The Great Hitchhiking Adventure – Part 1: London to Toulouse

I spend ages getting out of London – even longer due to waiting 50 minutes for the bus I left my tent on to do it’s round and come back to where I got off. Having retrieved my tent and found the road junction marked on, I wait patiently in the pouring rain with a soggy cardboard sign saying ‘France please!’ and a smiley face. After around 20 minutes a waiter comes out of a nearby pub with a cup of tea for me and discovering I don’t drink milk, takes it away and comes back with another – black with a bit of lemon. Bless.

My first lift is Adam. Adam has just started growing vegetables and has never heard of Peak Oil. I fill him in on all of the happy details. Adam is quite well travelled but has only been to what he calls ‘party towns’ to get drunk. Apparently this includes Cuba. I tell him about ‘The Power of Community’, the film about Cuba and how it’s handling the energy crisis. This sets him thinking… ‘hmm, yeah, there were a lot of people hitchhiking and it was a bit like that now you come to mention it.’ Telling Adam about my plans he just keeps repeating the same thing – ‘It’s like a different world’.

I meet another hitchhiker at junction 10 of the M20. We both have signs saying ‘France’ and decide to travel together until we get there where we will go our separate ways. Max has a more upfront method of hitching than me. He approaches cars as they are waiting at the traffic lights, knocks on the windows and asks for a lift. I stand by the turning with one of our signs. It’s Max that gets us the lift after asking around 15 cars. We get a lift to Dover with an Iraqi man and his Argentinian girlfriend. Max tells me about the number plate system for French vehicles which could be helpful for my hitching. Apparently the first two numbers indicate the region the car is from. I scribble down the numbers for some of the regions I will be passing through from the book Max is carrying.

Max paid £12 for a ferry ticket, but I have been reading about boat hitching for a long time now and want to at least give it a try. I have around fifteen minutes before they stop boarding foot passengers. There is a road with a long string of lorries heading past the ticket office, so I stick out my thumb and wait. Many lorry drivers shrug or frown at me but a couple smile and eventually one stops. Tom is Croatian and lives in Germany, on his way home now after six weeks away driving. At the booth I hand the man our two passports and a slip of paper Tom hands me. ‘What are you carrying?’ the toll booth man asks. ‘Oh, some crates, some pallets…’ Tom starts to explain. ‘Oh right, just stuff basically!’ The man laughs and hands back our passports. Off we go then! Tom has a laptop and internet in his cab. He asks exactly where I’m going and works out that I will travel 1300km in total from London to the place I am heading to in Spain: Ecodharma.

I am driving off the ferry in a truck with Manuel, my Portugese driver. Manuel is a little bit racist and thinks Indians are dirty, but other than that seems quite nice. I try to avoid the topic and get rather nervous whenever he mentions nationality. The time is now 8:45pm – an hour ahead of the UK – and it is already getting quite dark. Manuel is driving all of the way to Portugal but will stop for nine hours in Tours to sleep. Tours will be great for me – if I can hack driving all night to get there!

I sleep fitfully in the passenger seat for what seems like five minutes in every fifteen. I awake in the middle of the night to discover we have already passed Tours. Tours was actually somewhere I had wanted to visit on my route, but oh well. Manuel parks at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere. This is the end of the line for me as he will sleep now. I get out in the cold, thank Manuel and tentatively wander into the service station. I get some Euros from the cash machine, the first opportunity I have had, and buy two small road maps: one of France and one of Spain for €2.95 each. The man behind the counter doesn’t speak English. ‘Ou et… moi?’ I ask, showing him the map. ‘Ici?’ he points. I am just outside Tours to the South. It doesn’t look like there are many other towns nearby, and besides it’s only 5am. Thinking of Max’s technique I ask some men where they are going, but they just grunt at me and walk off. Another man asks where I want to go and offers to take me to Poitiers. I accept gratefuly.

My new driver speaks barely any English and communication is hard, but he does give me €20, offers to pay for a hotel or to put me up for the night (I decline both suggestions) and buys me a coffee at a service station and a mint tea in Poitiers before leaving me to go home and sleep. He says God told him to give me money. Thanks God!

I was hoping to spend some time in Poitiers, but the only bit I saw of it looked like Churchill Square shopping centre in Brighton (not good), and besides it is still early and everywhere is shut. Better to head for Bordeaux for breakfast and to see if it’s the kind of place I could spend the day. I’m picked up after a few minutes by a guy heading to Niort, only a few miles South. Ok, why not? His English is as bad as my French but we manage to communicate a little in a mixture of French, English and Spanish, which we each speak equally badly.
Niort is very pretty. I write up some of my travels while waiting for the tourist office to open. I’m feeling quite tired and hungry and looking at my map I can see why: no proper food in the last 70 miles. I have started measuring time in miles rather than minutes.

Alex and Stephan are heading south, partly for a holiday and partly because they like it better there and may just stay if things work out. My sign said Bordeaux, but since they are going to Toulouse I will just go there instead. It will probably be my last stop before Spain and I am amazed to have seen so little of France. I have moved much faster than I had imagined, but am making up for it now by watching crumbling yellow brick buildings and tiny French villages pass by out of the window. There are toll booths on French autoroutes, kind of a pay-as-you-go motorway system. We are taking the smaller roads to avoid some of the costs. I’m still munching my way through the pile of goodies I bought from the magazine-bio (organic shop) in Niort: Almond and hazelnut rice milk, tofu wieners, fake cheese spread, mushroom pate, chocolate, muesli, avocado, tomato and some fresh fruit. That’s all the money the man from Poitiers gave me but I haven’t spent any of my own yet apart from the maps. This food should last a couple of days.

The D roads, although very pretty, were taking too long, so Alex and Stefan decide only to go as far as Montauban. They drop me off a little sooner at a ‘campsite’ in Castelsarrasin. My tent is the only one here. Reception is closed, possibly non-existent and everything either doesn’t work (the lights and at least one shower and sink), or is covered with a thick layer of cobwebs and dust. It’s not entirely unlike a zombie movie, but I’m trying not to think about that as I sit in the dark writing this by head-torch at a round concrete picnic table. There is a phone, which I saw a man use earlier, but tragically I do not have a French phone card. Far from being a well needed night of solitude and brandy in remote French countryside, I spend ages trying to rid myself of the only thing that unnerves me more than zombies: a Polish man named something like ‘Wokash’. Having established that we have the biggest language barrier ever, with Wokash not speaking any English, French OR Spanish and me not knowing any Polish, we eventually manage to convey through the use of sign language, gestures and drawings that:

1. He is Polish
2. He picks apples here
3. He is staying in the caravan – the only other thing in this field
4. He does not like picking apples
5. He wants me to stay in the caravan with him

Wokash is a little more pushy about point five than I feel comfortable about, especially given there is nobody else around. I try to make it clear that I am enjoying time alone and wish to sit and read my book in peace, but Wokash persists in beckoning me to his caravan. Eventually I shout at him in English to fuck off, thinking that if he doesn’t understand the words, at least some of the sentiment will get through in the volume of my request. I wave my penknife at him for good measure as he shied away from it when I first took it out to make a sandwich. He finally wanders off looking a bit sulky. I’m still a little nervous and keep turning my torch off at intervals and listening out for footsteps but he seems to have gone. This just goes to show that wild camping is not all that dangerous really. I’ve wild camped with much better facilities than these and have never had this much hassle.

I am awoken twice in the night: once by a strange man saying there is a phone-call for me. I am groggy with sleep but am still pretty certain there’s no way anyone could be calling me here, so I say ‘no, it’s not for me’, zip up my tent and go back to sleep. The second time I awake to a familiar voice outside my tent calling me – ‘Joy, Joy’ (he can’t pronounce Jo). I unzip my tent. Wokash and the man who woke me earlier are both there. Wokash beckons me. I say ‘no, I’m not coming with you. Fuck off and let me sleep’. I turn to the other man. ‘You know English? Do you understand what I’m saying?’ He says ‘yes, he just wants to be your friend’. I tell them to fuck off a few more times, quite loudly, then zip my tent back up and yell, ‘I’m going to sleep now!’ They walk off laughing and talking in Polish. I am awoken no more. I see Wokash on the phone in the morning and he waves to me. I don’t wave back.

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