The first time I hitchhiked, I was picked up by the Ukrainian military.
I had just finished my time working at a kids’ camp in the Carpathian Mountains where I was teaching English. The camp administrator bought me a train ticket to the border to a city called Chop, and gave me exact directions on how to get from there to my next destination – Budapest. She told me it shouldn’t cost more than 20 euros, which was way more than what I try to spend in a day. I politely took her instructions down as a last minute resort, but quietly planned a different route.
I had my own ideas.
When I got off at the train station, I had to make my way about 3 miles to my prospective hitchhiking location which was the alongside of the highway. A small white chick walking in the middle of a random Ukrainian town with a large backpack and small ambiguous instrument (nobody can ever tell I have a ukulele for some reason) definitely stood out.
The area was a bit run down – but it was reminiscent of the ghetto area in my own county. In some odd way, that was comforting. Nonetheless, everyone I passed stared at me. At one point, some guys outside a convenience store shouted something at me in Russian. They could have been insulting me, or asking if I was lost, but it didn’t register that they were talking to me until after I walked away. I continued on my way, walking tall and eventually I made it through the unforgiving heat to my destination.
Finding a hitching spot is usually one of the hardest things to do, and I had no idea what I was doing. Often, you can use the Hitchwiki map to find where others have gone before you. But that isn’t terribly helpful when you’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re the first one to hitchhike in that area.
Taking into consideration everything I read online about finding good location, I originally intended to go the route of on-ramp hitchhiking. But it was clear that if I took that approach, I would be standing there all day. Even when I was walking to the freeway, the cars that passed were scarce. I ended up planting myself where the ramp met the freeway. Since I didn’t have any cardboard to utilize for sign, I did something a little different and carefully wrote on my arm “BUDAPEST.” Then, I did what I’d been dying to do for over a year now.
I stuck out my thumb.
I felt such an exhilarating rush accompanied by a strong feeling of liberation. Even standing under the pounding sun, along with the odd looks shot at me from passing cyclists. For whatever reason, there was a strange number that passed me as they rode up the on ramp – a question still unanswered to this day. Who rides a bike on the freeway? Then again, I guess I didn’t belong any more than they did, if not less so.
There was hardly any traffic passing by despite the fact that I was only a few miles from the border, and I quickly got the feeling that I could be stuck here for quite a while. But after only ten minutes, a black, slightly beat up looking jeep pulled up.
That was fast!
My excitement quickly turned into panic when I saw two men get out dressed in camo. I was really confused as to why the border patrol was using an unmarked civilian looking vehicle, but that was the least of my worries. One of them approached me and in order to minimize any confusion, I quickly made it clear that I didn’t speak Russian. He didn’t seem angry or threatening as he asked to see my passport. In broken English, they asked where I was going and what on earth I was doing out there.
I hadn’t noticed much beyond the military gear, but underneath the uniforms, they had young faces indicating they weren’t much older than I was. One of them had bright blue eyes and gentle features, while the other carried a sharper chin and wide smile. Underneath the uniforms, they weren’t so different. But a panicked white girl only saw the guns at the time.
As I was doing my best to clarify, a third person pulled up on a motorcycle. He was much older, definitely old enough to order from the senior menu at Denny’s. Bogdan, the one with gentle features, communicated to me that the old motorcycle dude (not verbatim) was their superior, but he was out of uniform at the time. The unanswered questions were piling onto this situation! The older man spoke with Bogdan and the other military passenger of the vehicle. It looked like they were all inspecting my passport, probably wondering what I was doing in Ukraine for so long.
Following the passport inspection, they asked me to get in the car without any further explanation. They seemed friendly enough, but even if they weren’t, what was I going to do? Run from these random military dudes in the middle of nowhere with all of my gear? So they took my backpack, loaded it in the trunk for me, and I anxiously climbed in.
That’s when things started to get goofy.
Bogdan offered me a face wipe as he stood outside of the car talking to his companions, presumably trying to figure out what to do with the unexpected American chick that showed up on their highway. I gratefully wiped the glistening sweat off my poker face as they climbed back in the jeep and we took off down the lonely highway.
The passenger abruptly turned around and said “Obama! Viktor Obama is me!” At first I had no idea what he was saying. Was he making a joke about my former president that I couldn’t understand because of the language difference? It took me a second to rewind what Viktor said, but it slowly computed that he was introducing himself, so I returned the gesture and gave my name – even though they already got it from the passport.
Shortly after, Viktor pulled out his phone and declared one of the English words he knew best: “Selfie! Selfie!” What was happening? I still didn’t know where I was going, but at that moment, I finally felt a wave of relief. Such a simple act reassured me that nothing was wrong, and I definitely wasn’t in trouble. Unless they just liked to take selfies with their victims…but that didn’t cross my mind at the time. And with that, I excitedly leaned towards the middle of the van for my first hitchhiking selfie, and subsequently provided my phone so I could have one too.
Afterwards, they enthusiastically asked for my Instagram account and both immediately followed me, and I promised I would return the favor as soon as I found Wi-Fi (in fact if either of you see this – hope you’re well!). During the drive, they were so excited and cheerful as I told them as much as I could communicate about myself, with much rephrasing and difficulty, but it was all in good humor.
It was a short ride, only about 10 minutes down the road directly to the border checkpoint. They pulled over and let me out, finally telling me that it would be easier to find a ride there. I shook their hands and graciously thanked them for the unsolicited help. I sadly watched my unexpected friends drive away, but smiled to myself at this new and unpredictable experience that just took place.
And with that, I continued on the unknown and wild road that lay ahead of me…