1. My fear of asking for help.
I’ve always been afraid to ask for the things I need, let alone for the things I want. The act of asking created a discordant feeling of both vulnerability and imposition, which gave me worse indigestion than the dubious Chinese restaurant down the road from where I lived as a child. I was the kind of person who preferred to wait in miserable (but safe) silence until people decided to offer, instead of simply piping up, “Hey, I haven’t had anything to eat in what feels like seventeen hours. Would you mind if I had a bite of your sandwich?”
I would resignedly waste away into nothingness if it meant I didn’t have to ask for someone’s sandwich.
Hitchhiking through Eastern Europe taught me how to stand on the side of the road, with nothing more than a reassuring “I swear I’m not a psychopath!” smile and a piece of cardboard with the name of an unpronounceable town scribbled on it, to ask perfect strangers to stop what they were doing and to let me into their vehicle.
The first few hours of the first few days were humiliating and rife with indigestion.
I shouldn’t be here. I have no right to stand on the side of the road with my sign and my smile.
But here I am. And it’s working. Slowly and a bit sporadically, I am making my way through the Balkans. Because I chose to ask. And I’m meeting wonderful people, who don’t seem altogether bothered by the fact that I asked them to share their journey.
2. My fear of rejection.
Hitchhiking is a first-rate crash course in rejection. I watched vans jam-packed with passengers meander by, drivers looking me up and down with interest, but cars, vans, motorhomes with all the space in the world blazed past me, all eyes glued to the road, deliberately blocking out my soliciting thumb.
Like I’m not even here. Like I don’t even exist.
Five weeks of thumbing through eight countries taught me that this kind of rejection has absolutely nothing to do with me. Some drivers would honk encouragingly and wave, happy to see a vagabond still doing that vagabond thing. Some bikers would playfully pat the air behind them and then shrug their shoulders. Some drivers would flip me off and rev their engines as they passed to emphasize the fact that they weren’t stopping.
Perhaps the driver who ignored me had an appointment and couldn’t be bothered to stop. Could be that the man who flipped me off had recently been robbed and was feeling hyper-vigilant and a little angry. Maybe the woman who stared at me in disgust just didn’t approve of hitching, for one reason or another. For all I know, the fellow who waved but didn’t stop was blissfully singing Brittney Spears at the top of his lungs and didn’t want a hippie in the car to judge him.
These reasons have nothing to do with me as a person.
3. My fear of not feeling attractive.
Standing on the side of the road underneath a scorching sun and getting car exhausted on isn’t a glamorous affair. It’s smelly. It’s sweaty. It’s not a piece of cake. Minus cake. And lugging a monstrous backpack around just exacerbates the minus cake situation.
So I got rid of all the things I didn’t absolutely need. I didn’t realize how heavy my life was until I put in on my shoulders.
Vanity was the first to go. Razors? Who needs razors? I decided to grow the most luscious armpit hair the Balkans has ever seen.
Sexy underwear? Meh. Overrated.
Shampoo? Conditioner? Face wash? A simple bar of soap multitasks just fine.
Going out clothes? I can party in my harem pants and yoga shirts. Watch me. I will have just as much fun as anyone else.
In the end, I learned that letting go of my vanity made my life notably lighter. Simpler. Much more honest.
It’s good to know that I don’t have to wear a mask to attract good people. That I can be hairy and frumpy and sport an “I just accidentally electrocuted myself while making toast” hairstyle and the people I’m supposed to be with will still value me for reasons I find most important.
4. My fear of not knowing exactly where I would end up or when.
I love to plan. I’m a planning wizard. During university, I would sometimes take twenty-four credits, work three jobs, and direct a full-length play at the same time. The organization required for this sort of lifestyle was absolutely exhilarating for me.
How did I manage this?
Being a wizard. With my day planner. Also, being a control freak and having a suffocatingly tight grip on a life that goes entirely according to plan 100% of the time.
Hitchhiking loosened my grip on life. It helped me realize how little control I actually have and that white knuckles are useless. Hitchhiking taught me that I have two choices when life decides to do its own thing, regardless of the sincere scribbles in my precious planner. I can choose to panic, resist, feel like I’ve failed and strive to redirect life to be more consistent with my idea of how it ought to unfold. Or I can choose to accept and work with whatever life dishes out.
Several rides wanted to take me out for coffee. One wanted to show me what he called, “Montenegro’s Niagara Falls”. One invited me to a birthday party at his friend’s house on the road to Sofia.
Once, I spent the entire day stranded in a never-ending field of sunflowers in Romania.
Once, I had to sleep on the side of a lake in Albania because I didn’t have a place to stay.
And it was all okay. I survived. And my openness and flexibility allowed me to have experiences that my closed fists and clenched knuckles would have pushed away.
5. My fear of breaking rules.
A friend and I had just crossed the border from Romania into Serbia. We’d trudged along the side of the road for two hours, with the rare car rumbling by every fifteen minutes or so. We were desperate for a ride, so when we heard car tires on asphalt, we turned around, held out our sign, and saw —
— a police car.
Damn… I forgot to research whether or not it’s legal to hitch in Serbia. Oof. Umm…
My friend and I awkwardly tried to hide our cumbersome cardboard sign, put our thumbs away, and adopted an attitude of nonchalance.
The police car rolled to a stop.
“Where are you from?” one of the officers asked.
“New Zealand!” my friend replied.
“The United States,” I cringed, aware of my country’s reputation in Serbia after the Yugoslav Wars.
Both officers devolved into laughter. My friend and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows.
“We had a bet!” one officer grinned. “I bet you were from Ukraine and he bet you were from Romania. Since neither of us won, we’ll give you a ride to the bus station.”
There was also the time I slept in a cave on an island off the coast of Croatia. The time I ended up at a toll station (from which it’s illegal to hitch) and the Croatians working the toll station coerced one of the drivers into giving me a ride. The time I wild-camped on the side of lake Ohrid, in Macedonia.
“Is it legal to sleep here?” a group of Germans asked me.
“Not sure,” I responded. “If I’m asked to move, I will.”
I wasn’t asked to move and was able to witness a glorious sunset on the longest day of the year over Lake Ohrid, curled up in my sleeping bag with a bottle of wine and a chocolate bar.
This doesn’t mean I’m going to break all the rules, willy-nilly. But I’m going to stop viewing rules as inflexible. They can often be bent by human kindness, humor and common sense.