Thursday, July 4, 2013

Hitched. Success (finally) in Serbia and Romania

We tried to hitchhike in Switzerland and in Slovakia in cold, rainy weather. Both times, we were passed over by hundreds of people in their warm, dry cars. Flounder, never a fan of hitchhiking to begin with (and a vocal opponent of me ever hitching alone again), had gone from feeling unenthusiastic about the thing to dejected.

I was determined to make it happen though, to show him why I loved to hitch. So on a bright, sunny day in Novi Sad, Serbia, we said goodbye to friends there and headed to Romania. We stood on a spot beloved by both hitchhikers and trans prostitutes. (In fact, the day before we had seen one such lady standing there waiting for customers.)
To Romania! But first, to Zrenjanin.
We were headed to the city of Cluj-Napoca in Romania, also known as Kolozsvar to its Hungarian citizens, but we hoped to stop somewhere else in the Transylvania region on our way there. Which was an optimistic way of saying that we couldn’t hitch there in one day—the road was too long and too winding and too meandering.

How to look for a good spot:

1.       Find a bit of shade, if you can. Stand in the shade while you wait for cars, but when they pass make sure you’re in the sun so the drivers can see you.
2.       You want to be on a straight bit of road so that cars can see you for a few hundred feet before they pass.
3.       If there is an intersection or merging road nearby, always stand after it so you have a bigger pool of cars to hitch from.
4.       If the road is at all busy, make sure you are standing near a place where cars can easily pull over without causing a traffic pileup. Bus stops and merging lanes are both good for this.
5.       Cities are the worst. In order to hitch out of a city, you really need to be on the outskirts, preferably already on the main road/highway going toward your destination.

We did all these things on the road out of Novi Sad and after about 25 minutes of waiting, we were rewarded. Our first ride was with a Serbian astrophysicist who spoke English because he collaborated with colleagues in Australia. He was planning on getting his Ph.D. soon and was just waiting to hear back from his school of choice in Melbourne. In the meantime, since jobs in Serbia were scarce, he was teaching physics in an elementary school a few times a week in a small town 50 kilometers outside of Novi Sad. It was poignant to see such a brilliant scientist unappreciated in his own country.

After walking 3 or 4 kilometers to the outskirts of Zrenjanin (see point #5 above), we stuck our thumbs out again. After about 20 minutes, a long truck hauling logs stopped for us. The driver was going to a different city than we had planned, but it was still close to the Romanian border, so we decided to hop in anyways.
Our second ride.
This was a very different experience than our first ride. The driver didn’t speak English, and neither Flounder nor I knew Serbian, at least not any significant amount. So we communicated the way I always do in such situations, with sign language, body language, and bits of shard words thrown in. The driver knew a bit of German, and one or two English words like okay and beautiful. After establishing the basics (where we are from (Indianapolis for us, Kosovo for him), age, marital status, children (number, age, gender), and whether we liked Serbia (the answer to this question is always yes)), he, like so many trucks drivers before him, revealed his true passion: women.

Aren’t the women in Serbia beautiful? he asked Flounder. (I was not included in this men-only discussion.) Flounder agreed, very beautiful, and everyone is so tall, he added, changing the subject slightly. To no avail.

Ah, Russian women are beautiful too, the driver said. But they’re dumb, he explained by pointing to his head and then holding his forefinger and thumb close together in the universal symbol for small. ‘Beautiful,’ he repeated, but again made the small brain gesture. Flounder nodded politely, then added, pointing to me, that American women were also beautiful. Our driver was silent on this point.

Later when talking about the countries we had traveled in and their climates, I mentioned the weather in Thailand was hot. This was easy enough to communicate, as country names are often similar in all languages and fanning myself with my hand and mopping my (pretend) sweaty brow was a clear gesture of heat. Sensing a potential shift back to his favorite subject, our driver looked at Flounder and smiled. ‘Thai women beautiful!’ he exclaimed.

He dropped us at a town only 12 kilometers from the Romania border. We walked through to the outskirts and positioned ourselves on the road out of town.
Hitching out of Serbia.
A few cars passed, many of them local traffic and they signified as much by pointing to their left or right to indicate that they were soon turning, or by pointing downwards to indicate they were staying in the town. A couple of drivers shrugged their shoulders and put their hands, palm up, into the air as if to say what can I do? Other drivers simply waved at us as they drove past.

None of the cars stopped, but here’s the thing: As a hitchhiker the worst feeling is not when cars pass by without stopping, it’s when drivers look straight ahead and pretend they don’t see you. So I appreciate when a driver acknowledges my existence in any way and I always respond with a wave and a smile.

We were waving and smiling, but after about an hour not one car had stopped for us. Borders can often be tricky to hitch to, through, and away from and it was getting late in the day, so we started to make contingency plans. There weren’t many good ones available to us as the last bus and train into Romania had already left, so we considered finding a place to pitch our tent. Just as Flounder was wandering off a bit, a car with a Romanian license plate stopped.

‘Timisoara?’ I said the name of a big Transylvanian town about 80 kilometers away. The car’s occupants, a young man and woman, responded in English. ‘We are going to Timisoara.’

Awesome. We loaded out bags into the car and hopped in. The two were siblings from Portugal who had rented the car in Timisoara and after more than a week of Balkan traveling, were headed back to return it.

We treated our Portuguese drivers to dinner in a little restaurant along the way. The menu was expansive, but the only food they actually seemed to have was pork and potatoes.
On the way to Timisoara we shared anecdotes and stories about life in Portugal and in the United States. We learned about fish, wine, and plentiful beaches and we told about the vast space and beautiful national parks in the US. We also mentioned a favorite horrifying tidbit about gun usage: My First Rifle, a gun made for and marketed toward children. It even comes in an opaque Barbie pink.
Austro-Hungarian style architecture in Timisoara.
When the brother and sister mentioned that they were only stopping Timisoara, but planned on driving all the way through to Bucharest, we decided to stay with them to Sibiu, a town four hours further and in the heart of Transylvania. The road there was dark, full of trucks, and winding. I felt simultaneously exhausted and car sick. As the hours dragged on, we considered camping by the side of the road, but it was already midnight and too dark to see a good spot to pitch our tent. So we continued on to Sibiu.
Old town in Sibiu.
We arrived at 2:30 a.m. and wished a bon voyage to our lovely Portuguese siblings. We were delirious and disoriented but grateful for a long, warm, safe ride and looking forward to a soft bed and a space of our own.

Mainly, though, I was grateful for a successful day of hitchhiking. We had met some interesting people, had a range of (all positive) experiences and no one had assaulted or taken advantage of us. Perhaps this day would be a catalyst to excite Flounder’s love of hitching. A girl can dream.

Happy HHers.

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