Chase Travels to Porto: hitchhiking tips from Elias Khan
Hitchhiking has to be the most adventurous and cost-effective way to travel, although most people find the idea quite scary. One of our Chase contributors, Elias Khan, nevertheless took the plunge back in 2015. Together with a friend, he kicked off his adventure in Brussels and hitchhiked all the way to Porto. Imagine making your way from the sandy beaches of Biarritz, to the metropolitan panache of Bilbao, to the laid-back picturesque villages of Salamanca Province, to finally arrive at the edge of the continent. With nothing but the luggage you can carry on your back, no fixed travel shedule, a handful of faith in the kindness of strangers as well as your own endurance... And no turning back.
Illustrated by his scatter-brained travel log and set of analog photographs, Elias shares some essential hitchhiking tips in this Chase Travels story to mentally prepare us to let go of the fear and just get out on the road ourselves.
Photography and text by Elias Khan
Awe. Irritation. Disgust. Jealousy. A weird sense of voyeurism. And ultimately being bored with ordinary life. Once again I found myself going through a rollercoaster of emotions during an endless scrolling marathon on Instagram or Facebook looking at the awesome lives my 1319 friends are leading. Travel is the new crack, smack and reefer of this age and everybody’s doing it. So why not me?!
Not to worry though. It’s all smoke and mirrors, or at least fancy framing and a nice Lightroom preset or two. Self-proclaimed adventurers are showcasing their quasi-impromptu voyages across the globe as if chance took the steering wheel and lured them into the beautiful scenes they are now bragging about. But chances are much likelier that all of this is a carefully orchestrated photo op made to look like the great adventure Jack Kerouac used to write about.
At least that is what I tell myself to soothe my envious mind. But I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to actually leave without a plan, money or destination and just follow the next fascinating person with an idea that crossed my path. I found myself on a terrace on the Oude Markt in Leuven one summer evening with some of my best friends and someone I had only met once before in my life. What Stephanie proposed didn’t make me think twice about packing up and follow her into the unknown. Hitchhiking, camping and surfing: I was sold.
Tip #1: No plan is a good plan.
To be honest, we did have a plan. We just ended up throwing parts of it out the window (always a good idea) and added an extra 800km and four cities to the remains of what was a pretty meagre plan to begin with. We left with the idea to visit two crazy Dutch brothers who have a tradition of heading out to the beaches around Biarritz in the south of France with a van packed with military grade material and setting up camp right on the beach.
Tip #2: Keep your luggage light.
We set off into the unknown, or at least in the direction of the French border, with an incredible amount of luggage which idiotically included two camping chairs. If I should give one tip that’s actually worth something, then it should be to pack light. Stephanie’s backpack however was so big and bulky I named it Kareem Abdul Jabbar before we were even out of Brussels.
I wonder if it was the huge amount of luggage that slowed us down, or just the incredibly impulsive choices we made at every corner. I had hoped to make it to Biarritz in about a day and a half. We made it there, let’s just leave it at that. But before we could drag our cursed packs and chairs across the last stretch of mull sand, throw our pants into the sea and our feet up, we had to spend a night dodging slightly creepy Ukrainian truck drivers and spent another night on a wooden picknick table in the pouring rain in our wetsuits (yes, we packed that too, thank god).
Tip #3: Don’t turn back and give up.
These tips are becoming more and more esoteric, but with good reason. Any practical hitchhiking tips are almost always dependent on location. If you’re planning (hah!) on hitchhiking you should already know this kind of stuff. And if you have ever done this before, you also know that hitchhiking can be the most frustrating way to travel. But one thing to keep in mind when you find yourself stranded along a deserted country road in rural Spain at 1am trying to get to a dammed lake (pun intended) just because it might be pretty in the morning is this: dad won’t be coming to pick you up in the family Mitsubishi, so there’s no turning back.
When heavy storms started rolling in from the Gulf of Biscay onto our idyllic beach in the south of France and the Dutch troopers headed home because one of them slashed his leg with a razor sharp axe, we didn’t turn back. We decided to go to Porto because fuck 180s.
When our ride broke down somewhere in the centre of France because the genius driver had been driving it without motor oil for 500km and he dropped us off miles from the nearest highway in search of a service station, we didn’t jump on an overpriced train like the other hitchhiker that was sharing the same ride with us. We hitched back to the péage and held up a sign with “anywhere” in French, just because we had no idea where we were and wanted to get the hell out of there.
When our Portuguese driver started freaking out because he had missed an exit to drop us off and absolutely wanted us to get out of his car in the middle of a busy highway, we didn’t get ourselves run over. We stayed in the car, pretended to speak Portuguese and convinced him to drop us off at the next exit.
This list could go on but the point is clear: I guarantee that you will have a shit time hitchhiking. But there is a pay-off, which I will aptly name the Butters-effect, after the South Park character. There is a famous quote in which he explains that without the unbearable sadness that he is feeling at the moment, he would never be able to experience insane joy. This is also true for hitchhiking. You will go through dark brown patches of rough shit, but you must never forget that in a few hours you might be having free eggs and bacon for breakfast with a breathtaking mountain view, just as long as you stay positive and don’t give up.
Tip #4: Stay with locals.
Eventually I am turning around and giving some actual advice that’s worth a damn. That’s because rules are bollocks and should be ignored, just like we ignored Tip #4 from time to time. Staying with locals is always a good idea, but obviously there are times when just roughing it and throwing up your tent is a lot easier. Other times we were just too lazy and tired to start socializing after a long day of hiking and found ourselves a cozy hostel, like we did in Bilbao.
When we arrived in San Sebastian however, this was not an option. So after being dropped off at the outskirts of the city by our Portuguese friend with very little stress resilience, we approached the first guy with a beard at the nearest bus stop and asked him what to do. He called some friends who all bluntly refused to take us in, which only increased our perceived level of poor stranded hitchhikers. But the hiking gods were kind to us since this same guy happened to live in an awesome apartment right in the centre of the city, and he had a spare room. He didn’t even bother to call his girlfriend and just took us straight home with him. Thank God for Xabi and his girlfriend Oihana, who didn’t think twice about leaving us their key while they visited their parents for the day. The rest of our time in San Sebastian was spent miring at the weird traditional puppet parades from the balcony and wandering around town finding the next free concert that was on that week.
By the time we got to the centre of Spain the land started to look more dry. And it wasn’t just the land. A lot of the people in the small villages dotted across the west of the country left their impoverished and corruption riddled areas and moved en masse to places like London and North France. We got picked up by a French Spaniard who was on his way to visit his parents in a teeny tiny village on the border with Portugal, miles away from the highway but set in the most beautiful mountainous landscape. What eventually won us over to tag along instead of stride ahead towards Porto was the promise of luscious streams for bathing caused by a disused dam, and an old hippy couple (that ran the only bar in the village) who would probably let us pitch our tent in their garden.
Don't worry if you don’t master the local language and communication is reduced to simple statements and hand gestures. It will make you look all the more lost and cutesy and people will want to take care of you, I guarantee it.
One of the main reasons we were so eager to get to Porto was because I had already been there once and had met an awesome Cape Verdean guy that was more than willing to let us stay over on his couch. What I hadn’t realized the last time I was there was that there were actually three other people living in his tiny apartment. The more the merrier though! One of these guys was actually a kuduro and kizomba DJ in a local club frequented by the Brazilian, Angolan and Cape Verdean diaspora.
Together with him and the other guy in the apartment (whose only goal in life was to smoke as much hash as humanly possible) we closed off this weird trip across the continent in perfect fashion: shaking our asses off while feeling slightly out of place.