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Hitchhiking - a method of travel that consists mostly of standing by the side of a road displaying some kind of gesture which indicates that you would rather be somewhere else, and that anybody passing in a motor vehicle should stop and pick you up. The type of gesture varies from place to place. In northern Europe and the USA it is normal to stick your thumb out; in southern and eastern Europe it's fairly acceptable to just hold your hand out, pointing vaguely down and away from yourself; and as you get further afield an upheld thumb may be considered the equivalent of a Harvey Smith or digitus impudicus1.

Sooner or later, if you get the gesture right, somebody may grasp your intention and feel well disposed towards the human race enough to actually help you on your way. Then again, they may not, and herein lies the fundamental weakness of hitchhiking as a mode of transport. It may be cheap, you may get to meet all kinds of interesting people you may not have met otherwise, but it's also hopelessly unreliable and you have very little control over anything. And after standing by the side of the road for a few hours it gets kind of annoying to have some joker - youthful males are the usual offenders - give you a gleeful thumbs-up as he powers past.

Why Hitchhike?

So why do people do it? Apart from it being the cheapest way to travel, of course, some do it because they have discovered that hitchhiking is a way of life and a unique way to meet and get to know other people. It is, for them, the ultimate manifestation of freedom. Another reason could be that standing by a roadside in the middle of nowhere - so close yet so far from all those people who drive past - takes you outside your comfort zone and places you in a new environment that's both scary and exhilarating.

The doyen of the hitchhiking 'community' was Jack Kerouac, who wrote a book called On The Road romanticising the idea of hitchhiking back in the 1950s. Since then many others have been inspired by his experiences, including one Douglas Adams. He is said to have been lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck one night, watching the stars going round after a hard day's hitchhiking, when it occurred to him that someone ought to write a guidebook for people hitching across outer space. The rest, as they say, is history.

Occasional 'self' moments are what hitchhiking is all about, going beyond your comfort zone, meeting people you wouldn't ordinarily meet, and being open to new experiences - whatever they may be. Actually getting somewhere is often incidental to the experience, nevertheless travel is the excuse for all this Zen stuff and if you want to get anywhere you have to try and swing the odds in your favour.

How to Go About It

The most important thing is to try to see the situation from the point of view of the car driver. Nobody wants a crash, a run-in with the police, or a beating, so try and ensure that nobody seeing you will think that that's what's in store if they stop for you.

If you look non-threatening, the sort of person that can be picked up without risk of rape or robbery, but don't look like a potential victim yourself either, then you've got a much better chance of being successful. There are some nasty people out there, but not as many as the newspapers would have you think, so be careful. The golden rule is to never get into a car with anybody if you have the slightest suspicion that all is not well.

If you look like you're going somewhere, but don't have too much stuff, then people are more inclined to stop for you. A sign with your destination on it often helps. Standing by the road out of town without a bag often encourages people to suspect that you're not really going anywhere and have some other reason for wanting to get into their car.

A sign with the destination of someplace along your route may be even more helpful. People can be very stupid sometimes and fail to recognise that just because they're not going to Istanbul that doesn't mean that you wouldn't like a lift as far as Strasbourg. On long-distance routes the best way is to specify which road you want, and in which direction; for example, 'M5, North'.

If they can see you and think about stopping they are more likely to do so than if they come around a corner and have to make a split-second decision before they pass you. Intersections (especially traffic lights), exits from service stations, and entrances to motorways, are generally good places. At night it's good to be somewhere well lit.

If they have a place to stop safely they are more likely to do so because picking you up in a place that could result in a crash or a confrontation with the local police, is a great deterrent. Motorway intersections are bad - very bad. If you miss your stop, go past and try and hitch back. Nobody will stop if they're barrelling through spaghetti junction at 85mph, and if they do they're probably not the sort of driver you want a ride with.

In other words, a neatly-dressed person with a backpack standing by the entrance to a highway, or just past a road intersection, with a sign saying 'South' stands a fair chance of getting a ride provided they have not chosen a road that heads north.

A wild-eyed Hell's Angel on an expressway with a can of beer, a sign saying 'F***ing Istanbul, right?', and no bags, is unlikely to get a ride anywhere, even if he is on the right road.

This is not to say that you have to look like a 'nice' middle class student to get a ride. Long hair, guitars, even surfboards, are common enough that people will still stop for you. Sometimes they will stop because of these things.

Dressing up can help as well - a lot of universities in the UK organise sponsored hitchhikes during 'rag-week' and it's normal to see knights in armour, monks, even gorillas hitchhiking to Paris in the springtime.

Also, two guys together will generally find it harder than two girls together. Two girls will find it harder than a single guy. A single guy will find it harder than a guy-girl couple. It's easy for a single girl, but single girls should always be especially careful. More than two people will always find it difficult, although it has been known that an entire troupe of morris dancers2 who were on tour without a vehicle, all managed to get to the right town at the right time after a spot of fortuitous hitchhiking.

Happy hitchhiking!

1 A digitus impudicus is known in the USA as 'the bird', or 'the finger'. Harvey Smith was a show jumper noted for using the 'V' symbol which originated in the Anglo-French wars and remains a gesture of insolence of defiance. In some parts of the world a gesture with the thumb is considered rude.2Morris dancing is part of an English tradition where a troupe perform a dance outdoors dressed in costumes which are decked with small bells.

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