The kindness of strangers

Positive News

During six months of hitchhiking around Europe, Jamie Bowlby-Whiting puts his trust in the inherent goodness of the world, and it delivers

“Don’t talk to strangers.”

As a child, I believed what I was told. But, as I grew older, I became less certain. Is the world really such a bad place? I wanted to see for myself. Against all life advice I quit my job and set off to hitchhike around Europe. I wanted to trust in strangers and see if the world really is as unwelcoming as people make it out to be.

Friends told me I was crazy: I would be mugged, kidnapped and tied up in a dark basement. But, undeterred, I left home on a rainy summer day in England and found myself at a petrol station, feeling rather silly, with my thumb out. “Maybe everyone was right,” I thought. “Maybe I should call this whole thing off.”

But as my doubts grew, a van suddenly pulled over to pick me up. I couldn’t believe it. It was actually happening. I eagerly jumped in and, by the end of the day, found myself in Belgium. There I stayed in the home of someone I had met online, something else I had been warned against doing. Despite this, rather than finding torture and misery, I found a warm individual who shared his home with me and introduced me to his friends.

What followed was half a year of being invited into the homes of strangers across more than 20 countries. I herded cows, ate fresh food from people’s gardens, washed in rivers, attended a hitchhiking festival by chance and camped under the Eiffel Tower during a huge thunderstorm – the best view in Paris and it was absolutely free.

During my travels I was picked up on the side of the road by 227 individuals, each with their own fascinating stories. Between them, they took me 23,000km across Europe. Some of them asked me to drive for them, some offered me food and drink, others simply wanted to help me out. Along the way I forged strong friendships which still exist today.

Everyone I met positively impacted upon my journey and, whether we shared a 10-minute car journey or multiple days of travelling together, I am grateful for the interactions. I learned to trust in strangers and that the world is not such a big scary place after all. Wherever we go, people are all the same: we all have hopes and fears, we all dream and want to be happy.

I also learned that money is not as necessary as we are led to believe. I almost never paid for accommodation, spent little, disconnected from computers, and lived each day outside, experiencing the wonder of the world without expectation.

The people who advised me not to go on this journey were doing so because they too had been taught to be wary of the world and afraid of the unknown. But how can you say the world is a dangerous place if you never step outside your comfort zone to see it for yourself?

My journey has reminded me that people are wonderful. All you have to do is give them the chance. Thank you, World.

Additional information about hitchhiking:

Although hitchhiking is not illegal in most parts of the world, it is not officially advised nor encouraged. Never hitchhike from the side of a motorway as this is dangerous and against the law. Always try to stand in a safe place where cars can see you clearly and have time to pull over slowly. But most importantly, trust your instincts: don’t be afraid to say no to a driver you don’t want to travel with and think about the different ways you can keep safe. For example, text the license plate of each car you enter to a friend and let the driver know that you are doing so. Check out hitchwiki.org for an incredible wealth of tips regarding hitchhiking safety and best practices.

Positive Travel is edited by Aaron Millar, he writes about adventure travel, and personal development through exploring the world, at The Blue Dot Perspective.

Photo title: Jamie Bowlby-Whiting (centre) surrounded by friends he met whilst hitchhiking

Photo credit: © Jamie Bowlby-Whiting

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