First, stay with your feet to the ground: Moving from Europe to the Middle East isn’t something you do overnight. Especially if you’re not willing to take an aeroplane, whether because entering an airport or aeroplane makes you feel like being in kindergarten again (you can’t take your own beer), or because you care about climate change.
Last summer I wanted to go from Brussels to Cairo, Egypt. Somehow I was convinced that plenty of boats are criss-crossing the Mediterranean, and booking a boat could get me where I wanted. But the internet proved me wrong. Apparently that damn cheap air travel made all lines disappear. Luckily there’s an alternative, that is overland travel.
From Europe you can actually quite easily take a train to Damascus, or maybe even Amman. While Amman might be tricky right because of politics, there are still ways to get to where you need to go. Crossing Israel or catching a boat to Jordan will get you there in less than ten days. Or if you have plenty of time you can hitchhike. By far this is best way to meet people and wander off the beaten track.
Crossing Europe by thumb was fairly easy, but wasn’t as magical as hitch-hiking through the Middle East. Hitchhiking through Turkey is easy, though getting out of a big city, like Istanbul can be very hard.
Even when I wasn’t hitch-hiking, it was often hard to decline car rides. When I went hiking along the Lycian coast, people simply kept on stopping along the side of the road to take me and I still feel sorry about the sidecar I had to decline.
Violent clashes in Syria made me decide not to wander through Syria by thumb, but rather ask a Turkish Mekka-bound bus to drop me off after the Jordanian border (this time I paid). All the time I saved by speeding through Syria, I had to spend in Jordan, as Cairo wasn’t expecting me in a week or two.
Especially when you have plenty of time on your hands, hitch-hiking gets amusing, and hitch-hiking is nowhere as easy as in Jordan, while the chances for women to be bugged are lower than in Egypt and Turkey too. Jordan lacks public transport (it’s too rich), so plenty of people and not only foreigners, depend on their thumb to make it home.
I love isolated areas, and venturing through the isolated Jordanian desert castles came close to heaven.
One day a truck stopped for me in the middle of the desert and would only take me if I first allowed him to make me a coffee on the side of the road. Yummy, coffee and the desert combined.
Sometimes you can barely call it hitchhiking, you quickly get offered a ride when you ask for directions or get your breakfast somewhere. In Egypt for example, I never needed to hitchhike, chatting in the immigration line was enough to land me a 800 kilometre ride to Cairo (for the rare car-lovers reading Green Prophet this “prince” got driven through the Sinai Desert in a Ford Mustang.
Hitchhiking isn’t only cheap, but also big fun. You don’t need to plan anything, or inform yourself about sight-seeing as you won’t find better tour guides than the people giving you a ride. For me the little short trips with no predictable destination were often the most rewarding. While I often got scared during nightly long-distance rides – the slightest turn of the road can frighten me when I’m stumbling asleep.
I was taken for a ride in school buses, frequently I ended up at family dinners and once two archaeologists even forced me to join them on their ten-day long quest for hidden crusader castles. Anyone who wants to know more on crusader castles, contact me.
Looking back at it, there’s a big difference between what you feel when you fly, going overland or hitch-hiking.
Even the biggest cultural differences are barely felt when you travel the slow way. When I leave an aeroplane the country and its people slightly frighten me and make me feel strange or stand-offish towards what’s around me, while hitch hiking made me enjoy every change of landscape or scenery, and took me to the same rhythm as the things around me.
Oh, and if I would do it again, I would bike it.
Image of desert hitchhiking from Shutterstock