Tag Archives: mental health

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure: Tashkent to Samarkand

September 2017

From my train-track-side camping spot, I rose with the sun and jumped over the fence back to the road into the city.

I had slept there because I couldn’t find an open Wi-Fi signal to find a hostel, as I do whenever I enter a new city. But I had finally found one outside a hotel, so I sat there looking homeless (again) and arranged to meet my next host, Igor, in the evening.

Tashkent seemed like a clean, recently modernized city. On the center anyway. It was terribly hot, and so dry that my sweat dried instantly. I was very quickly out of water and had no local currency.

Economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that banks and ATMs had no money. It is not possible to leave the country with more money than you entered it with. The only way to get local currency was to exchange US Dollars. Luckily, I had $100 with me, as I do everywhere I go. 800,000 somoni were handed to me, I was almost a millionaire.

I met Igor outside his local supermarket. He was Russian-born, but living here. He had the typical cold demeaner, but of course the warm heart too. He let me stay in his room while he slept on the sofa for two nights.

He showed me two of his favorite cafes, which produced excellent variations on plov – the rice, beef and carrot national food. The bill came to $1.50 for the both of us, so I paid for everything, feeling even more like a rich man; I was one in Uzbekistan.

The hot weather had got to me and I was suffering from mild heat exhaustion, so I decided to make the 14km walk out of the city after dark.

I found out four nights too late that I was supposed to register with a hotel every third night of my stay. I came to the police checkpoint at the outskirts of the city and didn’t want to risk going any further. Igor told me I could have problems when I leave the border. Best case, I get a week in prison.

I found some half-built houses, which I thought looked fine, but as I walked in with my headtorch, a man called out to me in a groggy voice. I turned around almost out of reflex and walked away. His voice grew angrier and my legs moved faster.

Across the road, I found a field with trash scattered and some concrete pillars that had been dumped there. I didn’t bother getting any camping equipment out, I just put all of my warm layers on and curled into a ball. I slept surprisingly well, and the starry night was one of the clearest I’d ever seen.

The next day I woke naturally with the sunrise and as I emerged from the scattered blocks, I saw a man doing some kind of work in the field. I was lucky I didn’t get everything out of my backpack! I shoved my layers in as tidily as I could and waited until his back was turned for me to escape. I made it about 100 meters before he began calling to me, but I ignored him and sped up. He could well have just been curious, maybe he wanted to invite me for tea, but I didn’t want to take the risk because I probably wasn’t allowed in this space.

The first ride I caught on the way to Samarkand was from a man delivering some wooden panels to a house. While he was unloading I met the family’s children.

‘Have you ever seen an English person?’ asked the driver, interrogating the children who were staring at me as if I had two heads.

One of them shook his head while the other remained in a confused trance. After a while they regained their normal expressions again and could look at something other than me. I taught them the ‘fist bump’ and ‘high-five’ and gave them some London Underground tickets (I had no sweets or anything better to give them).

The truck driver took me most of the way, but there was still another 80km to go. I stood for about 20 minutes with my thumb out when the two men pulled in and said they could take me all the way there.

They invited me to stay the night at their house in the small village just before it. They took me for a meal and made sure I was more than full before we left the restaurant.

Back at their house I found myself running around the place with the 6-year-old son, both of us holding bits of wood we used as guns. It was great to be a kid again.

Just before bed, my hosts asked if I could help them to get a visa to visit the UK. I thought they wanted help with the form or a letter of invitation, but they asked me to send them the physical visa in the post. I don’t have that power!

The next morning, I was given some bread and jam for breakfast, which would be condoments for a grueling show. I’d never seen a chicken being slaughtered before, but I couldn’t look away. It is true that the head and body remain able to move independent of each other after separation.

They paid for a taxi to the city, refusing to let me hitchhike.

My first task on arrival was to find a place to stay. As I walked through the late-summer heat with everything stuck my back and sweat waterfalling from my forehead, I caught my first sight of the ancient buildings. I have never quite understood the phrase ‘take my breath away’, but seeing them today, I experienced this for the first time.

Astana

August 2017

When your girlfriend works long hours and you rarely find strong, reliable Wi-Fi, then having those important conversations becomes a real challenge. But after a week, we finally found a time.

With the distance and uncertainty on how long this trip would take, we decided to go on a break. I knew we would agree on this, and I think I had already grieved for it, because all I felt now was freedom, excited for what lay ahead.

The only worry now was money, but Merce, the lovely lady who lent me $3000 to book the refundable flights to try for the Chinese visa, agreed to let me hold onto it until I got back to the UK and had a job. I could do anything I wanted to now. I got my world map out and lost the day pouring over it. I could go for another year, or another 5, it was up to me!

The future seemed bright, but my mind quickly fell back to the present visa problem – I needed to get through either Russia or China first. I wanted to do it as soon as I could, before winter came in, lest I get homesick and go home early as I did on my first solo trip.

It seemed to feel stress more than it usually would have because this journey was the only thing I was focusing on.

I began reading Walking the Amazon by Ed Stafford, and I found many similarities in his journey and mine. He had experienced the same mental challenges as I was now, and he talked about how he overcame them.

I began to realize that I was perhaps putting too much pressure on myself to get to my destination as quickly as possible. Now I didn’t have to. This was causing me a lot of stress, and I was not enjoying the trip.

His partner told him in a similar situation “I think that you are being too impatient. I think that this will take time and that you need to relax, and when a path turns into brambles and thorns for 2 hours you need to take a deep breath, smile and accept it as part of the adventure.”

The biggest one for me, which I would need a few weeks to truly understand, was reading that I have control over how I react to challenges.

The city of Astana itself was an interesting spectacle – built in the late 90s by the President to better link the country with Russia and Europe – was all show but no soul. The old capital, Almaty, was my next destination.

Ready for a 20km walk out of Astana, someone called me over and bought me coffee. I assumed the man was the owner, but no, he was a normal man who just wanted to buy me a coffee. We talked for a bit and he went on to say he could take me outside the city. While I was waiting, the barista bought me food over.

This journey, like coping with anxiety, is about recognizing small victories. He told me that if I needed help to find a job or a place to stay, then he could help me. I did need help, I really did. If he could help me to get residency, I could stay in Kazakhstan over winter and get the visa to Russia. It didn’t work out, unfortunately because the residence permit application was far too complicated.

He took me 20km out of the city where I set my tarp up for the night.

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The Road to Astana

I woke from my tight spot in the trees, unwrapped the corners of my tent and packed it away. I was in Petropavlovsk – the central and northernmost city in Kazakhstan. But before I could have a look, I had been told I needed to “register my arrival.” Did this mean check in with the police? Police in Kazakhstan are infamous for making trouble for foreigners to get bribes. Or perhaps it meant I had to stay in a hotel? I secretly wanted to – warm shower, clean bed and security for one night.

I wandered the streets towards the center, phone in-hand, trying to find an open Wi-Fi signal. But I wasn’t in Europe anymore and it took a few hours and a lot of aching steps do this.

Finally, outside a shopping mall, from a few reliable web sources I found that it had already been done at the border. The need to register was a few years old.

Petropavlovsk was, in one sentence, an amalgamation between the last influence of Russia and the first of Kazakhstan; slum-like houses began to appear and people were squatting instead of sitting. I only noticed this in hindsight, because the cultural change had happened so gradually as a result of travelling by land from the UK instead of flying.

Kazakhstan speaks Russian and not English too, but by now I had picked up enough to get by. As a consequence, I would improve it further.

I still felt the usual anxiety that I do when I enter a new country and I needed a few days to adjust. I walked out the other side of the city towards Astana and stayed in the woods for two nights. I built a huge fire and took comfort in the familiarity of camping. I brewed tea, read a book and cooked dinner.

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The next day, all I did was venture back into the city, leaving my tent, sleeping bag, etc. behind, to resupply food and water. I maintained the cold Russian neutrality and did not speak with anyone, but here, I noticed, people are a lot more open; they speak to strangers. So, I began to do the same.

Finding Wi-Fi caused a flood of notifications to overwhelm my phone. One was from September, saying she wanted to go on a break. I tried calling via WhatsApp, but the Wi-Fi kept cutting out. Then I tried finding other open spots, but it was the same story. That time-sensitive conversation would have to wait.

I managed to talk to my best friend, Jack, about it and he managed to comfort me a bit. He had just gotten a normal-person job.

I wandered back to the woods knowing what September and I would say, but trying to store the emotions for a few days’ time. The fire was even bigger than the night before, and its mesmerizingly infinite number of appearances made me forget my problems, it warmed me until I slipped into the safety of my tent and crossed the border into sleep.

It was 28 Celsius when I got going at 10am; I was greasy and smelly and didn’t want to get any worse. I found a lake next to the road which I walked into, rinsed my clothes in and walked out of, soaking wet. I walked for another 10 minutes, by which point I had dried completely and put out my thumb feeling nice and cool.

The first lift was from a friendly Kazakh man whose car I think was so old and beaten up, that it was restricted to first gear.

Second, I got taken to a gas station where I saw my first number plate of Tajikistan. I bought bottled water for the first time since day one, and some pastry to keep me going until Astana, the capital.

The next lift took me to the halfway point, but by now it was after dark. I didn’t want to hitchhike at night, after what happened in Russia, so I set up camp behind a gas station. As I did so, I knelt on a piece of broken glass which went quite deeply into my knee. I cleaned it and it seemed to clot quickly, but the next morning I woke up with a small patch of blood on my cargo pants. Luckily, some water cleared it mostly.

I only had 5 hours’ sleep, because I needed to be packed away and walking before anyone saw me at the gas station. The result of this was quite pleasant – walking next to the sun as it climbed the horizon to my left.

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I came up to a police checkpoint and they called me over. ‘Here we go’, I thought. He asked to see my passport, and after asking where my visa for Kazakhstan was and finding the stamp, he showed me YouTube videos for about 20 minutes. I was free to go after that.

A dog (below) then came up to me. I could see that he didn’t receive much attention. I gave him some water out of the bottom of a nearby can, which was a mistake because he followed then wouldn’t leave.

But I began to consider it, having a dog with me. Romantic images began to enter my mind – man and dog, travelling together around the world. Reality quickly set in when he began barking and chasing ever single car that passed. It wasn’t meant to be I suppose.

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A car pulled in for me and all I could do was get in and leave him, and his confused eyes. This car took me all the way to Astana.

Despite the roads being in a dangerously poor condition, they do present some exceptional views. Travelling south through the steppe I could see nothing but desert. Looking ahead, the road trailed off into infinity. Quite often, the only car I could see was the one I was in.

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I checked into a $5 hostel in Astana feeling full of energy and motivated to be productive. I was going to read Ed Stafford’s ‘Walking the Amazon,’, because I was told, by him speaking at an event, that he documented how he overcame the most difficult challenge in any expedition – the mental one.

But as I sat on my bed, I realized I only had the energy to take a shower and get under the covers. I slept until the following morning. Tomorrow, I would talk with September.

Into Kazakhstan

The two Sergeys arranged a lift to the Kazakhstan border for me before leaving. At the fork in the road, they went left and we went right. they honked their horns to say goodbye and good luck. I would never see them again, but I didn’t want to; the memories I had from the days with them were some of the best of my life and I didn’t want to spoil them.

My new driver did not speak much, but it was fine, some don’t want to. As a hitchhiker, you have to follow the lead of the driver. I was entertained by his windscreen bunting with topless women printed on it.

He asked if I had a visa. I didn’t, but according to the British FCO website, I didn’t need one. Still, it was an anxious 30-minute ride. This was to be the first of many non-European border crossing – stories I had been told of long waits, fake fines, confusion and bureaucracy all leaked into the path ahead of me.

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At the first of the four-stage crossing, I was met my a Russian police officer who checked my passport.

“Where is your visa for Kazakhstan?” He asked.

“Britain – no need.” I nervously replied in broken Russian.

He paused and took my passport to the office.

I stood for 10 minutes in this place where forest blends to desert. It was quiet, dry and there was a warm smell in the air.

He returned, sending me through with an authoritative stance, as if to say ‘you got away with it this time.’

Next, the border official was unsure if my passport photo was one of me. The clean-shaven Tom was gone and she now had a different person in front of her. Standing in front of the window, my legs shook but my upper body remained calm. She had to call her boss over to verify my identity.

I walked into the space between countries – an empty place where no one belongs. Stagnant water stood still in dead rivers either side of the road, which was contained by tall, chain-link fences. The weak woodland a few forbidden steps away seemed restricted, like a man being kept in one room for his whole life.

Trucks were queued up waiting to enter Russia. One curious Kazakh driver called me over and invited me in for coffee. We had a fairly smooth conversation in Russian about each other and my journey. It is amazing how much Russian I had learned in just 3 weeks, considering I knew nothing but the word ‘vodka’ when I entered.

After completing a migration card with not one word of English written on it, I was free to cross into Kazakhstan. A UK number plate caught my eye and I jogged over to say hello. I was so excited, having seen none of my own people since Poland. I talked a bit with them and felt relief in not having to try to roll my R’s, slow down my speech and try to speak another language. It reminded me so much of being back home – unwelcome. They were not interested in me, as us Brits generally aren’t. They just wanted to keep to themselves, and even telling them I had hitchhiked here from the UK did not change this. The contrasting generosity I had received from that truck driver just minutes ago was eye-opening.

I lunched at the border cafe, and the two women behind the counter asked to get a signed photocopy of my magic letter.

The road was now quite empty and I saw just one vehicle every 5 minutes. A car stopped after 15 minutes, but they asked for money. I had been told this would happen, and I would just have to explain each time that I didn’t have any. I devised an ingenious hand movement to use internationally – pointing to myself, rubbing my index finger and thumb together, then shaking my head. Me – money – none. It has never failed me since. they drove off a bit angry as many would do in the coming months.

Tiredness began to set in and I scouted for camping spots. Luckily, a man picked me up and took me to Petropavlas, the northernmost city of this country. The sun set in the passion-fruit sky of this new country. I was nervous, as I always am in a new country, and I now couldn’t find anywhere to camp.

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I walked for an hour before finding a small cliff with three trees at the bottom. I climbed down carefully and set my tent up in the middle of them. I had to twist the corners to accommodate the small ground space. Someone had watched me do this and I was concerned they might come and rob me, but I was too tired to care.

Tom Hitchhikes the Earth – Days 74-78: What it Means to be British

“…Travel doesn’t make you a different person, it just helps you to realize yourself.”

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It had been very challenging getting to Kazan but I was finally here, albeit a bit late – my host had given up on me and since I didn’t have a local sim card, I couldn’t update him. I found WiFi outside a bank in the city center and contacted him. He said I could stay for two nights.

Alexei was not what I expected, and for the first time he asked me to buy food items. I had gotten used to being given food for free and I realize now that I was being silly in complaining, but at the time I ranted about it in my diary.

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I arrived with sticky skin from long days accumulating exhaust fumes; it was like the residue left behind from cheap stickers. I needed a shower and a lot of rest, but his shower was broken and all he could offer was a bucket and a cold tap. As for sleeping, I was looking forward to sleeping in, like I was normally allowed to do, but I had to leave at 7am with him. I walked around Kazan a bit and took a nap in public. I didn’t care.

I now had to cross the border with Kazakhstan some 1500km away in less than a week. I didn’t have time to use cars, I needed to ask some truck drivers. I had even seen some driving after dark and I had a theory that they drove through the night to avoid daytime traffic. I made a plan to go to the nearby truck stop in the latter part of the day and ask around.

I’m very British in the way that I’d rather struggle than bother somebody by asking for help. I’m naturally quite a shy person too. I thought that hitchhiking all this way from the UK would have changed this, but I’ve come to realize that travel doesn’t make you a different person, it just helps you to realize yourself.

I nervously walked, no quicker than I had to, to the truck stop outside of the city at around 15:00, feeling like I was an unwelcome child on the first day of school. I didn’t let myself dwell too much though because it would only make me more nervous. It was an old, trashy and relatively small uneven concrete space with a whitewashed café. There was already one truck parked with its windows open. I approached the driver with my best attempt at a newly learned Russian question ‘pashawosta podbroshe minya doh Chelyabinsk’ (please can you take me to Chelyabinsk)? I knew he would turn me down, as getting accepted by the first driver would be too easy, and 10 minutes later he was gone and another truck had parked up.

Before I knew it a whole hour had passed. I began to enjoy the situation; I could sit down, use the café’s free Wi-Fi and every 5-10 minutes ask someone for a lift. After approaching the first few drivers I didn’t feel nervous anymore and it was far better than standing on a roadside, breathing in the exhaust fumes and getting whipped by the sharp Russian wind every time a large vehicle rushed past.

I repeated this process until 10pm when, with no more trucks coming in, I decided to find somewhere to put my tent up. My theory was wrong; truck drivers do drive for a while after dark but they stop to sleep at about 21:00 and asking in the early evening had greatly decreased my chances of finding a lift. If they were to take me a long way then they would want to meet me in the morning with enough time to form a bond before potentially sleeping in the same vehicle.

It was of little surprise then that at 9am the next morning a driver finally agreed to take me. The ride was only about an hour long, but at the next stop the driver asked a pair of men standing outside their trucks for me securing me a lift that would take me all the way to Kazakhstan.

Sergei and Sergei were co-workers who had known each other longer than I had been alive. Throughout their careers they had travelled the country together. When they met, the long road that now lay ahead of us had no cafés or shops. In their place were holes in the ground which they used as toilets. They had seen small settlements develop into towns and cities and potholed dirt tracks change to modern tarmac.

There is only one main road across Russia and it runs like a scar from Moscow to Magadan. I was now leaving the more developed European side of the country and as I did, the road got straighter and straighter until all I could see ahead of me was the horizon which seemed to meet infinity and reveal all of Russia. Either side of me I could see nothing but pure emerald-green woodland that would have been too wild to enter.

We reached the more rugged part of the road and we were going up and down peaks and troughs. It described the entire trip to me – when I was on a low, all I could do was focus on what was immediately ahead, but on a high, I could see the whole road ahead and wanted to go all the way round the world.

The three days I spent with them felt like a dream. During this time, we taught each other some of the language and culture of our respective countries. They could see I was travelling on a tight budget and kindly paid for all of my meals, as well as giving me tea, coffee and, of course, vodka. We formed a firm friendship together and as we said goodbye in the dry and dusty truck stop near the border, all I had to give them to say ‘thanks’ were two 1p coins from home. They had never seen English money before so were thrilled.

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Overcoming my very British problems and enduring an uncertain seven hours of rejection at the truck stop outside Kazan had really paid off. This initial hardship had made it much easier for me in the long run, covering the 1500km in just three days. I had not spent anything during that time either and I had made two new friends. I left Russia with some lovely last memories and crossed into Kazakhstan with a smile.

Моscow and Another Adventure-Ending Crisis

In one sentence, Moscow was like London but in a different alphabet – the sticky, smoggy wind blowing from the underground stations, the rushing, nervous business people chattering gibberish around me and the beeping of thick traffic which never stops. And at night, street and car headlights illuminated the city which does not rest.

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But these similarities did not make Moscow a disappointment; quite the contrary. The Kremlin, Red Square and Cathedral transported me back in time to my childhood memories of Disneyland; I basked in its beauty, and this made me happy because I’d been true to myself and not missed Moscow from my route because of my rules.

I explored such places on both of my days there. I had to.

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Arrival Day – I returned from a night walk on my first evening to find a photocopy of my British passport on the front desk. Strange, I thought. Shortly after, a tall, skinny man greeted me enthusiastically.

“We don’t see many British people here in Moscow!” he said. “Come, join us!”

He was a volunteer at the hostel and I sat with him and the other staff that evening. I was knackered, and my body wanted me to go to bed. But I told myself that nobody remembers the nights they get a good night’s sleep. Well, I do, but I stayed anyway.

Day 1 and 2 – The chest-tightening loneliness I had been feeling in recent days had faded and I was excited to continue my journey. I was in Moscow, having hitchhiked all the way from Cornwall! I was still planning to only reach Singapore at this stage, but ideas of going around the world began to enter my mind. I knew I could do it, but I wasn’t sure if I could last that long away from home. Even if I decided to go for it, I would also have to find a way to fund it. I told no one of my idea because it was still young.

I walked around various tourist spots, wading through the selfie-addicted masses. I made the decision to pay for transport for the first time since leaving the UK – It was tough, but without doing it I would end up with a countless list of missed experiences. I returned to the same spot afterwards, making my new, adapted rule.

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That evening, I received a message from someone who pointed out a huge hole in my plan to hitchhike from Estonia across all of Russia to Vladivostok. I would only be able to obtain a 30-day visa for Russia. Even a double entry would be 30 days, but split over two visits.

Yet again I was hit by a potentially adventure-ending crisis but I didn’t react nearly as badly as I would have, had this happened a month ago. I was much stronger now.

I got out my phone and exhausted Google for my options. After a couple of hours, I found a small country in-between Turkey and Iran gave EU passport-holders like me a one-year stamp at the border, with no costs or forms. Georgia was my new savior, because China and Russia class a country of residence as a place of living for minimum 6-months, so I could get my visas there!

During my time exploring the city, I scouted the buses to decide if I would try to hitch one out the other side. Some had ticket checkers on board, some were full, and others were empty. But I was not brave enough to break the law in Russia again, so I walked. Doing this out of Europe’s largest city in the peak of summer proved to be a long and sticky challenge, but I made it.

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I left, by my standards, early in the morning to complete a 25km hike to a spot on the outskirts. I really struggled with it and felt awful after because I did not eat enough calories as I had expended. Doing this kind of thing back home, I would ordinarily end the day with a thick, jaw-locking, greasy cheese burger, but this day ended with a couple of packs instant noodles.

Managing a sufficient intake of calories is something I find difficult when on the road.

Reaching the spot, I put my thumb out to the slow-moving, rush-hour traffic, – a hitchhikers’ dream. A man pulled in within minutes and took me 20km. From there, another man took me 40km. A 10km hop followed, and I got concerned that these short distances would become normal. They did, and I learned that this is the case with traffic going away from the world’s major capital cities. The next few days would be tough…

 

Hitchhiking Buses – Veliky Novgorod and the Road to Moscow

Ilya’s mother dying just before I arrived to his home meant I didn’t spend very long in Veliky Novgorod; I explored the city in a day and left after the second night. Touristy, it wasn’t. Apart from experiencing a ‘real’ Russian town, I took a look at some government buildings, probably arousing further suspicion to that when I entered the country.

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The day to leave came and it was a 30-minute walk from the apartment to the main road. Today, I would head to Moscow. I was picked up towards the end of the walk and taken just 10km. From there, it was a 90-minute walk, and the frightening realization set in during this time that these long waits could be the norm here in Russia.

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The sky had now turned grey and the air was heavy. I got left at the wrong side of a small village, about 2km in length, and had to walk through. I had entered a small pocket of lesser development – around me were small, wooden shacks, with paint stripping and wood swelling – I wondered how they withstand the lethal winters. I felt vulnerable and out of place with my blue backpack with sewn-on flags. I kept my face forward and powered through.

The road led my eyes to the ominous horizon where Moscow lay. I waited for two hours and began to feel invisible before someone finally pulled in.

He didn’t want to speak, which was fine, some people don’t want to. Instead, I slept. He took me all the way to the outside of the city.

I stopped for my first meal of the day- white bread, pickles, tomato and onion helped down my the comforting cup of tea; a life-saver to any English person. My gas stove and tea bags are probably among my most important piece of kit; many times have I been saved by them.

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Initially, I had decided to miss Moscow, because I had planned to loop back round for winter and come this way again. But, on the outer ring road of Moscow, I began to feel quite somber about not ticking off Russia’s beautiful capital. I asked myself ‘what would I choose if I wasn’t hitchhiking?’ I would choose to spend a night in the city and carry on the next day. I admitted to myself that it was the thought of paying for a bus that was putting me off.

I wasn’t being true to myself. It’s my adventure, nobody elses and I have to make myself happy. It’s the same in everyday life as well.

I changed direction and headed towards the centre. I jumped on a bus but nobody asked me for a ticket. Could I hitchhike a bus to the centre of Moscow?

I got off the first one, because everyone else did, and got on another. This one had a barrier. I pretended to have no idea what I was doing, putting notes in a card slot and pushing non-existent buttons. A random man came up and swiped his travel card for me. 20 minutes later I was in central Moscow, I’d hitchhiked two buses!

I checked in to a hostel in the center and went to bed excited for the next day and glad to have made a decision for myself.

 

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

– On 1 June 2017, I left the UK to hitchhike alone around the world –

St. Petersburg to Veliky Novgorod

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The unsettling sense of worry which we feel when we aren’t sure if we can achieve what is ahead of us came over me again while I took a day to myself in my tent just outside St. Petersburg. It was stronger than it had been before and was exasperated by a small but significant stomach sickness, which I suspected I’d caused myself by having poor hygiene; I was rarely around a sink and therefore never really washed my hands.

Contributing to this was the physical result of grieving over my relationship with September, which I felt, as she probably did, was ending because of the distance. I missed my family a lot too, and now that I was in Russia it was too expensive to contact them away from WiFi.

I felt very lonely in that damp tent.

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Such feelings led me to quit my previous – and first ever – trip to Southeast Asia. I was like a child in a strange place away from home for the first time and I let it get the better of me. But I was a very different person then; the burden of anxiety still occupied and controlled my thoughts. And to make things worse during that trip, I never really let myself rest, I didn’t really integrate with people or places around me – instead, I talked to my parents and friends every day.

But I had become much stronger since then. I made a list of pros and cons of doing this adventure alone and began to see that the positives outweighed the negatives. I realized where I was, what I was doing and how lucky I was. I was free. As I sat there in my sleeping bag, legs semi-crossed in the tight space as I hunched forward with nothing to lean on, the same two Muse albums playing from my phone because I had nothing else downloaded, wet grass around me, I recorded my change of mood in my journal:

“I am on a real adventure! I have dreamed about this for a long time and I am happy to be here. I don’t want to give up. Bad days are inevitable. I have wet feet, damp clothes, I am smelly, but I love it.” 

I stayed for another night before preparing to hitchhike 200km to my next Russian stop – Veliky Novgorod.

Packed up, I walked back to the M-road. I found a hitchhikers’ dream spot – next to a speed bump. With the cars being forced to slow down, I only had to wait 30 minutes. 160 kilometers were covered with a lovely couple who bought me a coffee – this kindness never ceases to make me a bit emotional. But where they left me would be a hitchhikers’ nightmare.

Russia has only one main road traversing the country, so when there are roadworks it causes a very long queue. I stood there for two hours as the cars passed which had been waiting in line for around the same mount of time, not wanting to stop again. But before too long, a man did stop for me and took me right to the front door of my next host.

Unfortunately, my host’s mother had died on my way to his house and he was not able to spend time with me. He said I could stay as agreed, but I felt a strong suggestion that he wanted me out of the way. I needed to leave earlier than I’d asked for anyway, because I had underestimated the size of Russia; the total of 3000km from there to Kazakhstan was the same distance I had covered from the UK to Russia. I needed to get a move on!

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

– On 1 June 2017, I left the UK to hitchhike alone around the world –

 

The Dry Bridge Market of Tbilisi

In the tough days of Soviet Union and the early time of independence, the Dry Bridge is where empty-pocketed people of Tbilisi would come to sell their possessions for some quick cash. For a few, it’s the same today, but for most it has become a livelihood.
 
The rich variety of odds and ends on sale are as diverse as Tbilisi itself.You can find anything in the world here: vinyls, crockery, old currencies, fancy jewelry, paintings, tools, unique treasures from the Soviet Union era war such as helmets, knives, belts, binoculars, cameras and much more.
 
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Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure
 
– On 1 June 2017, I left the UK to hitchhike alone around the world –
 
#hitching #hitchhiking #adventure #expedition #travel #worldtravel #aroundtheworld #wildcamping #wander #nomad #nomadic #digitalnomad #expeditionleader #solotravel #solo #hitchhiker #camping #wanderlust #wander #eurasia #asia #europe #ussr #sovietunion #tomsbighitchhikingadventure #tbilisi #tiflis #georgia #market #soviet

Estonia: Dropping Plans, Picking Possibilities – Hitchhiking Around the World Days 64-66

‘Estonia’ – before going for the first time, that melodic name painted pictures in my mind of scenes from children’s books read to me by my parents. We often create an over-romanticized idea of a new place, but the moment I crossed the border, my imagination materialized.

It is one of those magic places I thought didn’t really exist, and for the three days I spent with Marko and his little brother, we did the kinds of things you would expect in a work of fiction.

We walked for hours in the dense woodland behind his house, built a raft with trees we cut down, and made a huge campfire. Navigating through the forest, it was as if he was speaking to the trees the same way that I would speak to strangers when finding my way through a city.

He told me there was a risk of encountering wild boars and bears, and he even felt the need to tell me what to do in the event of encountering one of them. I’ve never had to climb a tree before, and I didn’t want to have to try.

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As we walked, we foraged berries to keep our energy, and picked mushrooms to cook that evening. I felt truly disconnected from the rest of the world; my phone didn’t even have any signal in some parts of the forest.

Marko pointed out a number of abandoned wooden houses to me – much of Estonia’s population left the country after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, leaving villages such as Marko’s either partially or completely empty. According to him, I could occupy one of them for free, given I contacted the owner and kept the place from falling apart because they still want to sell it.

Many Estonians have a sauna in their house – much is the same in Latvia and some part of Russia. In Marko’s house, it is what they use instead of a shower.

He invited me to use it, but before we went in he asked me if I was comfortable with what we were about to do. “Most foreigners aren’t,” he told me.

It turned out that they use it naked. I figured that if Marko and his brother were fine with it, then there was no need for me to feel awkward.

So, with a 27-year-old man and 11-year-old child, I stood naked in the hot, steamy room. I had a look, of course.

Marko and his brother left and I stayed behind to finish washing. When I walked out into the garden, I saw, what I think, was the gayest thing I’ve ever encountered. They were lying naked in the front garden as if they were in a religious painting.

“If you cannot walk around naked in your own front garden, then it is not a real garden,” Marko told me, as he urged me to join them.

Alas, I popped some underwear on.

My worries had been absent for most of the day, but in the evening they returned. Would I try to cover Russia in one month, or take it slow and find another way to get the visa for China? Deep down, I knew which choice I should pick but I couldn’t let myself think clearly and honestly, lest I leave myself vulnerable to failure.

That evening, Marko and I made a huge campfire behind his house. With the glittery indigo sky watching over us and mysterious mist snaking in-between the thick and tall pine trees, we left the world of introductory conversation behind and went beneath the surface to discuss some very personal subjects. Marko allowed me to truly let go of the seriousness of my situation, letting me listen to myself.

Gazing into the roaring fire as we spoke, the conversations we were having became independent of each other; I was interpreting what he saying differently to how he meant it, and vice versa.

Rushing over one month just to say I had traversed Eurasia, but missing everything in-between, seemed wrong now.

He told me that I should stay in Estonia for winter, gain residency and apply for the Chinese and/or Russian visa that way. My EU citizenship would make this very straight-forward, and I felt the lure of Estonia draw me to the idea. It felt right.

As the possibility materialized, I envisioned myself in a small cabin in the woods, keeping the fire going with the wood cut down in summer, snowed-in with just books and food.

I learned something from this – making big plans stresses me out, but making possibilities is exciting.

As the sun came up, Marko went to bed, but I went for a walk down the road near his house. It was as straight as a ruler and on either side of me were fields topped with pockets of mist which look like clouds. It was like I was in heaven.

The horizon at each end was shrouded by the similar clouds. As I started to walk, I realized I was inside a metaphor for my life – I am on an infinite road and completely free to walk it for as long as I want to. I moved forwards and the clouds continued to hide the horizon from me; there are always more things to see than I have time to.

I slept until midday and woke to the sun shining its golden rays into my room. My eyes opened willingly. The idea of spending winter in Estonia seemed too good to be true and I didn’t want to bring up conversations we had the night before, in case the fragile idea shattered while being carried into reality.  But as the day went on, things seemed to be just as relaxed as last night.

Marko told me, with enthusiasm, that he thought it was a great idea. He then told me that he doesn’t live in his house between November and March and that if I was to live in it, I would be doing him a favor.

It was the happiest I’d ever felt.

The next day, I left for Tallinn where I would pick up my passport which had been sent to me by the visa company without a Chinese visa. I had imagined receiving this passport following the failed application would upset me, but not getting a the visa turned out to be one of the best things to happen to me.

 

Estonia. Hope is the Opposite of Fear – Hitchhiking Around the World Day 60 – 62

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“Hope is the opposite of fear.”

The crisp, morning air from the half-opened window welcomed me into the new day and breathed hope into my problem.

Despite what had burdened me over the last few days, I was relaxed.  I made a big breakfast for Tambet and me, which we enjoyed on his balcony while further discussing my options for reaching the end of the continent without having to fly home first. Just having him there to talk to helped a lot.

He left for work and I threw myself back on the couch. I opened my email box to check if the visa agency had been successful in their enquiry at the Chinese consulate into whether they could conduct the visa interview over Skype, or over telephone, or any logical solution for somebody who is travelling away from their own country.

The subject line gave nothing away.

This is not a piece of fiction, therefore I cannot write whatever I want. So, of course, it was unsuccessful. I either had to fly home, staining the hitchhiking element of my trip, or the visa application would be refused.

I learned a valuable lesson on how to stay positive from this trip-threatening fiasco – Hope is the opposite of fear.

We get fearful when our mind focuses on negative possibilities, and hope is the result of thinking about the equally likely positive outcomes. The happy ones among us are those who focus on the latter. In most situations, things seem to play out not terribly, nor extremely well, but somewhere half-way.

Remaining hopeful before this news had kept me much calmer than I would have been without it. I think we worry because we feel like we can change things by doing so, but the reality is that we have very little to no control over what happens to us. Once we accept this, we are free be happy.

I needed to vent, badly, so I picked up the pillow which I had slept on so peacefully the night before, folded it in half and forced all of my frustration into it. I felt the veins on my eyes pop up, as well as the ones on the side of my head. Unsatisfied, I let out another scream. Almost finished, I let out a final one, which I felt shake the walls of the old, wooden apartment.

That night, Tambet and I went to a party at his friend’s country house. It was one of the final parties of the short Estonian summer. Few of them work during this season, because most of the year it is too cold to host such events.

They were very welcoming. Some of them spoke English very well, some of the not so much; they all learn it in school, but few of them get the chance to practice speaking.

My new friends sensed there was something troubling me and were empathetic. One of them suggested a new idea – going through Afghanistan and Pakistan. I considered it, seeing as my journey is all about questioning the dangers of the world presented by mainstream news, but after quite a lot of research I deemed it to dangerous.

We sat outside together around the campfire next to the woods and the mist-shrouded fields. Tambet explained what the design of the Estonian flag was based on; the three equally-sized horizontal bars – blue on top, black in the middle, followed by white – were right in front of me as I looked into the landscape. The dark blue sky was above the silhouette of the trees, which was based on the white mist.

The night ended as the sun came up, and we all wasted the next day. As the sun clung to the final hours of the day, Tambet and some friends took me to the main road to Tallinn, the capital city, but I didn’t need or want to make any progress today so I set up my tent.

Jack called me that evening to discuss my current situation. He presented a new idea: I still had a Russian visa in my passport which hasn’t been used yet, why not just go around China? I did some quick calculations to find that if I averaged an achievable 400 kilometers per day, I could make it within my 30-day visa. Could I really traverse the largest country in the world in that tight time-frame? Could I really go for a month without resting? Where would I sleep?

I spent the rest of the evening with my map, before falling into a half-excited slumber.

 

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Hitchhiking Around the World Day 59

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We all experience, at least once in our lives, the feeling of being unable to get out of bed because what we must face that day is something we don’t want to accept the reality of; if the very reality of something is too hard to process, then it is usually, to us, quite terrible. The sunlight diffusing through the fabric of my tent was unwelcome as it illuminated my hiding place from the problems ahead of me. As it forced my eyes open, I didn’t feel tired, but nevertheless went back to sleep to escape for just a while longer. I continued to do so until getting too hot to be in my sleeping bag, and having to face reality.

I felt physically and mentally weak. It must have been because I was hungry, but I didn’t feel it; my mind was occupied by something worse.

I caught the smell of the fear-inducing garlic sauce, which I had stupidly stored upside-down in my backpack and had opened over some of my kit the night before. I quarantined the affected items, luckily nothing that couldn’t be cleaned, and packed everything else away separately. That was one hurdle over with, now to move on to the next – Reaching Estonia.

The road in Latvia on which I now stood had low traffic, but I didn’t have any room to be worried about how long I could be waiting. Thankfully, it wasn’t for very long. A very serious Russian-looking man took me 1/3 of the way. He kept asking me if he could have my email address, to make “a business proposal” I would be interested in. I didn’t give him my real one.

As he let me out and drove away, the cursed glass garlic sauce bottle decided to fall out of my backpack’s side-pocket and shatter on the road. I begrudgingly picked up the bigger pieces and once again had the sauce on my hands. It was like closure when I threw the debris in the bin; now I could move on.

I was now only 100km from the border with Estonia, but the roads that go to border crossings, as I have learned the hard way, see very few cars going all the way.

My mind was somewhere else that day, and an hour passed by in what seemed like minutes. A truck approached, with an Estonian number plate, but I didn’t have hope for it stopping because trucks seldom do once they’re moving; they are going too fast to stop in good time. But after he passed, I heard brakes screeching and gravel crunching – “no way!” I whispered to myself, with a little bit of happiness restored.

He spoke no English, and I made a poor attempt to speak Russian, and we settled on comfortable silence after a few minutes. He took me all the way to Tartu, where I was to stay with my next Couchsurfing host, Tambet, for a few nights.

I now had a small walk into the center of the city where I would meet Tambet in a few hours’ time. I couldn’t follow my GPS, because my phone was very nearly out of battery.  Instead, I used common sense and followed the main flow of traffic. I also couldn’t check my messages as regularly as I’d have liked, to see when he was free, but he told me “around 8pm,” so I checked once an hour.

I spotted a supermarket and, now that I had calmed down a bit, felt hungry again. I almost swallowed the sandwiches whole.

I looked up to the clear, blue sky and actually prayed for my visa application to come through. There was still hope – the visa agency was going to ask the embassy if there was any way around going to London for an interview. Deep down I knew it was almost impossible, but the hope kept me from flying home.

I caught a glimpse of myself in a car window. I looked miserable. I felt worse.

As I sat on a bench outside the shop, an elderly man approached me and curiously asked me some questions in Estonian. Despite being in Estonia, and speaking with an Estonian man, I expected him to speak English with me. I felt bad about that, but I can’t learn all the languages of all the countries I go through during this adventure.

Many people, including myself, were worried that, on this trip, I would be alone and when faced with problems such as the one on my doorstep now, I wouldn’t have anyone to help me. Thankfully, when one travels, there are always people who want to help, especially when you travel alone (and are as good-looking as me). Never on this journey have I felt truly alone, and never have I not had anyone to talk to and help me through tough times. Tambet asked me if I was okay when I met with him that evening, to which I replied “no, not really.”

We talked about it, and he reassured me that there is always hope, and that my problem wasn’t as bad as I perceived it to be. He was a good friend and said I could stay for longer that we had agreed, if I needed to. We came up with a few possibilities to get around the China visa problem: One was to fly back home to the UK, get the visa, and return to where I flew from; another was to go very quickly through Russia, the largest country in the world, covering 10,000km (or 400km/day), which was possible within my one month visa; we also speculated that I could go south into Africa, or backwards to America and reach Singapore that way; finally, we realized I could stay in Estonia and gain residency (the only requirement to apply for a Chinese visa outside of your home country). With all these possibilities being thought up over the course of an evening, I felt good again. And the next day, I felt excited to get out of bed.

 

 

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The Day it All Went Wrong – Latvia Part 2/2 – Hitchhiking Around the World Days 51 – 58

“Not only had I been punched in the stomach, now I had been kicked in the balls, too.”

I had been in Latvia for a week and experienced the capital city, Riga. Now I wanted to see somewhere that wasn’t a tourist magnet – somewhere in the countryside, somewhere which would show me the ‘real’ Latvia. I checked all of the small villages on Couchsurfing and found a host in a town called Saldus, 200km to the West. My host said he could pick me up from Riga and drive me straight there. This time, I remembered not to complain about how easy things are.

It wasn’t much to write about, just a small Latvian town, but my host family were very welcoming.

Next was Jelgava, another small city in the lush green countryside to the East. Antra and Peter were very hospitable, and I felt very guilty receiving free food and beer for the two days I stayed with them. They refused anything from me, but I managed to slip a bottle of wine on to the table with a ‘thank you’ note the morning I left.

Augusta (my host in Riga) sent me a message telling me I had forgotten my army mug. I couldn’t leave it behind, because it was, and still is, one of the most important pieces of equipment on my kit list – it can be used as a tea mug, or a cooking pot, or to boil unsafe water. It is also indestructible – I have even used it to hit tent pegs into hard earth. Luckily, I had to go in that direction to get to Estonia, so I paid her a visit.

It was nice to see her again but she couldn’t talk for long, so I only stayed for a quick cup of tea. If I would have known what was going happen that evening, I would not have left her apartment.

Ahead of me was the long walk out of Riga, which ended up being about 18km (4.5 hours of walking). It was sharp, sodden and spirit-damaging weather; I even had to set up my tarp a couple of times to avoid downpours. Towards the end of the tummy-rumbling drudge, I found a business park which I nabbed Wi-Fi from. ‘Why not check my notifications?’ I thought. ‘My Chinese visa is due today’.

Opening my email inbox, I saw, in block capitals, an email from the visa agency I was using to get the visa to China. ‘URGENT – INTERVIEW REQUESTED’, read the subject line. As my heart began to repeatedly smack the inside of my rib cage in an ever-increasing fit of panic as if it were trying to free itself, and as I realized what those capitalized words meant for my journey, I opened the message.

“Dear Mr. Day,

I have tried to contact you over the phone but was not successful.

We have got a problem with your Chinese visa. Your application was successfully submitted on the 13th of July, so your visa was due today. However, when our courier came to collect it, he was told by the visa center that the Consulate selected you for an interview [in person, in London]. Unfortunately, we are not sure what the reason is, as the Consulate does not explain the nature of it.

The interview can be attended any working day between 9:30 and 11 am. Could you get in touch with us confirming when you can attend the interview, so we could book it for you?”

I had planned for almost anything which could go wrong, but for this I had nothing.

I had no idea what I was going to do.

I had expected it to be issued today and to be in my hands within a week, so I could have crossed into Russia and continued East.

I was stunned.

The confusion quickly wore off and became panic at the realization that my trip was most likely over.

I hadn’t even made it out of Europe yet!

I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.

I was on my own, too; nobody was there to reassure me.

I could feel my journey crumbling like a dry mud hut under heavy rain, and I needed a friend. I called Jack, but he could only talk for a few minutes. I couldn’t call my Mum or Dad, because I didn’t want to worry them. And I couldn’t call September, because I knew that hearing her voice would make me return to the comfort of home.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I caught a ride with some very friendly people, who of course were asking me about my trip. ‘Singapore?!’ they asked in amazement, when I told them my end destination (at the time), but I didn’t say it with enthusiasm anymore, because I no longer believed it to be true.

Defeated, I carried myself into a woodland and lazily set my tent up. I was too stressed to feel hungry, but I knew I must be after the hike, so I boiled some rice. Earlier, I had bought a bottle of garlic sauce to treat myself to some flavor and, inevitably, that evening was the one that fate had chosen to open it inside my bag. It was stored upside-down and, as I lifted it out, the lid came loose and the garlic liquid engulfed the contents of my backpack like a flash flood. Not only had I been punched in the stomach, now I had been kicked in the balls, too.

‘One problem at a time’, I told myself.

Shortly after, I realized I didn’t even have any cutlery – I must’ve left it behind with one of my hosts. So, with my penknife, I shoveled in a few mouthfuls of garlic-flavored rice, before giving up and retreating to my sleeping bag, which now acted as a barrier from my newly-dealt problems.

Maybe it was all a bad dream.

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Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

– On 1 June 2017, I left the UK to hitchhike alone around the world –

 

 

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Latvia Part 1/2 – Riga. Hitchhiking Around the World Days 43 -50

“…We always remember the past better than it was at the time.”

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Independence Monument, Riga, Latvia

Leaving Lithuania

I choose to walk out of cities – and everywhere I stop, for that matter – because of my rule to circumnavigate the planet without paying for transport. This restricts me to either walking, hitchhiking, or if someone is kind enough, I am allowed to take any mode of transport. I don’t see this as a grueling feature of the adventure, however; I enjoy walking, because I get to take a lot more of the place in. Paying for transport is great, but you miss a lot of the experience. You see the best bits, yes, but that’s like rushing to the last page of a book, and saying ‘I know what happens in this story’.

My destination was now Latvia, and the 10km walk out of Vilnius presented me with a closing view of Lithuania – the beautiful, untouched-by-Soviet-Union center, which blended like watercolor to the grey, standard-issue concrete tower blocks which are the same almost everywhere across the former USSR.

Before I left, I made a couple of vegetable baguettes – I tend to eat things like this while on the road because they are very cheap to make, healthy, lots of energy and a bonus is that they taste great.

I was now at the start of a 300km journey. I only had to wait for 10 minutes before by first car pulled in. He was, in fact, going all the way to my destination, but he would be picking up 4 people where he was to leave me. Not a bad start!

With 150km traveled, I felt proud of what I had already achieved. The road was now much emptier than what I had been used to; the flow of traffic was now a small stream on the lower course of a river, which I had reached down the mighty river of Western Europe

Into Riga

I was there for about an hour before a quirky Latvian man pulled in, who claimed he had just driven all the way from Scotland in the last 36 hours. I couldn’t quite understand his reason for doing this, but I gathered it was something about having to sell his car here, because its easier than swapping the steering wheel over to the other side. I think he was a bit mad.

He took me to Riga though, and all I had to do now was walk to my next host’s apartment. It was another 8km, and I sent her a message to say I would be there at 21:40. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t just get on a bus, and my reply of ‘my challenge is to draw a line around the planet, which is unbroken by paid transport’, seemed a bit silly even to myself, given I would be walking for 2 hours, opposed to getting on a bus for 20 minutes for around the same price of the food I’d burn off. But this is my challenge, and, as mentioned, I do enjoy it really.

Walking 10km out of Vilnius, and 8km in to Riga required more energy than I had digested from those vegetable baguettes, and all I could find when hunger struck was a Spar store. I bought their own brand chocolate cookies, which happened to be the same ones I used to buy in Falmouth. I crunched the first, and as I chewed the crunchy-but-soft goodness, and the flavor made the connections to memories in my brain, I was transported back to the small Cornish town, and back to a time when everything was great (at least as I remember it, we always remember the past better than it was at the time). The chocolate cookies were delicious, and a much needed energy boost, but remembering a golden time than was now over made me feel low, and my stomach got heavy with sadness. Not wanting to dwell, I moved forward.

My new host’s name was Augusta, she was 27 with ginger hair. I arrived at her and received an over-enthusiastic welcome and tour of the flat. We settled in together watching YouTube videos, eating cheese and drinking red wine.

The next day, she showed me her city which was yet another beautiful Baltic capital. With a population of just 2 million, there was a lot of room to move around in and Augusta found it hard to comprehend my description of how cramped London is.

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The city was similar to Vilnius in the respect that it has remained untouched architecturally in the center, but, as I was walking in the previous evening, there were nothing but worn down, defeated, concrete tower blocks left behind from Soviet times. Augusta told me all about how the Soviet Union poisoned Riga, and the more I heard, the more I was shocked at how evil the whole regime was.

Any word of freedom, speaking foreign languages, or reading forbidden books (anything not published in Russian in Soviet times), could and probably would get you kidnapped, interrogated, and maybe even exiled to Siberia and/or executed. It was so easy to slip up, the people who valued their lives dared not even think about such things. KGB agents were sent to befriend people, and learn their deepest secrets, opinions and plans.

We visited a building which operated as a KGB interrogation place and prison. People were brought in, stripped, searched and violated. They could spend years here. The red carpets echoed ghostly screams from just 25 years ago, and were put there to absorb the inevitable blood stains. The cracked wall tiles looked like they had been put there deliberately to make it a set for a horror film, and the eerie, foreboding light seemed intentional

We left (thankfully of our own accord) and I realized how lucky I was, to have been born in the year and in the country I was. ‘How easily could I have been one of the victims here?’ I thought. I moved on without thinking too much about it. As we walked down the street, the damage of these times was still visible in the sad, defeated eyes of the older generation.

Things lightened up later that day, when I had a bit of fun at the expense of others. I have been told that when people meet and don’t speak the same language as one another, it is polite to speak a language which everyone can understand. So, since I can’t speak Latvian, Augusta and her sister always spoke in English. Well, when I was in the room they did, but as soon as I stepped out the door they would switch back to Latvian. I mention this, because the day I noticed it. I decided to test it. I walked out of the room, and back in, and back out again, and then back in. Every time, they would switch languages, almost mid-sentence one time. I giggled to myself menacingly each time I went out. Sorry, Augusta, if you read this.

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

– On 1 June 2017, I left the UK to hitchhike alone around the world –

Hitchhiking Around the World: Days 41 and 42

– On 1 June 2017, I left the UK to hitchhike alone around the world –

“I began to feel like I’d had enough of the trip for now; I’d been going for over 6 weeks already, and that was the longest I’d ever been away from home. Maybe it was time to go back for a bit, and resume my trip at a later date. But I realised I owed it to myself, after the struggles I had already endured, not to waste what I’d achieved by simply giving up.”

Once the Chinese visa application had been posted, I had already been in Kaunas for 6 days and had nothing else to do or see. I was, however, exhausted; the stress of this thing – rushing to make a travel itinerary in two days, making fake flight and hotel bookings and having to borrow a few thousand pounds to do so, and worrying it might not work out and cause the trip to be a failure – had worn me out again, undoing 5 nights of full, deep, and undisturbed rest. I was unsure if I should stay another night in Rima’s apartment or to go to Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city. I went to the supermarket to restock the things which I had used, such as cooking oil and milk. As I walked along the isles, I found myself picking up some beers and snacks, and with a grin I realized I wasn’t going anywhere tonight.

I aimed to leave at midday, which became 2pm, then 3pm (for certain!) and then 4pm. I made myself one final coffee and said when I finish it, then I would have to leave. Rima then bought some pizza from a place down the street, so I ended up staying for another hour and a half. ‘Will I ever really leave’? I thought. I knew it was an easy trip to Vilnius; just 100km, perhaps one lift. But I was finding it so difficult to get going. I had stopped for too long and now it was difficult to get going again. I had a comfy bed, electricity, internet, gas, cooking facilities, and even a bathroom! Now I was going back to my usual way of traveling – either sleeping on roadsides or in cheap, dirty hostels. I began to feel like I’d had enough of the trip for now; I’d been going for over 6 weeks already, and that was the longest I’d ever been away from home. Maybe it was time to go back for a bit, and resume my trip at a later date. But I realised I owed it to myself, after the struggles I had already endured, not to waste what I’d achieved by simply giving up.

I stalled some more time away from myself by writing my diary, but I quickly updated it, and once again had no excuse to stay. Rima went back to work, and I sat there on my phone pretending to myself to be doing something. It took me until 17:30 to find the will to grab my bag, say goodbye to Rima, and walk to the road.

It was another straight-forward lift to the capital, once I actually got going. I walked to the highway which was a few minutes away and held my sign up. A man stopped the car after a few dozen others had passed, and took me all the way there.

Although I had already spent a week in Lithuania, I knew almost nothing about its history, which was still eerily present around me; so I asked my new friend. After a few questions, I began to understand why the Lithuanians I had already seen were so cold – The minimum salary here is 350EUR per month, which is just enough to survive on, but not to live on. The government takes 50% of this salary, too. People constantly have worries over money, not just once or twice a month, but every single day. It’s no wonder I hadn’t seen anybody smile. People were snappy, aggressive and miserable. Rightfully so.

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He then began telling me about what life was like in the times of the Soviet Union – How shop shelves were sparsely stacked, meat was rarely sold, and meals consisted of mainly flavorless rice or potato. Green beans made an appearance around Christmas time, if you were lucky. And a banana was like something from a fairy tale.

But independence from the USSR didn’t bring much positive change; Russia cut off the energy supply, meaning Lithuania had to begin fending for themselves after being dependent for such a long time. Financially, nowadays, they are in shambles. Basic things like repairing roads and pavements have been pushed to the back of the line and no new buildings have been erected in the last 25 years in Kaunas.

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I checked in to the new hostel and collapsed into my bed until sunrise. The next day as I made breakfast, I felt an unfriendly atmosphere in the kitchen, so I ended up being just as reserved. But later on in the evening, three Ukrainian men who I thought were unfriendly (and a bit scary!) invited me over for Vodka and Borsch (a kind of potato, tomato and meat soup). How could I have been so quick to judge them? They were lovely! They filled me up with their food, which was helped down with copious amounts of vodka. And it was here I learned how to let them know you want to stop drinking, because you don’t have their alcohol tolerance. You don’t say ‘no, thank you’, you simply don’t drink the shot in front of you, because if you do, they will fill it up regardless you say.

Because I had eaten so much food (I felt like an over-inflated balloon), the vodka didn’t hit me until I lay down in my bed. An enormous grin occupied my face as I lay there giggling to myself. I wondered what the other people in the room were thinking, but I was too pissed to care. I finished my night by sending various memes, which I found either hilarious, profound, or both at the time, to my friends and family.

The city itself was very nice – every other building seemed to be a church. The architecture was like that from the Disney universe – exactly what I had expected from a place called something so melodious as ‘Lithuania’. Despite being a capital city there was a lot of room to move around in. It surprised me, having grown up thinking London was something to base other capitals on.

Into the Former USSR and the Chinese Visa Crisis; Hitchhiking Around the World: Days 34 – 40

– On 1 June 2017, I left the UK to hitchhike alone around the world –

“About $5500 left my account that day.”

Up until this week of the adventure I had started to tell people that it was becoming a bit too easy – I was staying for free with Couchsurfing hosts for 2-3 nights while getting cooked for, then hitchhiking a bit, and repeating. I learned very quickly, after this complaint, that I should never say something is too easy.

I arrived in Kaunas, Lithuania after a non-taxing 10-minute wait in Suwalki. The driver took me directly to the city center where I met my next host, Rima. She told me first that she had been called away to Norway on business and that she wouldn’t be back for a week, but I could still stay. She introduced me to her flat, which had various passwords written on sticky-notes, money lying around and various other things that I and others from Western Europe would be shocked by. ‘How can you be so trusting of someone you have known for less than an hour?’ I asked, puzzled.

‘If you want to steal my spare pens, or loose change, be my guest!’ she replied.

I noticed after this explanation that she had everything required for a comfortable life, but nothing more. I realized throughout my stay in Kaunas that everyone here has the same. I observed the view from the kitchen window, as Rima prepared some oil-soaked Lithuanian food – The troubled, ash-stained clouds dominated the sky and blocked the sun from shining optimism into the view; concrete tower blocks, which seemed to mere pencil outlines against this sky, stood as cold reminders of the very recent national hardship, consequent of the Soviet Union. Over the coming two weeks I spent in Lithuania, I only saw one person smile, and that was Rima.

Rima was different to the other Lithuanians I met; like a small bubble attached to a much larger one, she had a sense of humor and a calm, friendly voice. I was sad to see her leave the next morning, but I now had six whole days to myself in a private flat with food, water, electricity and internet; it was quite an upgrade from sleeping on the roadsides.

The Chinese Visa Crisis

The visa for china, which I didn’t yet have, was an essential part of my trip to reach Singapore; there was no way around the fourth largest country in the world (apart form going through Afghanistan), which was an enormous land block between Europe and South-East Asia. The following morning.

So, why didn’t I just get the visa before I left the UK? Well, the Chinese government, for reasons I will probably never understand, set two very restrictive rules. The first is that you cannot apply for the visa more than 3 months before your proposed date of entry – an impossible time restriction for me; second is that you must apply in your country of residence.

So, my plan was to get a second passport, through my Irish father, post it home while still carrying my main British one, have someone apply on my behalf, get the visa, and have it posted back to me. It seemed like a good idea – well, it was the only workable option I had, apart from returning home. Everything was riding on a second passport being issued in time. The estimated time for this to happen was 6 weeks, and I was brought back down to earth like a bungee jumper who’s cord had snapped when I opened the internet on my first morning alone. The passport wouldn’t be issued for another 8 weeks, by which time I’d hoped to be about to cross the border.

The pixels on the screen which illuminated the contrast in colour to describe the letters and numbers to me which said I’m fucked made my heart drop into my stomach. ‘Well, this is it,’ was my initial reaction, ‘I’ve failed’.

Over the hours of that morning, I went from an initially knee-weakened state of pale, lightheadedness to one of hope – I could still apply for the visa if I posted my British passport home. I still had to cross into Latvia and Estonia to get to the Russian Border, but not carrying it shouldn’t be a problem because I was still with in the European Union’s Schengen area, which has no crossing points on its borders. I had one month before my Russian visa started, and that was enough time, I figured.

The next two days were spent completing the application, which took far more work than expected. Not only did I need to send my passport, some photos, and money, but a full itinerary for my double-entry journey, including proof of flights to and from the UK and hotel bookings for every night of stay.

I wasn’t going to take any fucking planes, or stay in hotels, but I had to pretend, so I made some bookings which I cancelled immediately after printing the confirmations. About $5500 left my account that day, and would take up to a month to be returned. It was very scary playing with that amount of money. And most of it wasn’t even mine – I had to ask a lovely lady called Merce, with whom I used to work; I think she saved the trip with the $3000 she lent me. My mother also lent me a $800, and to both ladies I am extremely grateful.

Everything was prepared, so I sealed everything in an envelope and ran through the heavy rain and thunder storm to the post office, which was shut because of a national fucking holiday. Resisting the voice in my head telling me to punch the window in, I returned the next day to send it via the fastest possible service.

All I could do now was hope.

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A Near-Death Experience: Hitchhiking Around the World Days 32 and 33

“I thought that the tall grass would be a safe, well-hidden place for sleeping in, but I was forced out of my sleeping bag just after sunrise by a man driving a lawnmower inches away from my tent.”

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I spent a total of 3 days in the small town of Konin. It was my first experience of Couchsurfing, which I have been using throughout my trip as a way of meeting local people and learning about what life is really like in the places I visit.

Marcin and his family were very hospitable. They showed me around their town and surrounding area, and even paid for my bus tickets. Thanks again!

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The next stop on my hitchhiking adventure was Suwalki, Poland’s coldest town in the North-East. The border town would be my final break in Poland before entering Lithuania. I arranged to stay with another Couchsurfing host, Julia, and told her that I would arrive in just one day.

It was about 500km there, which was achievable, if I didn’t make any mistakes, with the summer daylight hours I had been blessed with.

 

Mistakes were made

I stood at the outskirts of Konin, where the settlement stopped and road carried on into the emptiness, with the damp grey sky teasing me with the chance of rain. Traffic was low and I realized I was already in a difficult situation.

I held up my sign and the drivers just passed by. They didn’t even acknowledge me, which is always a bad sign. I waited for over an hour before the woman pictured below finally pulled in. She wasn’t even going on the motorway but she took me there anyway. She then went on to ask drivers for me using her female charm, quickly securing me a lift to Warsaw.

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I was on the highway now, and it felt as if my luck had returned. My new driver, Pawel, even bought me a coffee, some food and a bottle of water. He had traveled in the same way that I am now, and we talked about how, on journeys like ours, one’s mood can quickly change from an overwhelming high to a crippling low. During this ride, I was on a high, and I was about to prove our observation.

He left me somewhere with a lot of traffic, and I felt positive; It was somewhere I’d normally wait for no more than 20 minutes. But I stood there, looking like an untalented street-performer, for over two hours. If you wait for an abnormal amount of time, then you are most likely doing something wrong. Perhaps the cars were going too fast, or I wasn’t visible enough. regardless, I decided to walk on in the hope of finding a petrol station.

The pavement blended into the road and I was now putting myself at risk. Luckily, someone pulled in because he thought the same; I wasn’t even putting my thumb out.

We passed a large service station, which would have been perfect to continue with, but I became greedy and decided to go on with him. He took me a total of about 50km, but left me somewhere with almost non-existent traffic.

I had to illegally walk on the motorway. After an anxious and exhausting 3 hours, a petrol station finally came into view. My excitement quickly turned to distress when I realized it was as underused as the road. It was old, badly-kept and receding into nature. ‘I could be here for days,’ I realized.

But there are always people in every flow of traffic who have hitchhiked, and they will always stop if they’re going the same way; it’s just a case of how long you have to wait. This theory kept me hopeful, and before too long I was taken back to the big service station I’d stupidly missed the first time round.

I was back in it, only having lost about half a day. I had to get going because my host in Suwalki was calling me, wondering where I was. I got picked up fairly quickly again and taken another 100km.

The sun set as we approached my final hitchhiking spot. I now only had about an hour of sunlight left. Nobody stopped, and I finally accepted I wasn’t going to make it in time. I begrudgingly messaged my host, telling her that I wouldn’t arrive for the special meal she’d prepared for me. With that, I retreated to some tall grass on the roadside to setup my tent for the evening. I reflected on the day, recognizing that it was just a bad one. It wasn’t over yet though, tomorrow would be just as bad!

 

The next day

I thought that the tall grass would be a safe, well-hidden place for sleeping in, but I was forced out of my sleeping bag just after sunrise by a man driving a lawnmower inches away from my tent. I’m assuming he saw me, because his trail indicated he deliberately steered around me.

I waited at the same spot as last night for a further 2 hours before thinking, yet again, that I was doing something wrong. I walked 5km back on myself to a petrol station which was, again, very empty. There were, however, a few trucks coming in, about one every 30 minutes. I was still very scared to ask people for a lift at this point of the adventure, but it was my only chance.

A truck with Lithuanian number plate pulled in first. ‘ I could be out of here’, I thought. I enthusiastically asked him to take me, in my best Russian, but he just said ‘No’. This went on for about 3 hours.

Finally, another driver with a Latvian number plate pulled in. He could see how desperate I was, and he laughed at that. Out of pity, he agreed to me to Suwalki.

It was a short ride of about an hour, and I waited for my host to finish work in a small café. Out of nowhere, a menacing rainstorm took over the skies. Wind seemed to challenge the structural integrity of the building and the rain forced people off the streets. When I met my host, she told me an annual storm had arrived, and that I was very lucky to have gotten picked up when I did.

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Getting Lucky in a McDonald’s – Hitchhiking Around the World Day 27-32

On 1 June 2017, I left the small English town of Falmouth to hitchhike alone around the world.

After a month-long 3100km sprint from Falmouth, I had arrived in Poland and I needed to rest. I found a cheap hostel which was empty and slept 10-12 hours every night and 2-3 during the day. Despite this, I was still very tired when I left. I wasn’t sure why at the time, but now I know; hitchhiking means you are always thinking, worrying, assessing and deciding. ‘Do they know where I want to get out?’ ‘Will they let me out?’ ‘Are they dangerous?’ ‘What would I do if they turned out to be? Even though I am standing and sitting most of the time, it is exhausting. Exhausting isn’t a good enough word; most nights are spent outside and I never properly rest when I’m illegally sleeping outside of a motorway service station.

When I wasn’t sleeping, I spent some time taking the place in. This new country felt very different to Germany, where I’d just come from. I noticed a lot of tower blocks and other buildings that felt very Soviet influenced – cold, concrete, communist and created equally. Poland used to be under Russian command and some buildings had been painted with bright colors to cover this, but they were still ugly.

Despite the ex-soviet introduction, the city was beautiful; it was colorful and full of creativity and inspiration.

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After 3 days, I was (kind of ) ready for the next push to Konin, a small town that travelers rarely go to. I’m not a fan of cities. They’re busy, uncomfortable, dirty, expensive and I don’t feel that they should represent the country. When people say they’ve been to England and have only visited London, I don’t feel they’ve really experienced my country. I figured then, when I visit other countries, that I would avoid capital cities. I chose to miss Warsaw.

I walked for a couple of hours out of Wroclaw, new cardboard sign in hand, and began hitching. I got picked up within a few seconds by a man named Patryk. He was about 27, friendly, talkative. He could speak English very well and told me about the difficulty of life in Poland; the living wage is too low and the cost of living too high. He gets paid around £377/month and rents a room that costs about the same. I finally understood why so many Polish emigrate to places like Germany and England. And it’s no wonder the people seem so cold and paranoid.

19601335_1736175380012996_3187885278488409258_n.jpgAs we approached the place where he had to leave me, a deep blue storm was fast approaching with its menacing clouds. When Patryk dropped me off, it began to rain quite heavily. Luckily I was right next to a McDonald’s, where I rushed in to get a coffee. I stayed there for a few comfortable hours, writing my diary and sipping coffee in the warmth. It’s a hard life.

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I’m not sponsored by McDonald’s, but their restaurants are safe places for me while hitchhiking; no matter where I am in the world, there’s always WiFi, electricity, warmth, seats and coffee. If I ever need a place to find my bearings and I see the golden arches, I hate to say it, but I know I’ll be okay.

It took so long for the rain to pass, that when I finally emerged from the building it was already sunset. I found a roadside camping spot and passed out for another 12 hours. The next day I was picked up promptly and taken the rest of the way to Konin.

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German Prostitutes and Another Swollen Face; Hitchhiking Around the World Day 20 – 27

– On 1 June 2017, I left the small English town of Falmouth to hitchhike alone around the world – 

There are two types of fun. Type 1 is something that you thoroughly enjoy while it’s happening; you don’t want it to end, like enjoying a bottle of wine with friends. Type 2 is something that makes you miserable at the time, but looking back later you realize you did it.

I’d experienced mostly type 2 fun so far on my adventure and I was expecting these next  seven days to be straightforward, enjoyable and uneventful. But following the tone of the last few blog posts, the week ended up being yet another fiasco.

I had been staying in the Netherlands with Dylan, my old roommate, and the rest of the Verkuil family. They washed my damp, stench-wrenching clothes in the washing machine (a lovely change from rivers and public bathrooms), fed me and showed me around without asking for anything in return. It’s people like these who make this trip possible.

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Now I was continuing East to Germany and Mr. Verkuil was kind enough to drive me to the petrol station on the day I left.

Avgun (below) picked me up straight away. He was a very talented rapper and even rapped in front of me, which was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen! Originally he came from Albania, Europe’s poorest country. He knows what it is to have nothing and bought me lunch, dinner and drinks throughout the day. He was only planning to go to Uterecht, a relatively short hop, but we really got on so he made the decision to just carry on driving. He lives every day not knowing how it will turn out. It’s the best way to live, I think. This drive was definitely type 1 fun. If everyone I met were like him, this trip would be easier and cheaper than taking a plane.

I took a photo of his holding the two signs I made for the day (most people don’t travel across the country and holding up a ‘Deutschland’ sign too early would’ve put people off). He took me so far that these two signs were made redundant. I could have gone even further with him but the offer of having a German prostitute bought for me was a bit too much.

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A Detour into Denmark.

We crossed in to Germany and Avgun left me at the first service station. He made sure that I was happy with the spot before leaving. It was now after sunset so I retreated into the nearby woodland to spend the night.

My first lift of the day was difficult to catch. Nobody was stopping and after an hour I started to walk towards the fuel pumps. Luckily, a man slowed down just after I put my sign down to ask where I wanted to go.

“Berlin, what about you?” I replied.

“I’m actually heading to Denmark. Wanna come?” He queried.

It was an 800km detour and a new country. “why the hell not?!” I said with a grin.

We really bonded during the long but captivating drive and conversation and got to Copenhagen after the late-summer sun had already set. I couldn’t find an emergency Couchsurfing host and the cheapest hostel was $30/night! He knew the struggle and helped me to search for a well-hidden camping spot.

It’s often difficult, having to part ways with drivers. You get to know someone in a different way when you know you only have a few hours together. The façade we all endeavor to put up, the masks we wear to survive are removed and you can talk about things you wouldn’t normally mention to even close friends; you can see people for who they really are.

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Back into Germany

The Danish seem to be happy people; they have enough money to not have to worry about it and there isn’t a big rich-poor divide. They cycle as much as Holland and share similarities in architecture. It was a short visit to their country, but I was happy enough with spending one day there since I hadn’t even planned to come in the first place.

I was able to leave Copenhagen with relative ease, getting picked up within a few minutes and making it about half way to the German border. That night, camping in-between two motorway lanes in the tall sharp grass, I experienced the moisture falling from the air as the air temperature fell. I was just in my bivvy bag, no tent, and I thought I had gotten caught in a rain storm. I put my tent up around me very shoddily, while half-asleep; I basically tucked it underneath me and put the walking pole up by my hips.

The next day, I got to the stop just before Berlin on the East side of Germany. I had made it across the country in just two days, despite the detour to Denmark.

I camped out at the service station before Berlin in a woodland spot behind the trucks. There were dirty nappies, condoms and needles around me and an army of aggressive mosquitoes. My mosquito head net and repellent didn’t do a thing and I now looked like I’ve been in a brutal fight. Type 2 fun. Luckily the bites didn’t really show up, because they were on my top lip underneath my moustache and spread symmetrically on my nose. My face throbbed but I didn’t look too much like a victim.

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I stood for over an hour at the exit to the service station but despite the hundreds of German cars surely going into the capital city, only about 3 polish cars passed me. This wasn’t good enough. I could be here all day, so I had to do what every British citizen dreads… Bothering someone by asking for help.

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At the beginning of this trip the idea of approaching people scared me, but now it was my only chance. Luckily, the first truck driver I asked said yes. He took me into Poland and to another truck stop where I quickly secured a lift to Wroclaw, where I would make my first break.

After a 3100km sprint from Falmouth, I sat there in the passenger seat and began to wind down. My eye lids became heavy, my eyes burned and, if I wasn’t following the map on my phone, I’d have passed out. I found a hostel for £4/night and talked to no one apart from the receptionist when I checked in. I slept from 100 years and eventually, after 3 days, ventured out to see the city.

Strange Men in the Night and a Swollen Face; Hitchhiking Around the World Day 13-20

On 1 June 2017, I left the small Cornish town of Falmouth to hitchhike alone around the world. 

“I was dirty, smelly, had empty stomach and two inflated insect bites on my face. I looked miserable. A man approached me as I was sitting against a wall in the street and tried giving me some change, thinking I was a homeless man.”

I had made it to France after a grueling and uncertain nine-and-a-half-hour wait at Dover, but I was now in mainland Eurasia. My first stop would be in the Netherlands with my old roommate Dylan (who I hitchhiked to Luxembourg with). From here it should be easy, I thought.

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The two men who were kind enough to take me for free across the sea left me at a service station just South of Calais. By this point, the sun was going down and I was knackered, so I decided to find somewhere to sleep for the night.

Walking out of the clean, shiny and well-stocked European-standard gas station I walked off down a once busy but now derelict single-lane road that followed the autoroute. I couldn’t immediately see anywhere suitable for sleeping; it was either thorny or too exposed. I found a few places, but they had empty sleeping bags in them, the ghostly result of the refugee crisis. After about 20 minutes I found an area of tall grass that was good enough.

As I lay there in my sleeping bag writing my diary I heard something in the distance. I turned my headlight off and looked up slowly to see three silhouetted figures walking about 400 meters away from me. I sunk back into the grass like a snake and waited. My anxiety increased as I thought I could hear footsteps getting louder and louder. What was I going to do now? Run away? The sound that I thought was footsteps turned out to be the sound of my vein on my temple rubbing against the inside of my nylon hood and as I got increasingly worried, that sound only got louder until I thought they were right next to me. I looked up and there was no one there.

What a knob.

I woke the next day with determination and excitement, which I carried with me back to the gas station. It took a couple of hours to find a lift because the bulk of the traffic was either tourists going to the UK or locals going to Calais. But before I knew it though I was in Belguim. Catching lifts along this road proved to be much easier than in the UK.

It got to 20:00, but, blessed with those long summer days, I could continue for another few hours. After a short while, a car with a Dutch number plate stopped and took me to the third country of the day.

In Western Europe it is illegal to hitchhike on the motorways themselves, so you have to hop between service stations.

It was all going smoothly until we missed the last gas station where we were supposed to part ways. He had to go to the East of the country and I to the West. This happens sometimes, you get engrossed in conversation or it doesn’t come in to view until it’s too late. It was all going well until this point. I didn’t know it, but I was about to endure yet another big struggle.

He left me outside a small Dutch village and with a thin flow of traffic, my chances of getting picked up here were slim. I had seen a service station on the way in so decided to walk to it.

After an hour, it came into view. I had to break the law to get to it, walking a hundred feet on the motorway. The cashier saw me walking through this tall grass from the darkness to get there and was very confused. I purchased some coffee and filled up my water and disappeared back into the night without an explanation.

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I was about to set up camp on the motorway when a police car pulled in next to me. I knew what they were going to say, so I played the stupid foreigner card pretending not to know it was illegal.

After being told to move on by the Dutch police I slept just off the motorway behind the gas station. I achieved 2 hours of interrupted sleep before sunrise at 5:30. I decided not to return to the same station at risk of getting into more trouble.

To add to my discomfort, I felt two insect bites beginning to swell up on my face. I followed the motorway using the back road which led me to Amersfoort. My phone had run out, so I couldn’t contact Dylan when I arrived. I had no food left and only had about a liter and a half of water. I arrived at the town center just as the church bells chimed for 7am but here nothing opens until 9am. I decided to carry on towards Alkmaar, 120km away.

I found a Shell garage where I got some pastry and filled up my water. I was dirty, smelly, had empty stomach and two inflated insect bites on my face. I looked miserable. A man approached me as I was sitting against a wall in the street and tried giving me some change, thinking I was a homeless man.

I ran out of water a few hours later and it was 26 degrees. My melting point, being half Irish, is 25. I walked on without reward hoping to find another petrol station. Failing, I sat under a tree and began to feel dizzy.

I tried hitchhiking using the traffic from Amersfoort, but it wasn’t working at all. People were just ignoring me, which is always an indication you will be there all day.

My only option was to walk on. I prayed to be gifted with a service station as I turned the corner. My prayer was answered.

Shortly after, I got picked me up and taken straight to Dylan’s front door. It’s amazing how your luck can change so quickly and unexpectedly.

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Being so close to the UK, I thought The Netherlands would be more similar. There are more bikes than people; each family of 4 has on average 6 bikes. There are dedicated cycle lanes, there are even some lanes where the “cars are guests.” The people here are thin and healthy and generally happier. I had no idea that there was a separate pedestrian lane, so I annoyed a few Dutch people on my first day.

In the first evening, I got on a bike and clumsily worked out the alternate braking system of turning the peddles backwards. I didn’t fall off, but Dylan found it pretty hilarious. It’s clear now why I’m not undertaking a cycling expedition.

 

 

Hitchhiking Around the World: Day 2–10

On 1 June 2017, I left the small Cornish town of Falmouth to hitchhike around the world.

“Your mother is right, kids. Brush your teeth!”

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Before leaving on this adventure, I needed to have a dental check-up. I’ve had a fear of the dentist since a root-deep filling went wrong 4 years before and because of this I hadn’t been for all of that time. My mother always used to tell me, “take care of your teeth, or they’ll fall out!” I never really believed her.

The appointment was arranged for 2 months before the leaving date. Enough time, I thought. It led to another deep filling, which seemed to be the end of it, but as the anesthetic began to wear off I knew something was wrong. Over the next few days the pain became unbearable and I had to call in sick to work. I thought it might settle on its own though and I didn’t want to phone the dentist again, in case they told me something I didn’t want to hear.

I lasted about a day of keeping it to myself. They said that I now needed “root canal treatment” which would take “at least month and cost around £600”. The money wasn’t the real problem here, the time was. I chose my June leaving date so that I could get through Russia before winter. The whole trip was now looking to be a failure before I’d even left England.

Shit.

I decided to bury my head in the sand again and leave in the hope that it would get better on its own. Who knows, maybe the experienced medical professional was wrong.

I was making excellent progress too, already reaching the end of the UK on the third day. I was almost ready to make the final distance to the ferry port to France, but I was now in too much pain to think about anything else. It was like a little girl screaming right into my ear. It was all I could focus on. Sometimes the pain did go away but whenever I was starting to enjoy this trip, it would come back.

The sobering realization came to me that, as I went on, the further from quality dental treatment I’d be. Something had to be done.

The trip was now, in the first few days, hanging by a half-sliced piece of string. Best case scenario I would be delayed by a week, worst case it could be months and using NHS services often involves long waits.

And where would I stay? There were no cheap hostels in this part of the country. I sent a message to all of my friends who lived in the area, but nobody could take me in. Would I camp for this unknown amount of time? Would I endure not only the pain of a swollen root, but put up with being smelly, cold and uncomfortable too?

Luckily my old job at a residential outdoor activity center, which I’d left a week ago, had kindly agreed to let me stay for free in a guest room. That was one less thing to worry about. I was just 15km from the place and I was committed to staying with my ‘never-paying-for-transport rule.’ I could have taken a bus and returned to the same spot, but the trip was barely surviving as it was and if I did this, that would have meant it falling apart.

So with that, I trudged through the light, British downpour for 6 hours. The cold discomfort and aching feet were a nice distraction from the shooting pain inside my mouth. I got there on a Friday night and as I lay in bed waiting for the dentist office to open on Monday I thought up the available options:

1- Give up

2- Postpone the trip until next year;

3- Following dental treatment, rush the first part of the trip (I already had the Russian visa issued and I would have to cover the rest of Europe in a matter of weeks); or

4- Have the tooth taken out

Option 2, I really couldn’t face. Not because of the embarrassment of leaving on a huge trip I’ve been telling everybody about for the past year only to make it as far as my workplace, it was because I would have hated myself for failing a once-in-a-lifetime-trip due to taking bad care of my teeth. Postponing for another year could mean never doing it at all. Who knows, maybe I’d get comfortable? Maybe accidentally start a family? No, it had to be now. There was only one other option: have the tooth taken out.

We always know when something is wrong for us, it stays in the back of our mind and slowly nags at us as we continue to ignore it. Having the tooth taken out was the wrong choice and I knew it deep down, but I wouldn’t let myself think it.

As Monday approached I finally said it out loud and the pressure of the problem eased. This allowed me to come up with a fourth idea: depending on how the treatment went, I could still continue the trip but at a slower pace. I could spend more time in Europe and when winter passed I could continue with the original plan. This option became the favorite. I called the dentist’s reception desk and got an appointment for Thursday morning.

The time went very slowly inside my temporary room. All of what I had been through over the last half-week had worn me out and I slept 9 hours every night, plus 3 hours some afternoons. How the hell was I going to last to the other side of the planet?

Everyone I used to work with was walking past the closed curtains. I didn’t want to see anyone. I was a brave adventurer now! But all I had done so far was make it as far as here. I did venture out after a few days though, which further weakened the feeling of my journey continuing.

On Thursday morning, I had the first meeting with the dentist. I walked in feeling hopeless, but also relieved to finally be confronting the issue.

I voiced my concern, asking “Do you know how long will it take?”

“…We’ll see,” he answered unhopefully.

He started working right away, removing the root and putting a temporary filling in place. After 30 minutes, he said “come back in 6 weeks, Mr. Day.”

Shit.

“Is there any chance you can do this a bit quicker? I have a flight to catch next week.” I asked, half-desperately.

“Oh, if that’s easier, come by tomorrow morning and I’ll finish it off.”

And it was that easy. Within a week, I’d dealt with my first problem of the expedition. The stories other people had told me might have been true, but I had gotten lucky. Very lucky. The root canal treatment was quick and painless and he even did it for free!

Your mother is right, kids. Brush your teeth!

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure: Day 1

On 1 June 2017, I left the small Cornish town of Falmouth to hitchhike alone to the other side of the world.

“…The magnitude of what I was attempting hit me like a stampede. I began to feel sick, but that could have been the hangover from my the night before.”

I knew the night before that, when I woke up, I wouldn’t want to leave. I’d talked about it for a year, but the time had really come. As the uninvited sun filled the room with its piercing rays and my eyes opened themselves, I found myself paralyzed in my bed. Back to sleep I went.

Falmouth in South-West England is where I blossomed from an anxiety sufferer to the man I am now. I have so many golden memories from that small seaside town that I’d struggled for a long time to leave it behind; those University years were the happiest I’d ever had, but they were over. To move on, I chose to leave from there on my solo hitchhiking adventure around the world; I would leave the old life to begin my new one as an Adventurer.

Never have I procrastinated as much as I did on that day. Finally, at 3pm, Jack, my last remaining friend there, and I walked out of his front door to the town center. This was the last time I’d see the place as it knew it. My throat knotted, and my legs stiffened. No quicker than we had to, we walked to the road going East. We took, what we thought was, a shortcut. When I pictured myself on the first day of a big, brave, life-changing adventure, I never imagined getting lost.

With my self-confidence knocked, it was time for Jack to leave me. When he disappeared around the corner, the magnitude of what I was attempting hit me like a stampede. I began to feel sick, but that could have been the hangover from the night before.

‘Who does this kind of trip?’ I thought to myself. ‘Only those explorers you see on TV. I’m not one of them! Behind me is safety. I can’t make it around the world alone!’

I couldn’t bring myself to put my thumb out; people stared as they rushed past in their cars. I felt like an untalented street performer. I couldn’t go forward, and I didn’t want to go back, so I sat down and broke out some biscuits. I looked at the whole route on my phone. This was the mistake I was making; nobody climbs a mountain in one big step. I zoomed in to the UK section and told myself to focus on that part for now. And with that, I felt just about able to carry on. I finally saw what was ahead of me with complete clarity: a mammoth, but achievable, challenge.

Like a depressed person struggling to get out of bed, I avoided putting my thumb out for as long as possible. I walked until there was no pavement, then I disconnected my mind from my body and watched my thumb go up. I got picked up right away. I was on my way!