Stupid Idea

Look, I’m not stupid. Obviously I know that hitch-hiking is marginally more dangerous than getting a lift from a friend, just like driving is more dangerous than getting the train and crossing the road is more dangerous than being chauffeured everywhere in a bulletproof limo by the Secret Service. Who cares?

You’ll never get anywhere in life without taking risks. There is no major achievement you can possibly make in your life that doesn’t come with some element of risk. The trick is to accept that, and know that whatever goes wrong, you can always recover. Life gets a lot more fun once you stop fearing failure and start viewing it as a learning experience. Trying and failing is far, far better than not trying at all.

This is the opposite of what we’re taught in school. Study hard so you can get a safe and secure job, follow our Health & Safety guidelines and I’m sorry, our insurance doesn’t cover that. Get your grades and don’t rock the boat. Of all the deep flaws in our education system, probably the worst is that it teaches people to be risk-averse.

We want to live in a risk-free world, where no-one ever gets injured and everything always goes according to plan. There’s nothing wrong with this goal in itself, but there comes a point where we need to start considering trade-offs. Is it really worth sacrificing fun, growth and adventure so that one less person out of a thousand dies every year? I’d much rather live in a riskier world, and I guess I’ll have to accept that that one extra person who dies might be me.

Of course, if society learns to be less risk-averse, there will be downsides. More people will die, get hurt, make mistakes and suffer. But it will be worth it. That’s life. 

Bad Things Are Always Going to Happen – What Matters is How You React to Them

As we approached Croatia, just about everything that could possibly go wrong, did. What made it more annoying was that it was all our own fault. We got on a wrong train, missed a bus, lost some important tickets, then to top it all off, I lost my wallet and my girlfriend ran out of money, leaving us stranded and helpless until she managed to borrow some funds from her unamused parents. 

(Lesson learned: never travel without an emergency reserve of cash, kept separate from the rest of your valuables.)

It sucked, and on more than one occasion I let the stress get the better of me. What was the point? It only caused arguments and made things worse.

Now, I look back on the whole experience and laugh. So why bother getting stressed out in the moment? Getting on the wrong train in Slovenia screwed up our plans for the next two days, but it ended up meaning that we got to spend an extra night in Ljubljana, which we enjoyed and made the most of.

Anger and stress have outlived their evolutionary purposes, but for now we’re stuck with them, and the best strategy is to shut them out. You can’t expect everything to go perfectly, and when things do inevitably go wrong, letting stress creep in will only make things worse.

Ultimately, you control what thoughts you let into your head. External events don’t make you angry – you do, by allowing yourself to react in that way. Of course, changing this behaviour is something that’s easier said than done, but I’m getting better at it every day.

By the way, this post first appeared months ago on the original, now-deleted version of this blog. A few weeks after I clicked “Publish”, a parcel came through my door stamped with a Slovenian postmark. Turns out that a total stranger in Ljubljana found my wallet and posted it 1000 miles at their own expense to the address on my driving license. There was no explanatory note or contact details by which I could thank them, and the wallet still had everything in it including bank card, ID and £20 in cash. Remember what I said about people being good?

One last point. I can’t really call this a ‘life lesson I learned from hitch-hiking’, because I’ve known it for years, but it’s still relevant:

Everyone Should Travel*

Because the world is huge, and even if you visited a different place every day starting today for the rest of your life, you still wouldn’t see 10% of what Earth has to offer. Travelling wide is, in my opinion, one of the most worthwhile, fun and fulfilling thing you can do with your time, and if more people travelled more often, the world would be a far better place.

And if you do travel, don’t be afraid to get in strangers’ cars, and please for God’s sake stop telling me what a dangerous choice I’m making by hitch-hiking.

If you want to take part in the Hitch yourself (and I highly recommend it), check it out here.

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