Have thumb, will travel…

THIS morning I am just going to stand by this road with my thumb out.

In the Times today, there is an interview with an Argentinian man described as “one of the world’s most accomplished hitchhikers”.

Juan Villarino earns that title by having thumbed lifts in 90 countries during 100,000 miles of journeys. In his hitching blog, Acrobata Del Camino, he ranks countries by the time it takes him to get a lift.

Britain is kinder than you might imagine to a foreigner and his thumb.

The average wait in Britain was 18 minutes. Iraq served him better with drivers stopping after seven minutes. Tibet was less kind, expecting him to wait for three hours and 16 minutes.

As an Argentinian, Villarino says his “most daunting voyage” in Britain was a lift from a farmer who once coached the Falkland Islands football team.

This story snagged my attention because of the memories it brought back. Beyond that it caught my eye because Villarino seems to be doing something stubbornly individual and interesting.

In my long-ago student hitchhiking days, I’d get a lift to Knutsford service station. Then I’d stand on a slip road with my thumb out, hoping for London. Back then, lifts took a lot longer to arrive than 16 minutes and hitchhikers queued on the hard shoulder.

One summer, I hitched through France and over the border into Spain. Writing those words now seems strange. Little from that trip remains in my mind, although I do recall a prostitute stepping out of her roadside caravan in Paris to expose her breasts.

Do I really remember that? Almost certainly, but much of that trip is misted by time. I certainly camped in Paris and later hitched a lift with a mad French driver who stopped for provisions. I didn’t speak much French and misunderstood that he wanted to eat as we drove along.

The lift did not end well, and we parted with some hostility, but I did keep the bread.

Back home, I travelled in various lorries and cars. Two trips stay in mind. In one another mad driver belted around in his Mini. “I know for sure the engine is shot but it still goes,” he said, or something like that, as we screeched to wherever I was hoping to arrive in one piece.

On a return trip from university, an elderly Scottish woman picked me up in her TR7. As we flew down the third lane of the M1 she asked about my politics. I said I read The Guardian. “Well, that’s a start,” she said. In celebration she got out small plastic cups, spotty cups in memory, and poured each of us a slug of whisky. While powering along the fast lane.

‘I have boarded nearly 1,200 vehicles covering over 100,000 miles and – save your questions – I have never been raped/murdered/assaulted’

But these memories are feeble next to this hitching hero. In his blog, Villarino describes himself thus: “I’m a travel blogger, digital nomad and author of four books.”

He started his travels in 2005, setting off from Belfast, where he’d lived for a couple of years. And he hasn’t stopped hitchhiking since then.

His aim is to “document hospitality and portray everyday life beyond stereotypes. He has spent 13 years, on and off, “vagabonding the back roads of Europe, the Middle East, Asian, Africa and Latin America”. He has also visited Antarctica. All of which seems a lot braver than the M1 and the M6 in the 1970s.

He says he keeps his budget to five to eight dollars a day. Not to punish himself, but to depend on the kindness of strangers and to “spark interaction”.

Villarino says he even hitches in countries where public transport is cheap – just to keep up his crusade. “I have boarded nearly 1,200 vehicles covering over 100,000 miles and – save your questions – I have never been raped/murdered/assaulted”.

I guess we could have worked out the middle one of those, but this is a Spanish blog translated into English with some eccentricities.

I haven’t hitched forever and never will again. Still, there is something uplifting about this roadside vagabond. Have thumb, will travel. Hope those lifts keep giving.

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