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A winter hitch from Vilnius to Riga


By the time I’d got myself showered, packed, eaten a banana for breakfast and was ready to leave the flat it was 12:30 in the afternoon. Over the breakfast cup of tea, Cori and I had both commented on how nice the weather was and what a pleasant day it would be for my hitchhiking attempts. The sun was shining and the snow on the rooftops was starting to melt. Cori left the flat with me, on her way to the American Embassy to print some documents, and as we walked down the street huge flakes of snow were falling from the sky, obviously being blown from the rooftops by the wind that was picking up.

Wrong!

The snowflakes turned out to be fresh from the heavens. It was a classic case of “commentator’s curse”. By talking about how nice the weather was, it was inevitable that it would all of a sudden turn bad. The snow was falling like nobody’s business, massive flakes, and was settling on the ground quickly. People looked at the idiot without a coat.

This idiot kept his eyes to the ground, embarrassed by his own stupidity.

I took the trolley bus to the final stop, then walked for another 15-20 minutes trying to find the spot I’d been told about by Cori’s hitchhiking friend. My feet were already soaking, and I slipped twice in the slush. The spot I needed was the entrance to the motorway, and I knew I was in the right place when I spotted a middle-aged scruffy-looking bloke standing with his thumb out. I stood near to him, but not too close, and took out my home-made sign on which I’d written ‘LV’ meaning that I wanted to go to Latvia. It was 2:05pm when I started.

After about 20 minutes of standing in the freezing cold, getting buried by the snow, and being splashed with brown water by every lorry that sped past, the middle-aged guy gave up and left the scene. I wasn’t alone for long. Five minutes later, walking up the road towards me, I spotted a little peroxide-blonde girl, possibly ‘working’. I knew she would be trouble. The first thing she did to piss me off was take up her spot about five metres in front of me, basically jumping the queue of one that I had formed for a lift. The second thing she did, which I knew was going to happen but that still infuriated me, was get picked up by a lorry driver after standing with her thumb out for less than a minute. That part I could understand. Lorry drivers like peroxide-blonde girls that look like sluts.

What I found rather distasteful, though, was that both she and the driver felt the need to laugh at me as they drove off. A laugh that said, “Do you really expect to get picked up looking like a drowned rat? A drowned male rat!”

I smiled back, not wanting to let them get to me in case it affected the image I was trying to project to other drivers of a cold, wet, but still smiling happy-go-lucky foreign guy just trying to get to Latvia.

At 2:40 another lorry sped past me, splashing my white jacket in mud and even getting some in my eyes. As I rubbed them to try and regain sight, a little car pulled over. I looked inside to the driver who was speaking on his mobile and he indicated for me to chuck my bags in the back. He was a huge, scary-looking bear of a man and I wondered if he’d take me into the woods and cut me up, but curiosity got the better of me, so I did as I was told and then got into the front seat, and waited for him to finish his conversation. The guy was about 50 years old, and so intimidating that I didn’t even imagine for a second that he’d speak any English. He said something to me in Lithuanian, then in Russian, then in Polish, and all three times I said, “Ne razumen” which means “I don”t understand” in Slovene but is also practically the same in most other Slavic languages.

“English?” He asked.

“Yes.”

“Ah, no problem. I speak English.”

I was surprised, but very pleasantly. He asked what I was doing in Lithuania and I explained the story. He told me that he was only going 60km up the motorway, but that at least it’d get me out of the snow for a bit and maybe I’d find it easier to get picked up from there. We spoke throughout the drive. His name was Tomas and he lived in a small town and worked in Vilnius in the building trade as some kind of boss. The Tony Soprano kind, I imagined. He’d worked in Norway for a few years and that’s where he’d learnt English, and he was married with one son. He’d also spent many years in the Soviet navy, but was 100 per cent Lithuanian and proud of it (his words).

Along the way, we stopped into a motorway food and drink place where he bought me a cup of tea (he laughed when I asked him to ask the waitress for milk to go in it) and he also got me some pate and cucumber on bread, saying that I needed to have food inside me if I was going be standing in this cold for a while. I was grateful to have been picked up by such a nice bloke. Over the tea he spoke about how he was looking forward to getting home in about 20 minutes because he was going to make lunch with his wife. He told me how even though he worked a lot of hours in the city, and she was also a busy estate agent, they still always tried to find the time to make lunch together and go to the supermarket and stuff. It was touching. As we drove the last 20 minutes before he’d have to let me out, the snow got ridiculous. We couldn’t even see through the windscreen at points. When he dropped me off, he got out of the car and went to the boot where he pulled out a pair of gloves for me to wear – not the especially warm kind, but rather the builders’ kind for gripping stuff, but still better than nothing at all – as well as putting into my hands a packet of cigarettes, a lighter and a bottle of Latvian brandy.

“This will keep you warm,” he said.  I didn’t know what to say, other than ‘thanks!’

He wished me luck and drove off to his house. What a nice bloke.

It was 3:45pm now, and I got my sign out again and started trying to get another lift. The snow came down, and I swear I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that my bags that were on the ground at the side of the road actually got buried.

I looked like Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman!

Some of the lorry-driving ‘comedians’ would indicate then pull over to the side of the road, wait for me a bit further up, watch me pick up my bags and struggle through the blizzard to get to the door, then just as I would reach out to open the passenger door they’d drive off laughing. That actually happened three times. It must be a game they all play. I made sure to show each one of them what I thought of them by doing a little movement with my wrist. I guess that gesture is internationally understood.

When it got to 4:45pm I’d had just about enough of standing there being laughed at by every car and lorry that went past, and I was also freezing to death, so I had another one of those silly moments that I get sometimes where I said to myself, “Fuck it. Riga’s only 200km from here, I’ll walk it.”

And so I picked up my bags and started trekking along the side of the motorway, keeping my thumb out on the off chance that someone might pull over and pick me up. I’d been walking for 50 minutes when a car pulled over just in front of me and the driver beckoned for me to get it. He was a guy of about my age, called Mandus, and he told me he was going about 50km to a place called Panevezys. It’d do for now. He dropped me off 35 minutes later at 6:10pm and I carried on walking in the same direction along the same motorway. It was never-ending. Every time a lorry went past, the speed of it combined with the wind and almost blew me off my feet and into the path of the traffic. I walked for another hour, saying to myself loudly over and over again, “I won’t stop until I get to Riga. I won’t stop until I get to Riga.”

Cori had given me a little bag containing a few slices of bread and cheese, some peanuts, and some biscuits. I opened the bag to find that the snow had got in and ruined everything. There were strange peanut-smelling juices everywhere and it was all just sopping wet and ruined. Fantastic!

At 7:10pm a car pulled up behind me and I turned around hopefully. This was going to be my lift to Riga; I could feel it. Wrong again.

It was the Lithuanian police. One of them asked me something, and I asked if he spoke English. He did, and he asked to see my passport, as well as asking where I was heading. After checking my passport, the one in the passenger seat got out of the car and I assumed I was in some sort of trouble. I wasn’t. This guy turned out to be the friendliest policeman I’d ever come across. He asked me if I had anything reflective, maybe a jacket or something. I told him that I didn’t, and so he opened up the boot and found the kind of reflective thing that people put on their bikes. He told me that I was taking a big risk walking in the dark, and that in this snow it would be hard for a car to see me and I could easily be run over. He took some string and tied the reflective material to my bag, then wished me good luck.

“Wait!” I shouted. “Are you driving that way?”

“Yes.”

“Take me with you!”

“OK, we’ll take you a bit further but then we’ll have to turn around.”

And so I got in the car and we drove for about 10 minutes at speed. As he put me out, he told me there was a petrol station a bit further up and that maybe I’d be able to find someone there to take me to Riga, as it was a main refuelling point for drivers heading that way. I carried on through the blizzard. When I call it a motorway, by the way, it’s not a motorway in the way that we have at home. It’s a one-lane each way road running through the forest, with no pavement for walking, and no lights.

I finally got to the garage at 7:40pm. It was a tiny little place and didn’t look like it got many customers. A sign told me I was 145km from Riga. I reckoned that if I carried on walking I’d be there in about 30 hours.

I stood in front of the building and waited for some cars to come for petrol. The first few that came in were either not going my way or had no space for me. Then a guy pulled up in a white transit van. As he walked towards the building, I asked him where he was going.

“Near to Riga,” he said.

“Perfect. Please can I come with you? I’m freezing and really need to get there,” I pleaded.

“Um, I don’t think so,” he said. I could tell that he didn’t really speak English and just had the basics. I checked his plates and found he was from Poland.

“Come on. Please!” I asked again.

He told me to wait, and then he went off to the toilet and then into the shop to buy cigarettes. When he came out I asked him again. He really looked like he didn’t want to take me, so I decided I had to play my trump card; out came the bottle of brandy.

“This is for you if you take me to Riga,” I held it out to him.

He smiled. “OK”.

He was about 55 years old, and looked very much like a man who drowned his sorrows in a drink.

We weren’t able to speak much as his English was apalling and surprisingly I don’t speak Polish, but I managed to find out that his name was Kristof and that he drove all over Europe, even in England and Wales, delivering some kind of material to energy companies. He even sometimes delivered Polish contract workers to the plants in England. Was he a people smuggler? I hoped so! How he managed to drive through England and Wales without speaking English was beyond me, but manage it he did, and he told me that he was often in Port Talbot in Wales. I also managed to understand that he wasn’t actually going to Riga but was driving fairly close and would drop me off somewhere nearby. Around two hours later at 9:50pm he dropped me off.

Nowhere near Riga.

I was in the middle of a forest. An unlit forest. I couldn’t really complain, though, he’d brought me a long way and at least I was in the right country now.

I’d seen a sign a few minutes before he dropped me out saying that Riga was just 17km away. Annoyingly, I couldn’t remember in which direction the sign had been pointing, and there was no way of finding it now. I walked around for about an hour, up and down different motorway turn-offs, in the pitch black (I couldn’t even read the roadside signs unless a car went past and put it’s headlights on it), trying to find anything that would point me in the right direction. This was dangerous, and I was pretty sure I was going to be hit by a car.

I eventually found the turn-off for Riga, though, and got walking down this tiny little slip road that took me from one main motorway to another. You’d think that at least one car would see this guy walking around in the blizzard, struggling with heavy bags and looking lost, and at least pull over to ask if he knew where he was going. You’d be wrong. I think I scared people, more than anything else.

I walked and walked until I came to a motorway service station. As I saw it from the distance, it became my holy grail. I battled through the wind and snow to get there. As the elements battered me from all directions, I thought of one of my favourite films of all time, ‘In this world‘ directed by Michael Winterbottom. It’s a film about some Afghan refugees going through a brutal overland journey to make it from a refugee camp in Pakistan all the way to London. Every time I watch the film, I am always overcome with a desire to travel in that way, to go through the extremes, to really test myself and to find out what I’m made of. There’s a part of the film where they’re fighting through the snow at night to cross the border from Iran into Turkey, and now, finally, I was having a taste of what that must’ve been like.

I know that I risk being accused of exaggerating or dramatising things for effect with this story. All I can do is tell you honestly that that isn’t the case. It was a harsh journey. My body was hurting from carrying the bags, I had cramp in my right leg from the effort needed to walk through thick snow, I was soaked through, there was a pond of water in each of my shoes, I’d eaten just a banana and a few slices of bread and pate all day, and I was exhausted.

I got to the petrol station and staggered up to the first parked car I saw. There were two guys my age putting air into one of the tyres.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.

“Yea.”

“Are you going to Riga?”

“Yep.”

“Can I please jump in?”

“Sure! Why not?”

And after all the struggles of the day, I was getting a lift into the city.

The guys were Renars and Janez, two Latvians returning to Riga after a day of snowboarding. They asked what I was doing and I gave a brief explanation, although was too cold and tired to speak in too much detail. Renars went in to the shop then came out with a hot cup of fruit tea for me, plus a tuna sandwich. These boys were my saviours.

They asked where I was staying and I said I didn’t know, but that I did have the number of my host. I used Renars’ phone to call, then got Liva (my host) to explain to them where I was to go. It was pretty close to where they were heading, and so they took me all the way to the flat.

We got to the flat at around 11:30pm and exchanged cards as I got out of the car. After 11 hours of hell, I’d made it to the next capital city on my checklist.

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