Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Life’s a hitch, and then you die...

After a good sleep and a hearty breakfast, The Road is beckoning. We both rattle around hyperactively, my innards fluttering with butterflies - part excitement, part nervousness. Having done no real preparation for the trip, we decide now might be the time to unfurl our road map of Europe and plan our route. Hitchhiking by its very nature requires a degree of spontaneity and luck, and a constant reworking of plans, but our basic route is established: we will make our way down the spine of France to Bordeaux, then on to Barcelona and follow the autoroute that runs westward along the south coast of Spain to Algeciras, where the ferry to Morocco departs from.

Like a balloonist casting off ballast, I throw items out of my rucksack until it is light enough to be carried comfortably, and we are ready for the road. We are to be dropped at a service station south of Oxford. On the way we glide past nuclear power cooling stations which, once the apogee of the futuristic, now look like relics of an ancient civilisation. Sofia and I chatter nervously, unsure of what to expect. What exactly have we got ourselves into here? It is too late for doubts now though, and the only way is onwards.

We arrive at the service station and set about getting a lift. Being rank novices, we are totally ignorant as to methodology. We try lounging about outside the service station with our signs, hoping to entice a sated customer into giving us a lift. We then resort to waving our signs frantically at passing cars. There is much talk of tactics, of finding the mathematical ‘sweet spot’ where we are most likely to ensnare a lift. Sofia at this stage confides that she is “not sure how comfortable I am with asking people for lifts”. I smile balefully and allow my head to sink into my hands.

Initially we are hopelessly diffident about approaching people, but coldness and impatience soon overrides our hesitancy and we start to approach lorry drivers individually. We are knocked back a few times before, wandering back to the car park approach road, a car stops. Our first lift! The driver is a “development officer” for the Royal Yachting Association, with a ‘silly man’ voice. He tells us that he has been to Marrakech, and that whilst we are young and will want to “investigate the culture”, he wanted out after a few days. In spite of the complete lack of poetry in this man’s soul, my heart sings with gratitude to him for getting us underway.

The man gives us several options as to where we want to be deposited, the best of which is a Tescos. After filling up on snacks, we go and tout our wares on at least five different roads. There are no takers. Eventually an altruistic, muddle-headed Frenchman picks us up, his car full of walking paraphernalia and shopping. As soon as I see the Guardian on the backseat, I know we are going to be okay. His initial aim is simply to drop us off at a better road, but his destination continually recedes since there is, apparently, "nowhere to stop".

The Frenchman's plan was to deposit us at the side of a busier road, but this soon becomes the slip-road to the motorway to Portsmouth. Then half way to Portsmouth. Then to Portsmouth itself. Finally our driver gives up trying to fight against the tide, and takes us all the way to the docks. Having made it to our first port of call, we inhale a lungful of sea air in triumph. As we toddle to the ferry terminal, we bump into two working class women huddled together and smoking on their break. They offer us cigarettes and wish us luck on our voyage.

The port is teeming with fellow hitchers, many who have congregated in an alcove by the cafe. Ferry ports being closed economies, we purchase some astronomically-priced school canteen-style grub and wait for our vessel.

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