The first time hitchhiking is something that’s always special. It can be a bit scary sometimes, as you don't really know what to expect. You feel your nerves, and you have no clue if it will work.
How did that go with Zoë, whose first hitchhiking trip was 888 (8th of August 2008), the first European Hitchhiking day - when on the same day 150 people were hitching to Paris?
What did you expect on your first day?
Well, actually, I didn't know what to expect, I thought it was going to be like hitching on the highway itself with your thumb up and with cars driving really fast. I also thought I was going to die, haha.
But it wasn't like this at all. It was just hitching from one petrol station to the next. It was quite safe, and really fun. It did take longer than I expected to arrive in Paris, though.
Why did you decide to hitchhike?
I decided only two days in advance to join this hitchhiking gathering, on the day itself that I heard about 888.
I wanted to do something different, I was looking for some excitement and adventure. When I arrived the next day at the Utrecht meeting, where we had a pre-meeting, everyone was fully prepared, with maps, signs and lists of the petrol stations. I was a bit in shock then. I had zero preparation and came with a half-broken suitcase.
I went to Utrecht to find someone I could travel with, because I didn't want to hitch alone for my first time ever. At the meeting, I quickly found my partner.
And, how did it go?
Well, my partner and I got lost in Utrecht for two hours the next day, as we were trying to find our spot. Then some guy gave us a lift from the city and dropped us directly on the highway.
Ha, so you did hitch from the highway!
Yes, and we were very afraid that some police car would stop to jail us, but a nice guy stopped and brought us to the first petrol station. From there, it finally really started. Until then I actually thought it was all just a big joke; that this whole hitchhiking thing wouldn't work.
At the petrol station, we also met another hitchhiker who was going to Paris, departing from Copenhagen. Later, we met Jan from Berlin who also was at the Utrecht meeting the night before, and he was all covered with sweat, as he had come walking to the petrol station with a huge backpack. So, we were all there, trying to find rides, when suddenly, I found one car with enough space - for all four of us!
What did it do to you all this hitchhiking?
I was really surprised how much the trip helped me to build up self-confidence. Also the people I met at the event inspired me a lot. Most of the people who were there are very different from myself. I met someone who was 19 and who had hitchhiked for weeks already. He just had his backpack. And also people who had been traveling in that way for years on a row, without the need for some kind of security. That really is impressive.
And what's next for you? You will carry on hitching?
Next is buying a proper backpack! I was hitchhiking with a suitcase this time, and that doesn't work. It was even broken a bit, so I had to carry it along the highway as well as in Paris, where I got lost while hitching out. I am not hitchhiking anywhere until I have a good bag! Then, maybe I’ll start hitchhiking across Australia, or somewhere, and meet people along the way.
In the end you went home by yourself, hitchhiking. Were you afraid?
Yes, I was. Very much so. I kept pushing back my departure date, to see if there was anyone who wanted to join me, but no one did, so I had to go by myself. I was afraid within Paris, itself, but once I was on the highway, I felt fine.
How do you approach your potential drivers?
With a big smile! But, I was also picky. I was looking for families, couples and women to ride with. I think you have to be picky - it’s one thing to hitchhike and trust people, but another to . . .
You know, I am a woman and also from South Africa, where bad things happen relatively often. So, the bad things that could possibly happen to me are even more in the forefront of my mind. I am definitely very picky. I actually wound up waiting at one petrol station for several hours more as I could have, as I let a lot of cars go without talking to the drivers.
My last ride was going to Liège, which is about 20 kilometers away from my destination, Maastricht. But the final petrol station, where we arrived at 12 at midnight, was closed. So I thought, "I want to get home, but I don't want to spend the night here as a woman alone in the middle of the night with nobody there." So they dropped me at the train station, where I spent the night. That was really cold. That is, by the way, the next thing I really have to buy - a sleeping bag!