Saturday, August 11, 2012

In a hitchhiker's Paradise

Recent months have been too much occupied by the ordinary life, that is staying in Poland, getting my driving license, searching for a volunteering project (ok, this one is not so ordinary) and a job abroad and having no time or opportunities for longer trips. Instead of staying on the road for months I turned to the other side of going somewhere for a couple of days or hitchhiking around Bydgoszcz. At the end of June, just by serendipity, I found out about the 5th European Hitchgathering that was about to take place in Lithuania. I obviously knew they've been taking place since 2008, but had no idea they were about to happen just in a couple of days! Not being able to participate in the 1st American Hitchgathering in Boulder, CO (just around 150 km from where I lived at that time!) two years ago, I thought that this time there was no way to give the gathering a miss - especially considering the fact that I've never traveled north-west of Poland and that traveling a short distance wouldn't interfere too much with my boring schedule.


Taking into account the fact that hitchhiking in the north-east of Poland might sometimes proceed at snail's pace, I traveled quite fast. I didn't get trapped in the biggest city on my way, Olsztyn, which is a hell to get out of, and reached the Polish-Lithuanian border at sevenish in the evening.

The lift I got there should be expanded upon. I got picked by a middle-aged man and his teenage son. Not knowing exactly which road I was on, I asked "Vilnius, Kaunas?" They were going to the capital. The driver's first question was "Do you speak English?" but he didn't even wait for my answer and said "Polska? To możemy rozmawiać po polsku." In the beginning I was careful with my vocabulary, trying not to use too sophisticated words, so that they could easily understand me. Eventually it was them who surprised me. The boy called his mother and for around ten minutes spoke just Polish. But what kind of Polish it was! He spoke fluently and unceasingly, using words I know more from books rather than everyday speech. He accent had a foreign flavor but it was still less distinguishable than my French accent when speaking Polish after many months of speaking French on everyday basis. What the hell is this? I could no longer restrain my curiosity and when he was done with the conversation, I asked:
"Sorry for such a stupid question, but are you from Lithuania or from Poland?"
"Haven't you seen the license plate?" the driver blurted.
"I have, but you speak Polish better than I do!"

That was the beginning of a really engrossing conversation about the Polish traces in Lithuania. Being a historical duffer myself, I carefully listened to the son of my driver talk about Polish-Lithuanian territories, Poles in Lithuania and the multitude of cultures that mingled in Vilnius throughout the history - Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Jews, Tatars, Karaites. I was surprised to learn that in some parts of Vilnius it's more common to hear people speak Polish than Lithuanian. On the contrary, it's not allowed to use Polish in writing, so eg. shop signboards are in Lithuanian only. Same applies to street name signs as well - it's forbidden to attach plaques with Polish names written in small print. In case the delinquent is denounced, a huge fine is applied.

The Baltic States have never been a blip on my travel radar but now, knowing the historical background, I set my heart on going to Vilnius one day and learning more about the Polish legacy. My driver dropped me off right on the road going north towards Molėtai. "For Polish Vilnius!" his son greeted me and wished good luck.

It was quite late and I didn't really feel like hitchhiking on a busy road with limited visibility, dressed in dark clothes, let alone arriving in my destination whose exact location was unknown to me, in the middle of the night. Fortunately I quickly managed to find a good spot for stealth camping - some bushes by a block of flats. The canopy made of dense branches seemed to be a good protection in case the rain fell but at 3 in the morning I still had to use my tarp. Eventually I didn't drench too much and, apart from waking up to get the extra cover, I slept like a baby. In the morning I could finally see my surrounding - a forlorn cityscape resembling the poorer parts of my city.

Fortunately other parts of Lithuania I saw on my way were more picturesque. Cute colorful houses were just a foretaste of the rural idyll where I would spend three magical days with other like-minded people.

I was surprised that for such a big gathering on my way I haven't seen any hitchhikers going the same direction. It was only around five km from my destination when I met Sara from Finland. We got to the farm together and two days later we also left it together, one heading north, one south.

Taking advantage of low number of participants who came to Ambraziškiai before the official start of the meeting, the hosting family who eagerly agreed to welcome a bunch of crazy travelers showed us around the farm - peaceful and picture-perfect fields of green, small pond for swimming enthusiasts, space for tents, animal barn, the barn where those coming without a tent would sleep on the hay (the moment I smelled the hay I knew that was where I'd stay for the night), kitchen where home-made bread was baked and small apple orchard.

The first day of the gathering was marked by meeting a lot of familiar faces seen before at other gatherings or couchsurfing events, getting to know totally new people, preparing a small summer house for further construction, enjoying a bumpy ride on the back of a tractor, getting rid of the dirt and dust of the road in a Lithuanian sauna and jumping into the pond after each session, cooking delicious vegetarian food together, gobbling up home-made bread, cheese and honey, diving into mint tea and fresh milk and exchanging experience mostly face-to-face. In the evening almost 200 people crowded the small farm. I already felt as if I were in Paradise, with the necessary hippie pack - peace, love and happiness (though I'm not a hippie myself).

Photo by Egle

Photo by Silver

Photo by Giedrius

Workshops organized on the second day of the event were truly enriching experience. A bunch of people were enthusiastic to share skills and knowledge about hitchhiking and not only. We had discussions about night hitchhiking, stealth camping, long-distance walking, nomadic bases and cheap flights. We could learn how to juggle, make a campfire without matches or lighter or whistle with our thumbs.

We also ran a "Living Library" - a great workshop giving an invaluable opportunity to compare your stereotypes about certain people who are subjected to prejudice with reality by reading "books" (people willing to share a part of their personality). We managed to collect over twenty "books" with interesting titles and altogether brainstormed ideas how we perceive certain people. According to our conclusions, a feminist doesn't wear a bra, a polyamorist is a member of mile high club, a former self-harmer has good knowledge of human anatomy, unschooled person has no chances to get a good job, the attitude of a frequent flyer towards traveling is very shallow and focused just on "doing" places... Just exchanging ideas took us over one hour. Some of them were ridiculous, some really close to the truth, but most of them made us laugh, not at each other, but with each other.

Each book could be on loan for twenty minutes but some of these short discussions eventually turned into lengthy conversations. It was exciting to be a "book" myself, but whenever my status was "available" for to long, I borrowed another book and gave myself to one of the biggest pleasures in my life, but in a slightly different form.
Photo by Giedrius

Different kinds of people were attracted by the Hitchgathering. Rugged travelers with years of experience and people who set out their hitchhiking career on the way to the event. People who already planned coming there when the previous gathering in Bulgaria was finished and people who found themselves in Ambraziškiai by happenstance. I reveled in getting to know other travelers whose lifestyle was similar to mine. There were plenty of dumpster divers, women traveling alone, people traveling with very little money or enthusiasts of wild camping. But what makes the jaws of my friends who prefer sedentary lifestyle drop in disbelief fades in comparison to over 23 years on the road, breaking the world record by hitchhiking over 2300 km in 24 hours, traveling with a daily budget of 0 € or couple of years of nomadic life at quite young age. Every story I heard from such people was another inspiration to take one more step further, stretch my comfort zone and set off for a permanent journey. It was the nearest I'd ever come to find people like me, people who prove that hitchhikers aren't an endangered breed, people for whom living a simple life devoid of commodities is neither a punishment nor an atonement but a choice they'd never renounce.

My initial plan was to leave the farm early in the morning to make urgent arrangements regarding my work. However, the attempt to wake up at dawn ended in defeat. The night before the discussions inspired by "Living Library" were never-ending. At midnightish I went to the barn to organize myself for the trip. However, I couldn't resist the music that filled the air. I dropped my stuff, reached the group of musicians and tried to play harmonica for the first time in my life. I woke up at nine, but over four hours passed before I finally left the gathering. Leaving this place was like leaving a home behind. Those who were still on the farm gave one another a necessary dose of free hugs and warm words of encouragement for upcoming travels. Only when somebody shouted to me "Robert is leaving soon, they might give you a ride," I was motivated to go. With two other hitchhikers as drivers and two more about to hit the road soon we went to Molėtai. Driving on the empty road, five minutes into our ride, I already missed all the wonderful people from Ambraziškiai...
My place to sleep in Ostróda. As you can see, despite being covered by a tarp, I didn't manage to escape the rain.
The view from my open-air hotel
Bydgoszcz again

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