The journey of hitchhiking from Sweden back to Malaysia while being penniless for most of it was entirely new and unfamiliar in itself. Many of the events which took place, while memorable, were not always enjoyable. However, these are the few firsts which left me feeling amazed and grateful that I got to experience them.
1. Squatting in Germany
If you asked me what a squat was before this trip, I would not have been able to tell you. Even though I developed a growing interest in alternative-lifestyles, my knowledge of how people survived with little or no money was minimal. So to find myself unexpectedly stumbling across a squat community just outside of Berlin was quite a wonderful surprise.
Trailers, tents, teepees, self-built houses, were speckled all around these woods. I was shown an empty trailer to crash at as the owner hasn’t been seen in months. I spent the first 48 hours mostly cooped up in there, peeking out my window, nibbling on bits of a hardened baguette I found in the bins. Occasionally I took walks on my own but didn’t approach anyone because I felt extremely out of place. (Note that this was still pretty early on in the trip, and my shamelessness towards approaching people had not yet developed.)
Eventually I got really hungry and had to socialise to get some food. Only then I felt silly for being so shy because they were very welcoming and friendly. Meals were mostly sourced from dumpster diving or harvesting their own greens. The people from this community were made up of many nationalities. Each had their own reason for deciding to live here – A healer seeking to find more medicinal plants, a mother believing that carrying out her pregnancy in the woods would be much healthier compared to a city, a shaman looking for a new home, a young man who simply does not want to pay rent; it was an eccentric and fascinating mix of people all looking to live in peace and anarchy.
My days were spent looking for edible plants, taking swims in the lake, and absorbing all I could of this lifestyle which was so different from mine. I started to feel uncomfortable when one of the inhabitants kept following me around, professing his love, and claiming to “not like the vibrations here,” so, “we should go somewhere quiet.” I tried to avoid him as much as I could; then quickly and quietly left the one early morning. It was time to experience the city of Berlin instead… And finally take a shower after a week.
2. Rainbow gathering
I journeyed to the European Rainbow Gathering in the mountains of Lithuania with no clue of what this was. I followed the directions according to a hand-drawn map and hoped to God I was on the right path. Whenever I spotted an oddball who didn’t look like a village-folk from these parts, it was easy to guess that we were all headed in the same direction.
Soon enough we found ourselves hiking through the hills, following pieces of cloth tied to branches, before arriving at the Welcome Camp where everyone who was already there yelled, “WELCOME HOME,” gave tight hugs that lasted at least 10 seconds, and offered us a hot cup of tea. Although names were introduced, everyone was more commonly referred to as “Sister” or “Brother,” because everyone is seen as family. This gathering lasts a month, one full moon cycle, and I was surprised to see people of all ages camping out. From babies to people in their nineties. I didn’t have a tent of my own yet, so at first I bunked with someone, and then I discovered a communal teepee where I could crash with ten other people.
Meal time was one of the most bizarre eating events I’ve ever experienced. The communal kitchen cooks for all. So once they’re almost done, they yell out, “FOOD CIRCLE!” Whoever else hears that, yells it out as well. So the message spreads all across the mountains to gather these hundreds or thousands of people around the main fire. A circle is formed, hands are held, songs are sung, thanks is given, before food is served. Although it felt a little like church Sunday School to me, I struggled to feel comfortable participating in this sing-song.
I spent the first few days mostly on my own, soaking up these strange sights, realising that I am nowhere close to being a hippie, wondering where I could find a “normal” person to talk to. Spirituality, searching for higher consciousness, fulfilling ancient Native American prophecies; workshops on meditation, tantra, healing, seemed to be the reoccurring theme here. I could not have felt more like a secular city-kid.
Another thing that weirded me out in the beginning was the amount of eye contact made. When I spoke to someone, or walked past them, or sat in front of them in a circle, I would easily find myself locking eyes with someone for extended periods. If he was attractive, I’d consciously make an effort to maintain it, but even then I tend to look away first. I got accustomed to it after a couple of days and then it became really enjoyable. It’s actually a rather powerful tool and it made me realise how little eye contact we usually have.
There were other things which I highly appreciated as well. Such as, the absence of technology – With no phones, cameras, or watches, we gauged the time by looking at the sun; and how all it took was one person to start a beat and soon enough there’ll be a percussionist, guitarist, saxophonist, accordionist, flutist, an entire symphony of non-electronic instruments creating music together; then there’s the sight of children and dogs running free and playing together; and most of all, the people whom I eventually connected and bonded with.
The weather was the enemy at times. There was a period when the rain was endless. It was muddy. I was freezing. All our firewood was damp. I felt miserable. But when finally I thought, “Okay, I’m done, I’m leaving…” The rain stopped, the sun came out and a rainbow appeared. All across the mountains were shouts of joy, “RAINBOW! RAINBOW! RAINBOW!” The entire mood was lifted. I almost cried with joy. And I was so happy I stayed long enough to witness that.
I hung around for two weeks before dragging myself out and began my journey towards Poland, feeling much sadder than I thought I’d be. Funny how much it grew on me.
3. Solo camping in the desert
I had just spent over a week in the capital city of Iran, stressing out and making multiple visits to embassies to apply for tourist visas for my upcoming countries. I was in the foulest of moods and wanted to get away from the city, from humans, from everything.
From Tehran, I hitchhiked over 500 kilometres to the Isfahan province, because I wanted to go camping in the Varzaneh Desert. Everyone along the way who heard of my plan tried to change my mind. Not only was it ill-advised for a female to go camping on her own, but the desert temperatures are also pretty unforgiving.
“Just last week, two guys from Czech Republic attempted to camp there, only to give me a call at two in the morning, begging to be picked up because they couldn’t stand the cold. Are you sure you want to do this?” were the final warnings from a local.
I was stubborn and went anyway.
In terms of sustenance, I had leftover rice from lunch bought by someone who gave me a lift, a can of eggplant from my previous host, a bag of candies from a couple I met in the nearby town who got worried that I didn’t have enough food, and 1.5 litres of water.
I was spoilt for choice about where to pitch my tent as no one else was around. I simply set up camp in between two dunes, hoping to at least be somewhat protected from the winds, which were already getting rather ominous.
Eventually night fell. The stars came alive. The cold was bearable. I went to sleep. It was probably shortly after midnight that I woke up shivering. I rummaged through my bag and put on all the clothes I had – Three pairs of pants, three tops, five pairs of socks, and two pairs of gloves. I was zipped up in my sleeping bag and wrapped around a thick woollen blanket. All the layers seemed almost useless. The desert cold was brutal and merciless, burning sharply, as though ice was being pressed against every part of my body. I thought of doing push-ups and sit-ups in my tent to increase body heat, but then I took the lazy route instead of simply wrapping myself tighter and praying to God that I’ll survive the night.
The next thing I knew, I opened my eyes and it was bright. I quickly unzipped my tent and crawled out, exhaling a big breath of relief and feeling a great amount of appreciation for the sun. I spent the day wandering around, journaling, and enjoying the silence. Due to the manner of which I travelled, I hardly had any time to myself; I was constantly in someone’s vehicle or someone’s house. So I genuinely wanted another 24 hours of solitude that I decided I’ll rough it out again. Since I made it through last night, I should be fine tonight as well.
I spent another night and another afternoon in the desert, only to be attacked by a sandstorm the following day. I hurriedly unpitched my tent, laid it on the ground, and sat on it. I was told that sandstorms here usually do not last longer than 20 minutes; however, this one went on for over 2 hours. It was close to sunset by the time I packed my sand-covered belongings and made my way back to the nearest town. I could have easily stayed on, but I ran out of food by then.
4. Staying at a Gurdwara
I had just walked across the border from Pakistan to India, feeling elated with the realisation that I had successfully crossed over Europe to Asia by land by myself. That joy, however, did not last very long as my mind was soon taken over by apprehension, wary of all the stares I am receiving. Do I smile back? Do I not? What if my smiles are wrongly perceived as an invitation? So I mostly avoided eye contact, unsure of which cars I should attempt to hitch a ride from.
One dodgy driver and a friendly tractor ride later, a car stopped by the side of the road and invited me in. He spoke English! Which was a great relief to me. As he found out my plans, he suggested that I should stay at a Gurdwara. I had never heard of that before and didn’t know he was referring to Sikh Temples. He went out of his way to drop me off somewhere in Amritsar and paid for a taxi to take me directly to the Golden Temple, the holiest Gurdwara of Sikhism, where I could seek shelter and food. When I thanked him profusely, he refused my thanks and responded with, “Please do not thank me. It is an honour for me to have met someone like you.” I could not comprehend how someone could be so kind and so humble to a wandering stranger like myself.
With my head wrapped and shoes taken off as a sign of respect, I entered the gurdwara and was ushered into the more private rooms set aside for visiting foreigners. The entire block accommodated those in need, with multi-levelled dormitories and bathrooms for the locals. There seemed to be hundreds of people living here and I wondered how long they stayed. Even then, nothing prepared me for the sight of the kitchen, also known as the Langar.
There was an endless line of people queuing up to grab our plates, cups, and utensils, before being guided up a flight of stairs where I entered a huge hall filled with people of all ages sitting on the floor in rows, all having their meal of chapatti, rice, and dhal. I took a seat, and soon enough servers were walking past me to fill up my plate.
I sat in awe and amazement at the volume of which the Sikhs are offering a helping hand. This langar in particular is open 24 hours and they feed up to 100,000 people a day, with no limit as to how much one can eat. Despite not practicing any religious rituals before or after meals, I felt the spirituality of this place and thanked God for showing his love and acceptance towards all through his people.
5. Riding a bicycle
I had been trapped in Moreh, the bordering town between India and Myanmar for the past couple of weeks. Without getting into too much detail, the immigration of Myanmar did not allow me to cross the border due to certain political complications. Thankfully, I met with three other travellers who were stuck in the same situation. Left frustrated and with no other land options, we decided to wait it out in hopes that the border will open in due time.
It was an agonizingly mind-numbing wait as this was a small town with nothing much to do. I figured I might as well attempt to pick up a new skill in efforts to kill time. Embarrassingly, I did not yet know how to ride a bicycle. Yes, this is possibly more haunting than not knowing how to swim. Seeing as two of these travellers had cycled all the way from Germany, I requested for one of them, Marko, to teach me.
Day one saw me awkwardly waddling up and down the main street attempting to balance and push myself forward while the townsfolk gawked and giggled. It did not feel great. A couple of hours and a saddle sore later, a tuk-tuk driver suggested that I practice in a nearby field instead of the main road.
The following day, Marko and I went to the field, where a multitude of school kids looked on at this grown-up unable to do what they have mastered since young. I’d occasionally get a yell of encouragement, “You can do it, sister!” from an oncoming passerby. No matter how much Marko tried to explain the physics of balancing, it wasn’t something I could grasp. So he had to treat me like a child. I held on to the handles, placed my feet on the pedals without pedalling, and simply tried to balance as Marko ran and pushed his bicycle.
By the end of the day, I managed to cycle in a straight line for about 5 seconds before crashing on the ground as I couldn’t brake properly.
Nevertheless, that feeling of finally being able to balance on a bicycle after almost 30 years of my life was pretty magnificent.
My riding skills improved over the next few days. And whenever I felt crummy about being stuck in Moreh indefinitely, I always told myself, “At least now I can ride a bicycle.”
By Petrina Thong
This article originally appeared on Zafigo, a travel guide for women travellers in Asia and the Middle East, and is republished with permission.