I was on my way from Ithaca, upstate New York to Niagara Falls.
A small truck stopped.
I went up and a laughing face appeared, hurrying clearing up the seat for me. His name was Toby. I got inside. Seriously, after such a long time of waiting today, no matter what kind of scary people gave me a ride, I would take it.
Just kidding. 😀 But indeed Toby was no ordinary man.
Once seated I could feel clearly that this was a legendary former hitchhiker and we started talking nonstop with high spirits right away like two machine guns firing. You see, ever since I got handcuffed while hitchhiking in PA, I had been asking in the traveler community if anybody else had a similar experience. NOPE! Nobody else had been handcuffed while getting a ride from US police….. Weird. Obviously according to police regulation they had to do that but obviously most police just did not bother. Then…… why did they just handcuff ME? Did I look especially dangerous? That was highly disconcerting……
Finally, now I met Toby, another hitchhiker who also had been handcuffed.
Me: So, Toby, where did you hitchhike?
Toby: Hell! Everywhere! I hitchhiked everywhere in US and all the way from here to Panama, intending to arrive in Colombia but had to turn back.
He deeply nodded his round head like it was a heavy metal ball and then threw it aside, and started telling his story.
When he was in his 20s, which was more than 10 years ago, he hitchhiked a lot, sometimes alone and sometimes with his then girlfriend. To be noted, when I met him, Toby was a big guy, bald, with huge tattoos everywhere and was wearing a black T-shirt. No offense to him because he is an awesome dude, but he did look like a ‘serial-killer’. Thus imaginably, even in his younger years it was super difficult for him to get a ride. He tried all means to get a ride. He danced, even with the road pole, he sang, he threw himself in the middle of the road, he pretended to be a woman, he stripped until he was naked…… just to get a ride.
You know, the world is not a fair place. Some people get everything for free simply because they look sweet or pretty, regardless of their personalities. While there are people like Toby, with a big heart and the most beautiful smile in the world and still nobody would help him simply because he looked like a gangster.
Me: Have you ever got into trouble with the police? I was handcuffed a few days ago in Pennsylvania. How about you?
He: You mean the US police, the Mexican police, Guatemala police, Honduras police, Nicaragua police, Costa Rican police or Panama police?
Me: Eh….. all?
He threw back his head, lowered his black sunglasses and laughed hysterically, ‘Oh man, you have no idea!’
When he was in US, he was checked countless times by police while hitchhiking. Guess because he looked like a gangster, so police suspected him all the time. The police harassed him, handcuffed him, interrogated him and even imprisoned him more than once. Did he actually commit any crimes to deserve this? He did not mention the details, but he did mention he got into ‘financial troubles’ sometimes and had to act conveniently. For that obviously he could get into serious trouble. When he was finally released, he went with a friend of him to hitchhike all the way to Panama. For an American, that was already a pretty big journey. Hearing that he hitchhiked all the way from US, Mexican police helped him to get rides. Costa Rican police even sheltered him in the police station, just to show him some ‘Pura Vida’ Hospitality. However, when he reached Panama border, US police contacted him for ‘some financial and tax reason’, which I guessed was either petty crimes or tax evasion, so he had to return to US.
He traveled with minimal money so he had to find ways to survive. I understood that. When I met him, he was in his 40s already, had a stable job as a truck driver, a house and a daughter, whose photo he proudly showed to me with all the love in his eyes. Things had changed but clearly he did not regret his adventurous youth at all. That was some memory to be cherished forever.
He: If I was young again, I would do it again! But oh bro, things are different now. I’ve got to think about my baby girl. She is my whole life now. But hey, really, when I was hitchhiking in Guatemala, I almost died. There were this group of gangsters, all thin and with Bob Marley hairstyle chasing after me and my friend. We thought we were going to a party but it turned out to be trouble. Seriously, none of them looked like a gangster, but gangsters they were. We ran and ran and ran, eventually we ended up in a massive corn fields. I thought we would be able to hide ourselves there since it was already night. No, no way! They set dogs on us and I heard gunshots nearer and nearer. Shit man! I almost shitted my pants and my friend could not move anymore. He was petrified, like a piece of fossil. I pinched him, squeezed him, bite him just to wake him the fuck up. No, he did not wake up and I had to drag him all the way through this fucking huge corn field. Gunshots got nearer and nearer. I suddenly saw a flashlight in front of us. I was transfixed and thought ‘Damn, we are finished!’ I was just about to say my courageous last words to my friend like ‘See you in the next life buddy!’ suddenly the person holding the flashlight asked anxiously:’Que haces? Por favor! Non tengo mucho dinero!’ I did not speak a damn Spanish word but I could hear fear in his voice. I came near and found this dark skinned old farmer in front of his shed. Obviously he was the caretaker of this enormous corn field. I showed to him the state of my petrified friend and signed to him that we needed to be hidden otherwise we were dead. He nodded and immediately showed us into his shed. He put us in the cellar where some old corn was stored. That was how we escaped from the Guatemala mafia.
Me: WOWO! Man! But why did they chase you?
He: Eh…… minor issue. We were invited by the driver while hitchhiking. The driver worked for the big boss of the mafia there. My friend took something from their villa while we were partying there. I guessed that they did drug trafficking. So much for the Guatemalan hospitality.
Although he was not the first nomadic traveler I knew who had engaged in minor crimes such as theft, he was surely the first one who got into life-threatening trouble because of it. When I was hitchhiking in New Zealand, there was this French guy on a Work & Travel Visa there and at a certain moment, he and his mates ran out of money. So they started first to buy the cheapest food in supermarket to survive. Later, they started eating cat food and dog food sold in supermarkets and eventually, yes, he started shoplifting. He did it so much and so adeptly that we started to call shoplifting ‘French Shopping’. When he came back to the wild camping spot with a day bag full of cheese, croissants, baguettes and salami, we would ask:’Hey man! Just came back from French shopping again?’
However, unlike Toby, he was never caught or imprisoned. In the 1970s, during the international crackdown of drug trafficking in many developing countries, many western hippies who were smuggling drugs were arrested and put into prison. Many of them died of torture or horrific prison conditions. One of those survivors who was sentenced 30 years in prison in Turkey and escaped after 5 years in prison wrote a book about it, Midnight Express by Billy Hayes. This tradition of drug smuggling using their foreign tourist identity as a cover lasted until the 90s, although to a much diminished extent. In the 90s, when a British nomad who traveled all the way to India without any money arrived in India. He found that most of the western travelers who illegally stayed here after visa expiry were still surviving on drug smuggling.
Well, nowadays this ‘tradition’ has died away.
Just to be crystal clear, I myself have never smuggled any drugs. 😀 😀 On several occasions I was questioned and searched at borders or police checkups. They checked me much more diligently when I told them that I had lived in the Netherlands for 6 years.
We talked and talked. Without me knowing it, we already neared his turn and Toby told me ‘Oh, Rochester is ok, but seriously man, people there are afraid of strangers! Too much crime!’
He: Ok buddy, I turn here to my home. This is the way you need to take. If you can find a car, tell them to bring you to the entrance of the highway, where you can easily find a ride to Rochester direction. This is a shortcut. I used it many times to hitchhike to Canada.
I thanked him and got off.
I was still deep inside his stories, somewhere in Central American corn fields, without realizing that I had already landed on solid ground of an American motorway. All the buzzing and screeching slowly woke me up. The big McDonalds’ sign was way too bright for my dreamy eyes.
When I finally came back, I saw I was standing on the side of a big crossing with traffic lights. The roadside behind the traffic lights would be perfect spot for hitchhiking.
I went there and thumbed up.
About ten minutes later a small black car stopped! WOWO! Only ten minutes! Unbelievable! This must have been my record in US! I realized that the tide had turned and from then on hitchhiking would go much more smoothly. I joyfully jumped to the car and guess what?
It was Toby in there again! 😀
So he went back home, parked his truck from work and drove his own car to pick me up again.
It was the first time that this sort of things happened to me. Wasn’t it sweet?
He was laughing as always. He seemed never to know what sadness was anymore. I got into the car, laughing like him and realized that if a place was difficult to hitchhike, then those people who DID dare to pick me up would be extra great souls. In that case, the ease of hitchhiking and the experience one got were sort of balanced.
He drove me to a big service station with tens of trucks and facing the truck station was the entrance of the highway to Rochester and Buffalo.
I hugged him and started to ask truck drivers for a ride.
So that was my encounter with Toby, the ‘gangster’ who helped me twice. A magnificent person he was.
To Be Continued