Travel: Thumbs up for hitch-hiking

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The Independent Culture
ONE afternoon last month I learned about the perils of the oyster industry, rode in a 1928 Model T Ford and was guided around a town I'd never visited before by a woman I'd never previously met. It was easy; all I did was hitch-hike from Saujon to Rochefort in western France.

The art of hitch-hiking combines three concepts. It began as a way to save money; like many students I shunned Inter-Rail in favour of free travel around Europe. In some remote areas it is the only form of transport for those without a car. Finally, in a world which seems increasingly insular, hitching is a fine way to meet people.

As editor of a hitch-hiking manual, I get a letter about once a week from people with meticulous diagrams of motorway junctions, tales of drivers who have provided free meals, and the latest on the particularly dodgy autobahn junction east of Salzburg. There is still a hard core of hitchers in Europe, but it is dwindling. Many letters are from Slovaks and Russians, for whom hitching is an economic necessity.

For most of us, hitching is something we once tried but long dismissed as a singularly unreliable way to get around. For women on their own, the risks have always been too high.

Hitch-hiking has also been hit by global political developments. The best hitching place in Europe used to be the Dreilinden frontier point on the edge of West Berlin, but the collapse of the Wall has increased waiting times. Until last year, Poland had the best hitching in the world, thanks to a government-sponsored scheme. Would-be riders bought vouchers at a pound for 2,000km-worth, which were handed out like Green Shield stamps to lift-givers.

In most of the developing world, hitch-hiking is a semi-official form of transport, an excellent adjunct to public transport. In countries such as Albania and Bolivia, any vehicle is regarded as a potential lift. Cuba goes one stage further: faced with devastating economic austerity, its public transport system is on the point of collapse. So each town now has an official hitch-hiking marshal. He or she wears a yellow uniform and flags down every vehicle. The carrying potential of each car or truck is evaluated, and the driver is ordered to take on passengers.

The one nation where hitch-hiking is reckless is Cuba's arch-enemy, the United States. It would be a gross slur on any nation to suggest that most of its motorists are drunks, religious zealots or plain psychotic, but an awful lot of the people who stopped for me on a trans-American trip fitted one or more of those descriptions. I finally gave up in the Rockies when the car I was in left the road; the driver was unable to steer straight while opening his bottle of bourbon.

New Zealand is now the hitch-hiker's nirvana - not for the speed with which you get lifts, but for the wonderful hospitality of the people who give them. If you have nowhere to stay in New Zealand, you need only start hitching towards nightfall. Some generous soul will pick you up and offer you a ride and a room for the night.

Next time you are somewhere with less-than- perfect public transport, whether Lincolnshire or Lesotho, try hitching - so long as you are male or in the company of a male. Women should never hitch alone. That warning apart, it's a great way to travel cheaply. SC

Simon Calder is editor of 'Hitch-hikers' Manual: Britain' and 'Europe: a Manual for Hitch-hikers', both published by Vacation Work at pounds 3.95.