Hitchhikers’ Handbook – across Asia with a suitcase of gifts (interview)
Hitchhikers Handbook is a blog and a platform for everyone looking for a simple way to travel. Ania (Poland) and Jon (UK) are the heads and hands behind the screen, bringing together all sorts of wonderful materials for low budget travels. They have been hitchhiking together for 6 years, but now they are taking a big leap into the uncertainty of a long-term travel. From Europe across Asia and back home to Poland, they plan to hitchhike 25,000 km in a year time. We were curious to know about them and their dreams and their plans to link al countries along the way with a chain project of shared food and games (?!). Read on to see what they are getting themselves into, and follow them from this month onwards on their Long Way Home.
PART 1 – INTRO
Roving Snails (RS): Who is Hitchhiker’s Handbook?
HitchHikers Handbook (HHH): We are Ania and Jon, a couple of restless English teachers who started hitchhiking nearly 6 years ago and found it to be the best possible way to explore the world. We created HitchHikersHandbook.com to spread our love for this fabulous way of travelling which has opened our eyes to so many things, become our lifestyle and we simply can’t imagine travelling in any other way. We wanted the blog to be a platform where other hitchhikers could share their experience and travel stories, so we’re always thrilled to connect with like-minded individuals like yourselves.
RS: And Travel? What does that mean to Ania and Jon?
HHH: Travelling is everything to us. Being able to explore new lands and cultures is what gives us infinite joy and satisfaction, and we hope there will never be a time when we are too lazy or anxious to cross yet another border.
RS: You are fervent defenders of hitchhiking as a way to travel. You say in your blog that it is brilliant because it’s free (money-wise and stress-wise), that it is the key to going local, a school to trusting people and a step towards epic adventures. But we would like to know, what did you think of hitchhiking before you jumped into the first pick up?
HHH: We have always loved travelling but never really discussed the possibility of hitchhiking before we first tried it. In Poland, where Ania is from, hitchhiking is big (for economic and historical reasons) and Ania had hitchhiked as a teenager many years before we first met, but it was a one-off situation and back then she hadn’t thought she’d ever repeat it.
When we started travelling as a couple we were backpackers, hopping on a bus or train from one hostel to another. While travelling in Southeast Asia 6 years ago we got a bit bored of doing what everyone else was doing: checking out from one place, travelling on the same air-conned bus and meeting the same bunch of backpackers in another hostel along the way, following the simple itinerary crafted by Lonely Planet. There was no challenge, everyone was doing the same thing and if you went travelling for three months you would continually bump into the same crowd, see the same faces, do what thousands of people have done before you and never really learn anything new. We also grew tired of dealing with people linked with the tourism industry who would spend their entire day standing at street corners offering white-water rafting or elephant riding packages to foreigners. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that if this is what floats your boat, but at that point of our lives it wasn’t enough for us. We’d started travelling to meet regular people but backpacking didn’t offer this opportunity. All this led us to look for another way of travelling we would enjoy more. Hitchhiking gave us all these things and it still does. I don’t think we will ever grow out of it.
RS: What did really made you continue travelling this way?
HHH: We first started hitchhiking regularly in Penang Island, Malaysia, inspired by our CS host Ang who shared with us incredible stories both from his youth as well as others he had heard from travellers he’d hosted, and we thought why not try hitchhiking ourselves. It sounded like great fun and the kind of adventure we had longed for, so on the day we had to say goodbye to Ang, we walked to the end of the road and extended our thumbs. To our surprise a huge and rather expensive car stopped and a Muslim family invited us in. They were driving their daughters to school but were more than happy to give us a lift across to the mainland. From then on it got easier and easier, and we knew we would continue travelling in this way. It was the selfless and unconditional human kindness that struck us most. We met people who we shared no language with but who were willing to drive us somewhere, share their food with us and offer their floor or sofa to sleep on. Since we first started hitchhiking we’ve met hundreds of people who were ready to go out of their way to help a couple of strangers stuck on a road somewhere. And that is a beautiful thing.
RS: Hitchhiking is the way to adventures, you say. What makes an adventure worth living it?
HHH: T.S Eliot said that “only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go“. An adventure is a test of your own abilities which allows you to verify how much you can endure. Only by stepping out of your comfort zone and facing the unknown can you really know how much you are able to go through.
Furthermore, the kind of adventures that hitchhiking offers, gives you a really pleasant adrenaline rush, something that most extreme sport aficionados can sympathise with. It’s just a really fun and addictive thing to do!
RS: But it’s not always just about fun. There was a long discussion in your blog about female hitchhiking and safety on the road. In your own experience, how do you make yourself feel safe when you hitchhike?
HHH: Safety is one of the biggest issues people have with hitchhiking. Many say they’d be willing to try but are scared of all the bad things that can happen to them, of all the rapists and thieves just waiting out there to pick up a couple of helpless hitchhikers on a lonely road. To tell you the truth, this kind of horror story scenarios don’t happen in real life (or at least they have never happened to us), but it doesn’t do you any harm to follow your common sense and avoid tempting fate. For example we never hitchhike at night and that’s not because we’re scared of the dark (or are we?), but mostly because drivers can’t see you well which creates a potentially dangerous situation. Secondly, you shouldn’t get in a car you feel uneasy about. If there is something that makes you anxious about the driver, politely refuse the lift and wait for another one. And thirdly, it has been proved that the biggest danger while hitchhiking lies in road accidents and reckless driving, but apart from learning CPR there is not much else you can do to avoid it, so simply don’t worry about it.
RS: Do your friends hitchhike? Or are you part of a rare species? And what do you tell someone who is just about to start?
HHH: Well, none of our friends are regular hitchhikers and some of them refuse to do it on principle, but we’ve had some success proving how great it is to a few of them. Our good friends from Poland, who are professional paramedics, following our advice have already done one trip to Romania and one to Montenegro, and we are very proud of them 🙂
There are a couple of things you should keep in mind when starting to hitchhike for the first time, for instance the fact that it’s always easier to hitch from the edge of town rather than the centre, that you should face the driver and have a pleasant and non-threatening appearance and that you should make it easy and safe for the car to stop. You can check out our basic Rules of Thumb beginners guide but the best way to start hitchhiking is to learn by doing. Just find the spot you want to start from, be positive, don’t over-analyse it and wait for the adventure to happen!
PART 2 – THE BLOG
RS: In your own words “nowadays everyone and his uncle has a travel blog”. Why should we all read and check Hitchhikers Handbook?
HHH: Hitch-Hikers Handbook is aimed at hitchhikers and other budget travellers, and it contains a lot of useful tips on travelling in general as well as country or city-specific guides, walking tours and photo essays. It’s like a guide book for hitchhikers and all budget travellers, and what makes it unique is the fact that it’s not written by one person or even two, but a whole bunch of passionate travellers who regularly contribute and write content for us. Hitch-Hikers Handbook is not your typical blog where the author speaks to the audience, but rather a place that encourages dialogue and welcomes all different perspectives and approaches. There have been articles written by both seasoned and newbie hitchhikers & backpackers, people who hitched in Africa and on boats across the Atlantic, so I really believe there is something for everyone passionate about adventures and exploring the world around us on a shoestring.
RS: Hitchhiker’s Handbook is about your travels and projects, but also more than that. Why do you think it is interesting to take such a collaborative approach to blogging?
HHH: We created Hitch-Hikers Handbook to be a kind of ‘virtual fireplace’, where anyone can share their travel stories and practical hitchhiking & budget travel tips. We don’t want it to be a travel blog based on one-way communication where we are the ‘celebrities’ and all the attention of focused solely on us. We are no different to other hitchhikers, we haven’t travelled further or done more adventurous things than others, we are not special in any way and while travelling we have met dozens of fascinating individuals whose stories we’d love to tell, or give them the medium to do so. And although HHH is still a relatively small blog, we are always immensely happy when contacted by a regular hitchhiker who’d love to publish their story or a relevant travel article on our site.
RS: Your blog gives us the feeling of being like a platform in movement by itself. How do you see it growing? Where would you like to take it?
HHH: When we started HHH we knew absolutely nothing of blogging and had no training in IT, so we are constantly learning new things and discovering new possibilities. Of course, one day we would love to make it really big and be the medium where ALL hitchhikers around the world share their stories and experience, but that’s the project for many years to come, I think 🙂
RS: What does blogging give you? And what does it take away?
HHH: As you probably know yourselves, blogging can be really addictive. Especially if you devote a lot of your time and energy in creating something that comes in handy to other people who then share their joy with you. What we most love about running a blog is creating something useful for the others. But blogging is very time consuming, so while on the road it sometimes feels that we spend too much time in front of the computer rather than enjoy the sun or speak to people around us. It sometimes feels like having a job as well because you have some commitments and deadlines you have to meet even when you’re on holiday. Win some, lose some as they say…
A HITCHHIKING PROJECT – THE LONG WAY HOME
RS: You have a long travel coming up. 11 months of hitchhiking all around Asia heading home. How did you come up with this plan? What sort of dreams is this travel made of?
HHH: When we were travelling around the Caucasus we were struck by the way people from neighbouring countries looked at each other. We never experienced any hostility or bad blood towards us – people from outside – but there was a lot of mistrust among nations who lived only a few hundreds of kilometres away. We realised that this is mostly because they have no means of knowing their neighbours and finding out that they are equally kind and hospitable. We thought it would be great to find a way to bring these people together and show them that those who live on the other side of the border are also a fascinating bunch.
Our route will be: Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania with over 27,000 km by thumb.
RS: The travel is coming up. You have been thinking about it, reading about it, planning,writing, filming, packing… in 5 words, how do you feel when the travel is almost at your doorstep?
HHH: Excited, apprehensive, thrilled, anxious, impatient!
RS: And fears. You are well travelled hitchhikers, you’ve been camping for years, you know how to cook and walk and move and probably how to keep healthy. But you mentioned in your last post that you did have some fears. What’s the little magic recipe that helps you taking the road on your hands and under your feet and not let the fears keep you tied?
HHH: To be honest, we are not that fearless. In our daily lives we worry about many things (even about going to the hairdresser’s – that’s only Ania, though 🙂 ) but somehow it all doesn’t matter when we are on the road. Travelling is therapeutic in many ways and perhaps it helps you feel stronger and more resistant than you really are. And it’s clearly better that ‘real life’, going to work and paying off your mortgage!
RS: Your long way home is not just a travel, and it´s not simply about thumbing along the road, you have a whole project to carry in your backpacks. What is Hitchhiking Cultural Relay about?
HHH: During our project we want to carry out a chain of learning, teaching and gift-giving. In every country we visit we want to learn something (e.g. a dish, a game or listen to their traditional music) and pass this knowledge onto people in the next country on the way alongside with a small gift, sent by the previous person, that would represent this tradition and help cultivate it. By doing so we hope to create international friendship bonds, promote cultural diversity among people who would have never met otherwise and open their and our eyes to the world around us.
It should also be a lot of fun to watch (as we are planning to film the whole thing and describe it on our blog) since not often do you see Tajiks making English Yorkshire puddings or Mongolians forming traditional Polish pierogi
RS: Have you done similar projects before? Why is it important for you, in this travel, to hitch with an extra mission?
HHH: We haven’t done anything similar before but we feel we have received so many positive emotions from others so far that we’d like to give something from ourselves as well. We can’t offer them money but what we can do is show them the world though the practical gifts we bring and connect people living thousands of kilometres apart.
RS: A practical logistic question from a curious backpacker, tell us the secret: how are you planning to cope with the extra weight of the gifts?
HHH: We have thought about that and we’ve resolved that carrying them on our backs might be a bit too much for our spines so we will have an extra small suitcase just for the gifts. Maybe it’s not as practical as carrying rucksacks, but we hope we will manage somehow. It’s all for the greater good 😉
RS: And one more! Here you can add any question you wish you were asked. “What will you miss most while on the road for nearly a year?”
HHH: We will certainly miss Barcelona, which was our home for the last 4 years. We will miss our friends scattered across Europe and our students. We will miss European bread, comfortable beds and solid access to the Internet too, but I’m sure we will have fun nonetheless as the best is yet to come!
Follow them across Asia or check hitchhiking and backpacking tips in their blog: HitchhikersHandbook.com