Hitch-hiking is a form of transport used commonly throughout the world to save on the costs of transport. In times of depression and economic downturn, hitchhiking was an encouraged form of transportation for many cultures. Typically embraced fully by nomads around the world, I knew I couldn’t travel much further without trying this style of travel for myself.
No doubt it was an adventure leaving Sofia, Bulgaria on the 15th of August 2015 at roughly 1:30 PM and arriving at a hostel in Skopje, Macedonia sometime around 9:30 PM, but it turned out to be one of the best experiences I’ve had travelling.
Dangers of Hitch-Hiking
It’s no secret to most people that hitch-hiking can prove to be dangerous. Common sense tells us that getting in a car with a random stranger, especially in my case, carrying all of my gear on my back, can be quite dangerous. That being said, catching a lift with a stranger has been a viable and comfortable use of transport for hundreds of years, especially in the two countries in which I trialled my first experience hitch-hiking.
Bulgaria, being an ex-communist country, is accustomed to people hitch-hiking in the years of the soviet union, where it was encouraged.
I have heard countless stories of friends and fellow travellers hitch-hiking successfully:
A young female friend of mine from Canada hitch-hiked alone through a few of the safer countries in Africa. She found herself more often than not, eating a free traditional meal or drinking a coffee with the driver in exchange for an interesting conversation and a few travel stories.
I can happily say though it may be through sheer luck, that my experience was no different.
With my bags packed and my boots strapped on tight, I wrote a sign and caught the tram with my friend and host, Katya, to the outer suburbs of Sofia. After a brief coffee, we said our goodbyes and the inevitable loneliness and excitement of solo travel sunk in, something that I have grown to love. I mumbled the words “On the road again” to myself as a cheeky cathartic cliché while I walked north, out of Sofia. I set off with one goal, to not spend any money on transport for this length of the trip.
After standing in a few strategic spots, on some corners, next to some traffic lights, I waited almost an hour to be picked up by a lovely middle-aged Bulgarian man who spoke almost no English. It took us a few small hand-gestures and a brief call to his brother-in-law to get the point across that he could drop me to a town close to the border.
Fantastic! With my best judgement of character giving me confidence, we sped off into the countryside.
Sofia to the border
After an hour or so of exchanging words from our respective languages, and a generous gift of a giant coffee at a petrol station, we veered off the main road into a tiny town. It took me a few moments to understand why, but recognising this, the man gestured to the chemicals and liquids in the back.
For some reason, my mind jumped to the worst case scenario and my blood pressure spiked!
Arriving at what turned out to be his house, we unloaded the chemicals and I was surprisingly rewarded with some home-made lemonade which he makes in his garage. Lemonade in hand, we puttered onto the next destination where I had a nice chat with his sister and to my surprise, learnt about the political unrest near my next destination in the smaller town of Kumanovo. Apparently there had been a few violent confrontations between the authorities and an anti-government militia group. “Avoid that area Will, it’s really dangerous.” she said.
My new friend bought me a beer at the local bar at the end of his journey and we spoke through the translation of a curious Bulgarian waitress who spoke broken English. Near the border of Bulgaria and Macedonia, he dropped me off at a petrol station and within minutes, he’d even found me someone to take me across the board and the rest of the way.
And I still don’t even know ‘his’ name, none the less – Locals are the best!
The Border to Skopje
I jumped in the next car with two younger men who spoke better English.
Happy with the prospect of some conversable company for the next two hours, we crossed the board after some small trouble with customs due to the civil unrest in the country. A few minutes into the drive they agreed to take me to their hometown, which was right outside my destination.
A few minutes after that I found out that their town was actually the central location of the civil unrest as perceived by western media.
After the second time in that day, I panicked.
These two gentlemen who had quickly become my new friends assured me that it would be fine and but for some reason, it was a little difficult to believe them. We spoke of our travels and they pointed out some local landmarks and the beautiful countryside. 2 hours later we arrived at their Kumanovo where one of the men, Alex, offered to show me his town and even buy me dinner.
Needless to say, I was quite hesitant. But finding myself at the heart of a town that had seen a brutal shootout merely days earlier, I thought “Hey, why not?”
I had a great night walking around this small town. All I saw was organised groups of what appeared to be well-educated protesters gathering in the streets on the way to the capital of Skopje, my next destination.
Alex and I caught a taxi to a very fancy restaurant in the forest, and after ignoring my protests, bought us a fantastic meal and some beer.
We then returned to his house where I picked up my gear and he took me to the bus stop. The public bus was 100 denar (roughly $2) and it would take me all the way to Skopje.
This 100 denar turned out to be the only money I spent the entire day before I checked into my hostel, simply due to the kindness and hospitality of others.
Hitch-Hiking Was A Blast!
It was the generosity of all the people I met during this day that inspired me to write this, Alex never asked me for anything, and simply wanted to show a weary traveller some kindness and hospitality.
My non-english speaking friend (I think his name was Venci) laughed and smiled all the way to the border with me.
Alex even bought me cigarettes and water for my journey. All that he asked was to pay the favour forward to another traveller when the time comes.
If you enjoyed this story, why don’t you share it with someone who’s also thinking of hitch-hiking?