After we dried our tears from the last goodbye, and our faces stopped being all puffy, we’re ready to fix our first hitch-hiking sign: ‘Antwerp’, that’s a good place to start with, we think. We put our stuff (2 backpacks, 1 small tent and a shopper full of food) at the gas station entry and decide to just start talking to people to ask where they’re going and if we can get a ride. Since we still speak the same language at this point. We put the sign we just made close to our backpacks and have a look around. We prepare ourselves for the big step to approach people and ask them for a ride. This is always a difficult thing, and we’ll probably never really get used to it.
A man walks towards us and we ask him if we can ride with him, unfortunately, he’s travelling in a different direction. Shortly after, an Eastern European man approaches us. We’ve seen this man already, when he was filling up his car, but he and his colleague didn’t look too friendly in our opinion. So in the end we decided not to ask them. Well, all preconceptions overboard and just believe in the good of people, or else we’ll never get there. But before we could even say a word, this man says to us: “Come with us?”
Surprised we look at him and he says: “Yes, i see sign, you go Antwerp, come with us?”
Milou and I look at each other real quick, and accept the offer. Our first ride is a fact! If we keep going at his rate we’ll be close to Paris in no time!
The two guys are Romanians, working in a Dutch harbour for the next 3 months. They are on their way to Antwerp, because they heard there’s a Romanian market there. At this market there should be typical Romanian food, which they’ve really missed since they’re in Holland. Especially a Romanian sausage, filled with garlic, they can’t get it anywhere in the Netherlands.
One of the two men speaks reasonably English, the other one not a word. He’s just staring through the window. Milou sat behind him and afterwards she told me that she smelled a lot of unpleasantness during this ride, but oh well, as a hitch-hiker, you can’t complain. We ask if they can drop us off at a gas station next to the highway, because this makes it a lot easier for us to catch our next ride. They agree and we look for a gas station. The exit that the Romanians had to take has already passed 20 minutes ago, but then there’s finally a gas station along the route. Fortunately, they didn’t mind the detour.
Once we got out of the car, we look for our next ride. Full of hope, because we found this ride so quickly, so we already make a sign saying ‘Paris’. We make another one saying ‘Lille’, which is in France, just a few miles over the Belgian border. It takes about 20 minutes until our next ride presents itself. It’s a Volkswagen New Beetle, with a Frenchman and a German in it, who are on their way to Lille.
After we got in the car, we ask them what their relation is. It turns out that the German is a guy from BlaBlaCar, who paid the Frenchman for a ride to Lille.
For the ones who don’t know BlaBlaCar; this is a website where you can make a profile and then share your rides or try to find a ride to a destination you need to go. So it’s sort of like hitch-hiking, but with pre-arranged, paid rides. Very handy if you want to get somewhere fairly cheap, or if you drive somewhere and want some company and someone to share the costs.
We also looked into this option, and there was someone driving from Amsterdam to Lissabon. Costs however would be € 178,- per person. That would be too much for us, since we decided to travel this year on a low budget.
The French guy drops us off at the last gas station in Belgium, about 20 kilometres before Lille. We’re almost in France now and it’s only 11:30am!
From this gas station it doesn’t take that long before we get some help of a Belgian guy, who is driving home with his sleeping son in the back seat. We tell him about our plans and we appear to have something in common, being China. We would like to go there one day and he comes there on a regular basis because his wife is from China. When he drops us off at the exit in Lille, we get his phone number, just in case we have trouble getting a ride here and need a place to stay tonight, and his email address, so maybe one day we can meet again, in China.
Self-assured we tell him, by the time the night falls, we hope to be far away from here. Maybe this was our doom… For the next ride takes hours and hours to find. Although we seem to be in a good spot with lots of traffic passing through. Maybe once an hour, a car stops, but they all live close by and are going home. No help for us. After a few hours it even starts to rain, this is the worst! And it’s also very very cold.
At about half past 4, I’m ready to call the man from this morning, for a place to sleep. We’re really sick of Lille and especially this cold weather. While I am standing there with the phone in my hand I turn around to look for Milou but I can’t see her. I quickly scan for her funny pink hat. There she is! Good thing we both got these fluorescent hats from a dear friend of ours, I’ve got a green one. She is standing next to a car that has stopped and I walk towards her. Then she looks up at me and shouts: “We have a ride!”. At the exact same time, the Belgian guy from this morning drives by. I guess to see if we were still there. How nice of him!
The ride is from a friendly young couple with a child sleeping in the back seat of the car. They’ve been shopping in Antwerp. That’s what you get on a cold and rainy day, when the lady is driving. She goes to the biggest shopping mall she can find.
They drop us off just before the exit to the highway to Paris. Here we are, back in this cold, rainy weather. Well, that’s the risk of hitch-hiking through Europe mid-winter.
Luckily for us, after only 15 minutes a chain smoking lady picks us up. Her first question is where we are from, which is Holland. The following question is if we smoke and the third if we use cocaine. What?! Guess everyone really thinks that the Dutch are all users.
Smoking and coughing, and with the window open (cold!!!) she drives to her exit and drops us off at a ‘péage’ or toll booth in English. About a 100 meters down the road there is a McDonald’s. Normally we would not be that interested to go there but now, thanks to the cold and rain it is becoming very tempting. But we stay strong and decide that we are going to try and reach Paris today. About half an hour later this big yellow M, from McDonald’s is starting to look like the Bethlehem star, especially now it is also starting to get dark. We make a deal, if none of the next 10 cars is willing to stop we will go inside the McDonald’s to get some warmth and to find a place nearby to pitch our tent.
Car number 7 is our lucky one. Inside there’s a man who is on his way to his work. He works night shifts as a mechanic at Renault, just ahead of Paris so he’s OK with us driving along with him. Just before Charles de Gaulle airport he exits the highway onto a big parking lot where we will spend our night.
We are exploring the parking lot looking for a nice spot to pitch our tent. A nice spot, what comes to mind? Preferably level so you won’t roll or slide off your sleeping mat and also because you ‘do not want to sleep ‘head down’. The surface should be a bit soft, nothing more irritating than a rock poking in your back the whole night long. Sheltered if it’s possible, so your tent will be dry in the morning when packing it (although this is very rare to find). Not too close to a big tree, it might come down during the night, we experienced this first hand in Australia. And in our case out of sight is more of an obligation, especially since there are so many refugees in France nowadays and we would not want to be mistaken for a refugee and end up in jail.
Eventually we find ourselves a nice spot and start to prepare for the night. It is going to be a long night because in my opinion truck drivers have made some sort of agreement to start there truck every other 15 minutes and drive off. Man oh man, the noise just kept on going forever! And with every other headlight shining on our tent we are scared to be ‘discovered’.
In the morning we got up early and had to pack our tent all wet, unfortunately. Good thing we will be needing it again tonight so it;s not that bad.
Once we are at the end of the parking lot there are enough cars stopping to help us but sadly everyone is going Paris for work. And if there is something we do not want to be, it is IN Paris. Golden tip: in case you are ever going to hitch-hike make sure to stay out of the big cities, because it’s a real pain to get out of them again, hitch-hiking. We have had first hand experience of this in Barcelona. We ended up taking the train after hours of standing next to the road.
We make ourselves some new signs of places that are just beyond Paris, towards Bordeaux. We try to up our winnings by doing this. The new signs we make are: Le Mans, Tours and Orléans. Eventually it looks like the signs are helping because a man stops who needs to get himself to Le Mans.
We get in his car and immediately it shows that the man is some kind of business man. He is working in the optic fibre industry and has 2 phones glued to his dashboard. 1 is for the ladies, the other one for work and he is using them both constantly. On top of that he is speeding everywhere but he has a super nifty paid app that tells him exactly where all the radars are located, where the police is driving around with patrol cars and even where the police are standing with their ‘speeding gun’.
About 5 kilometres before we get to a big péage he suddenly starts to talk very panicky and fast, almost yelling. Now, our French is not too bad but when the French talk fast we can’t understand them anymore and so we try our best to make something out of what is trying to tell us. In the end it appears that where he’s going, is not our best option to get to Bordeaux. We tell him to do what he thinks is best for us and that we will trust his judgement. After all he is the one who comes here on a regular basis.
The consequences are that he drops us off just after the péage, practically on the highway (luckily on the side though). 2 kilometres up ahead the highway splits up into the A10 and the A11. We have to be on A10 and our ride continues over the A11, so he made the right call to drop us off here. All in all he was driving really fast but he did make up some precious time for which we are thankful in hindsight.
The péage is really huge, about 12 lanes entering. So the people that are all the way on the left are unable to see us standing here, let alone make it safely across to this side to pick us up. We decide to see if we can go and stand in front of the péage in between the last 4 lanes. But sadly there are about 26 signs stating that is prohibited for pedestrians. There is some sort of office just in front of the péage where they sell ‘péage cards’ for the toll roads, but there is barely anyone there. So we pick up our bags and decide to get back to ‘our spot’. Only for a short period sadly. We suspect that we have been seen on camera while walking along the toll booth, because in about 5 minutes there is a French service vehicle telling us, with an official warning, that is not allowed to be here and that we should go to the office building.
In the parking lot there are a few trucks waiting so we make the best out of it and start talking to them. To be honest we already know the answer because to my knowledge it is forbidden by law to be in the truck with more than 2 people (only 2 seats in every truck). A Belgium truck driver even tells us that 2 people in one truck is an exception already, because when he wants to take his wife along for a ride he has to get permission from his boss, who in his turn has to get clearance from the insurance company to do this. What is the world coming to when banks and insurance companies have that much power over us?
Every once in a while there is a car entering the parking lot to go to the bathroom. Mostly these are old couples, who have put there retirement fund in a far too expensive car and drive it, mostly on Sundays, around in circles. These are not the kind of people that take hitch-hikers along, coming from experience.
After an hour a French man is entering the parking lot to make a toilet stop. From a distance Milou is observing the door to the restroom and as soon as the man comes out she jumps towards him like a predator on his prey. The man is travelling towards Orléans. We would also like to go there and so we are allowed to join him in his car. He is a friendly little man who drops us off at a gas station just ahead of Orléans and also just ahead of the exit towards Bordeaux. We go inside for a cup of coffee and to eat a sandwich and afterwards we go out in the direction of the parking lot’s exit with our new sign ‘Bordeaux’. Bordeaux is about 400 kilometres ahead but the sun is shining, our bellies are full, dare to dream big!
Within 15 minutes our saviour is there, a man heading towards Bordeaux and we are allowed to join him for the entire ride! He is a remarkably friendly man named David, on his way to Bordeaux for a meeting tomorrow. He travels a lot for his work (was driving a 15 day old car with 4000 kilometres on the clock already) and his opinion is that driving alone is boring. He has left early this morning and is in the mood for some distraction.
He talks a lot, but very calmly so we can understand him quite well, also this is good for us to pick up on our French again. About 20 kilometres before Bordeaux he has a proposition: he has a colleague who lives in Bordeaux and he thinks that she might be willing to offer us place to stay for the night. That would be awesome!
He calls her and she agrees, fantastic! Shortly after he comes with another proposal: eat pizza when we arrive at Veronique’s house (his colleague), well you don’t have to ask twice. He calls another colleague that is also travelling towards Bordeaux for the meeting tomorrow and everyone agrees. We are going to have pizza in Bordeaux and afterwards sleep on a couch is someone’s living room.
Then a few minutes before we get to Veronique’s house, David is slightly panicking. Veronique is not answering his text messages and she is also not answering her phone. Now he doesn’t really know what to do with us. Did she get scared?
He explains the situation to us once more, Veronique is a single woman who has just recently broken her arm and apparently people in Bordeaux and the south west of France are a bit suspicious which makes David think that she has become scared of having 2 hitch hikers, who are total strangers that her colleague picked up, stay in her apartment. Come to think of it, when I write it like this, I can understand that she got a bit scared.
Sleeping in the hotel with David is not an option and so he is going to drop us off at a gas station just outside Bordeaux. Bummer, at first we were going to have pizza and a warm bed and now we are going to sleep in a wet tent in between some trucks. Oh well, c’est la vie!
David is having a bit more trouble with his judgement than we do and is feeling rather guilty about the fact that the plans have changed so drastically within a few minutes. No matter how many times we tell him that we do not mind and that it isn’t his fault, he remains kind of sad. We are thrilled that we did get to travel over 400 kilometres with him, but he sees it differently. He decides to buy us a coffee and hands us his business card. “Just in case the tent starts leaking or when there is severe rain, you can call me and I will come and pick you up and figure out an alternative”, he says. That truly is a really nice gesture! We say goodbye to David and go see if the gas station has Wi-Fi so we can send some messages to the people back home. After having updated our whatsapp and Facebook messages (2 hours later…) and everyone is reassured we go look for a suitable place for our tent.
Once the tent is up we prepare our evening meal. Risotto rice and beans. Although it doesn’t sound very tempting, it did taste rather good. We decide to eat our meal inside the tent because outside it is already raining again. After our meal we get ready for bed.
We get up early again (07:00) and pack up the tent. Sadly enough it is wet again but fortunately the night was a lot warmer than the previous one. If this trend is continuing we are up for a treat tonight.
After packing we take our place at the exit of the parking lot, but we are less fortunate here. There are a lot of construction workers driving around because the parking lot is getting a makeover. At one point we are so fed up with the construction workers that we decide to go to the gas station itself and speak to the people that are there. By now it is already 09:30 and we are still stuck in the same spot. This does not feel good because on average we have to travel 400 kilometres to make it in time to catch our plane in Vigo (Spain). Luckily yesterday gave us a bit of an advance on our schedule but still it would be a terrible waste if that advance was already lost the day after.
Within 15 minutes, Simon arrives to the parking lot. He has a little work car with just enough space to fit an extra 2 people in the front seat. We put our things in the back and take our spots.
Simon is on his way to Lisbon, that could mean a huge step for us! We quickly pull out our map and start to search what the best place is for the both of us to stop. It appears to be Burgos, slightly over 400 kilometres in the right direction and so it looks like we will make our goal for today as well. With a little luck even we could get a lot further. We even get our hopes up for arriving in Vigo today, which is about 500 kilometres from Burgos.
Just after crossing the Spanish border we stop for lunch. and after that the journey continues to Burgos. Once we arrive there we find a good gas station and say goodbye to Simon. With high hopes we start to look for our next hitch, towards León.
Right next to our gas station there is a side road that is used by a lot of people to get in the direction of another highway towards Madrid or back home towards Burgos. The people that stop at the gas station are practically all heading for Madrid as well and some go towards Palencia, both not the directions we are hoping for. About an hour after we have arrived a police car stops, a car from the ‘Guardia Civil’. These guys are not to mess with and for a moment I was afraid that they will take us to the police station. The man opens his window and starts to talk Spanish to me. I have absolutely no idea what he is saying and ask him with a smile on my face and my thumb up: “a direccio de León?” He now knows that we are hitch hikers and apparently that is allowed, because they drive off again. Not even 5 minutes later another car from the guardia civil drives past Milou. Has anyone called them maybe? It sure looks like it or it is just a strange coincidence.
After about 3 hours a guy stops with an orange hoody that says ‘Holland’. He offers us to take us to a small town 20 kilometres in the direction of León. We are so happy that finally someone is going in the right direction that we accept his offer and get in very quickly. He doesn’t speak English or French so it is going to be a quiet ride since we don’t speak a word of Spanish either. Next to the ramp where he drops us off there is a gas station, we grab a quick coffee and head back to the ramp trying to get even further today.
The ramp is next to a slope and on top of that slope there’s the highway. After about an hour I decide to go up the slope and stand next to the highway, behind the safety barrier of course. After about 5 minutes I suddenly hear Milou yelling: “Police!”. I turn around and I see a car from the guardia civil exiting the highway. Did another person make a call?
I dive behind a Christmas tree and decide to wait and see what they are up to, because one thing is certain, I am not allowed to stand next to the highway!
I look through the needles of the tree and see them get out of their car and open up the trunk, they are preparing for something. Oh oooooh!
After a few minutes it looks like they are going to do a routine check and I decide to head back down again, hoping for the best. They are going to do a routine check at a roundabout, next to the highway exit where nobody is driving (that much we have noticed the last hour). Imagine they would actually have to work!
Our chances of finding a ride have now plummeted from 0,1 to 0,0, because nobody would now dare to pick us up when there is a guardia civil car on the other side of the roundabout. At one point it looks like a lady is willing to stop until she notices the police car and quickly takes off. Eventually the guardia civil is leaving and by now it is 7 ‘o clock, but the sun hasn’t set yet. We are getting more and more south, since the days are lengthening. Unfortunately we are also high upon a mountain because the temperature has dropped to about 5 degrees. Totally frustrated by the police and the fact that we were doing so well until splitting up with Simon, we decide to call it a night and pitch our tent in the upper grass area next to the road so the police can’t see us.
This time we cook our meal carefully in our tent because it has started to rain pretty heavily. After our meal we get in our sleeping bag and go to sleep.
We have set our alarm a bit earlier (05:30), since the sun did set a lot later. We figured that it would also rise a bit sooner. and the sooner we get out of this place, the better. The night has been extremely cold and upon opening our tent we understand why that is. Our tent has turned into a green Iglo. All of the rain that fell last night has frozen on the surface of our tent, it has become one big ice cream. The temperature last night has dropped to -5! Go to Spain, they said… it’s nice and warm, they said….
We try to defrost our tent by making tea inside but this does not help. We have to pack our little popsicle like this.
After the packing we go to the gas station as fast as possible to get some warmth. Luckily the station is already open and it’s nice and warm inside. The lady behind the counter speaks to us in Spanish and we try to explain her what has happened and where we are trying to go. She seems to understand.
After a cup of coffee and a hot chocolate we go outside to get ourselves a ride out of this hell hole. We hope that it will be easy now that the people are heading to work, but still we are not that lucky.
The woman at the gas station is also trying her best by talking to the people that come to fill up their car. Asking them where they are going and if they are willing to take us, but nobody seems to be going in the right direction.
We pick up our bags and make our way back to the ramp where we were yesterday, maybe we have some luck there now. At that moment a car enters the gas station with a young couple inside.
They go inside and get themselves something to drink. Since I saw them arriving I also go inside. I look at the lady behind the counter and she starts talking to the other man that is inside. Then she looks at me and shakes her head. She doesn’t ask the young couple though so when they go out I decide to talk to them. They are going towards León and we are allowed to go with them. 150 kilometres in the right direction!
They are both students who speak English. That was maybe even the best part, to finally be able to talk normal to people again and understand what they are saying. They are on their way to school and drop us off at the exit where they leave the highway.
About an hour we are standing here now but nobody wants to take us along. It’s not easy hitch-hiking in north west Spain, that much is certain. There is also not a single gas station here that is next to the highway so we take our map and look for the nearest gas station, which is about 1,5 kilometres walking. Once we arrive here this does not seem to be a great spot either. Up in the distance we see a great roundabout next to what appears to be another highway. So there goes, another 1.5 kilometres on foot through grasslands. Luckily the sun is out and the temperature is climbing.
This roundabout appears to be a guarantee for success, but we are wrong again about that. There are a few people stopping but they all have contradicting advices. One says we should go to Lugo and another says that we should not go to Lugo but go to Benavente instead. So we decide to write down both names on new signs and go there where ever our first ride will take us. Sometimes you just got to let go and let faith guide you.
So what does faith have in store for us? An old guy stops and gets out of his car to talk to us in Spanish, which we still don’t understand. Eventually it looks like he’s saying that we should not go to Lugo, nor should we go to Benavente because that is even worse. He is willing to take us another 40 kilometres and drop us off in Bañeza. Oh well, if that’s what faith has in store for us, then lets do that. All in all it is another 40 kilometres into the right direction.
The man is kind and speaks Spanish and some French as well and thinks that we are from England. We just let him believe that, because explaining to him that we are not will probably take forever. He drives through his home town on his way to Bañeza and tells us that there is a big restaurant for truck drivers and also a gas station for cars so we have plenty of opportunities to catch our next ride. We get out of his car at the restaurant and thank him for his help. We get out our sign that says ‘Vigo’, according to the man that is our best bet.
After almost an hour, a lady stops who can take us towards her village, 20 kilometres down the road along the highway. We’re happy with this so we get into the car. At the village, the lady doesn’t understand us. I ask her for the highway but it looks like I woke her from a snooze. ‘Highway’? She asks. In the meantime she still keeps driving further and further towards her house and we can’t make her understand that we needed to stay on the highway.
We try something different and ask her for a bus station. This she gets and she tells us that there is one. While driving she explains that it’s “to the right at this intersection, then left and a few 100 meters…”. Then she wants to turn left at the intersection, straight to her house! We panic and shout out that we want to go to the bus station. Finally she understands and takes us there.
Finally at the bus station we check if there’s a bus to Vigo and the price of the ride. The counter opens in 45 minutes so we decide to use this time to try to catch another ride. After walking about 2 kilometres towards the highway in the burning heat, we decide to turn back to the bus station. We don’t want to have to put up our tent again and wake up in an iglo… And also, until now hitch-hiking through Spain has been tough. One day rest in Vigo before our flight to Brazil is more than welcome.
The bus leaves in 90 minutes and costs us € 28,- pp. There’s wifi on the bus and it will take about 4 hours to get to Vigo. The price is reasonable and the wifi makes it possible for us to try to get a place to sleep in Vigo through couchsurfing. Normally, putting up your tent in a big city isn’t really an option.
We get on the bus and leave towards Vigo. We find an address to sleep through couchsurfing, yeah! For the ones who don’t know couchsurfing; this is a platform travellers can use to make contact with locals and learn about other cultures. You can ask for a place to sleep on their couch. Through this platform and by hosting and couchsurfing you can build a network of friends through the entire world, which is pretty fantastic.
In Vigo, it’s a 30 minute walk to our host, Roi, a Galician with lots of knowledge about Galicia, Spain, Gaelic, Linguistics, and so on. We have a beer together and then it’s off to bed, this day has been long enough.
First things first, we sleep in till 09:00 and after that we take a nice shower, has been a while since we did that for the last time. Afterwards we have breakfast, the three of us, followed by borrowing 2 mountain bikes from Roi to scout the surroundings of the village Cagnas, on the other side of the ria. According to Roi this is a very nice area for mountain biking, truth be told it really is. The views are really nice and the route is adventurous. Especially for Milou who has never ridden a mountain bike before.
After visiting an old church with a beautiful statue of the crusifiction of Jesus we head back to the boat. We get something to eat along the way and after that we cycle up the big and steep hills of Vigo to get back to Roi’s house.
We park the bikes at his house and then go to the supermarket to get some food, we decided to treat Roi on a self made dinner. After dinner we drink a traditional drink and start our night tour through the city with Roi as our guide and we end the evening with a drink in town. Off to bed while Roi stays out for the night.
We get up at 07:30 and pack our bags. Roi is going to take us to the airport with his car, aren’t we lucky! At the airport we say goodbye to Roi and start looking for our gate. Luckily everything goes pretty smooth at the check-in and also at the gate so we are off to Lisbon. In Lisbon we will have to wait for 5 hours before we are definitely leaving Europe to not return for about a year. I can tell you that is a very strange feeling!
So we have successfully completed our first adventure, hitch-hiking to Vigo, and are eager to see what adventures will await us in Brazil.