Tales from abroad: Europe and Africa

Skip waits for a ride to Bayonne while hitchhiking (credit: Courtesy of Skip Waldron) Skip waits for a ride to Bayonne while hitchhiking (credit: Courtesy of Skip Waldron) Waldron and a friend pose with a hitchhiking sign.  (credit: Courtesy of Skip Waldron) Waldron and a friend pose with a hitchhiking sign. (credit: Courtesy of Skip Waldron)

Sometimes I get tired of the academic routines I fall into during each semester, and I know I am not alone in my thinking. I daydream about where I could be if my schedule wasn’t filled with classes and meetings. Between problem sets, I glance at one-way tickets to various exotic destinations in all corners of the world. Occasionally, I find a way to incorporate this traveling agenda into my life without derailing my college education. I spent my junior year studying in London. I took weekend trips to various cities in Europe, but when Monday morning arrived, I found myself back in a classroom.

However, the UK higher education system has one significant difference from our hometown colleges. Generally, UK universities have a four-week spring break. Once I heard about that, I swore to take that time as a chance to break away from everything I knew about life. I wanted to embark on an adventure and experience a world most people couldn’t imagine. After throwing around a few ideas with my friend Holly, we decided we would hitchhike 1,100 miles from London to Africa — specifically Morocco.

I remember the thoughts racing through my mind as I turned in my last assignment the day before I left. As I walked back from campus, I entered my own world. My decision suddenly felt enormous and immediate. I didn’t know where I would wake up each following morning. I had no way to hear the news in the world. I was living in my own bubble. I spent that last night sleeplessly packing two pairs of clothes, a sleeping bag, and other essentials into a backpack.

As the sun rose high in the sky and the adventure began, we made a fantastic breakfast, knowing it might be our last home-cooked meal for a while. In the spirit of hitchhiking, we also made a large cardboard sign starting our next destination, then hit the road. Our goal was to get to Portsmouth by nightfall. Portsmouth is a town at the southern tip of the UK, where ferries run between France and Britain.

With no reason to delay any longer, we walked to a highway entrance heading south from London, stuck our thumbs out, gave our best I-am-not-an-axe-murderer smiles, and started watching cars pass by. One thing I learned quickly about hitchhiking is that there is a significant amount of waiting between rides. After about two hours, we managed to get our first ride. An interior designer stopped and offered us a ride about halfway to our destination. He told us stories about how he used to hitchhike from the very same spot we were at when he was in his 20s. The ride seemed to fly by, and before we knew it we were saying our farewells. After another ride from a Sri Lankan man heading to work, we made it to Portsmouth, boarded our ferry, and spent the night trying to get a few minutes of rest on a noisy ship.

The next morning we arrived in Le Havre, a port city in northern France. It was a rainy day, and the town looked deserted. By pure coincidence, Holly started speaking with a British woman who then offered us a ride to her house in Poitiers, a town in the middle of France. After six hours of interesting conversation, we parted ways. By the end of the day, we had hitchhiked to Bordeaux, a city in southern France. We toured the city, checked into a hostel, and called it a night.

The third day was just as exciting, despite the fact that our bodies were exhausted. Encountering new people and places kept the adrenaline pumping. Coffee also helped a lot. By nightfall, we had reached a service station outside Pamplona, a city in Spain where they host the running of the bulls each year. Unfortunately, we arrived after the service station had closed and were forced to camp out under a nearby bridge. I remember laughing as we set up our tent, knowing that we were truly living in the moment.

The next morning was the rainiest day of our hitch. For three hours, we tried and failed to get a ride toward Madrid. Eventually, we decided to walk the four kilometers to the next service station. About two kilometers down the highway, we were conveniently escorted off the highway by a Spanish police car. After a broken conversation combining bits of Spanish, French, English, and German, we explained ourselves and were told we could not hitch on that highway. As the police left, the sun came out. We took that as a sign that our luck would turn, and by the end of the night we were partying in Madrid.

After a ride with a famous Spanish musician, an unexpected Easter parade in the beach town of Malaga, and a sketchy ride from a one-eyed man of mystery (we never understood what he did for a living), we reached the docks in Algeciras, caught a ferry, and made our way across the Strait of Gibraltar toward Morocco.

For some people, all of this waiting, driving, and lack of structure must seem like some sort of punishment for an unspeakable crime. However, at no time did our spirits die. We felt more alive on the road than in any other situation. We have more stories from total strangers than most people encounter in many years. I learned more about different cultures than in any history class I ever took. Even as I walk on campus today, in the back of my mind, a voice reminds me that there is no reward greater than pursuing my dreams.