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A Hitchhiker's Guide to Eastern Europe

The Story of How I Travelled Over 500km Without Paying a Penny

Will Hutchinson, ANYWHERE, disposable colored-film camera, 2016, Cluj-Napoca, Romania  

We awoke at the crack of dawn and the sky was a steely grey, as were the bags under our eyes. Towels were rolled, medicine pouches sealed, and paperbacks packed, we continued on with our ritualistic routine of filling each and every possession into our duffel-sacks. As was custom, we checked under each bed, both duvets, and pillows for any hidden item; for losing but one possession, out of only a few, could be a ruinous mistake. With our packs ready, we headed downwards, sidestepping over a strew of cluttered objects on the hostel floor. After paying our keep, we inquired on the nearest hitchhiking hot-spot, for today would be our first venture and we were hoping that it wouldn't be our last. The long-haired hippy gave good directions and informed us of Hitchwiki, an online encyclopedia dedicated to the where's and how's of hitching. We pulled up our phones and quickly typed in our location: Cluj-Napoca, Romania. We wished to go westward, to Oradea, Hungary, and remove ourselves from Transylvania.  The website stated that:

You need to get to Node N, a large clover-leaf intersection in the Mănăştur neighborhood. You can do this by taking any of the buses/trolley-buses 9, 24, 29, 52 (to the Bucium stop) or 1, 6, 25, 43, 43B (to the Clãbucet stop) (these cover most of the city, but if you can't find a stop for one of them, ask around). It's best to ask someone how to get to Mănăştur, so you know in which direction to get on the bus. If you got off at Clãbucet, follow the road, make a right, and you'll be at the Bucium stop. From the Bucium stop, follow the road for about 100m. The large clover-leaf intersection should be visible. Make a left at the intersection. Right after it, there's a good hitchhiking spot, and there may be others hitching there.

The Pines Were Roaring on the Height:

Will Hutchinson, The Pines were Roaring on the Height, disposable colored-film camera, 2016, Transylvania, Romania

We were close to the E60 and therefore there was no need to catch a bus. Instead, we walked, heading onward through that misty-morn, my companion and I discussing our plans for the journey ahead. We had written up a sign on a piece of cardboard, given to us by the hostel owner, reading Oradea, penned in black ink. The straps of our bags cut into our shoulders, as the stretch progressed, seemingly without an end. Eventually, we hit the spot, dropped our bags with a sign of elation, stuck up the sign and a thumb. However, we quickly noticed the persistent forward finger jabbing from those in the passenger's seat of passing cars. This was not a sign of disgust, hatred or a mere piss-take at our attempt to hitchhike but in-fact an endeavor to do quite the opposite... they were trying to help us.

'They're telling us to move upwards', I cried!

'Why?', my friend replied.

'We must be in the wrong spot... wait, maybe we haven't even reached the intersection yet?', I muttered.

So, we picked up our bags with both annoyance and relief, continuing up the highway. Eventually, we spotted two guys, holding a sign similar to our own. I called out to them.

'Hey! Yes, you there! Are you hiking too?', I shouted in broken English, unsure whether they could even understand me. Thankfully, one of the men clearly did and came over to chat.

'Yes, we are... you too huh?', he spoke calmly.

'Yep, it's our first time... this whole track is fine right?', I said, throwing my arm up in the air to indicate the road in-front of us. 

'Yeah, it's all good, there's a pull-in up ahead.', he indicated with his hand, like mine. 

'Cheers mate, we won't encroach on your spot any longer.', giving thanks as we went.

Lost on an Open Highway:

Will Hutchinson, Lost on an Open Highway, disposable colored-film camera, 2016,  Romanian-Hungarian Boarder

After standing in our newly designated area, with both the sign and a thumb up once again, we were almost immediately greeted by a car. It pulled into the lay-by and a door flung open.

'Hey, boys, where you headed?', exclaimed the man in a slightly thick Romanian accent.

'Oradea.', I said. 'Or anywhere near the border, for that matter!', I added.

He said that he could take us into the town closest to the Romanian-Hungarian Boarder, which we eagerly agreed to. He opened the boot and helped place our heavy loads in the back.  Now driving, we relaxed,  relieved at our quick success. we started to converse with our newly named companion Kozma, discussing everything, from our travels to the politics of the country we were about to enter.


Gregory Segal, Kozma, iPhone 4s, 2016, Romanian-Hungarian Boarder

Kozma pulled into a pit-stop, grabbing us a few beers and an ice-cream for himself. We sat in the blazing sun, looking over lime-green valleys of grass and pines, reflecting on the madness of our trip thus far, from dodgy phone dealers to cocktail spiking strippers. Kozma laughed at our bad luck, commenting on his past failures when traveling, from which he provided us with advice for our trip ahead. 

After a few hours, we arrived at the border. We gave our thanks to Kozma for his generosity and good conversation, walking into the distance, across the barricade, and into Hungarian territory. 

We adjusted our watches, setting the time back by an hour and continued onwards across a long road, hoping to find a spot to catch our next ride. It was around 2 PM and the sun was now bearing in on us, smacking against our thighs and faces. Sweat began to drip from our brows as we pushed forward, attempting to find some solace.

After nearly an hour we found a stop. The diner clung onto the highway like a parasite, festering off the tired, the lost and the damned. White, black, and red lorries were scattered across the pastel brown turf that stretched across the side and back of the eatery. We collapsed onto a table, exhausted. I ordered two large beers, a tray of fries with sandwiches, and a bowl of sauerkraut, which we dug into readily, having eaten very little over the last couple of days. Refreshed and raring to find our next hitch before the cover of darkness we asked around the diner if anyone was heading our way.

A Never-Ending Road:

Gregory Segal, A Never-Ending Road, iPhone 4s, 2016, Hungary.

With little success, we exited the bar.

'What shall we do now?', my friend asked glumly.

'Well, we could go and see if any of the truckers will give us a lift?', I suggested optimistically.

'Do you think they will?'

'It happens in the movies, so I guess its worth a shot', I jokingly remarked.

We picked up our bags and trudged through the dirt in hopes of finding greener pastures. Some drivers barked, others drooled, softly asleep like hairy giants from a Grimm's tale, and many shook their heads indicating their inability to take us in any direction. One grunted that he would be willing to take us to Debrecen, however, he would be sleeping for the next six hours due to a recent eighteen-hour drive.

'Well...', I said. 'At least we have a backup plan if it all goes awry.'    

'Should we head onto the road and try our luck?', Will proposed.

'Yeah, let's. We don't really have any other option.'

So, once again we stood on the side-walk and hoped for the best. Hours went by... it was now 5 PM. We had surrendered on the prospect of journeying out of this desolate place before nightfall and were now discussing our plans for what we should do if no one decided to pick us up.

As this was occurring a car miraculously skirted onto the lay-by. I ran over excitedly, praying that this would be it, this would be our man. A window sprawled down, billowing smoke out of the car and to my surprise a guy of some Asian origin poked his face out. Ordinarily, this wouldn't have been of any great shock. However, after traveling for a month, without seeing a single man, woman or child from the South Pacific, it was rather unusual that the one we had seen would be the one to offer us a ride.

'Where you go?', he inquired in incredibly broken English. 

'Debrecen', I replied.

'No, no Debrecen... Budapest... I go Budapest.', he repeated.

I paused for a few moments.

'Budapest is great! We go, we come with you', I smiled and pointed to the car, into the distance, and back to my friend, indicating that I would grab our bags. I shouted, 'Come on Will let's go... grab the bags quick before the man changes his mind!' I ran over to help, opened the door and pushed all of our stuff into the back. We jumped in, slammed the passenger door, and our driver stepped on the gas, curving back onto the highway, jamming the gear into second, third and then fourth, hurtling us off, out of no man's land and into the open sky.  

Bumming Bubblegum Cigarettes from Unsweetened Strangers:

Gregory Segal, Bumming Bubblegum Cigarettes From Unsweetened Strangers, iPhone 4s, 2016, Hungary.

After a considerable amount of probing we discovered that our driver's name was Li, a middle-aged man of Chinese descent, currently on a business trip to Budapest. He asked us a few questions, although I'm not sure if he understood the answers. 

'Ok, with smoke?', he asked, moving a cigarette with his left hand to convey his message. We responded with multiple yes's, flailing our pack of smokes up in the air so that they would reflect in his front mirror. We all rolled down a window and began to puff, and once again a sense of relief washed over us. 

'God I thought we would never get out of that place!', I laughed.

'Yeah right!', Will chuckled. 'Can't wait to get to Budapest!'

Three hours past and a good 250km were distanced. Li spoke very little during this time, at least to us. Continuous phone calls were made to what we could only presume to be a variety of business associates and clients. He smoked continuously, an endless chain of packets were opened, consumed, and sporadically thrown into the passenger's seat. Whilst, Will and I shared our last cigarette, too polite and awkward (largely due to the language barrier) to ask him if we could bum a couple more. When Li did speak to us he was indeed very personable, laughing profusely whilst exclaiming 'No problem', a rather apparent favorite phrase of his, in which the bounds of its versatility seemingly broke new ground at every intersection.


Gregory Segal, Li, iPhone 4s, 2016, Hungary.

We had now arrived in Budapest. Stretches of hills, mountains, grass, and trees had now turned into a spread of wire, concrete, steel, and glass. We watched curiously as Li pointed out certain sites with a murmuring or muttering here and there.

The car now slowed down to a low trudge as we approached a set of black iron, gothic gates. Li pressed a button on his keys and then began to speak Hungarian into a silver box. The gates swung open and we pulled into a rather large, white manor home.

The house was decorated with an assortment of wooden objects, from cabinets and tables to a variety of instruments. We now finally understood Li's occupation and the context of his dealings throughout our journey. We sat down exhausted. Li frantically looked around the house for his 'Wee-fee' password, which we had asked for upon our entrance, keen to book a hostel so that we could be on our way. Eventually, he found it, stored under a clutter of papers and wood chippings.

Our adventure was finally at a close. We had traveled over 500km, hitched two separate rides, walked over a countries border and entered another. Even though much of our journey had been spent on the side of a road or sat quietly in a car, each moment was exhilarating. When you're out with your thumb stuck up high in the air you give up the delusional concept of individual control, instead, you accept the inevitable and let fate take over. This unseeable destiny is the adventure. You don't know who you're going to meet or where exactly you're going to go. All you know is that you don't. Within this moment you're completely free, at the whim of the universe, floating through space, directionless and aimless.

The House of Li:

Gregory Segal, The House of Li, iPhone 4s, 2016, Hungary.

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