It's an attitude, a way of life -- but have no doubts, these women riders are very much aware of the dangers.
“There is no way my world will have limits just because I am a girl!”
Sarah, 31, is a school assistant with short hair, a frank demeanor and a self-professed anarchist punk DIY (do it yourself) attitude. She's also a proud and happy hitchhiker, catching rides between France, Spain and Switzerland, and writing about the subject of women hitching rides for The Choriza magazine.
Stephanie, 29, also regularly gets on the road with strangers. “Hitchhiking alone when you are a woman is going against the most common clichés,” says the 29-year-old who works in communications at an international NGO. Stephanie spends her weekends in Ultimate Frisbee meetings around France, which she arrives at thanks to the generosity (and wheels) of people she's never met before.
More than a means of transportation, Stephanie sees hitchhiking as a way of life: an outlet for free and open-ended travel, a desire to meet new people and take risks.
“In hitchhiking, everything is open," she explains. "You can never know what is going to happen in the next hours to come. The unexpected looms larger than in any other activity, where the decision is not yours to make. And when I say risk, it’s first of all the risk of whether I will meet a nice person. This is what I am here for!”
Stephanie talks with enthusiasm about two Serbian truck drivers who took her to Romania. “The glove box was full with condoms. I immediately laid things out straight, "I am not a prostitute, you know?",” she told them. She may have offended them! But after that, "I was very comfortable. They were relaxed, talking about their trip while looking at a map. Then, we started talking. They were going to the Netherlands. I discovered they worked seven days a week for 400 euros a month. One of them was married and had a child -- and never sees his family. It is a life I can never imagine for myself.”
It is the randomness that gives hitchhiking its allure. “It has a magical dimension, a parallel universe opens up. It is like arriving at the middle of a movie”, continues Sarah. “You talk for hours with a person in a closed space, with no witnesses. You can say anything, you never see that person again. It isn’t just putting your thumb out and getting in a car, it’s living in the moment with intensity.”
This attention to the other person in the encounter is also a form of vigilance. Women must constantly be aware of the possibility of the threat of sexual aggression. “Of course!” the female hitchhikers all respond, when asked if they are aware of the question of security.
The tips for staying safe are many, though none are guarantees for total security: write down every license plate number, always have pepper spray in your bag, get out of the car along the route if you sense there is a problem.
“Yes, it can be dangerous. Female hitchhikers have died this way,” notes Anick-Marie, who writes about hitchiking on the Quebec blog Globestoppeuse. “What is important, is to find the style that fits you.”
Anick-Marie, co-author of “La Bible du Grand Voyageur” (The Bible of the Big Traveller) published last year, has more than 100,000 kilometers under her hitchhiker belt, and a kidnapping experience from which she managed to escape. “The basics: always get a good night of sleep, never be drunk or on drugs. For the rest, there is a learning process of how not to panic.”
She says she has pushed her limits bit by bit. “I am considered to be a hard-core hitchhiker. But I became that way with tranquility. For me, travelling to some place is being comfortable in that place. If it is not the case, I slow down the rhythm. In Turkey, it took me two weeks to get use to the place, contact the girls that have hitchhiked there and read the advice on Hitchwiki.”
The mental preparation has become a central element of hitchhiking for her. The preparation consists in thinking through all the worse things that could happen: “It’s exhausting, but I am very reactive when there is a problem," Anick-Marie says. “Once, I saw on the map the place where the driver was supposed to drop me off. He passed it. I have to react now, I told myself. He tried to change the subject of the conversation. "Stop now, immediately. It is an order. I do not say please”, she remembers.
She also has no patience for those who say women hitchhikers are ultimately to blame if bad things happen. “The phenomenon of victim blaming is very common, even from women,” explains Anick-Marie. “It is a way to protect yourself. We look for the differences between what somebody else does and what we do, in order to convince ourselves that it could not happen to us.”
From an Armenian car dealer to an ex-Yugoslavia war soldier, the 31-year-old has traveled through many different universes. “I do not hitchhike in order to meet people who I could sleep with, but just to meet people,” she explains. "Sometimes it’s me who tells my story to give a dreamy aspect to the encounter. Sometimes it’s the other."
When she was in the US, a man who'd served time picked up Anick-Marie. "He explained to me the differences between Canadian and American prisons,” He remained silent for a while and then added: “ You know, I might also have a story for you…”