Picture yourself standing on the side of a remote road in a foreign country.
You take a good look and breathe in your surroundings. Truckers taking a rest in the midst of their 24-hour international journey, jubilant children playing enthusiastically with a tattered football and a veritable army of snack-selling women waiting patiently to pounce on anyone who dares to slow below 10kmph, curiously all touting a choice of the same 3 items.
As the sun reaches its peak in the sky and you question your choice of shadeless spot, the thought crosses your mind that the day is half gone and you have moved nowhere so far. All of the possessions you considered important are stuffed in a 65-litre backpack which nestles snugly on your back, and with every passing moment, you curse yourself more for packing three pairs of shoes. Three pairs?! What were you thinking? You’ve barely worn one.
Had you known that no sensible traveller gives a crap about what you wear you would be carrying a tote-bag right now instead of being slowly driven into the ground. The stream of locals surrounding you, who have become your closest friends over the past few hours, offer you anything from words of advice on which route to take to strange looks as they openly wonder what on earth these “gringos” are doing here.
A car approaches in the distance and immediately you jump into action. Thunderbirds are go. You pick up the sign you lovingly crafted with a scrap of paper and some markers and make yourself as prominent as possible on the road. The car gets closer – a pickup truck!
Your heart rate increases as you see its only occupant is the driver, and you consciously begin to make eye contact with him, you know, to make yourself seem more personable. You are sure this car will stop for you.
This road has no turnings for two hours, he can’t be going anywhere else. Even if he doesn’t want to talk he could just let you jump into the flatbed where you would gratefully collapse as the wind whips your face cooling your sweat, you can already feel it as you form a vivid picture in your mind.
And then he’s gone. No explanation, no words exchanged, just flew by as if you didn’t exist. Unfortunately, this was just one of the tens of cars that have passed you in the past three hours and there isn’t much time to dwell on your intense disappointment before a shabby Toyota comes speeding towards you. You immediately pull yourself together and resume your station, just as confident that this one really will be your ticket out of here.
As the car becomes clearer you see once again that its just one driver and no passengers. You hold the sign high and give him as wide a smile as you can muster and to your absolute delight he slows down to a crawl before stopping right next to you.
After a brief exchange where he establishes that you are unlikely to be a serial killer (and you do the same) he tells you he is going your way and to hop in. At that moment, all of the previous hours of dashed hopes well up inside of you like an erupting volcano and you literally jump for joy that another human is reaching out to you in a time of need. Have you ever actually jumped for joy before?
You take a seat inside the car where you learn your saviour’s name – Victor – and that he’s travelling with a particularly feisty terrier called Manolo. You ask inquisitively what brings Victor on the road? He answers you by removing his radio head unit to reveal a secret compartment packed with clothes; he’s bought these in a tax-free zone by the border and he’s planning on slipping them past customs for a quick profit.
You sit back and take in a breath of slightly musky air laced with a hint of tobacco smoke and dog hair. You look at your morally questionable driver and then stare out of the window as you begin to pick up speed moving further and further from your most recent home, and the only word to describe what you’re feeling right now? Gratitude.
For me, this story (which happened to my friend and I three days ago) perfectly highlights why we decided to abruptly change the theme of our travels for something less predictable.
We had just completed 2 weeks of hostel-hopping and landmark-visiting in Argentina and, as fun as it was, we just wanted something a bit different.
Yes those waterfalls are spectacular, yes those rocks formations do have a lot of colours, but where’s the challenge? Moving from well-trodden place to place with groups of Anglos comparing pictures of the same sites no longer stimulated us, we needed to mix it up.
I was shocked by my friend’s enthusiastic response and before I knew it we were waiting by a petrol station on an exit route out of Salta, Argentina with a sign that simply read “Chile, Por Favor“.
Only later did we realise how monumentally naïve we were to think that it was likely that someone would take us from there all 8 hours directly to Chile, but that was the first step in a very steep learning curve.
As we developed our techniques for hailing a ride it quickly became apparent that we were essentially sales-people to the public, and the product? Us. Necessity required progressively increasing creativity during each of those fleeting moments of interaction with the passing vehicles. From multi-coloured signs to dancing in the street and even placing ourselves suspiciously close to a police stop to ensure a trickle of slow-moving cars, we took each day as a clean slate awaiting innovation.
Hitchhiking in South America can teach you more than you think.
Something important to me about travelling is the truly flexible mindset. The ability to immediately change your plans when something pulls you in a different direction is a luxury often not indulged by people in “the real world” and can be the start of the greatest adventures.
Hitching can frequently present you with these opportunities; when you are offered a ride somewhere not exactly on your route, or even in the wrong direction. Say yes without obsessing over where you’re supposed to be going and just see where it takes you.
We have found ourselves in the cargo hold of an open-topped 18-wheeler speeding through the sinuous roads of the Peruvian Andes mesmerised by the sun-strewn landscape flying past after Rolando was kind enough to take us somewhere vaguely in the direction of Lima. Yes we had no desire to go the loading yard where he was to stock his truck with seaweed, and yes we needed our sleeping bags once the chilly night fell, but that was a journey we will never forget.
For somebody who constantly needs to have some sort of plan, I have found this new element of going with the flow truly invaluable and I hope to take a little of that home with me.
Putting aside the ego embedded in the fact that everybody likes to do something a little different on their travels – you know, have a good story – something dawned on us that compelled us to continue down this path.
We realised that almost all of the locals that we would usually come into contact with on our travels were in some capacity trying to sell us something; be it hostel staff, tour operators or street vendors – most conversations were centred around some sort of purchase.
Suddenly, we were meeting a cohort of people who had just invited us into their car without expecting anything in return. Oftentimes we found that after they would pick us up, they would feel a responsibility for our welfare and go out of their way to help us in any way possible, be it including us in their dining plans or helping us secure the next leg of our journey, we were truly moved by their benevolence.
We also noticed that sitting next to a complete stranger who has just performed an act of kindness for you breeds conversation of genuine interest. Who is this selfless person? Why did they of all people stop to help you out? We decided to take these opportunities to peer into a new culture from a different perspective.
As an aside, having to make conversation rapidly progressed our Spanish from speaking un pocito (a tiny bit) to un poco (a little bit).
Of course, hitchhiking in South America is by no means for everyone, it takes those who are really prepared to put themselves out there and wade through the barrage of rejection that inevitably flies your way. The frustrating times can teach you patience and positivity; you can re-enforce your faith in humankind or throw it into question; you can experience the peaks and troughs of human emotion – and that’s just in the first 10 minutes!
Our journey is coming to a close, but yours could just be beginning, and all it takes is a point of the thumb, what have you got to lose?
About the writer: This article was written by Chaim Haber, a 26-year old backpacker (and hitch-hiker) from the UK. He is currently taking a break from his work as a doctor and is now continuing his journey in Colombia.