Road roulette

Demoralized by goals and guidebooks, our correspondent tackles Lithuania and Poland on a thumb and a prayer.

Published December 14, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

By my second day of thumbing rides through Lithuania, I finally feel like I've hit a hitchhiking rhythm, even though my progress (less than 100 miles) hasn't been particularly impressive. Standing at the edge of a town called Marijampole, thumb aloft, I keep my patience -- despite the fact that I'm in my third hour of waiting for a ride. The Polish border, my goal for the day, is still a tantalizing 20 miles away.

Regardless of where you are in the world, hitchhiking comes with its own set of basic procedures: choosing a safe roadside hitching spot where traffic is slow enough to stop; refusing to accept rides from drunk or suspicious or crazy people; staying wary, bringing a map, using common sense. Patience, that mossy old virtue, is central to all of this. With the proper amount of patience, hitching can be a safe and interesting way to see Europe and -- most importantly -- it can allow you to interact with the kind of people you'd never see on the tourist routes.

The inspiration to hitch first struck me two nights ago, while I was researching my Poland guidebook in a McDonald's near the Vilnius bus station. I'd heard great things about Poland from other travelers, but the more I read about places like Gdansk and Poznan and Czestochowa, the more demoralized I became. From a planning perspective, Poland was just too big and interesting. To tackle the Tatras Mountains in the south might mean missing the Bialowieza Forest in the north; to tour the Renaissance village of Zamosc in the east might mean missing the avante-garde university town of Wroclaw in the west; to experience the cosmopolitan culture of Warsaw or Krakow might mean missing the folk culture of the countryside.

Sometimes, choice presents itself as a glossy act of destruction -- of eliminating possibilities in the name of decisiveness. This is why -- halfway through a Lithuanian Big Mac -- I decided to give Poland up to chance instead of choice: I decided to simply find a highway, stick out my thumb and let fate take me for a ride. Thus, by turning my travels into a kind of road roulette, I could experience each moment of Poland without having to worry about where I stood in relation to point A or B.

Each new ride and random stop-off, I'd hoped, would reveal Poland not as a mere destination -- but as a continuously unfolding mystery.

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The most immediate challenge upon starting my hitchhiking adventure yesterday came in trying to get out of Vilnius, my starting point. The problem with Vilnius isn't that Lithuanians don't stop for hitchers -- the problem is that hitching rides in Lithuania seems to be a wildly popular pastime. On a warm Sunday afternoon in Vilnius, the competition for rides can be daunting. When I arrived at the A1 highway ramp at noon, I was greeted by an outright crowd of Lithuanian hitchhikers strung out down the road. Keeping true to etiquette, I took a place 20 meters beyond the last person, stuck out my thumb and waited.

And waited.

When competing with other hitchers on a balmy Lithuanian day, being male, solo and 6-foot-3 is hardly the best marketing formula. After two hours of wagging my thumb at traffic, my arm was sore and my feet were tired. Over a dozen hitchers ahead and behind me had already been picked up, almost all of them females. Male hitchers (myself included) stood forlornly at the front of the queue while female hitchers got whisked off within minutes of arriving.

This ongoing phenomenon was about to drive me into pessimism and despair when a Lithuanian girl stepped off a local bus one block down and walked right up to where I was standing.

"Do you mind if I hitch with you?" she asked. "I have this habit of not hitching by myself."

I looked at the girl and blinked. She had a Betty Boop haircut, a small shoulder bag full of gear, and fantastic green eyes. She'd approached me without a trace of apprehension, and she'd somehow known that I spoke English. Since I'd only seen this kind of luck as a beer commercial plot device, I decided to clarify.

"Why do you want to ride with me?"

"You're American," she said. "Foreign travelers are always a safe bet. Plus you speak English and so do I."

"Yes, but how did you know I spoke English? How could you tell I was American?"

"You look American," she said. "You're wearing white socks."

My new partner introduced herself as Edita ("just like the boss of a newspaper," she said) and went to work. Standing at the edge of the road, she laid one hand across her heart, raised the other into the air and gave her eyelashes an exaggerated flutter -- as if she were portraying a coquettish onstage vixen. Within a minute, a white van pulled over and picked us up.

"You're good," I told her as we climbed into the van.

"I got involved in drama at university," she said. "I used to be shy. I still am shy by nature, but acting has helped me become a stronger person. If I ever get into a situation that seems difficult, I can just 'act' my way through it. I was acting when I met you back there, by the way."

"Bravo," I said.

As luck would have it, both Edita and I were headed to the city of Kaunas, where the A1 highway to the Baltic Sea intersects the A5 route into Poland. Had my beer commercial reveries (which had kicked into high gear by this point) been actualized, Edita would have introduced me to a bikinied gaggle of her actress friends in a Kaunas hot tub. Instead, Edita gave me something much more subtle but just as lovely: She took the evening to personally walk me through her city.

Kaunas is a remarkable old settlement tucked into a small gorge at the confluence of the two widest rivers in Lithuania. Some of the buildings and ruins date back to the days before Lithuania -- the last pagan holdout in Europe -- was Christianized in the 14th century. Kaunas has been burned to the ground 13 separate times in its history, and once served as the national capital when Vilnius fell to the Poles. Kaunas has one street (Laisves Avenue) where it hasn't been legal to smoke a cigarette since the twilight of the Soviet occupation, and it is the only city in the world -- to my knowledge, at least -- with a museum devoted entirely to folk-art devil figurines.

Following a 700-year-old cobblestone street into the Old Town district, Edita shared with me the secrets of Kaunas: how in 1812 Napoleon launched his ill-fated Russia invasion from a nearby hill; how the embalmed bodies of Lithuanian aviation heroes Tesporas Darius and Stasys Girenas were secretly sealed into the walls of a local medical building during Stalin's reign; how Yasser Arafat recently had his private helicopter renovated at the local airplane factory.

Our cobblestone walk terminated at Rotuses Square, where we found a pipe organ concert underway in the baroque-styled confines of St. Francis Church. Admittedly, I know more about Moog tunes than fugue tunes, and I wouldn't recognize a diapason if one hit me over the head. But the complex, sonorous hum of the old pipe organ left me enchanted as I stood with Edita in the back of the crowded sanctuary: I felt like I'd come to Kaunas just to hear that strange music with a green-eyed girl.

Thus far, today hasn't been quite so charmed. Two short rides took me out of Kaunas to the A5 ramp at Garliava this morning; then I had to wait three hours before a man in a blue Mazda took me 35 miles to the back streets of Marijampole. All three drivers were friendly, but none of them spoke English or interacted much. Now, at the south edge of town -- almost within walking distance of the Polish border -- my arm is beginning to tire again.

Pessimism creeps as the traffic whizzes past me. The sun is sinking into its late afternoon groove, and I'm considering my backup plan: to forgo a ride and hike a few hours out of the city limits so I can find a safe place to camp for the night. Since I'm carrying a hammock and a Gore-Tex bivy sack, I figure it will be easy to blend into the forest for an evening's sleep. Then I can walk the rest of the way to the border tomorrow and wait for Poland-bound cars as they pass through the checkpoint.

As I'm pondering this possibility, a white Ford Focus pulls over onto the shoulder and a college-aged girl sticks her head out the passenger window. "Do you speak English?" she asks.

"Sure," I say. "I'm American."

"Good, because my friends and I don't speak much Lithuanian. We're just visiting from Hungary. We're going to Krakow. Where are you going?"

"I just need to get into Poland. Anywhere across the border is fine."

"Well then, please get in. I'm Christina, and this is my boyfriend Ervin and our friend Sepi."

Thanking Christina, I unsling my pack while the Hungarians rearrange things in the car. The Ford Focus is so full of food and gear that it takes them 10 minutes before they can shift enough items to clear out a space for me.

"You are very lucky today," Christina says to me as we try to jam my pack into the trunk.

"Why's that?" I ask.

"Because you are the first hitchhiker in Ervin's new car. He used to hitchhike all the time -- he even made it to Amsterdam once. Now that he's driving, he finally gets to say thank you for all the people who picked him up. Maybe this will be the best ride of your life!"

Once I wedge myself into the back seat, I have so many sausages and melons and grease-spotted cookie boxes in my lap that I can hardly move. Sepi, a stocky, bearded fellow who shares the back seat with me, assures me that there is one easy way to free up some breathing space. "You look hungry," he says.

Sepi hands out some plastic plates and passes the food around the car as the swampy Lithuanian forest land rolls past. Bit by bit, we eat ourselves some elbow room.

"Why do you have so much food?" I ask, carefully gnawing my chunk of watermelon.

"Our Lithuanian friends were married in Marijampole this weekend," Sepi says, cutting a thick slice of ham sausage onto a piece of bread. "Lithuanians are wonderful. When the family of our married friends found out we'd come all the way from Hungary, they treated us like brothers. When it was over, they gave us all this food."

"There was no room to sleep at our friends' house," Christina adds, "so we just slept in the wedding hall. The next morning, all the guests came back and we started eating and drinking and dancing again. So much happiness."

"Too much happiness," Ervin says. "If I didn't have this car to get us home, they would have made us stay there forever."

As we slow to pass through customs, I tell my new Hungarian friends my hitchhiking strategy. "I want to see Poland by thumb," I say. "I was thinking you could just take me to the first Polish city after the border station. The map says it's a town called Suwalki."

"Why do you want to stop there?" Ervin asks.

"Well, I want to discover things as they come in Poland, and that's a good place to start. I just want to keep a laid-back attitude and go where fate and chance take me. That's the best way to discover things, I think. Road roulette."

"Roulette, yes, like gambling," Sepi says. "I think that sounds romantic. But what is 'laid-back'?"

"Relaxed, casual," I say. "Not worrying about goals."

Ervin looks back at me from the driver's seat, a fire of mischief in his eyes. "But how can you be laid back," he says, "if you want to get out of the car at Suwalki and wait for a different ride? That's a goal, yes? We are already going to Krakow. If you are laid back, you will come with us."

Sepi nods seriously. "You must come to Krakow."

"But Krakow is all the way at the other end of the country. If I go there now, I'll miss most of Poland."

"Krakow is not the end of Poland," Ervin says. "Krakow is just the south of Poland. If you want to see more of Poland after Krakow, just hitch north."

"I know roulette," Sepi adds, "and I think you can't change your number now. If Ervin picked you up, then you have to go where Ervin is going."

The Hungarians have me checkmated: To argue otherwise at this point would be to contradict the impulse that led me to hitch in the first place. "Krakow it is, then," I shrug.

A few dozen miles into Poland, the day fades out; we speed south on the darkened road. The Hungarians seem as inspired by my presence as I do by their hospitality, and I soon get a Hungarian-slanted crash course in Eastern European history and politics. Christina, Ervin and Sepi all attend the elite University of Economic Sciences in Budapest, and I am amazed not just by their socio-political knowledge -- but by their nonchalant skill at discussing and debating these issues in English.

The most entertaining aspect of this free-wheeling culture lesson is that Christina, Ervin and Sepi can't bring themselves to agree on any one interpretation of the world. When Sepi tries to teach me the details of the 1956 Budapest Revolution, Ervin and Christina get into an argument over Imre Nagy's tactical wisdom in standing up to the Soviets. When Christina tries to educate me regarding Hungary's progressive new Gypsy policies, Sepi and Ervin bicker over whether Gypsy social shortcomings are the result of culture or prejudice. When Ervin describes how recent economic growth and reforms have brought Hungary into a new golden age, Christina and Sepi debate whether the last great age in Hungary was the 19th century monarchical alliance with Austria or the 15th century empire under King Matthias Corvinus. Whenever such debates get too heated, everyone switches over to Hungarian, and I have to wait several minutes before they translate their conclusions into English. I sit spellbound in the back seat under my pile of half-eaten Lithuanian sausages.

Well into the night, about 45 minutes south of Warsaw, Sepi is talking about the fate of the 3 million ethnic Hungarians living in Transylvanian Romania when Ervin coasts the car to the side of the road. He says something in Hungarian, and Sepi hands him a big plastic cup from the back seat. Very businesslike, Ervin takes the cup, opens his door, and hops outside. I peer out the back window as he takes off running back up the highway like some kind of lunatic superhero.

"What's going on?" I ask.

"We ran out of fuel," Sepi says. "Ervin always forgets to check the gauge on his new car. He says he saw a petrol station a few kilometers back."

While we wait for Ervin to complete his mission, Christina spreads a blanket onto the grass at the side of the road and we snack on some more of the Lithuanian wedding delicacies. Sepi fishes a couple of bottles of red wine from the trunk and mixes the vintage with some Coca-Cola.

"Why are you mixing wine and Coke?" I ask him.

"This is red wine," he says. "It goes best with Coke. Sprite is best for white wine."

"Is this normal -- mixing wine and soft drinks?"

Sepi shrugs. "Hungary is famous for wine, and we begin to drink it when we are very young. For kids, it tastes better with Coke. So maybe right now we're just drinking like children."

Sitting at the side of the road, I have my first ever wine-cola cocktail while Sepi and Christina discuss sustainable growth, dismantling state sectors and the best ways to attract foreign investment.

It occurs to me at this moment that I am sitting on a Polish roadside with Hungary's future leaders: that Sepi and Christina (and Ervin) will one day be part of the brain trust that helps bring their country into the European Union -- into the next century. And the fact that they are so down to earth and alive -- the fact that they would road-trip across four countries to see their Lithuanian friends get married, or teach a hitchhiker about their economy (or, for that matter, sweeten their wine with Coke because it tastes better -- an honest populist gesture if I've ever seen one) -- makes me suspect that Hungarian democracy is going to do just fine in the next century.

Thirty minutes into our picnic, Ervin returns with a full cup of gasoline. He carefully empties the cup into the tank, and we sputter back up the road to the petrol station. As Christina squeegees the windshield and Ervin turns on the gas-pump, I realize that a full day of hitching topped off with wine-cola cocktails has made me sleepy.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

By the time Sepi wakes me up, the car is parked on a narrow city street and it is daylight. Though I've been semi-awake all night, I'm still not sure what has just happened.

"We are here," Sepi says as he shakes me awake. "Ervin and Christina have already gone to sleep in their apartment. I'll show you to the dormitory on Horansky, and you can stay in one of the empty rooms there."

Something about this makes no sense at all. "Christina and Ervin have an apartment in Krakow?" I ask.

Sepi laughs. "You have been asleep a long time, I think. This is not Krakow. This is Budapest."

I try to draw a map in my mind -- to figure out how Krakow can turn into Budapest without me knowing -- but it's too early in the morning for this. "I thought we were going to stop in Krakow," I say.

"We did stop in Krakow, but it was too late to call our friends there, and Ervin felt like driving some more. So we went to Slovakia."

My mental map still isn't materializing. "What happened in Slovakia?" I ask.

"I don't know; I fell asleep before we got there. Slovakia isn't very big, so I guess Ervin felt like driving all the way home. He loves his new car, you know." Sepi pauses for a moment and shoots me a rather apologetic grin. "Who knows? He might even drive you back to Poland, if that's what you want."

I sit for a moment to mull over this unexpected shift in geography. By giving Poland up to chance -- by attempting to unravel the mystery of Poland on a thumb and a prayer -- it seems as though I have discovered something entirely unexpected: Hungary.

Figuring it's always better to assume you've hit the jackpot than to obsess over what might have been, I yank my pack from the crammed trunk of the Ford. As I follow Sepi to my Budapest crash-pad, I feel a small, indescribable welling of joy at the odds that brought me here.

Road roulette, indeed.

By Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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