“You think he’s stopping for us?” My girlfriend Dominique said, pointing to the car pulled over 500 feet down the road. “Nah, he’s just taking a leak,” I said as the passenger hopped out and did just that.
We were stranded at a piss-poor location on Autoroute A63 just south of Bordeaux, France. The previous ride was a letdown of only ten kilometres that came after a three-hour wait. Our only chance of getting a ride was to convince a passing motorist that we were worthy enough to ruin a faithful marriage with his gas pedal by committing an extra-marital affair with the brake pedal. “Wait, check it out!” I shouted, picking up my backpack. Clearly using his right hand for the call of nature, the man waved his free left hand our way. He’d apparently halted for more than simple roadside relief. Having never been waved at by a urinating man, I assumed the custom was to wave back. I did. He continued his activities with both hands. Leery of taking a ride from somebody so blatantly shameless,fs I looked over at Dom and asked,
“Whatcha think? It’s gonna be these guys or a long wait”
“I don’t know...looks kinda sketchy,” she squinted and watched the man zip up his pants.
“Well, the next ride might be worse. Grab your bag.”
When hitchhiking, it’s smarter to err on the side of caution when accepting a ride. It’s better to be stuck somewhere than take a suspicious ride. Having said that, each ride is sized up according to your current situation. When you’ve got slim pickings, you take what you can get. “Bonjour,” said the passenger in Portuguese-flavoured French as we approached the two-tone Peugeot. Top burgundy, bottom rust. “Bonjour,” we said as he offered his right hand. I weighed hospitality versus hygiene and hesitatingly returned the gesture. Hygiene could wait -- we had ground to cover. We peeked in the window of the car. A moustached driver sat in the front seat holding the collar of a growling white pit bull. “Do not mind him. My dog is a friendly friend.” as the dog tried its best to eat his way through the passenger window. Gesturing towards our backpacks with his now-famous right hand, the passenger offered, “Give me your sacs. I will put them in the trunk, no?” “No, It’s okay. We will sit beside them in the back seat.”
“Mais no! There will be better comfort if you use the trunk. I insist!”
“No really, we’re cool with them between us. No problem.”
The driver screamed at the passenger in broken Portuguese/French, visibly upset at our refusal to place our bags in the trunk. I sensed this was a huge problem bringing our bags into the car. The passenger explained, “My uncle wants to show you our hospitality by placing your sacs in the trunk. There is no room in the car for your backpacks. He insists”
Granted, the bags would take up a fair bit of room in the tiny car, but I was much more keen to be sitting beside my backpack than having it in the trunk. If our stuff was in the trunk, the driver could simply speed away from us when we got out of the vehicle, leaving us in the dust without any of our belongings. The ride was dicey enough as it was. I put the ride in jeopardy by giving the driver an ultimatum. “No, we will bring our bags in the car with us. If you will not let us do that, we will not take your ride.”
The driver argued with the passenger briefly again, raised his hand in defeat, and motioned to the tiny rear seat.
“O.K., but it is then your discomfort, not mine!” He said, in disbelief of our priority for backpack security over back seat comfort. Comfort could wait, we had ground to cover.
“On y va” choked the driver as he stood on the gas pedal and lit the cigarette hanging in the corner of his mouth. The vehicle lurched onto the highway with us wedged into the rear seat upholstered in shedded dog hair. The passenger rolled a joint with his right hand and held back the snapping pit bull with his left.
“Friendly dog, non?”
“Non”, I thought.
Running on a set of what was surely oval-shaped tires, the car shook violently as we picked up speed. As the speedometer nudged past 165km/h, the plastic dashboard couldn’t hold on any longer. It leapt from its moorings and cleared the steering wheel and the dog, landing on the two men’s laps. The driver recoiled forcefully causing the back of his seat to snap off its supports, and fall onto my lap. The dog barked and the passenger looked for his dropped joint. Traveling at more than one hundred miles an hour in a vehicle visibly held together by duct tape with a dog barking, a man looking for a burning joint and a reclined driver against my stomach, I glanced quickly over at Dom. The look on her face confirmed our suspicions: “Pot laced with crack? -- Check.” Without slowing, the driver miraculously grabbed the dashboard from the jaws of the hungry pitbull and refastened it while the passenger triumphantly held up his undamaged, lit joint. The seat was deemed beyond repair and rested on my knees. My legs began to fall asleep and the men posed the four questions asked to every hitchhiker:
“Where are you going?”
“What are your names?”
“Where are you from?”
“Do you want to smoke?”
Declining free drugs for the tenth time in as many days, Dom replied in Quebecois French “We’re from Canada.” This answer brought the strongest reaction from the men.
“Ahhh, foreigners.” they replied in unison, “It is not easy for us foreigners to hitch-hike in France. The driver looked at us in the cracked rear-view mirror “We are from Portugal. We know the difficulty of finding a ride in France. A Spanish man or a Portuguese man? He will pick you up. But a French man? Never. I will find you a Portuguese man”
It was settled then. We had ourselves an agent.
“We are going a different direction from where you are going, but my uncle will make a detour for you.” Said the passenger, looking at his uncle with admiration.
I quickly offered, “Nah, that’s okay, we can get out at the junction up ahead and find another ride there.” “No. I will go further in your direction,” replied the driver sternly.
When a drug-induced duo toting a hungry pitbull insist on making a detour for you, two thoughts run through your mind: They might be on a happy ‘high’ or they are about to tie you up and steal all of your stuff. You will either soon be waving goodbye to your driver reflecting on their generosity or you will be soon be standing on the side of the road in a foreign country possessing little more than the dirty pair of underwear you have on.
The driver, correction, our agent added, “We will take you to a rest area and I will find you a ride” Dominique and I exchanged glances. We might be lucky enough to leave the car with our backpacks but we knew first-hand the difficulty of getting rides at rest areas. The previous month, we spent the better part of a day stranded at a rest area south of Munich. Still in the grips of twitching hangovers from five days at Oktoberfest, we passed the morning with our thumb extended towards German-engineered vehicles attempting to break the sound barrier. Fetching little more than a sore arm, we changed our tactics for the afternoon by canvassing the picnic tables, bargaining for a ride with sausage-eating Bavarians. Nobody gave us a lift. We ended up taking a taxi to the next town. Based on our unsuccessful rest-area experience soliciting rides from lederhosen-clad ‘Shumachers’ bound for the Alps, our future seemed dismal.
The wounded Peugeot limped into the absolutely worst place to be stranded: A deserted tree-lined rest area. No toilets, no food outlets and worst of all, no stopped vehicles. The wall of trees made it impossible to indicate our ride-seeking intentions to passing motorists. Our hearts sank, but as we followed a bend around a thick grove of trees, a large tractor-trailer truck with an encircled letter ‘P’ on the rear bumper came into view. A man sat beside the truck eating a bagged lunch. Our agent exclaimed energetically “Portuguese! Portuguese!” Obviously excited about finding the promised Portuguese driver, he brought the car to a quick shuddering stop and used all his might to pull his hefty body from his demolished seat.
The agent strode confidently towards the trucker, winking back at us. The two men acknowledged each other like old friends and the agent took on the persona of a professional negotiator. The case was pleaded for giving us a ride South and the trucker seemed to offer little resistance, looking in our direction and nodding frequently. Amazed by the agent’s comfort under ad-libbed third-party hitchhike negotiating, Dominique observed and whispered quietly, “It looks like he’s talking to his uncle!” The two men shook hands. The agent called us over.
As we approached, the agent took on a serious look and motioned to the truck driver: “I have kept my promise. I have found you a Portuguese man. Now you must promise me something.”
“Sure, what is it?” I asked, hoping he didn’t want our backpacks as a signing bonus.
“You must promise me only one thing.” Pointing his finger at us to drive the point home. “You must promise me that you will go to Portugal!” His face broke out in a wide grin. “This man will take you there,” gesturing to the nodding truck driver stuffing his face with a baguette.
We assured the agent that we would keep our promise and visit his homeland. We shook hands to seal the deal and moments later we waved goodbye as our agent and his nephew started out of the rest area in a whirlwind of blue-smoke. After brushing the last traces of dog hair off our backpacks, we turned our attention to the amused-looking truck driver. He sat there, finished his bread and shook his head as if in disbelief at our agent’s negotiating prowess. He cleared his throat, pointed towards the fleeting Peugeot and said in flawless French:
“He seems like a nice man, your uncle”
copyright © 2004 by Kyle MacDonald