Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Hitch-Hiking Eastern Europe

46 drivers, 7 countries, $70, and 5 couch surfing hosts. Those were the numbers from our hitch-hiking trip around South-Eastern Europe. **Scroll to the bottom to see a list of all the drivers (with all the stops we made) and hosts.**

“Hey Jenny, let’s hitch-hike through a bunch of countries”


And that was how our journey came to be. Summer time is a little boring in Albania. School is out, the weather is hot, and everybody leaves town to go to the beach. I spent my whole summer last year integrating into my community, and as a result this summer has been filled with weddings on weddings. I like Albanian weddings, but you know…a little moderation always does a person good. It was time for me to leave Albania. The only issues:

1) Super broke from losing my things in a river and then getting $100stolen from me at a gym in Tirana.  2) Oh wait yeah…that was the only issue.
So I didn’t have much money to spend which meant I was going to need to hitch-hike and couch surf/camp out. This trip didn’t need to be about luxury anyway, it was more of a search for adventure, new experiences, and well…getting out of Albania for a while.
I have to say that I felt it was necessary for me to do this kind of trip now while I’m young and a volunteer because I don’t know how likely or appropriate it will be for me to do this later in my life.  Even if hitch-hiking adventures somehow do find me in my future, well why not now anyway?

I keep on saying “I” but it is important that I mention that this journey was not just me; I had companions. For the first half of the trip I had Jenny alongside, and for the 2nd half I had both Jenny and Ian. Having them along the way definitely made the trip feel safer and added an element of comfort to the excursion.
To get into the very details of this journey, you’d probably have to sit me down and swap some stories, but to keep this blog interesting, I suppose I’ll share some highlights. For example, we were picked up by a driver who was paralyzed from the waist down. We also got picked up by a cop, a man who was driving home to get married, a dude whose house was just struck by lightning, the president of the Bulgarian Ski Federation, and quite a few other special characters. Our drivers ranged from early 20s to possibly 80s and while most of them were men, we did have a few couples pick us up and even one awesome Bulgarian woman.

Driving through countries with locals is an experience in itself. They often told us of historical moments that conflicted with the stories of other drivers’ recounts of history i.e. “Alexander the Great was obviously Greek” “Alexander the Great was clearly Macedonian”. We had very talented drivers who could manipulate a semi truck like it was tiny sports car to horrible drivers who couldn’t even handle a brand new Mercedes. The views were magnificent and it was cool to see the local drivers’ reactions to our awe of their land. We scored free coffees, snickers, snacks, and even meals along with our rides and the entire time I couldn’t help but think “How are these people so generous and trusting of strangers?!” Even when we arrived to the border of Romania and Serbia we were pleasantly surprised by a smiling border patrolman who asked us if we needed help. When we responded yes, and that we were looking for a car to take us across the border, he replied “I know. I assumed that and already found you one!” It was kind of an amazing feeling, especially because we thought crossing into Serbia would be the most difficult seeing as we have so many Kosovo stamps on our passports. Perhaps it’s the cultural difference between Americans and Europeans or perhaps it’s something else. All I know is that I want to be like that. I want to show kindness to others just to show them that it exists.

I took note of every drivers name and tried to jot down something interesting about them (if they spoke enough English for me to learn something about them). We also took a photo with every driver that picked us up. It was a great thing because every person who picked us up seemed really flattered that we would want a photo with them. There were only a few exceptions of people we didn’t even ask to take photos with because they were either in a rush or a little bit weird/creepy.

Our hosts were to thank just as much as our drivers. They not only gave us a place to stay, but went the extra mile to feed us, take us to parties, teach us to salsa dance, show us the sites, and really get to know us as friends. Along with our hosts, we met some other pretty special people. One man that we met at a gas station café invited us to his home to meet his wife and children. They made us a home-cooked Bosnian meal and gave us some homemade jam. More importantly they shared some real time with us and really gave us some insight to what living in Bosnia as a Muslim was like. Another man pulled us off the road in Serbia to give us some watermelon. He then introduced us to his friends who took us onto their boat on the Danube River and fed us a wild mushroom risotto. They also gave us plants to take home and a kind of wood you can put in your tea or raki. They shared with us stories of Serbian hardship and still treated us with incredible hospitality even though we were American living in Albania.  One truck driver had a truck full of gadgets, such as a lap top with internet, an on-road camera, and speaker system. He also has drawings made by his son and a lot of photos of his family. He, along with many other truck drivers made us realize that for a truck driver, the truck becomes a 2nd home. He told us that he had to be kind to us because, we were guests in his home. 

The other experience that stands out in my mind was of meeting Jenny’s ‘cousin’ in Bosnia. She showed us around and explained in great detail the history of Bosnia and its hardships. It made me feel so much more connected with the country. It made me wish I knew more about Albania’s history.
Oh yeah, and one night we also slept in a public park because it was too late to try and find a host and the hostels were all too expensive. Hah.

I wish I could share more, but I worry about posts getting to be too long. I’d like to end this post with my thoughts on the journey overall. It was the trip of a lifetime. I got to meet people I never would have. I trusted in myself, my drivers, my hosts, and in everything turning out okay. Jenny was an incredible travel buddy from beginning to end and Ian added a whole other dimension to the trip. Most importantly, and I can’t say this enough: There are kind people out there. Kind, courageous, and spontaneous people who are willing to help out a stranger just to be nice or to make their day more interesting. I am so thankful and grateful for every single character that played a part on this journey. Every country was beautiful, interesting, and unique. 

Here is a list of all the drivers (and the places they took us) and hosts who helped us on our journey with some interesting fun facts that I jotted down along the way!

1) Bilisht - Thessaloniki (Erion: Jewish Albanian!)
2) Thessaloniki outskirts to center (Jonis)
3) Thessaloniki to Serres (Dimitris: horse back rider)
4) Serres to Bulgaria border (Olina and Gena) and (Numi--we couldn't pronounce his name so we called him this)
5) Bulgaria border towards Sofia- (Miroslav)
**Host: Shenol 2 nights**
6) Sofia to Plovdiv- (Amiana: The only single woman to pick us up!)
7) Plovdiv to Istanbul exit- (Diakus)
8) Istanbul exit to Stara Zagora (Marian)
9) Stara Zagora to Bourgas (Valentin: president of BG ski federation, former politician, had a Beatles playlist)
10) Burgas to Veliko Tarnovo (Ivano: "Catastrophe and da" were his favorite words)
11) Veliko Tărnovo to Bucharest (Andre)
12) Host and driver to Bucharest, Vama Veche, Vadu, Mamaya
Bucharest: (Filip)
13) Bucharest to Pitesti (Tibi: A Romanian policeman)
14) Pitesti to Craiova (Andres/Andi: Dual citizen, okay with gay people because he thinks it's a medical problem)
15) Craiova-Filliasi (Adi)
16) Filliasi to Drobeta Turnu Severin (Nikolai: Drove a pick up truck)
**The Serbian border cross police helped us to find our next car**
17) Severin to Serbia border(Draga)
18) Border to Tekija (Misha)
**Enjoyed Watermelon, berries and a nice convo with Bojana Serjan, Steven, and Bratislav (made a cook book) who live on a boat in Tekija**
19) Tekija to Belgrade (Predrag: paralyzed from waste down from falling off rocks when he was 25)
**Host: Daniel (beekeeper and massage therapist)**
20) Belgrade to outside city (Miki)
21) Outside city to Dobanovci (Dushk)
22) Dobanovci to Ruma (Zdravko)
23) Ruma to Nova Gradiska (Tomo: Was getting married in 3 days)
24) Nova Gradiska to Okucani (Mario: Works for Mazda, and his house was hit by lightening the day before)
25) Okucani to Banja Luka (Gorad: Owns chicken farms, daughter is on scholarship for swimming in England)
**Host: Marko**
26) Banja Luka to Jajce (Vlado)
27) Jajce to Bugojno (Oslo: Invited us to have lunch in his home with his family. Lived in US and has parked Oprah Winfrey's car!)
28) Bugojno To Novi Tranik (Emir and Šulo)
29) Novi Tranik to Vitez (Jaravo)
30) Vitez to Sarajevo (Avdo)
31) Sarajevo to Pazaric (Sakib)
32) Pazaric to Tarcin (Odakle)
33) Tarcin to Mostar (Azer) --Ian got a bee sting in this vehicle!
34) Mostar to Buna (Ivica)
35) Buna to Dubrovnik (Eddie: Bosnian living in Germany-- drives a nice Mercedes)
36) To Dubrovnik center (Bosco: had a dog named Osho in car)
37) Dubrovnik to Cilipi (Dario: has friend in Mountain View, California!)
38) Cilipi to Budva (Suzannah and Roman: A couple from from Slovakia and Bordeux)
39) Kotor to close to Budva (Philip: from Crimea)
40) Close to Budva To Budva (Lena and Sasha: from Moscow)
41) Budva to Bar (Mile: Very old guy who told us he had a water bottle full if vodka in his trunk)
42) Bar to Dobra Voda (Sead)
43) Dobra Voda to Ulcinj (Halil)
44) Ulcinj to Zogaj (Masi)
45) Zogaj to Supinë (Samen an Kamplen)
46) border to Shkoder(Çimi and Suela)