Hitchhiking is a terrifying prospect for most travellers these days; we’ve all heard the urban legends (and occasional news reports) of ridesharing gone horribly wrong. One of my mum’s stories from her hitchhiking days makes that fear real for me. She was a student nurse in the late 70s, travelling up to Scotland from Manchester with a friend to spend a weekend camping – a cheap and cheerful holiday, if ever there was one. Soon after she stuck her thumb out, a man driving an unbranded van pulled up, and let them in for a ride. From the moment he opened the door, she knew something was wrong by the smell. It permeated the van, a faint sickly-sweetness with an overtone of formaldehyde. It wasn’t until they got out and he drove away that she was able to place the scent: it was the same smell as the teaching cadavers she had used on her nursing course. The van had been carrying dead bodies. You can see why the story stuck with me.
Last August, during our end-of-school interrailing trip, some friends and I ended up on a minibus from Venice to Ljubljana. We realised after the driver took his second cigarette stop at the roadside that it would be a long journey. As the sun sank, so did my heart – we were going to be in the middle of a city we didn’t know, 45 minutes’ walk from our hostel, in the dark.
A young woman at the front of the minibus started chatting to the driver in their native Slovene. She had a backpack almost as big as mine and was talking jovially despite the drastic lateness of the bus. Eventually, she got chatting with us, recognising kindred backpacking spirits. Her name was Ursula, and she was heading home after three months travelling through South America. Being on the other side of Europe from home suddenly didn’t seem like such a big deal.
When we finally arrived at Ljubljana, Ursula asked where our hostel was and, on realising how far away we were, insisted that her dad would drive us to the hostel. My stomach dropped. We didn’t know this woman, and we certainly didn’t know her dad. They could be serial killers, or thieves, or kidnappers, and we were going to get into their car? But it was that or a cross-city night-time trek, so we thanked Ursula for her kindness, and got in. The car was a beat-up estate with a soft animal pelt draped across the back seat. It smelt faintly of wet dog – a comforting scent, especially compared in my mind to formaldehyde. Ursula chatted to her dad, translating for us his advice for visiting the city. He was a quiet-spoken man, but clearly thrilled to have his talkative daughter home again; they complemented one another perfectly. They dropped us at the hostel and, after we thanked them profusely, drove into the night. I realised as they disappeared that I never got his name – and now I never would.
The magic of hitchhiking was that you could rely on the kindness of strangers; its downfall was that you were at their mercy. Sadly, it’s not safe to depend on others’ good will, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t accept it when it’s offered. Most people, if you let them, will show you their kindness.