Mexico: Gifts and Risks of Hitchhiking

Travel isn’t just about where you go, it’s about how you get there.

Travel involves many types of movement and the movement-choices we make determine, in large part, how moving our travels become.

Hitch-hiking, according to hitchwiki.org, is “a form of transport, in which the traveller tries to get a lift (a ride) from another traveller, usually a car or truck driver, for free.”

On the side of the road with a backpack strapped on, thumbs up and a smile is a thrilling way to move about the world.

But thrills come with risks and hitch-hiking has its fair share. Kidnappings and sexual assault tends to be first on people’s minds, but you could also get stranded on the side of the road for hours without food or water, or knocked into a coma by a car swerving onto the side of the road.

Although the risks can seem overwhelming at times, don’t let that stop you from one of the biggest mistakes: entirely forgoing the experience of hitch-hiking because you assume it’s too risky.

Hitch-hiking helps to make the world smaller in a world that can often seem far too large. By “de-strangerizing” it, if you will, hitch-hiking shows you through experience that a surprising amount of people are happy to pick up complete strangers, share food, rides, and conversation often without the desire for compensation.

Mexico

What are you, insane or something?!

It’s common to hear that when telling friends and family, all hitch-pitched and cheery, “I’m hitch-hiking in Mexico!” Their concerned looks concern you, so your smile drops to a frown that gets pulled down farther as they burden you with the weight of “don’t-you-watch-the-news’s”.

For many, the country “Mexico” is synonymous with Drug Cartels and kidnapping. It is true, and important to keep in mind, that Mexico is knee-deep in a horrendous drug war that has claimed thousands of lives and impacted nearly every aspect of society in one way or another.

However, this that doesn’t mean the ENTIRE country is an unsafe battle-zone to be avoided. Mexico is nearly 2 million square kilometers, there’s plenty of room to explore.

In general, though not always, the closer you get to the US – Mexico border, the bigger the issue of security is. On top of this, my friend and I took other precautions: safety-pinning a sock filled with cash, passport, and credit card to the insides of our pants; developing a code to speak about danger; and bringing along water and snacks in case we got stranded.

In the summer of 2014, a friend and I hitch-hiked through Southern and Central Mexico. We covered 1,000 miles in 30 days and by the end we emerged with all our bones intact (minus sunburns), all the money we brought (minus expenses), and a bag of good experiences (minus the one risky one).

People

Not everyone will pick up hitch-hikers, ergo, any hitch-hiking trip is bound to put you in touch with a unique segment of a country’s population.

They all choose to pick up strangers, but the similarities end there. Their economic status, educational background, life experience, and personal motives are as varied as the landscapes of Mexico.

We got everything from a wealthy globetrotting family of journalists cruising through Palenque in an SUV to a questionable guy with one black glove dropping us off at a casino in Veracruz. Everything from a garrulous coffee-fueled talk-fest with a guy who runs motorcycle tours in Eastern Europe to a dead silent 5-hour night ride ending at a gas station rest stop.

Everything from the hilariously absurd to the dangerous; from the “slightly off” guy swerving around the wide curves leading through the Oaxacan mountains yelling “I am NOT afraid of the curves!” to the inebriated truck driver on a harrowing ride through Veracruz asking “are you afraid?”

There was the time when, going downhill through road construction, our truck stopped short — and was hit by the cops! Driver gets out and, upon seeing who hit him, does the universal “ah screw it” grunt then speeds off. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes (Who guards the guards?)

Although I was given rides by all types of people — wealthy expat families in BMW’s, scruffy looking truck drivers, and a concerned father (“But, where will you stay?”) — it was overwhelmingly the poor who gave us rides. Over half our rides were from beaten-up pickups that were crammed with people but had an empty bed and they would smile while passing us bottles of Coca Cola through the window.

REWARDS

Kindness is a gift meant for circulation. Only when in movement does its value increase. In some ways it’s the polar opposite of money, whose value increases by taking it out of circulation –- storing it away. If you store a gift away, it withers from disuse. Gifts must be kept alive through the act of giving.

Most of the people who gave us rides benefited from a ride in the past. They were looking to repay that benefit with little regard for how far back in the past it was; that “past” ranged from a trip last summer to a trip 25 summers ago.

In both cases, the value of the gift left deep enough an impression on them that it motivated a need to repay it by passing on the gift to a stranger.

Although a stranger in the land, the warmth with which people picked up, ate, and talked to us became very reassuring. In many ways hitchhiking is built upon the ethos of the gift. We can risk losing this deep insight if we let the fear of risk prevent us from the gifts of hitch-hiking.