A hitchhiker’s guide to humanity

Author hitchhiking in Spain circa 2004
Though there were obvious financial perks to autostop, the ultimate value was not economic, writes Fernandez [Belen Fernandez]

One sunny afternoon in September 2006, my friend Amelia and I hitchhiked from the Lebanese capital of Beirut to the south Lebanese city of Tyre. It was a month after the end of the July War – the 34-day Israeli assault that killed some 1,200 people in Lebanon, the vast majority of them civilians – and swaths of the country had been converted into rubble.

We had thumbed our way to Beirut from Turkey via Syria – the latest in a series of international hitchhiking expeditions that had commenced one evening in 2003 in Greece, when the bus was taking too long and we wanted to get to the bar. I had graduated that same year from Columbia University in New York, and, at a loss for what to do with my preposterously privileged schooling, had opted instead to head to the Greek island of Crete to pursue certification as a teacher of English as a foreign language.

There I met Amelia, a classmate in the certification course, whose family had moved from Poland to the United States when she was 11. We quickly abandoned teaching aspirations in favour of what is known in many languages as “autostop”, and I quickly confirmed that my elite education had not been an education at all – at least in terms of, you know, understanding how the world works.

We had covered a fair amount of ground since 2003 – hitchhiking from Mexico to Guatemala and Belize and from Spain to Italy and Turkey – in between working assorted jobs, including at an avocado packing facility in Andalucía. Lebanon 2006 constituted new terrain – one that involved navigating bombed-out bridges and roads as well as flattened villages.

Heading south from Beirut, Amelia and I were picked up near one such bridge in the village of Naameh by an ebullient middle-aged man named Samir, who lived in Tyre and who told us to hop in. As would happen countless times over our two months in Lebanon, he then insisted that we stay in his home, which he shared with his young son and which was located just opposite from an apartment complex that had seemingly been sliced in half by Israeli ordnance, leaving a vertical row of exposed kitchens.

For the next several days, Samir dedicated himself to overfeeding us and escorting us around the Lebanese-Israeli border to view the crushed houses and general devastation that had been fervently abetted by my own country, the United States, which had expedited bomb shipments to the Israeli military and manoeuvred to thwart a ceasefire.

Although foreigners without Lebanese government permission were technically banned from the border areas, Samir resolved this impediment by gaily announcing to the soldiers at military checkpoints that Amelia and I were his wife and sister, respectively, and charging on through.

We eventually left Samir’s care and resumed autostop, encountering borderline obscene hospitality at every turn as Lebanese and Palestinians not only gave us rides but also opened their homes, plied us with food and drink, and loaded us up with all manner of gifts – such as the sizable wall clock bearing the Hezbollah logo, with which we then had to hitchhike back to Turkey.

After Lebanon, Amelia and I would continue intermittent hitchhiking excursions for another four years. And while the simple humanity that was extended to us time and again was not always as mind-blowingly ironic as when a Lebanese teenager whose house has just been cluster-bombed invites you to move in with her and her family, one thing was consistently clear: there were a lot of good people in a world that was terribly unjust.

There were the Moroccans who went hours out of their way to get us to remote destinations, the couple from Quito that picked us up on the side of the road and inserted us into their holiday on the Ecuadorian coast, and the Serb who insisted on personally depositing us at the Serbian “hot springs” we had determined to visit based on a far-too-cursory Google search conducted on our Italian friend’s computer prior to departing Rome. In the end, the hot springs were not hot springs at all but rather a hospital for rheumatic patients, where the hospital staff charitably permitted us to attend a water aerobics class that was presided over by a large, chain-smoking Serb called Little Joe.

There were the slow-going Colombian cargo trucks that adopted us for days on end, the Cuban who took us in search of the exact landing spot of the Granma – the yacht Fidel Castro and Che Guevara sailed on from Veracruz in 1956 – and the Mexican who arranged for my participation in a village bullfight, which entailed me being trampled by a bull while wearing a skirt. There were Bulgarians and Venezuelans, pick-up trucks and a horse-drawn cart.

Though there were obvious financial perks to autostop, the ultimate value was not economic. The ground-level view I gleaned of sociopolitical human reality – much of which involved confronting the international fallout of military and economic brutality perpetrated by my homeland – did far more to enlighten my thinking than did my Ivy League studies. Growing up as I had in a punitive capitalist system in which every last aspect of existence is monetised, the novelty of non-transaction-based travel was also invigorating – as was the ability to trust complete strangers.

This is not to say that there is not a vast privilege that attends hitchhiking, as well. Thanks to my imperial passport, I have been largely free to, like, hitchhike to Serbia for a water aerobics class – without having to contend with the criminalisation and discrimination that would apply to, say, a refugee from Afghanistan or Syria who was attempting to engage in far less trivial cross-border pursuits.

Nor is it to imply that Amelia and I never had to repel unwanted sexual advances or jump out of a few vehicles. Such episodes, however, were the extreme exception to the norm.

Our joint autostop missions came to an end in 2010, but I continued travelling more or less obsessively between countries – albeit via conventional modes of transport: aeroplanes, ferries, buses, trains – until the pandemic put a temporary halt to the arrangement. Perhaps it is because I have just turned 40 that I have been thinking back to the days when, without using phones or the internet, Amelia and I would cross Europe relying only on the outline of the continent on the 5-euro bill – a time when it still seemed, to me at least, that the world was full of infinite possibilities.

Hitchhiking through Syria all those years ago, we were at one point given a ride by a Syrian motorist, who informed us that he had not had the faintest clue as to what we were doing on the side of the road with our thumbs out – but that he had figured he would pull over and find out. And in a world ever more consumed with high-speed digital distractions – in which it often seems that there is barely time to even dream – there is much to be said for slowing down and seeing what it is all about.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.