HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE – Thumbs up to the Caribbean

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Most of us see hitchhiking as a great danger that will surely lead to terrible horror movie-like scenarios. However, in reality, it is not that bad at all. You are more likely to be attacked or robbed on a train or a plane than be murdered by a sociopath driver hiding an axe under his car seat. Travelling by public transport just doesn’t have the same exciting tone to it. The prospect of staring drearily out of the window while the scenery passes you by lacks inspiration. However, when hitchhiking, you are testing your limits at every turn and placing yourself well out of your comfort zone. What if the driver doesn’t speak your language? What if your route changes unexpectedly and you arrive at an unfamiliar town with no prearranged place to stay? The driver could be anybody in the world, a university professor, a famous politician, a student or a single mum. These are just some examples. Normally, what results in these ‘unique encounters’ is a cultural exchange of authentic stories that rear themselves in your subconscious to be relived in future blissful reminiscences. Most drivers will be surprised and ask: ‘Why? Why?’ during such fearful times, terrorists attacks, thieves and high crime rate. Well… for some, the call for travel and adventure is far too great to ignore. But for the hitchhikers this article will centre around, they would not limit their travel to land; instead, they would attempt to hitch a ride on a boat. The mission: to cross the Atlantic Ocean on a vessel from Gibraltar to the Caribbean.

Brothers in arms

Piotr and Pawel travelled 4000km to arrive at Gibraltar

A large community of hitchhikers from all over Europe have made their way down to Gibraltar over the last few months. You may have noticed some of these turtle-backed backpackers prowling around the marina with quirky signs forecasting their destination, ‘Caribbean anyone?’ Brothers in arms Piotr and Pawel revealed their adventure to me from the more comforting surroundings of their campsite at the Pincesa Sofia Park just across the border in La Linea. The Polish brothers, who both have degrees in mechanical engineering, form part of a hitchhiking community in their country with a membership matching Gibraltar’s population. They decided to quit their jobs in May last year to embark on a spontaneous and daring adventure, “We walked to the edge of our town and put our thumbs up,” said Piotr reflecting on his and his brother’s 4000km journey from Poland to the Rock. “It didn’t take long before we were picked up and taken over 500km to the border with Germany.” The brothers met an old woman who seemed to pass them at first, but before they hung their heads in despair, she pulled over, popped her head out of the window and called to them, “At the end of the journey she insisted that we take some money. We said no but she said she would be very upset if we didn’t take it. She was a lovely and charming old lady and we’ll never forget her kindness,” said Pawel who kept giving examples of the help they received like their next driver who, this time, turned out to be Polish, “he was driving a minibus and we even fixed his laptop during the 36-hour drive with him. It was a fine arrangement. If someone offers you their kindness, it is only natural to reciprocate those feelings. He took us all the way to a small town in Spain.” At this point, the brothers’ progress came to a halt as they struggled for two days watching car after car pass by ignoring their signs with mocking grins. They eventually gave in and decided to take a bus to Algeciras. As the Rock came into view, the brothers jumped with joy and celebrated with a can of beer on the coach, “A feeling of relief went through us. We were finally here and it was great to see the majestic Rock. Once we stepped off the bus, we crossed the border into Gibraltar and went straight to Ocean Village Marina to get a feel for the area ahead of our ‘boat hunt’ the following day,” said Piotr.

Despite their positivity, the brothers were welcomed to Gibraltar with a barrage of rain, so their only option was to wait it out. Their refuge, and that of many other hitchhikers during the wet period, became the John Mackintosh Hall Library, which served as the perfect place to gather info on the internet and contact loved ones thousands of kilometres away, “Locals reacted well to our story and we heard about a Gibraltarian who helped some hitchhikers become crew members on one ship belonging to an acquaintance of his,” said Pawel before Piotr felt it necessary to pay tribute to one particular kind lady, “One of the librarians, Kimberly Pecino, assisted me with my English grammar when writing one of the signs that I would use in the marina. She wished me good luck and those moments are really uplifting. It gives you faith in humanity to see people help you just because they are kind. My brother and I were quite shocked at just how helpful Gibraltarians were. They were super nice and very interested in us. We gained quite a reputation around the marina as the famous ‘brothers from Poland’, which was favourable.” Indeed, both of them succeeded in finding a vessel just a few weeks later and departed in mid-December with the Rock imprinting itself within the fondest corners of their memories.

Antonio celebrating securing passage to Caribbean

Mass migration

The flow of boat hitchhikers to the Rock and surrounding ports along the coast was in preparation for one of the largest cross-ocean boat migrations in the world. The Atlantic Rally for Cruises is a ‘must do’ for many sailors, and attracts over 200 boats and 1,200 people every year to sail 2,700 nautical miles across the Atlantic from Gran Canarias to Saint Lucia. The boats will typically start to head over to the Caribbean from September onwards with many attending the Fort Lauderdale boat show in Florida at the end of October, or the Antigua and show in December. However, there are those who stick around a little longer, but not too long with the distance becoming perilous in later months due to seasonal change.

As two seasoned hitchhiking veterans with an impressive list of countries under their belts, Antonio and Anna, from Italy and Poland respectively, arrived in Gibraltar some months ago to convince a captain to accept them on this roughly six-week journey. The couple felt initially dismayed at the competition they saw around them – there were scores of hitchhikers flooding the marinas in Gibraltar and La Linea on a daily basis – but soon found their spirit as they were made aware of the success stories emerging within the small but connected hitchhiking community. After a tiresome day full of setbacks, they returned to the campsite to scenes of elation from a going away party held for a successful boat-catcher. The community had established a tradition whereby any successful boat-catcher would pose in a mural painting at the park that symbolised taking the next step in their journey. The triumphant individual would step onto an edge that extended from a life-sized painting of a large cactus and grab one of the painted balloons that would fly them to their next destination, figuratively speaking. Antonio and Anna would have their turn yet. Seeing the positive energy in the air inspired them and in the following weeks, persisting with a relentless energy, they secured their own ticket to the Caribbean. Anna made a pledge to cut her hair and donate it to a charity that creates wigs for cancer patients should they achieve their dream and she bore an ear to ear smile as she listened to the humming of the approaching electric shaver.

Anna, keen to learn about life at sea

Enduring rough seas, encounters with wildlife and experiencing the beautiful endless expanse of the deep wide blue, Antonio and Anna arrived to the Caribbean in mid-December, “It’s great to finally inhale the tropical atmospheres and see albatrosses in the sky as well as huge sea turtles,” said Antonio on finally arriving to his destination. “Now, we will explore the islands and see where it takes us next.”

Playing with fire

Aneta begins her journey

Thumb-pointing your way to your next stop is one thing, but when you have some fire sticks to grab people’s attention, it just gives you that little extra edge. Aneta, also from Poland, was taken aback by a fire and acrobatics workshop she attended in Poland and made conquering the art of fire juggling one of her life’s ambitions. She quickly realised that they were a useful tool in her 5000 kilometre hitchhiking journey to Gibraltar and put them into action in the marina as soon as she arrived. After being told of the largescale onslaught of hitchhikers, she was not discouraged, instead, she relied on her fire sticks. With a sign simply stating ‘Caribbean?’, Aneta set herself up at the entrance to the marina in La Linea and began playing with fire. Just as she was about to pack up at the end of the day, following numerous smiles and compliments, but no firm offers, Andrea, a boat captain from Italy but based in Canarias, stopped and questioned her intentions. An excited and eager Aneta tried to contain herself, but knew this was a great opportunity and hurriedly began explaining her mission. Andrea was impressed by the energy and sheer will that was shown by his soon to be crewmate and, without promising anything, agreed provisionally that she could join him. The following day her dream came true and she got the call from the captain to invite her on-board. It had taken merely three days for her to secure passage to Canarias and from there, she would attempt to find another boat to cross the Atlantic.

Aneta was always smiling despite testing waters

But it was not all plain sailing for Aneta as she left Gibraltar in stormy conditions and an overheated engine caused even more trouble, “We were out of oil around 50 miles from Lanzarote, one of the islands in Canarias, and there was no wind. We could not use the engine any more as it had overheated, so we were waiting for around 36 hours with little to no movement,” she recounted over skype safe and sound on land. “Happily, Andrea had a satellite phone and used it to call Salvamento Maritimo – the Spanish maritime rescue service- before it ran out of battery.” Andrea just managed to relay their position to the rescue operation before the battery died and Aneta felt a sinking feeling at the pit of her stomach. ‘Did they catch that?’ she asked herself. ‘The radio was a little fuzzy, so maybe they didn’t hear the coordinates’… “I was extremely relieved when I saw a rescue plane emerge from the clouds. It was like an action movie. It hovered around us until the rescue boat arrived, which then towed us into the port at Lanzarote. It was quite an experience for my first sailing expedition, I must admit.”

Job for life

Karmen and Bostjan embrace their job for life aboard a luxury yacht

Slovenian couple Karmen and Bostjan’s story is a little different. Their hitchhiking efforts would be solely put towards securing a boat, having arrived to Spain on a flight from their home country. Their goal was to experience life at sea before landing in South America and exploring the continent. However, with unpredictability surrounding this form of travel, they found a different opportunity aboard a luxury yacht that would host tourists in cross-ocean excursions. Following Aneta’s lead, the couple attempted to catch a boat from the marina in La Linea after several days of defeat asking around Gibraltar. Ironically, their motivation was not at its highest when they tried something different and half-heartedly approached one of the more fancy vessels in the area. But to their surprise, the captain took a liking to them and asked if they could cook, which they could, and traditional Slovenian cuisine as well as others to boot. Karmen and Bostjan found a job for life on this boat as high-end chefs for rich clientele and would be paid a considerable amount while sailing across the seas, “Our dream is fulfilled. I cannot believe how this has turned out and we now have a secure future and open waters ahead of us,” said Karmen before she departed with her love aboard a new life.