The Unforgettable Truckers I Met Hitchhiking From Poland To Malaysia

Border to Malaysia
Border to Malaysia (Photo credit: Petrina Thong)

The notion of a female traveller hitch-hiking a truck is usually attached to negative expectations, mainly due to the stereotype of truck drivers as unkempt, uneducated, horny middle-aged man and that such encounters will almost certainly lead to the undesired. Having spent the past year travelling around by thumb – covering 22 countries in 13 months, solo, with just USD200 in my pocket – I’ve certainly had my fair share of truck rides. Some gave weight to the stereotype while others did just the opposite. From Poland to Malaysia, here are five of my most memorable encounters with truckers.

Angel on wheels

My first conversation with a trucker wasn’t in his vehicle, but while I was at a truck stop in Poland. I was accompanied by a guy I had met at a squatter in Germany, and we were both headed to Lithuania. I was lurking around the diner in the hopes of being able to charge my phone, connect to WiFi and maybe, hopefully, pounce on someone’s leftover meal.

Before I could get to that, a trucker approached us to ask where we were from and what we were doing there. The next thing I knew, beers and a hearty meal of potatoes and sausages were being served to us. What an upgrade from what I was hoping for! I guess his long drives left him longing for company as he continuously bought us beers and asked us to hang around longer. He showed us pictures of his family and expressed grief over missing his daughter’s recital because he always had to work and rarely got to spend time with them.

The first Polish truck driver who bought us food (Photo credit: Petrina Thong)

As it got dark, he added, “I pay for your room.” We insisted on sleeping in our tent but he kept repeating, “No, no, no. I pay. Welcome to Poland!” At that point, I had been hitchhiking for four days and had not had a shower. So, secretly, his offer truly excited me. After politely declining several times, we finally accepted.

I’ve never experienced anything like this before; I didn’t expect strangers to be so kind. He even offered to drive us to Lithuania the following morning, although when we looked for him, he was nowhere to be found.

The silent hunter

In the mountains of Lithuania, in a teepee around a campfire, I met a girl named Aura. Coincidentally, we were both planning on heading to Krakow, Poland and it was with here that I hitched my first truck.

Aura was in the passenger’s seat whereas I was lying on the bunk bed, right behind her. As we entered the night, Aura fell asleep. I forced myself to stay awake because as a rule of thumb, I never fall asleep in a hitchhiked vehicle if the driver is male. It puts yourself in too vulnerable a situation and you’ll never know where you’re going to wake up.

Aura and I camped at a petrol station where there were a lot of trucks (Petrina Thong)

Suddenly, I felt a wrinkly hand touch mine. I pushed it away. It returned. I pushed it away again. When his hand returned the third time, I pushed it away more violently and yelled, “NIE!” (No, in Polish.) He stopped and started chain smoking instead. He never said a single word the entire time.

I wasn’t too frightened, however, as he looked like a frail 70-year-old and I knew I could kick his butt if it came down to that. I brushed off this incident with the thought that he was simply a lonely old man and wasn’t looking to harm. It was disturbing for a couple of hours, but then I got over it. I wasn’t going to allow this small matter to affect my mode of travel. Although I remember thinking how stereotypical it was that my first negative hitchhiking experience had to involve a truck driver.

My Turkish arkadash

I was in Sofia, Bulgaria, and over 300km to the Turkish border. As evening crept in, I started to worry if I was waiting at a bad location. On top of that, I was freaking out with the realisation that I had overstayed my visa by a couple of days.

Just before the sun set, a truck stopped. The driver fit the stereotypical trucker to a T: He was in his 40s, hefty, had on a wife-beater even though it was below 10 degrees, and his truck smelled a little sour. As I hauled myself up, he started stacking away bottles of alcohol. I hesitated for a split second but didn’t want to risk not finding another ride, so I got into my seat anyway.

Trying to exit Europe from Bulgaria into Turkey (Photo credit: Petrina Thong)

He spoke to me in Turkish and I managed to understand that he was transporting the alcohol, not drinking it. We drove into the night and parked at what appeared to be a garage. Seeing the confusion on my face, he said to me “Arkadash, arkadash,” which did not make things clearer but that I later understood meant “friend”. He introduced me to his friend, and then they opened the side compartment of his truck to take out a bunsen burner, a mini barbeque set and some frozen kebabs. They then proceeded to cook us all a hot dinner.

As always, the topic of conversation led to me explaining how I hitchhiked my way here from Sweden. Both of them laughed and called me crazy, but the good kind of crazy. My driver told me how he doesn’t usually pick up hitchhikers, but he noticed that I was all alone and it was getting dark. He added that because I smiled at him, he really couldn’t bring himself to ignore me. By this point, I was feeling extremely grateful for the food and for the fact that this man is a good person, so I could finally let my guard down a little.

Turkish driver and his Arkadash having dinner (Petrina Thong)

After dinner, we journeyed on and he made space on the bunk bed for me. I lied down, but my mind was racing and I started to tear up. I had just parted with two people I adored in Sofia, I didn’t know where I was, I kept imagining getting detained at the border and facing a fine or worse, deported back to Malaysia.

Eventually, I fell asleep. I woke up the following morning, still filled with anxiety as we had not crossed the border. There was a mile-long queue of trucks at the immigration checkpoint and it was going to be an agonising wait. I decided it was faster to walk across, so I grabbed my luggage and bid the trucker farewell. He stuffed my bag with packets of biscuits and squeezed a TRY20 (Turkish Lira) note (MYR27.59) into my palm. I thanked him profusely and began walking in the fog towards the Turkish border.

Walking to the border of Turkey (Photo credit: Petrina Thong)

I was rather tired, but walking was definitely better than waiting around. Not moving made me unbearably anxious and fidgety. About half an hour later, a car stopped next to me and asked me to jump in. As we got closer to the border, my heart started pounding violently.

When we arrived, I looked at the immigration officer with a big smile and went, “Merhaba!” (Hello in Turkish) He excitedly responded, “Oh, you speak Turkish!”, to which I had no other Turkish words to respond with. But I believe that gave me some brownie points. After taking my passport, he looked at it for about a minute before tapping on a calculator. I assumed he was counting the days I had stayed. I had foreseen and dreaded the moment. He looked up and said, “Ma’am, you have overstayed your welcome.” But then he picked up his stamp and proceeded to stamp my passport anyway. As I walked into Turkey, an irrepressible grin spread across my face. I made it. I can breathe now.

God is watching

I could barely see beyond 20 metres ahead of me. I wasn’t even sure where I was, but it was probably somewhere in the east of Turkey. I waved my bright pink scarf in the hopes of catching someone’s eye amidst the thick fog. It worked. A truck stopped. I got in and immediately noticed his piercing heterochromia; one iris was sea blue, the other a mossy green. He kept trying to tell me I was pretty. Not in those words as we didn’t share the same language, but I could read his body language. I gave a polite half-smile and stared ahead, shifting closer towards the window.

He signalled to the side again and parked. I gave a slight frown. He pointed towards his bunk bed. In a messy mix of minimal English, Turkish, sign language, and Google Translate on his phone, this is a paraphrased version of the conversation:

“You pretty. I like. We sex.”

“No.”

“Why no?” followed by an exaggerated sad face and finger motion just below his eye to charade a tear.

Hitchhiking in the fog in Turkey (Photo credit: Petrina Thong)

Since my every other attempt at warding men off with excuses of already having a boyfriend, husband or children had failed miserably, I took a different stab. Seeing that this was a religious country, I said “Think of God. God sees all.” In response, he drew the curtains across the windows in his truck. My eyes could have not rolled further back into my skull. I opened the door, threw my bag to the ground, jumped out and yelled, “God sees through your curtains, stupid!”

He called out from his truck, asking me to get back in because it was too dangerous outside in the cold. I let out a loud, frustrated, prolonged grunt; obviously it was dodgier in his truck than out there on the road. I picked up my bag and walked on. Soon enough he gave up and drove off.

Long queue of trucks and truckers having breakfast (Photo credit: Petrina Thong)

I had been hitchhiking for over 6 months by then. Sexual propositions happened so frequently that they no longer scared me but annoyed me to the core. Why do these men not respect women? What makes them assume that I would sleep with them? How can they not see that they are repulsive?

What I’ve also learnt is this: Someone will always pick you up. So it doesn’t matter where I am, if the ride makes me uncomfortable, I will get out of there and I’ll wait for another one. One always stops.

“When are you getting married?”

I had my doubts when it came to hitchhiking in Malaysia. We are generally not a hitchhiking-friendly country and with the increase in crimes, it was only sensible to be extra suspicious and even more cautious. But I’d already passed the Thai border and was thus that much nearer to home. Besides, the last three cars I had hitched rides in were really friendly.

I was by the Sungai Petani highway when a truck stopped. The driver was in his early 30s while his co-driver was barely 18. They later told me that they thought I was a vendor from a nearby village, and so they stopped to see what produce I was selling. They joked that if they were to stand along a highway with a sign, cars would intentionally crash into them instead!

Overall, it was a pleasant journey although they apparently felt a need to keep telling me to stop travelling, settle down and get married. I was just grateful to finally be able to speak the national language again. And conveniently for me, they were headed to Kuala Lumpur. As they dropped me off, they made me promise that I would give them a call to hang out. I said I would, although I never did.

Hitchhiking in Malaysia
Hitchhiking in Malaysia (Photo credit: Petrina Thong)

After 13 months away and around the world, I was finally home… I had pictured myself kissing the ground upon reaching but in reality, it wasn’t that epic! Everything looked strangely familiar; it didn’t even feel that I had been away for long but of course, I was very excited to see my loved ones again.

Ever since I got home, I have been frequently asked if I’d do it all again. For sure, I would. Hitchhiking is possibly one of the most exciting modes of travel. The stories you gather are unimaginable and unpredictable.

I believe that hitchhiking trucks are neither dodgier nor safer compared to any other modes of travel. It is assumed that truckers are more sexually frustrated due to being on the road for days or weeks at a time. Then again, some people need not necessarily be deprived of sex to crave for it.

For the most part, people are good and genuinely keen on helping you out, and that includes truckers. And since they are always on the road, trucks are usually stocked with food and coffee, which helps make the long rides a little more bearable.

 

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Read Next:

I Spent 3 Months Hiking In The Himalayas And This Is What I Learned Guilt-Free Holiday: 10 Best Ethical Travel Destinations Of 2016 A Solo Traveller’s Advice For Women Travelling To Difficult Countries In Asia

 

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PetrinaThong_100x100
Occasionally referred to as a hobo, Petrina happily sleeps on cardboard boxes at petrol stations, digs through bins for food, and can go without showering for days, when necessary. She has terrible sense of direction but believes that getting lost can be pretty fun too.

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