The bus that was always late was early.
My CouchSurfing host and I arrived at the stop to learn it had already left.
Not even wasting a second to go “Urgh”, I asked “what are my other options?”
The next bus wouldn’t be through Elbasan for another 12 hours and would mean I’d arrive in Ohrid, Macedonia after midnight. That didn’t appeal to me. I try to avoid arriving in new destinations at night, plus my new CouchSurfing host would have to wait up.
Jen, an American Peace Corp volunteer who has been living in Albania for almost two years, gave me a second option: Furgon hopping, with some walking, hitchhiking and a taxi. “It’s how I get to Macedonia,” she said.
I didn’t have time to think about it as a furgon heading to Prrenjas, a town only a few kilometres shy of the border, pulled up. As I got on Jen told me she’d message another Peace Corp volunteer to meet me off the bus and help me with the next step. Jason confirmed Jen’s advice. I could get dropped off at the border and then I’d have to walk across it and look for a ride on the other side to Struga or Ohrid. “Someone will pick you up,” he said confidently.
The furgon driver diverted from his path to Pogradec and dropped me at the border as promised. He charged me twice what he’d quoted, but with about five minutes left in Albania, spare Lek and bigger problems ahead, he got away with just an annoyed look from me.
Wheeling my backpack behind me, I joined the queue of cars.
One of the guards called me ahead, stamped my passport and sent me to the next checkpoint. Within a few minutes I was walking in Macedonia. There were a couple of trucks parked on the side of the road and a strange man milling about who followed me up the road and tried to talk to me, but gave up when he realised I only spoke English. I walked further along the road and contemplated walking all the way to Struga, even though I had no idea how far that was. I’d expected to be in a bus the whole way.
A car came through the checkpoint and I realised I’d still been hoping a public bus or taxi would miraculously show up. I halfheartedly stuck my thumb out, but was relieved when it drove by and when the second car followed suit. It dawned on me I could always ask my host Ohrid to send a taxi for me. It would be expensive, but better than taking a risk like this.
Then the third car came through. It was an older couple I’d been “parked” behind in the queue. At the time I’d looked at them and wished for them to take pity on me and ask if I needed a ride. The car slowed down and the dark-haired woman in the passenger seat smiled and asked “Struga?”
I said yes and she got out of the car to help me with my bags.
A minute later I was on my way. Hitchhiking.
I’ve got lifts with strangers before but never “hitchhiked” as such. When I hiked up to the Jasper tramway in Canada a couple from Quebec offered me a ride back down to the town. In England some people offered me a ride home when they saw me walking in the rain. In both cases I wrote it off as a kind gesture and (stupidly) didn’t give it any more thought.
Hitching in the Balkans
The subject of hitchhiking came up a lot in Niš, where I met a lot of CouchSurfers who use it to get around the world, such as Nenad, who hitched from Serbia to Hong Kong. One surfer was even going to take me hitchhiking to introduce me to it. I ended up on the bus. Most of the people who recommended it to me where men, although I met some girls who do it regularly. In Montenegro, when I asked a hostel about the best way to get to them, the female owner recommended hitching as the bus service was limited. “The only way there is hitchhiking,” was something I heard a lot.
My hitchhiking friends told me about the people they’d met and the adventures they’d had because of it. About the same time I read this article, which made the whole thing sound like a lot of fun.
I met so many people who either were travelling by hitchhiking or had done it before.
All of them told me it was safe.
I told all of them about Ivan Milat.
My hitching prejudice
Ivan Milat is Australia’s most famous serial killer. He is currently in jail serving seven consecutive life sentences: one for each of the hitchhiking backpackers he picked up, murdered and buried in the bush. The words “shot”, “stabbed”, “decapitated”, “strangulation” and “severe beatings” come up in the Wikipedia entry. The murders happened in the early 1990s and Milat was jailed in 1996. His great-nephew is in jail for a copycat killing in 2010.
The victims were aged between 19 and 22. Five were international travellers and two were Australians. Although their bodies were found in the bush, it appears most of them started their rides from major cities. One survivor, a British backpacker, identified Milat as the driver who picked him up on the way out of Sydney and later pulled a gun on him.
When people talk to me about hitchhiking, my mind always goes to Ivan Milat. Most hitchhikers I’ve met have told me they wouldn’t get in the car with anyone who they thought was dangerous or was giving off “bad vibes”. If these backpackers thought it was risky to get in the car with Milat, why did they? I can only assume they thought he was just some friendly guy offering them a ride. I should mention that most of the victims were in pairs and some were men.
Many hitchhikers have told me that if they thought something was wrong they’d get out of the car. Uh huh. At what point did Milat’s SEVEN victims think there was something wrong? And if they had a chance to get out, wouldn’t they have taken it before they got shot/stabbed/beaten?
Ivan Milat is obviously an extreme example. Lots and lots of people hitchhike around the world without any issues.
But does that mean I should?
An unnecessary risk
The topic of hitchhiking has come up so often during this trip I began to think it was inevitable that I would end up doing it. “Not unless I absolutely have to,” I said. Although I couldn’t see me landing in a situation where I would have no options.
I didn’t meet one person who had hitchhiked and suggested I avoid it. Everybody was recommending it. My mum saying “if everybody was jumping off a cliff…” comes to mind and it’s true. I don’t like taking my travel safety cues from strangers.
While travelling alone I am constantly in unfamiliar surroundings with people I don’t know, let alone trust and despite all the precautions I take while CouchSurfing, staying with a complete stranger is all kinds of risky. Even going out for a drink with people from my hostel requires me to be alert. It’s not like I’m out with friends who are going to make sure I get home alright.
Travel isn’t dangerous, but it has plenty of risks without me taking more in the spirit of adventure.
Over the last few weeks I’ve got the impression some people are naïve about the potential dangers of hitchhiking. It’s as if it’s so common people don’t really think about the reality of situation they are putting themselves in.
What particularly concerned me was when a young American girl I’ve been travelling with for a few days here and there started doing it. First it was a ride down a mountain, then a lift into town in Montenegro. “It was fun. I want to do it again,” she told me. Encouraged by her CouchSurfing hosts she then covered 127km in Albania when there was a regular bus service going the same route for less than €3. The first driver requested sex for the ride and left her on the side of the road when she refused. When she crossed the border into Macedonia she refused the offer of a taxi (€20) and hitchhiked again. At no point did anyone else know where she was.
It’s all well and good for people to tell me hitchhiking is safe, but the end of the day, they are not responsible for my safety. I am.
So why did I do it?
Hearing so many people discuss hitchhiking as a transport option as if it was a bus or taxi definitely influenced my decision. The way Jen and Jason calmly and confidently told me that I’d have to hitchhike after the border made me feel calm and confident.
But it wasn’t something I did lightly. I made the situation as safe as I knew how. I was aware I was looking for a ride straight after a border crossing that was recording the identification documents of everyone I would get in a car with. There was security cameras everywhere. I texted two people to let them know where I was and that I was going to hitchhike to Struga. When I got picked up, even though the couple were as old as my grandparents, I texted someone and described my ride. I let them know when I was at my destination.
I never felt in danger and everything turned out fine, but it’s not an experience I’ll be seeking out again. A few days later I’m still wondering why I just didn’t arrange a taxi to meet me at the border. Even if there was just a 0.7% chance of something going wrong, it was a risk I could have avoided.
I’m not against hitchhiking and just as I wouldn’t tell anyone they should hitchhike, I also wouldn’t tell anyone they shouldn’t.
What I would say is this:
Travel will bring you all kinds of adventure without taking risks you don’t have to.