It was nearly noon by the time we’d just about given up. Hot and battered, the unapologetic Mediterranean sun cared little for our curses whispered undermouth. With everything we owned strapped to our backs, sweat stained the pavement with a hiss.
A single word on a makeshift sign signaled the endgame a few hours northward: “KOTOR.” Blue sharpie. All caps. A few hastily drawn hearts and stars highlighted the seriousness of the affair – I wasn’t afraid to show a little skin in the name of expediency. Our outstretched thumbs traced drooping arcs in the air as one car after another politely ignored our flightless plight. While the Balkans were known as a playground for hitchhikers, Montenegro, it seemed, would have none of it. Not today.
‘Freeloaders,’ they must have thought, and rightfully so. Dirty, tired, and likely a little hungover, we embodied that good-for-nothing, vagabonding spirit of the travelling kind, scrambling from one backpack rat trap to the next in search of nothing in particular.
“Let’s try a little further up the road,” Mel suggested. If not, we’d call it quits and take the bus.
And here our troubles began.
We resolved to make it to a gas station up the road and try our luck a little longer. An old man pointed to it and told us in broken English that it was where he’d hitchhiked from as a youth. It would be a crossroads of sorts; if we couldn’t make it there, we couldn’t make it anywhere. As Mel and Adam trudged up ahead confidently, I walked backwards, thumb upright, to not lose any momentum. Finally, even I gave up, my optimism souring to remiss at the hours lost. I turned away from the road and made peace with our fate on a smelly bus.
A honk awoke me from my stupor. Then another. Followed by a third.
I spun to face what I can only describe as the leftover remains of what was once surely a vehicle of some sort. There was no need to roll down the window, there was none.
“Heeeeeeey!” a man cried in a deep, raspy voice. “I love tourists! Get in! Kotor! Kotor!”
The car was beyond battered. Hell on wheels. Rusted through at every possible corner, wires hung derelictedly from the roof. It was less a car, and more like what was left of a car. Mad Max himself would have tossed it onto the post-apocalyptic waste pile. The man inside smiled and motioned us over to. The prospect wasn’t great, but it was all we had. We looked at one another, and in a series of squeaky, sweaty shrugs we decided to go for it. We had everything and nothing to lose.
The man was ecstatic, and jumped out to help us pummel our bags into the trunk, which he kept open by hand with a grunt to match the gears. He was middle-aged, head shaved, with a rough-and-tumble stubble overhanging a stocky build under a blue T-shirt that emulated the car’s dilapidated notions of togetherness.
Adam took the front seat, while Mel and I huddled into the back. I positioned myself behind the driver with my sharpened pocketknife unsheathed in my pocket. I took strange comfort in the knowledge that I could easily slit his throat if the situation turned sour. Whether or not I had the countenance for such a play was another matter completely, but it made me feel powerful in a situation where I otherwise had little control. We each reached for seatbelts only to find them missing. I’m not entirely sure what we were expecting.
The driver flashed us a reassuring smile and put the car into motion, but we had gone no more than 50 meters before it put-puttered to a halt on the road, like a heavy smoker giving in to a particularly heavy mulch of phlegm. The driver pulled over to a ditch as best he could and tried the ignition several times before giving up with a shrug, placing the gearstick in the neutral position. He motioned me and Adam out of the car with him, leaving Mel alone in the backseat.
The driver slipped his hand through the front window and steered as Adam and I pushed. Cars whizzed by sending puzzled glances in our direction. Adam and I exchanged fever-flustered grins and gained momentum under the auspicious cheering and encouragement of the driver. We were less than 100 metres from the gas station when he led the car to the side of the road and told us to stay put. He’d be back in a moment, he assured us in broken English. With a gap-toothed grin, he lazily jogged over to the station, his bobbing pants barely concealing an open ass crack begging to be unleashed.
‘Well,’ I thought to myself. ‘He’s obviously going to murder us.’
Without cue, the three of us fell to hysterical laugher. What else was there to do? We waited, impending doomed be damned. At least we weren’t walking.
The driver came back 10 minutes later accompanied by a teenaged gas station attendant who looked as bewildered as we were. He held seven or eight small soda bottles filled with yellowish liquid that looked like piss. We got out of the car, mostly to help, but mostly to watch.
With the support of a twig he found on the ground, he pried open the gas tank and filled it with liquid from the bottles with a hearty squeeze. The spouts sputtered with delight. As he finished the last bottle, he looked at me and deadpanned: “This is Montenegro!”
Quickly, he made his way to the front of the car where he popped the hood and started fiddling with wires. Using my extensive mechanical engineering knowledge, I remarked to myself, ‘yes, that’s definitely an engine.’ I wasn’t wrong.
With the gas station attendant still staring in amazement, the driver pulled apart a hose and inspected it, holding it up against the sun to insure it was empty. He put the remains of the last plastic bottle to his lips, drew heavily, and expelled the content with a hearty psssstttttt as the liquid bubbled begrudgingly into the tube. Searching for a screw driver, I instinctively handed him my knife, which he used to secure the mechanism back into place. I regretted showing my hand, but he gave it back without hesitation. I knew then I wouldn’t need it.
And like that we were off again, as if nothing had happened. With his mouth and hands still covered in gasoline, the driver lit a cigarette and caressed the engine back to life. I had visions of the car going up in flames, with my own smirking face engulfed in the absurd series of events that had brought us here. We hadn’t even left Ulcinj yet.
“You see my friends,” he said as we got back onto the road, “I am gypsy.” Suddenly, the pieces began to fall into place. We relaxed in the knowledge that this all made sense in completely bizarre set of circumstances.
The driver’s life had been one of hardship. Like in many European countries, the Roma community in Montenegro was treated with a lingering sense of mistrust, apprehension, and outright hatred based in centuries of socially acceptable subjugation. Inherent statelessness was this nomadic community’s life and curse, a means of self and self-preservation. Our roadside condition had sparked a sense of empathy from the man. He always picked up hitchhikers, he told us. He had been one himself for many years.
Without prompt, the driver began to tell us his life story. A Montenegrin native, he had travelled Europe searching for a better life for his family. He had lived in Germany and Sweden, and spoke five languages more or less fluently. He told us unabashedly of his hardships, the racism, deportations, and institutionalized hatred he had endured throughout his travels. His children, he feared and knew, would encounter the same.
When I remarked on the peacefulness of Sweden, he agreed wholeheartedly; save for a few noteworthy exceptions. “Too many Arabs and Muslims coming in now,” he said, “not good for the country. I don’t like these people.” Without a hint of irony, he also expressed his apprehension towards Albanians, who he said were infecting this part of the world. “Bad people,” he said, “bad, bad, not good.”
Adam, British and London-bred in all senses of the term, politely mumbled under his breath “well…I quite like Albanians…” but left it at all. There wasn’t much of a discussion to have. We were guests in this deathmobile headed north.
Therein lies the great paradox of the hitchhiker. When you lay yourself at the mercy of the road, you agree to agree with whatever comes your way; a means to an end. Who are you to argue with someone giving you a free ride? So you set aside your own principles, regardless of the contradictions, steadfast in the belief that your place on the road is ephemeral and open to whatever may come. Biting your tongue becomes a matter of survival. You may not agree, you may not even like it, but nothing seems worse than the prospect of being on foot. So you stomach what you will for the time that you can, moral conundrums be damned.
The Balkans themselves were a mystery of sorts. These shattered remnants of a misguided Versailles-spewed, pan-Slavic Utopian dream that had fallen to ruin during the devastating Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. A nation once held together by the arbitrary bounds of a state had crumbled to ethnic and religious tribalism, a Balkanization of more than just geography. Even here, a Gypsy who had himself felt the sting of irrational persecution, could not see the irony of his own prejudices, sharing them freely with passersby. We reserved our thoughts for silence and comments on the weather.
An hour into the ride, the driver, who never told us his name, admitted that he could not take us all the way to Kotor. He had a family and children waiting for him in a nearby town. He left us on the road once again, and apologized for the inconvenience. At a fork the highway, he assured us we would find a ride in no time; he had done so himself many times at this very spot. With the soul of a man knowing he had done good, he left us with our packs on a gravel ditch. We said our farewells with knowledge that we would likely never meet again.
The Gypsy was right, within moment of sticking out our thumbs a car stopped just ahead of us, hazard lights flashing. The twist of fate was striking – a black BMW X5, shining in the afternoon light.
We approached the tinted passenger window cautiously, worried that it might be a police officer with our number. Hitchhiking wasn’t technically illegal, but we didn’t have nearly enough cash to butter our way out a jam with the Montenegrin fuzz.
The music lowered with the automatic window to reveal the driver, a middle-aged woman with bob-length red hair shrouded by the smoke of a burning cigarette. Overlarge brown sunglasses obscured most of her face, but she was unmistakably sexy. With a drag of her smoke, she softly whispered the only word she would utter for the rest of our voyage.
I recognized the name from the map as a hippy village some miles south of where we were headed, a party hub for backpackers and travellers of the miscreant kind. In haste, I answered:
‘Good enough for me,’ I thought, as we piled our bags into the trunk, which opened and closed automatically with a subtle beep. And like that we were on the road again.
There was no conversation this time, as we realized our driver didn’t speak English, or simply didn’t care to. The leather seats were cool to the touch. Attempts to strike a talk were met by smiled silence, and within a short time only the blaring radio filled our ears. I recognized the tunes immediately. She was playing Pink Floyd’s epic rock-opera masterpiece The Wall, start to finish.
Might like to go, to the show,
To feel the warm, thrill of confusion
That space cadet glow
I had listened to the record obsessively as an angsty teenager, memorizing every word and flailing drum beat as an extension of my own fleeting feelings of loneliness and anxiety.
Tell me is something eluding you, sunshine?
Is this not what you expected to see?
If you want to find out what’s behind these cold eyes,
You’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise
As Roger Waters sang to me in angry nasal tones, I fell limp to the humdrum blasts of air conditioning as we hugged the Montenegrin coast. The car lurched from side to side, complying with the bends in the road, and I lost myself, content to stay here forever if need be. The Montenegrin MILF lit one cigarette off the next, compassionately silent in the throws concept-album eccentricities.
I couldn’t help but wonder why she had picked us up at all. She didn’t have to, and judging by the swanky SUV, she clearly didn’t need us around. But there was never a sense that we were a nuisance. Far from it, she seemed to enjoy the ragtag company, even in silence. Something about her spoke to a not-so-forgone sense of adventure in her own right. I knew that she had once been in our place, at the mercy of the road. There was a sense of karmic retribution at play, which we didn’t feel like we were exploiting, but rather taking on ourselves, like a temporary mantle, devoid of martyrdom. Worriedly, I wondered how bad we must smell; we’d long since lost the ability to notice the stench of sweat and backpacks full of dirty laundry. If she minded, she didn’t say.
I was half asleep when she pulled the car over the to the side of the road after about an hour.
“Budva,” she said, clearly as before, still puffing.
“Budva?” I asked, coyly.
We thanked her and exited the car. She never said a word, only exhausted smiles through the breaths of her cigarettes. She left us by the side of a grocery store on the edge of town, and didn’t look back as she drove away.
We were only a few miles from Kotor, and with the frozen memory of air conditioning at our heels, we hit the road one last time. There would be no buses now, despite their ready availability. We had come too far. It was a matter of pride. We would make it by the thumb or not at all
Hitchhiking, as we were learning, is an art. As with any real estate gains, the game meant mastering the three Ls: location, location, location. And we were in the wrong spot.
The key is finding somewhere at the junction of a few different roads with fewer lanes, where passing cars have no choice but to see you. Too much road and you run the risk of being ignored. Too little road, and you run the risk of being run over. You have to find that perfect sweet spot, where you can look just pitiful enough to pick up, but not too pathetic to pass for common vagabonds. On this razor’s edge lay the great game of good faith, the line between a helping hand and a hazardous stalemate within the fringes of Good Samaritanism.
We walked across Budva along the coast, thrust once again into the uncomfortable humidity we had come to recognize as a quintessential element of Mediterranean summer months. Looking for a new position, we passed other hitchhikers who gave us the complimentary smile and nod. We were in the same boat, so to speak, but they were still competitors, friends of circumstance but nonetheless momentary enemies in a world of ample demand and dwindling supply.
Finally, just when we thought all was hopeless, a man appeared behind us in the haze of a fuming exhaust pipe below a set of German licence plates. A large, white jeep was bumbling on the curb. He shouted bombastically, hadn’t we seen him stop? He was tall and muscular, wearing a dirty white shirt with a large, golden cross perked between his pecs. He threw our bags effortlessly into the trunk; we were too tired to protest. Another man sat motionless in the front seat, so we piled into the back. It happened so quickly that we didn’t notice that neither had a German accent.
The driver spoke English, so we started with the usual where-are-you-froms to mask the deafening sound of open windows screeching over the rumbling highway. He was ecstatic to have Canadians onboard. The man in the passenger’s seat remained silent.
“Canada? Beeeaaautiful place,” he said, elongating the word with a slur of the tongue. I asked him if he’d been before. “Yes, of course,” he said without hesitation, “to Saskatoon. Wonderful place.”
Canada is enormous, but Saskatchewan is hardly the place I think of when describing the country. The solitary prairie province is characteristically sleepy, and by no means the kind of place that foreigners typically frequent unless they have damn good reason. I had to ask.
“I am in motorcycle club, we had rally and rode ‘cross Canada,” he said, revving his wrist over the wheel.
The men were Serbian, travelling up the Montenegrin coast as they did every year in search of booze and women. The German plates, he explained, avoided any unnecessary trouble when it came to leaving to car lying around; the police couldn’t fine foreign vehicles. Montenegro was an observer state to the European Union, so cross-border checks weren’t worth it. It became fairly obvious that the car was stolen.
“What motorcycle club?” I asked, hoping for the right answer.
“Oh” he laughed, “Hell’s Angels. Have heard of us?”
Oh I had heard of them, alright. I noticed that both men sported a series of tattoos on their forearms, notably three die, engulfed in flames, displaying the numbers 666.
While originally a California-based club, the Angels had spread over North America and Europe throughout the late twentieth century. While not intrinsically violent, the group allegedly had a hand in various element of drug trafficking and arms dealing across the world. My own homeland of Québec was a hotbed for Hell’s activity on the East Coast, though sub-zero temperatures rendered motorbikes useless half the year. I had sudden visions of myself as a young Hunter S. Thompson, infiltrating these outlaws as a point of journalistic pride and personal curiosity. While my two travelling companions visibly shriveled at the revelation, I salivated at the opportunity to sample the biker’s life in action.
The driver was more than happy to divulge, turning his whole torso towards the backseat to pontificate on the virtues of the real 1%. Every time he did, the jeep would swerve slowly into the oncoming lane. Our horrified roadside glances served as his only indicator of impending destruction, which he narrowly avoided each time. It was during these rants that I noticed the unmistakable stench of stale liquor on his breath which the open windows had previously concealed. I brought up the subject of booze to confirm my theory. If we were going to die in a head-on collision in a stolen jeep with two Serbian bikers, I wanted to at least have all the facts for comfort’s sake.
I’d fallen for the region’s national homebrew, a pungent fruit brandy called rakia, made of everything from anise to plums and figs. Each country had their own version, and I’d sampled each as a matter of serious research. My scientific consensus? It got you drunk as hell for pennies on the pavement. We commiserated over our demons.
“Yesssssss, rakia” he said enthusiastically, “it gets you where you need to go! You can’t have ride like this without …and a few beers! Ha ha! Am kidding,” he laughed, “more like 15 or 20!”
And so the cycle continued. As Mel and Adam silently begged me to stop, I would ask more questions, and answers would come with another drunken swerve out of oncoming traffic in the nick of time. The driver wanted to know where we had been, and was openly disgusted that we had come from Albania.
“Filthy place,” he answer. “Get out of the car.” There was a moment of awkward silence before he erupted into laughter. We nervously followed. “Just kidding. But Albanians…bad people.” He shook his head. Everyone in the Balkans, it seemed, hated each other only slightly less than they hated Albanians.
I noticed a few military tattoos on his right shoulder and surmised, given his age, that he had likely fought in the Kosovo conflict against the ethnically Albanian Kosovar secessionists. The 1999 war, and destructive NATO response, had sent Serbia’s economy and military stranglehold on the region into a tailspin from which it never recovered. War crimes on both sides had left thousands dead and effectively spelled the end of what was left of the Yugoslav dream.
That was the thing about travelling in the Balkans. European history was storied, but visiting countries like Italy or Germany always lent history an ancient feeling, even with regards to the Second World War. The Green Fields of France had dried up, their buried dead long since decomposed underfoot. There was a sense of historical detachment, as if through a greyscale looking glass.
Trauma in the Balkans felt fresh, their wars and horror still within living memory. Everyday residents bore the scars openly, the wounds still exposed and visibly infected. Tenuous armistices had halted the killing but never truly made peace. The map’s fractured reflection spoke to a people still drowning in the blood they had spilled for nothing more than a romanticized vision of identify and their place within it. The region was rebuilding, but the foundations would remain shaky for decades; everyone had lost too much to simply forget.
The bikers finally dropped us off at the massive stone gates that served as the entrance to the ancient walled city of Kotor. We said our goodbyes and they were off who knows where.
And so it was that we made our way to Kotor. Three free rides we had paid for without a cent changing hands. The Gypsy, the MILF, and the Hell’s Angels.
‘Who the fuck picks up hitchhikers?’ I might have asked myself before.
People just like me, apparently.