I had an afternoon in Brighton to get last minute bits and bobs and was feeling fragile after being obligated to attend a last minute event in London the night before involving free cocktails. Several people at this event had wanted to know if I was taking any pepper spray or a rape alarm on my upcoming hitchhiking trip to Portugal, and now in my hungover and slightly panicked state, I was trying to find one of these things.
A couple of months ago, I’d received an email from a friendly person called Kiko inviting me to Portugal to take part in the first ever HitchFest. He’d read my Hitchhiking Holiday blog and about ‘Is this the Future?’ and wanted me to give a presentation and maybe play some songs. I didn’t think I’d be able to attend because of other commitments but at the last minute I freed up some time and decided to go for it.
I’ve done very little solo hitchhiking, mainly day trips in Ireland five years ago. I recently hitchhiked to Spain, but that was with a (male) seasoned hitchhiker. Feeling empowered after a recent break up, I got a new tattoo to remind me of my strength, some maps of France, Spain and Portugal, stocked up on permanent markers and prepared to hit the road.
It was not just friends at the event the night before who had expressed concern about me hitchhiking alone as a female. Although I was nervous and understood that statistically it probably is more dangerous to travel alone as a woman, I wasn’t about to not do something simply because I didn’t have a man by my side. The night before I left, my sister introduced me to an experienced hitchhiker (who also happens to be female) who suggested I get some cheap nasty body spray which could have the desired effect of pepper spray if the situation arose.
She also mentioned there were ferries to France running from half an hour away in Newhaven, meaning it wasn’t necessary for me to hitch all the way to Dover. Part of me felt like I’d be cheating if I didn’t hitch all the way from start to finish, but my new hitchhiking guru pointed out that if I got the first bus/train of the day to Newhaven, I could get the earliest ferry meaning I could arrive in Dieppe by lunchtime – giving myself optimum chances (ie. time) for my first day of hitchhiking in France. With only six days to get to Portugal for the start of the festival, I couldn’t really argue with that suggestion.
I’d had a phone call a couple of days previously from someone in Belgium, called Mama. She was a friend of Kiko’s who was also planning to travel to HitchFest and suggested we try and meet up en route in France. She sounded friendly and fun despite the dodgy line and our slight difficulty in understanding each other. I looked forward to meeting her at some point, but I didn’t really hold much hope for us coming together before the festival. Knowing something of the spontaneous nature of hitchhiking, it seemed extremely unlikely to me that we’d be able to organise meeting up en route.
I was forgetting another important lesson I’d learned from previous hitchhiking trips – that anything is possible.
DAY 1: Brighton > Bordeaux
The morning light in Brighton sparkled like a friendly eye with a promise of mischief. On the train to Newhaven, a very drunk man in a suit confessed his present situation, his past mistakes and his worries for the future. He’d lost his bag, and all his belongings, the night before and now had nothing to distract himself from analysing past romances. I did nothing but nod and sympathise and make the odd joke, but as he got off the train he was extremely grateful for our interaction.
Although I had money with me to buy a ferry ticket, I still tried to hitch at first. I spoke to people in two cars and a guy in a lorry but no one was willing to give me a ride. I reluctantly did a quick google on my phone to confirm what my hitchhiking guru had told me the night before – unlike Dover but similarly to Portsmouth, car drivers would be charged extra at Newhaven for an added passenger. Hitching onto the ferry was not going to happen.
If I wasn’t on a bit of a tight schedule to get to HitchFest on time, I may have hitched to Dover. But instead, I got a foot passenger ticket (£20), got on the ferry and promptly fell asleep.
I woke with a jump as I realised we were going to arrive in under an hour. After freshening up and taking a quick stroll outside, I wrote a sign on a piece of cardboard:
Bonjour! Allez-vous vers ROUEN? Puis-je venir avec vous s.v.p?☺
☺Hello! Are you travelling towards ROUEN? Can I get a lift please?
I felt drowsy from my morning nap and suddenly a bit nervous about approaching people. Checking my phone, I had a message from Mama asking where I was and saying she’d gotten a ride out of Belgium easily and was travelling down through France. I attached my sign to the back of my backpack, took a deep breath, put on my most welcoming smile and started wandering around the ferry.
People were starting to gather their bags and sit in groups near to the exit. Playing it safe, I decided to approach the group of people I thought would have most available space and would be the least threatening – middle aged couples. I spoke to a few friendly couples but none had space for me, their cars taken up with dogs, children or luggage.
Just as I was about to change tactics, I got lucky. Eve and Julien called me over and introduced themselves, they were on their way to Lake Geneva to meet family but would be stopping overnight at Châteaudun – meaning Rouen was easily enroute. Julien went into father mode setting me up a comfy backrest, so I could sit with my legs out in front of me on one of the beds, and clicked in my seat belt for me.
Conversation flowed easily as we navigated our way out of Dieppe and towards Rouen. We covered many subjects, but found a particular shared interest in discussing our views on education and mental health. Eve and Julien kindly offered to take me further than Rouen and asked where would be the best place to drop me. So I called Mama, who turned out to be on a different road but travelling almost parallel to us towards Le Mans, and we decided to both head for Tours and hope our timings would coincide.
We stopped for lunch by the side of the road and enjoyed a sharing platter of things that we each had with us. Eve and Julien provided houmous, salad and bread and I added some nuts and fruit to the spread. Back in the van, I did a search on my phone for service stations on route that could also be a good location for me to hitch from towards Le Mans or Tours. I found one which looked perfect outside Chartres and we headed there.
As we neared the service station it became clear that it wasn’t the motorway services I was imagining at all, and was in fact a massive shopping centre with a small petrol station. It was certainly not an ideal hitching spot, but since we had already passed the other options and Eve and Julien would soon be turning in a different direction, it would have to do. We said our goodbyes and I sat down on my rucksack in the carpark to write a new sign.
I realise I might not make it somewhere to get a proper evening meal today, so before starting to hitch I pop into the shopping centre to stock up on snack supplies. What I thought would be a five minute task turned into a pretty stressful half hour as first I am stopped and asked to put my rucksack away before entering the shop and then I manage to leave my phone in the toilets.
When I realised my phone was not in my pocket, my heart instantly started thumping and my skin radiating heat. Thank goodness for the kind, patient woman I met when I returned to search the toilet, who somehow understood my frantic hand signals and helped me find a security guard who spoke English. He, however, didn’t act quite as I expected.
“What make is it?”
I wasn’t sure why this was relevant, and it’s not the kind of information that I prioritise in my retained knowledge as a rule, but I told him I was pretty sure it was a Samsung. His next questions was ‘how old?’ to which again I was unsure, but guessed around a year and a half.
“What are you going to do now?”
He laughed as he asked this next question, which alarmed me somewhat. He shrugged at my confusion.
“Somebody’s taken it. Nothing you can do. What now?”
He turned to the woman helping me and, I assume, repeated this sentiment in French. My superhero looked visibly annoyed by this and spoke back quickly, gesturing to the security guard’s radio on his belt. As I cheered silently for this wonderful woman who had taken it upon herself to help me, the security guy reluctantly peeled himself away from the wall he was leaning against and spoke into his radio. Within five minutes, I had my phone back and was hugging the woman from the toilets tightly before employing some more hand signals to try and get across just how grateful I was.
An hour later, I was still stood by the exit of the petrol station with my sign and the doubt was beginning to set in. I checked in with Mama, who was already in Tours, and changed my sign to include Le Mans. My hitchhiking guru also happened to message me to see how I was getting on, just when I needed a little boost of encouragement, and within another half an hour I was in a car with a French welder called William* who lived in Switzerland and was offering to drive me all the way to Bordeaux.
William had just purchased the car he was driving earlier that day in Paris, and was going to meet up with an old army friend, before travelling onwards to Spain. He told me how much he had paid for the car, and I got the distinct feeling I was supposed to be impressed. Having no concept at all of large amounts of money or how much cars cost (in pounds, let alone euros), I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be amazed because the car had been such a bargain, or because it was so expensive and he had been able to afford it. He soon told me about the other fifteen cars he owned in Switzerland and I concluded that it was the latter.
It wasn’t long before William was questioning me about what I was up to and why, his concern for my safety being clear. My terrible French and his lack of confidence with English (though it was actually very good), meant I wasn’t sure how much I succeeded in getting across the concept of HitchFest, but he at least understood that I was travelling to Portugal for a reason, which he seemed happy about.
We were listening to music and hadn’t spoken for a while when William suddenly turned to me:
“You have trust?”
Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough shared language between us for me to truly get across that what I had was faith in my own instincts, hope, and a sense of adventure. And that from the moment he wound down his window and offered me a ride at the petrol station several hours previously, I had been assessing the level of danger he presented.
“What if you fall on bad boy?”
Again, I had to simplify my answer somewhat in order to be understood, but he got the gist.
“You think there more good boy, less bad?”
I smiled and told him I hoped so. He looked skeptical, but let it go.
I was keeping in touch with Mama and although we were headed in the same direction, she was an hour or two ahead of us. She said she was happy to wait for me at a service station outside of Bordeaux and William helpfully spoke to her on the phone too as it was easier for them to communicate directly in French rather than go through me.
Finally, at around 1am, we were at the service station. I’d had a slightly shakey call from Mama about an hour before, saying she’d found somewhere discreet to set up her tent and may be asleep when I arrived. William rushed off to go for a pee whilst I got my bag out of the boot. I was just shutting the car doors when I heard a shout.
“Josie! It’s here!”
William had luckily noticed Mama’s tent before peeing on it. He went to find somewhere else to relieve himself and I called out to Mama, who called back confirming we had stumbled upon the right tent in the dark. I said my thankyous and goodbyes to William and made my way over.
Mama and I hugged like reunited old friends. We could barely see each other in the dark and didn’t want to shine torches too bright and bring attention to ourselves.
“Seeing each other will be a surprise for tomorrow,” Mama decided.
We got in the tent and swapped stories from the day. It had been a pretty full and surreal day for both of us, I couldn’t believe it was still the same day infact – 5am in Brighton seemed like long ago. We discussed the worries of travelling alone, and laughed at how the same situation could feel totally safe in the daylight and suddenly terrifying after dark. I confessed that I had found myself imagining all sorts of things in the last hour in the car with William, although he been nothing other than polite and I had felt perfectly comfortable earlier. Mama confessed to having not been able to sleep properly yet as she lay with a knife hidden in her pants. We agreed that if travelling alone in the future, we would both always make sure we had somewhere to stay sorted in plenty of time before it actually went dark.
By the time we fell asleep, we already felt like firm friends.
*he wasn’t actually called William the welder, but for some annoyingly English reason this is how I remember him.