Monday, 13 April 2015

Bummit!

Hey! It's been a while.

So, from March 25th to Monday 6th, I've been on the adventure of a lifetime. I know I'll look back on those words in a few years and cringe (sorry, future me!) but this has honestly been the largest and most significant thing in my life so far. I hope to beat the record soon.

Bummit is an organisation within the University of Sheffield - where I study - which runs hitchhiking trips for charity. Its challenge is to get to a specific destination with a team of two to four students, over the course of so many days, just by getting free lifts. I heard about it through students who came to our door, and signed up because I've never travelled, and was getting sick of having no stories to tell. I've been on holiday to a few places - nearly all of them in France - but this was the first time I went anywhere on my own; let alone by such an unreliable method. Not only that, but the destination for this year's Bummit was Bucharest, in Romania (I honestly didn't know that before,) and that's the furthest Bummit has ever gone. We had to get from Sheffield, England, to Bucharest in 9 days. I didn't think it could be done. And now it's over, which I'm sad about; but I want to reflect on the trip and everything involved.

I'm also writing this blog post as a more convenient way to address the question of "How was the trip?" If I've pointed you here, please don't be offended or think I'm annoyed with you, it's just easier to write it all once! I'll break this post down threefold: the before, the trip itself, and the after, and I'll break it down into days, because that's how I kept my journal on the way.

Before

I won't harp on this too long, but the basic points:
  • I spent far too much money. Sleeping bag, thermos, compass, bum bag, torch, camping plates and cutlery; you name it and it ended up in my bag. Didn't need the half of it, but I always prefer being overprepared.
  • I met my teammates at a Bummit teammating (not a word that should ever be hyphenated) social. Jun and Ran are two really awesome Chinese girls, and I'm happy to have met them!
  • The three of us arrived at the Student Union at ugly-o'clock, with our heavy bags, Bummit hoodies/t-shirts, and the Bummit bible, containing all the useful information we'd need on our trip. And condoms. I'm not sure where/when they thought we would have time to use them.
  • Here was our humble beginning, standing outside the SU with our first destination, and no bloody clue what we were doing.

During

Day 1 and 2

Hitching out of a city is difficult. We learned this the hard way. None of us had ever done hitchhiking before, so we were a little unsure what to do, but on the advice of some other Bummiters, we sought out the nearest petrol station, put up a sign, and started waving our thumbs at cars and smiling. It took us two hours before we actually got a lift, from a kind guy called Lee, who had seen us over the road while he was getting his car serviced, and took us to the first service station.

Thanks Lee for our first hitch!

We got a total of six lifts in England: after Lee, there was Linda; Mercedes and John; Ivor; and Mark and Jennifer. Mercedes and her husband John took us right past their home in Central London, through 2 hours of traffic, to get us to a good hitching point; and Mark and Jennifer took us the last leg to Dover. I wish we'd gotten pictures of those couples!

Then things got complicated in Dover. The idea was to hitch into a car getting on a ferry, get on the ferry, and hitch the same way out when we got to Calais; the problem is, none of us could find a car to get into. The majority of people also didn't get a lift, so they slept in the passenger lounge and bought a foot passenger ticket the next day. We were one of the lucky few who got a lift - and by we, I mean, Jun and Ran found the driver, while I was huddling from the cold in the passenger lounge.

The lift was an awesome Turkish truck driver named Barish, who agreed to take us on the ferry, and then out of Calais on the other end. Barish was cutting across Europe in his huge red truck, and seeing as his route intersected with ours so nicely, we ended up staying with him much longer than we'd anticipated. We were in Belgium by early morning of the second day, where we slept in Barish's truck; then we went on to Germany that afternoon. We ate some really cool Turkish food in a Würzburg truck stop - apparently there's a really big Turkish population in Germany! - and moved on through Cologne and Frankfurt. We finally parted ways in a small service station outside of Nuremberg; we found some nice seats in the restaurant, unpacked our sleeping bags (with the manager's consent,) and got a night's sleep. I won't say a good one, but it was something.

We miss you Barish!

Day 3

Waking up in a service station was a new experience, though not a terrible one. They had showers, food, and the coolest toilets I've ever seen, with automatic rotating self-cleaning toilet seats! (I'm easily impressed.) By that point, we'd travelled over 750 miles (~1200km) but without stopping to see any of the sights, so we decided to leave early to see Nuremberg. It took us about an hour to get a lift, with a friendly young German woman called Steffi.

Nürnberg/Nuremberg, outside Hauptbahnhoff, the main train station.
Nuremberg was pretty cool, considering all I knew about it before arriving was the Trials; we saw museums, the Kaiserburg castle, the cathedrals, all within the old town. And, of course, we had to try the German sausages and beer - well, the girls tried the beer, and I made faces after a sip. Soon enough, though, we had to leave, and there we were reminded that hitching out of a city is difficult. We tried to get a free train at first; the idea was to approach the conductor when he got out of the train, and show him our letter in German, explaining our purpose and motive, and asking to be let on. The plan was miscommunicated, so after an hour or so of interacting with information and the ticket office, we tried to find a car going out of the city. It took two or three cold hours to succeed, but the man who found us, Roman, was incredibly kind. He showed us his nearby hometown of Lauf, a beautiful little town that I hope to return to some day - and went out of his way to ensure that we found our next hitch. What a guy.

Thanks Roman! Maybe we'll see you again some day!
Our destination was Prague, Czech Republic. This wasn't in the original plan, but we decided en route that it would be worth seeing (spoilers: it was.) We found ourselves in a dark and dingy service station in Nowhereville outside Nuremberg; it took about an hour or two to find Lukas, who was bound straight for Prague. His English was good, and he was really interesting, so he and I chatted for quite a while as J+R slept. He was going to drop us at a train station where we could sleep the night, and that seemed like a good plan at first.
Thanks for the direct lift to Prague, Lukas, even if the night became a nightmare!

Well, then the night went pretty wrong. After we got to Prague, there was nowhere safe-looking in the train station, so we instead went looking for a hostel, crossing paths with a bizarre Margo-esque German girl, Mirjam, who strung us along for an hour trying to find a stranger's room for us to sleep the night in. When that failed and Mirjam went her own way, we spent another hour looking for a hostel and trying couchsurfing, which we tried too late; we even tried to follow Mirjam's footsteps and ask strangers for a place to sleep. It was 2 a.m. or so when, with tempers raised and tensions frayed, we finally found a hostel that had room for us.

"It's been a night," I told the receptionist. It had been.

Day 4

Night 1 in Prague was little fun, but the day was a huge pick-up. We had a free breakfast () and caught a free tour () at 10 a.m. (), in order to see the city. The tour was really good; the tour guide was an English guy called Dave, who just so happened to have studied linguistics and languages at the University of Sheffield, like me. We saw a lot of the city, and got a lot of really interesting history. I was maybe the most surprised to hear the word "defenestration" used by Dave; apparently many people were defenestrated (thrown out of a window,) during the wars between the Czech Catholics and the rebel Hussites. Cool history! We got to see a lot of the beautiful architecture - and there is a lot of beautiful architecture in Prague - including the Orloj, the incredibly complex astronomical clock within the town centre. Every hour, clockwork figurines perform a "show" around the Orloj. For a machine designed in the 15th century, it's incredible!

A close-up of the Orloj astronomical clock in Prague's old town.

After exploring the city, eating a supposedly traditional Czech dinner (it was delicious, whether or not it was traditional,) we managed to find a couchsurf for the night. This is something we discovered maybe a little late; couchsurfing.com is a website where people offer their houses to let you sleep for free. So a nice German guy living in Prague, Christoph, hosted us in his lounge (with our sleeping bags, it was the most comfortable place so far.) It took us two hours longer than it should have, owing a navigational mishap, but we made it alive!

Day 5

We actually spent two days in Prague, because it was so beautiful! After leaving Christoph's house, we tried to see the Jewish Museum in Prague, but they wouldn't let us in with our heavy bags, so the girls took our bags to a restaurant, and I went alone. I'll share this story, as it's one worth telling. During the Holocaust, An Austrian art teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, was encamped in Terezin, a ghetto for Jews who were to be deported to Auschwitz. Dicker-Brandeis provided the children of Terezin with underground art lessons, giving them a form of escapism by teaching them to paint and draw. She was eventually sent to Auschwitz, but before she died, she buried over 4,000 of the children's pictures in a suitcase, which was later unearthed. The Jewish Museum in Prague holds half of those pictures. It was a really moving exhibit.



After the museum, we explored a museum dedicated to death, sex, drugs, prostitution, and all the sort of topics I was absolutely not expecting to see in a museum. Very interesting, though! When we were done with Prague, we set out for Bratislava, Slovakia, where our half-way meeting point lay. Leaving Prague was only a little less difficult than sleeping in Prague, because we took a bus to the wrong station and had to double back. Eventually we found a lift from Muro, a guy who spoke Czech and German, but no English, so the conversation wasn't very lively. Still, thanks Muro! He took us to Brno, where we got picked up literally two minutes later by Marcel, who fortunately did speak English. From Brno, we went direct to Bratislava, Slovakia, and there we found our hostel. Thanks also to Marcel!

When we got to the hostel in Bratislava, we met up with everyone else doing Bummit, and had a great party in a club that was literally buried in a cliff (the Sub Club. Yes, really.) It was an interesting experience. Seeing the other Bummiters and swapping stories was fantastic, and well worth going to bed at 3:30. Well, mostly worth it.


(Left, Muro took us from Prague to Brno; Right, Marcel took us from Brno to Bratislava)

Day 6

Slovakia! So, the day was slightly shortened by a certain idiot who did his clothes early in the morning and didn't dry them properly, and so had to spend three hours running back and forth to the hostel, getting them dry. We did see a few of the sights around Bratislava. I saw the outside of the Palace, and some pretty cathedrals on the way. That was about it before we had to make our way to Vienna. It was very exciting, I know. We managed to hitch a train to Vienna, which was (spoiler alert) the only train we actually took on the whole trip. The conductor was very cool about it: a couple of Slovak words, a look at the Bummit bible, and we were on our way.

The evening got stressful, because were determined to see a proper Viennese opera, but arrived half an hour before all of the operas were due to start. One frantic train ride later (well, more than one,) and we found ourselves too late to see any opera. We retired to McDonalds for a serious sightseeing-schedule session (who knew planning sightseeing could be such an involved process,) and then made our way to the house of our couchsurf for the night; a really nice Austrian guy called Marijan. The poor guy ended up having a nosebleed while we were there - it wasn't us, I promise! Other than that, I guess the rest of the evening went swimmingly.

Day 7

Today probably deserved the gold star for sight-seeing. We woke up pretty early from Marijan's house and went to see a castle in Vienna - it cost a fair bit to go inside, so we contented ourselves with the cloakroom, and then we explored the grounds. From the palace, we split up: Jun and I went to see a cathedral in Stephansplatz, then a cool animal museum; Ran went to a different museum. We met back up in Stephansplatz, and went on to get a Chinese buffet in Währinger street, next to the Volksoper opera house. We'd bought standing tickets to see "Fidelio"; we weren't missing out on the opera. Well, until we actually saw the opera. It was an experience, but we were all exhausted, the theatre was hot, and none of us understood what they were singing in German, so... we all fell asleep. After the interval, we decided to leave. So, we got a third of the Viennese opera experience. That was something, I guess.


Have I mentioned already that hitching out of cities is difficult? Hitching out of cities is difficult. We were going to Budapest from Vienna. I encouraged the girls to ignore the HitchWiki advice and follow the directions we received from a stranger. After about an hour and a half of walking aimlessly, more asking around, and getting nowhere, we went with the sensible HitchWiki route, and arrived at a freezing service station on the edge of Vienna something north of 11.00pm. It was a while before we got a lift; he was going to a hostel in Budapest, so we decided to go to his hostel as well, with no place to stay for the night. It took about 4 hours, then an extra hour after we got the wrong address and got lost in Budapest. For this night in Hungary, I want to give my love to Christina, the receptionist who stayed up until 5 am - 5 hours after she was supposed to close - to admit four weary, unreasonably tired travellers who needed a place to stay. Christina, you're a wonderful person.

After that, we were all far too tired to

Day 8

Sadly, after seeing Nuremberg, Prague, Bratislava and Vienna, we didn't have time to spend in Budapest. We got an amazing lunch, at least, and saw the view of the River Danube from the windiest bridge that ever winded, so it wasn't a total fly-through. We set out pretty quick to Bucharest, but we had horrible luck getting a lift. We were bound for Szeged, the next closest city to Budapest, close to the border, but it took us two hours to get a lift going only half-way to Szeged. It took probably another hour and a half to get our next lift, but they were probably our best. Zoltan is from Szeged, and when he heard we didn't have a place to stay, he invited us to stay at his house for the night. He and his fiancée Gina were wonderfully kind, and we were very sad to say goodbye to them afterwards.


(Top: Budapest; Bottom-left: It was frigging freezing, but at least the sunset is beautiful. Bottom-right: Thank you to Zoltan and Gina for taking us in and being incredibly kind to us!)


Day 9


Thanks to Relu (left) and Diana (right) for our last lifts through Romania!

The last day! We had to cover 600km in a day, arriving in Bucharest by the evening (spoiler alert: we did it.) We almost took a train, but it was too risky in case we missed it - and I'm very glad we didn't, after hearing all the stories about the train later that evening - so Zoltan drove us to the border. After a bit of a teary goodbye, we walked across the Hungarian-Romanian border and started looking for lifts. Once again, when I went off on my own (to look for trucks,) the girls managed to get a lift instead. Relu was going to his hometown, not 100km away from Bucharest, so it was perfect. We covered those 500km in something like six hours, which was really good. And then he took us further than he planned to, to the town of Ploiești, 60km away. So, a big thanks to Relu. Ploiești was our fastest lift on the whole journey; not a minute after we had landed, the first person we asked gave us a lift. Diana was very kind; she had never given a lift before, but said we had "trusting faces". She took us right to our hostel in Bucharest, and that was it. We had made it. It felt beautiful. Sheffield to Bucharest in 9 days of hitchhiking. I never would have thought it could be done.


So, it's actually been a whole week already since I've arrived back from Bucharest... I'm aware that this is significantly after the fact. The week back has been a little busy, though. I'll fill in the remaining pieces later, but this is the bulk of what I wanted to share of our journey. Sorry that it was so long!

Lastly, the biggest thanks to Jun Zhang and Ran Shi, my amazing teammates. We went through a lot together. I think it was very much worth it, though.

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