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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Odds & Ends of Hitchhiking Through Europe

Ends. I thought it would be odd to start with the ends. Though hitchhiking is certainly no means to the ends.

The city of Groningen in Netherlands has an official hitchhiking spot, or lifterschalte. It's a very nice spot too, with plenty of cyclists, and even boats passing by the adjacent canal. I waited here and, ironically, it was the longest I had to wait for a ride at any spot in the Netherlands - 1.5 hours.
The first driver that picked me up while hitchhiking from Berlin to Amsterdam drove 210 km/h on the Autobahn! I shared this ride with the charming Payman, who I met at the hitching spot outside Berlin. Turns out he has been hitchhiking for the past 11 years. He is a street performer and works as a professional mime. Now a German citizen, he was previously a refugee from Kurdistan who fled northern Iraq to avoid fighting in the army against his own people.

My third driver, Dan, on this same journey let me stay with him for one night. I got to meet his charming family, his wife Sabrina and 3 kids.

While hitchhiking from Warsaw to Berlin, two cars stopped for me at exactly the same time. One of them was a young woman. Of course I got excited - up to that point, I had only been driven by solo men. Unfortunately, as soon as she noticed the other driver, she pointed at him and drove away.
While hitchhiking from Rotterdam to Groningen, I got picked up by Joost, a university professor and world expert on floating structures for energy production, such as oil rigs. He is pioneering a project to build the first ever floating windmills. When I mentioned a groundbreaking (or wavebreaking?) tidal energy project in Canada's Bay of Fundy, he said he was a consultant on the project, and was just about to submit the feasibility report on it.

While hitchhiking from Netherlands to Paris, I encountered two other hitchhikers at a rest stop. They were in the middle of a friendly hitchhiking competition from Amsterdam to Lilles, with up to 10 other groups of students.

Later on that same journey I got picked up by Lien, a very interesting Belgian lady (my second ever female driver). She described the difference between Dutch and Belgians: Dutch people are very direct and blunt with their comments, easily offending people from other cultures, while Belgians are diplomatic while being nice. She likened Belgians to Canadians in this respect, attributing it to adapting to being situated next to major world powers.
By the way, wanna give hitchhiking a try? Here's a handy site to help you get started:

Odds. Now for some random and interesting European facts learned and experiences experienced of recent weeks.

After a failed uprising by the citizens of Warsaw to take back their city during World War II, the Nazis, as punishment, demolished every building in the city. Today Warsaw's old centre is beautifully restored and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Nazis built several bunkers in Berlin during World War II to protect its citizens from air raids, and to give their soldiers peace of mind that their families were safe. After the war all of the bunkers were destroyed as one way of discouraging another war by the 20th century upstart Germans.

In protest of serving for the Dutch army, my friend's father fasted for 3 weeks, only drinking water, before the army discharged him.

A large part of Netherlands is below sea level, blocked by dykes along the sea. The land is criss crossed with many canals of fresh water, supplied by rainfall and rivers, including the Rhine. All this fresh water is eventually discharged into the sea by pumps, a task once carried out for centuries by windmills. The administration tasked with water management in Netherlands, literally translated into English as "Battle Against the Water", has higher authority than the government.
Dutch people are good at water
The north of Netherlands is experiencing an increasing frequency of earthquakes, blamed on the exploitation of a large reserve of shale gas. My friend's mother is leading a community development initiative which includes construction of a house made of straw materials, more sustainable and resistant to earthquakes.

Holland is a region in the west of Netherlands, but the name is often mistakenly associated with the entire country. Holland does, of course, contain Amsterdam. Oh, and a lot of tulips.
At Keukenhof Gardens with Howie
Yes. Rainbow coloured tulips
Groningen was once deemed the friendliest cycling city in the world. Indeed, the day I spent walking around I had to watch out for cyclists, not cars, the entire time.
Bike parking outside a university in Groningen
Luckily for me, in many cities I got to be the cyclist. Thanks to the kindness of my hosts, or due to city bikeshares, I have ridden a bicycle in Syracuse, Vienna, Budapest, Warsaw, Berlin, Rotterdam, Kloosterburen, Nijmegen (actually, my friend Jasper rode while I sat on the rack on the back), Paris, and, most recently, Orleans.

In Rotterdam, I pulled off my most successful dumpster dive at the outdoor market. I brought a variety of fruits, vegetables and bread home, and cooked dinner for 4 guys in the house, which hosted 8 or 9 Couchsurfers every day.
Germany has a standard income tax of 45%. For every child, a family receives from the government 200 euros a month until that child turns 15. Unemployed citizens are eligible to receive benefits of 800 euros per month for a guaranteed 10 months.

On top of free university, students in Germany and Netherlands get a monthly stipend (also around 200 euros a month) to help with living costs (this was recently repealed by the conservative government in Netherlands). Canada, take note!

In Paris, I stayed in the centre in my friend's grandmother's chambre. It's basically a 10 square metre flat. There is a toilet, but, like a hostel, it's outside the flat and shared by other residents. Still, my friend says a place like this could rent for 500 euros per month!

Berlin is well known for urban exploring, which is the act of breaking into abandoned buildings. In its purest form, the urban explorer leaves no trace of his or her existence. I got to explore an abandoned children's hospital with friends.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Off the Straight and Narrow Path

Since I quit my job nearly one year ago, I began to really stray off the straight and narrow path.

My journey really began though with my big move 6 years ago when I cut the cord from my hometown of Toronto, thus freeing my conscience from the numbing expectations of my society. The new and wild geography of Calgary and the majestic Rocky Mountains presented an unexplored map of unlimited paths before me in the universe of my imagination. Calgary allowed me to explore these different life paths, be humbled by nature, and discover what I truly value.
Just a happy traveller - Croatia, 2012
But I didn't stop there. Drunk on the adrenaline pumping excitement of travelling, I sought new and wild geographies in India and Europe. Since then I have witnessed exotic cultures, wandered breathtaking landscapes and met inspiring people. Each individual experience left an impression on my soul, and every day spent out of my comfort zone slowly sculpted my mind like putty, molding it, carving extra details here, and niches there, producing a more concrete but genuine and recognizable form of who I am.

At some point, slowly, my worldly preoccupations began shifting from wistful wanderlusting to earthbound concerns. One aspect of society I continually ponder is its dependence on the traditional economy, which is a major driver for excess consumerism leading to global issues such as social inequality and environmental degradation.

Thoughts turned to action. My path took me to the experimental realms of hitchhiking and dumpster diving. I already knew a lot of hitchhikers, so hitchhiking wasn't so hard to try out. But dumpster diving was an activity that was really out there, highly taboo, and something I feared would trigger the alienation of my peers.

Around this time I also began to realize how quickly my life path was diverging from the majority of people I knew, mostly friends and family back in Toronto. I pledged that no matter how far I wandered on my path, I wouldn't stray too far from society, or alienate myself to its bitter fringes, like monks living in caves. But at the same time as I feared this direction, I couldn't step off of it - my heart involuntarily spurred me forward, my legs ran with the mental brakes off.

I have now transformed my initial fears, about hitchhiking and dumpster diving, into full embrace. As have I become comfortable in my hobo's skin. Well, I prefer to call myself a modern day nomad.

When I look back, I developed my spontaneity and craziness through the steady accumulation of my experiences... in other words, I didn't go crazy overnight. But I feel with strong conviction that most of what I am doing and how I am living is right, not only in my heart but also morally and environmentally.

With my return to Toronto, the new question frequently on my mind is that if I am right, then is everybody else wrong? If most people are doing one thing, and I am doing something else, doesn't that make me wrong?

Gathering all of the wisdom I have accumulated on my travels, I am discovering that the ultimate answer to any question about individual human nature is that everybody is right in their own way and nobody is completely wrong. And within the context of society, broadly the globe, there is not one correct lifestyle or solution, but it is about balance. In other words, the answer is not black and white, but somewhere on the sliding scale of the mind-boggling spectrum of human behaviour.
Back to basics - life in rural India 
Consumerism is not wrong, but it is out of balance, and society needs to scale back. Not everyone can live on a farm or dumpster dive, but more people can start growing their own food or wasting less of it. Not everyone can hitchhike, but some can drive less or offer rideshares - or pick up more hitchhikers!

I see myself as an extreme representation of an alternate lifestyle. But I do not think I am wholly right. Thus I'll try not to preach it brashly from a pedestal. Nor do I wish to be feared or repulsed by my peers. Instead, I seek to engage, educate and inspire about different ways of life to those who are curious and are willing to listen. In the big picture, my goal is to connect with society, not rebel from it.

This is my challenge going forward. This is the real me, stripped down, heart out, like the classic cartoon Care Bears. So let's put down the boxing gloves, exchange ideas, not insults, and trade hugs, not punches.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Hitchhiking Story #12

Looking out the window of my friend's flat in Warsaw, morning presented a ceiling of grey clouds, with the occasional piercing of a sword of sunlight into my bedroom.

The sky sent an ominous warning, but my determination to hitchhike the 570 km to Berlin did not wane or wax against the upcoming obstacles of the day.
Warsaw was completely levelled by the Nazis for its attempted uprising. Today the old town is beautifully restored
I set off by metro and bus to Warsaw's outskirts by 8:30 am. The first obstacle awaited - the highway was guarded by a thin metal wire fence, then protected by solid sound walls, and no ramps to access it. I found a hole in the wire fence to crawl through, then tried the emergency door of the sound walls. It could only be opened from the other side. Fortunately, someone punched a small hole where I put a wooden stick through it and pulled the door knob on the other side. Voila, I'm on the highway!

About half an hour of thumbs out on the highway, some cops pulled over and asked me to come with them. They drove me to a gas station and rest stop about 10 minutes down the highway. They took down my information along the way, let me off with just a warning, and told me if they see me along the highway again I would "go to prison!"
The calm morning before the dreadful storm
I'm not a big fan of asking at the rest stops, so after about 20 minutes of trying, I stood back on the side of the highway anyway, where the on-ramp merges. It was quite cold and windy out, so when a vehicle stopped about 20 minutes later, I was happy for the ride (and also to get farther away from the Warsaw cops), even though it was only about 30 km. After that, I picked up yet another short ride to the next rest stop, happy again for the spell of warmth.

That's when the weather turned. A mix of rain and snow began falling. I hoped that I could get a quick ride from sympathetic drivers seeing me shivering and getting wet on the side of the highway. The wind picked up and the conditions blew up to a big bad blizzard, snow beating my face and jeans, and trucks whipping up mists of spray, soaking me to the skin. And after waiting over an hour I was still eating pavement.

I went back to the gas station cafe to warm up. Asked a few people for rides. The wind dropped a little and I went back to the side of the highway. It didn't take long for the wind to pick back up again, and half an hour later, I was soaked to the bone, and cursing out loud at every passing vehicle for ignoring my plight!
Hitching from Krakov to Warsaw, by the distances to other cities sign
The view from a truck while hitching in Hungary
Thoroughly tired and desperate at this point, I walked back into the cafe and, taking advantage of free Wifi, searched refuge and advice from the Facebook group "Tribe of Hitchhikers", as well as messaged a few friends for support. Immediately an old friend, Nicolas, world traveller and hitchhiker extraordinaire, replied and reinvigorated me with spirit.

I began asking again in the cafe and within 5 minutes found a decent ride. The driver had done some yoga retreats in India, was very inspired about my travels and philosophies, and impressed by the journey I was taking towards actuating my beliefs.

I arrived at a rest stop near Poznan at 4:30 pm, now just 250 km from Berlin. I stuck my thumb out once again and, thankfully, for the last time. A trucker picked me up at around 5:15 pm and took me the rest of the way to Berlin's outskirts by 8:30 pm.
Welcome to Berlin! A section of the Berlin Wall
I managed to find a station for a regional train to the centre. One German speaking girl there wrote a translation on her smartphone to me that the "train is falling off again." This is the German literal translation for the "train is cancelled." This is the last thing I expected after arriving in punctual Germany - a train cancellation!

So I waited yet another hour in the darkness and biting wind of my new destination, for the next train, and finally arrived in the centre, to my friend's place after 11 pm, relieved and hugging the blankets of my warm and comfy bed tighter than ever.

On this hitchhiking journey I took 11.5 hours and 5 rides, including one police car, to go 570 km from outskirts to outskirts of Warsaw to Berlin. It took 15 hours to go from door to door. But I paid just 3 euros total on the day!

This is how, through my blog, I seek to redefine the term "rich" - I hitchhike because I am not rich in money - I am rich in time, and invest a wealth of trust in people. I am rich in gratitude - for the kindness I receive in return for the investment, for the simple things in life such as offerings of food from truck drivers and my friends/hosts, and a warm comfy bed at night.
Blogging in bed in Berlin
A tasty and cheap Polish meal at a classic "milk bar" the only restaurant in Communist times