Three Snails Cross Poland
Hitching to the Hitchgathering, 3-6th August
They say hitch-hiking is easy in Poland. Bollocks.
It was in my original plan to go to the Hitchgathering after the Rainbow, but that was when it was in Romania: a logical progression towards Turkey. Now it’s moved to Lithuania: an enormous detour. The day before I leave, I’m 70% certain I’ll stay. The following morning it’s switched somehow to 30%, then 20%. I pack my tent down. 10%. Alex and Matthieu are going and I want to travel with them. It will be an adventure.
Alex is carrying a big stick. A few nights ago, he and I took magic mushrooms together. It was the night of the full moon – the biggest celebration of the Rainbow. We didn’t have much, so it wasn’t a strong trip and not much occurred aside from the chanting monks, the demonic mutterer and a long, long journey to the water in an effort to quench my unquenchable thirst. But just as we were heading back from the water toward the main circle, Alex found The Stick. He held it aloft to the full moon and there it was: an wolf-like silhouette, the moon shining through the eye. Alex instantly fell in love with The Stick. He couldn’t stop gazing at it and showed it off proudly to everyone he met. Now, he’s carrying it to Lithuania.
Back up at the Welcome Space, we’re given a warm farewell. People play music around the fire, share food, drink chai and make carboard signs like ours with various countries written on them. It’s a long time before we manage to leave, and may have been even longer if a woman didn’t come past with three spare seats in her eight-seater car. We walk the rest of the way up to the Parking with her and her four children. Unfortunately, The Stick won’t quite fit in the car, but Alex snaps the end off to make it shorter, a tear in his eye.
Our lift is going shopping. “There’s a big Tesco in Hnusta”, I tell her, feeling guilty. There are probably closer shops and I hate Tesco, but Hnusta is a good way in our direction. She drops us there and we trek through town. Alex and I are in a shop looking for food while Matthieu is waiting with the bags outside. Suddenly he rushes in – “we have a ride!” he tells us. We dash to the check-out, Alex swearing and muttering. Outside, our bags are already packed and we climb in the car.
The rain comes while we’re waiting for our next ride. It’s the kind of torrential rain in which one is drenched to the bone within seconds. We find a bus stop and huddle under. After several years a car stops with one spare seat. We send Matthieu on ahead. Twenty minutes later we also have a lift. It’s a fast car and we arrive in Kezmarok before Matthieu, who’s stuck in Poprad. We find a nearby rock bar and sit down to wait.
Halfway through our beers, Alex informs me in a quiet voice that in Eastern Europe it’s common that a certain kind of people drink in rock bars. “I’m not going to say the word”, he says, “but it’s the kind of people we were expecting an attack from at the camp in Cologne.” “Really? Huh.” I look around. There are several men in the bar, several smile when I glance at them. Could they really be… fascists?
We find a computer in the back room and take turns to check emails and the name of the village we’re going to. It seems the location of the Hitchgathering has changed again, from an abandoned vodka factory to a small farm.
When we return to our table, two fresh drinks have arrived. I look around. Some of the men at the next table smile and nod. A guy comes over from the next room and offers us songs on the jukebox. Apparently he put some money in for us. Wow, what nice people. I choose some songs and sit back down with my second pint. Matthieu is on his way now, but he can’t find the bar. I text directions. Alex puts Anarchy in the UK on the jukebox and we both sing along, sniggering, enjoying our little joke.
It’s hard to say at what point it becomes clear that our new friends really are fascists, but by the time Matthieu arrives they are zieg heil-ing and chanting slogans such as “juden gas!”(gas the jews). Wow, shit, we’re drinking with Nazis! We make a hasty exit. They wave us goodbye cheerily between saluting the Führer.
It’s late, but we get one more lift that takes us over the Polish border to somewhere close to Zakopane, where we camp by a haunted house.
Matthieu is amazing at finding lifts. He just has a knack for it. The problem is that while I’m more than happy to jump in a car any moment, Alex wants our breaks to be proper breaks. He doesn’t think we should keep drivers waiting, so we definitely shouldn’t ask for rides when someone’s in the toilet, in a shop, drinking coffee or whatever. So when Matthieu runs over during a lunch break to inform us excitedly that he’s found a lift to Krakow, Alex explodes.
They have an enormous row. Matthieu is clearly upset by Alex’s reaction, which even Alex admits was over the top. We let the ride go and sit down to talk. It looks like there’s going to be a split.
They make up, barely, but now Alex is in a mood and doesn’t want to hitch-hike. He needs cooling-off time. Matthieu finds another lift, going quite some way. In a quick decision we all get in the car. I’m relieved not to have to choose between them, but uncertain what might happen next.
We wait eons on the outskirts of Kielce. Alex goes to scout another road and of course, a car stops as soon as he’s gone. I try calling several thousand times, but he doesn’t answer. The lift is only a few kilometres, to a better spot. I put Matthieu in the car with the bags and wait for Alex to come back. A couple of hours later we find Matthieu waiting patiently at a bus stop, where we all sleep in the biggest tent in the woods behind it. We made approximately 220km today.
In the morning, the first car stops and takes us to Radom. From there, Matthieu finds another lift with one seat and we send him on ahead. He’s on his way to Bialystok by the time we get another ride. It seems the split has happened anyway.
Later, Alex and I get a ride to Augustow with two Czech guys on their way to Belarus. They suggest we camp close to their hotel, then they can collect us in the morning and take us further. We agree and find a bar by the river. Alex goes to check beer prices and comes back smiling. “Are we rich?” I ask him. “Yes”, he says. Somehow we end up drinking with two local outcasts and before you know it, we’re drunk, It’s 4am and everything is hazy.
We’re walking “home” to our woodland clearing and somehow we pick up another guy while Alex is collecting his stick from the lampost where he left it. I don’t feel safe with this guy following us, drunk, back to where we will camp for the night. Everything is even hazier. I’m sitting on a step, crying. I tell Alex, “do you at least see that I really do feel unsafe?” He nods, bewildered. I don’t remember putting up the tent.
The Czech men collect us from a bus stop. They told us they’re business partners, but we feel certain they are lovers. They brought us ham rolls, which Alex eats and coffee, which we share. We cross the border. At last we’re in Lithuania. We stop at a Soviet monument to take pictures, then at an Armenian restaurant. They drop us off on the wrong side of Vilnius, where we take a bus to the centre.
I was never in the Soviet Union, but Alex, who was born there, assures me we’re in it now: same buses, same buildings, everyone speaking Russian on the streets… “I mean, they have their own fucking language here – why don’t they use it?” On the plus side, Alex, who’s half-Russian, can understand everything. He’s surprised to find a place “more fucked-up than Bulgaria”, (his other half), existing in the EU.
Vilnius is like something out of a bad dream, or a zombie film, set in the Soviet Union. Everyone is an alcoholic. Everyone. Everyone has PTSD. An old man has fallen over. I want to speak to him, to see if he’s ok. Alex says no, he’s drunk. I tell him the story of when the boy died at Titnore Woods and we thought he was drunk. Alex goes over to the man – “Are you sick?” he asks in Russian. The guy says yeah, he’s sick. Alex helps him up. A guy offers to sell us his last two cigarettes to buy some water. Alex offers him water from his bottle. He refuses, again tries to sell us the cigarettes. Alex offers to buy him some water. He refuses and bumbles off, muttering.
Two short lifts later we’re finally at the Hitchgathering, six hours behind Matthieu, three days late and exhausted.