2011/09/22

The byway nigh me

I was in Denmark recently, and decided after two days spent in Copenhagen to hitchhike into the country and see a bit of the countryside and the towns in Zealand. In the Edda, the ruler of Sweden, King Gylfi, as a reward for his entertainment, promised a certain woman an amount of land "as much as four oxen could plough up in a day and a night." The woman happened to be the goddess Gefiun, and she took four oxen from Giantland, who cut so hard into the land that it uprooted and was drawn out into the western sea, where it was given the name 'Zealand'. The hole left became a lake: either Lake Malar or Lake Valern.

I was told that it rains a lot in Denmark and is quite windy. And so on a windswept shoulder of the main highway out of Copenhagen, in the grey morning drizzle, I stood with a sign saying "Jutland", attempting to make it all the way across the country. For half an hour I was reminded that this was a first world country in the 21st century, and that hitchhiking is not really all that common anymore, especially in a big city like Copenhagen. I could almost hear the drivers thinking, "go take a bus! or the train!"

Nevertheless, one man did stop after half an hour, a kitchen salesman from Holbaek, doing the rounds. Apparently, you can make a lot of money being a salesman in Denmark, especially if you find your niche market. One man, who sold photocopiers, was a millionaire apparently, and owned property and yachts and other stuff that millionaires own. I asked about the immigrant situation, hearing that it was a bit of a controversial topic in Denmark. A few years ago the country had actually re-introduced border controls, despite being part of the Schengen area, to the protest of other Schengen area members. The excuse was that there were more illegal immigrants and criminals, and border controls were needed to keep them out.

The kitchen salesman said that yes, a lot of the "coloured" and dark skinned immigrants were a problem.

-- "They like to fight, to steal and cause trouble. There never used to be so much problem."

And what about the eastern Europeans, I asked, hearing a little about their criminal reputation from my host in Copenhagen, a Lithuanian.

-- "Yes, they too, but they don't stay in Denmark. In the summer they come for the work (picking strawberries), and when the harvest is over they steal as much as can fit in their cars and drive off back home. Of course, we can never catch them because they come back the next year in different cars or whatever."

He decided to drop me off then in the middle of the motorway, since he was going in one direction and I needed to go in another direction. As he sped off I stood in the emergency lane, where cars and trucks sped past me at 100km/h. Not a good place to get a lift I thought, and I was right. 30 minutes passed and it wasn't looking good, the cars were travelling too fast to stop, and it was too dangerous to stay, so I hopped onto the other lane and started walking. Unfortunately, it wasn't an exit, it was a ramp onto another motorway! And just as I began cursing a policeman pulled over in his Yamaha and swaggered towards me, and told me to climb the fence into a nearby farm to get to a footpath and off the motorway.

The next ride was a Pakistani student from Karachi who drove me 5 minutes down the road towards my new destination (Roskilde, now that I realised Jutland was too far to get to in one day).

-- "Man, in winter, there is nothing after 5pm. The shops are closed, and it is dark already. There's nothing to do."

He shook his head as he dropped me off outside Ikea. I walked a bit down the road and waited once again, and once again it took roughly 20 to 30 minutes for a car to pull up. This time it was a garbage man going home after work. It was around 1pm in the afternoon. Although his home wasn't far, he decided to drop me off all the way in Roskilde, another 15 minutes further, and as I was about to get down he grabbed me and pulled out a 50 crown note and shoved it towards me, despite my protests.

-- "Go on, take it. Buy yourself a soda or something. Just know that Danish guys are good guys."

So I went and bought a soda. I'm 27 years old this year.

--

The next day I decided to give hitchhiking another chance, and in the morning I waited at another highway entrance in the north of Copenhagen. The wind had died down a little from the day before, only to be compensated by the drizzle, and I was doing my best to look miserable at the side of the road, squinting into the light rain and clutching my jacket as if I was an Arctic explorer. The sign said "Helsingor" this time, and I was hoping for better luck as I was carrying my backpack with me, which should denote me as a bonafide traveller and not some random bum (the day before, I carried nothing except a roll of biscuits, and this might have given the game away).

This time, after 30 minutes, it was an electrician. He was off to a job but could spare some time, and after talking to him a bit he even offered to drive me all the way, but I declined, thinking that was too far out of the way for him. But it was a kind offer. Unfortunately he also, like the kitchen salesman from yesterday, decided to drop me off on the motorway. Luckily there was a rest stop nearby, so I walked to it and started thumbing rides off the few cars that were resting there in the morning, without luck (even asking people in cars directly, as they were resting, something I hadn't tried before).

After, you guessed it, 30 minutes, an absolute bomb of a car stopped in front of me. A white sedan, a Toyota or something from the '80s or early '90s. Something I remember seeing in the suburbs of western Sydney when I was growing up. I got in, the driver was just moving some stuff to the back seat. The radio was falling apart, and the seat covers had cuts in them revealing the insides. He started driving, and I knew then that I was in for a ride. The fellow was driving 200km/h on a 100km/h motorway, weaving between cars where there couldn't have been more than a few metres separating them.

-- "Where are you from?", he quizzes.
-- "Australia. You?"

I'm concentrating very hard at the road ahead, for the both of us. I'm not sure the seatbelt would work, so I was clutching the sides of my seat and involutarily bracing myself at each shudder of the car.

-- "Me, I'm Serbian."

I sneak a peak at him. He has very dark skin, black hair and bulging eyes. I think he's a gypsy.

-- "I buy this car in Copenhagen, guess how much?" "2000!!", before I had a chance to reply.

This was about 250 euros.

-- "And now I go to sell it in Helsingor, but I'm late for the commune. If I'm late they don't give me the money, see?"
-- "You mean the welfare money?"

He looks at me blankly and I wish he was looking rather at the road.

-- "Yes, yes. And now guess how much I sell this car?" "4000!!", before I had a chance to reply.

He laughs and smacks his thigh, and then quickly frowns and checks his smartphone for the time. The highway had ended by now, and it was a single lane with road work cones on both sides. We had made about 30km in 10 minutes or so, giving back to me all that time spent waiting at the side of the road, but losing me years off my life. A van was in front, seemingly stationary in the distance. This was the only time I said anything about his driving.

-- "Umm... there's a van, you'd better...."

And he applied the brakes. Applied? Slammed. The old girl moved down from 200km/h and the engine coughed and the exhaust banged. We were definitely going to rear end the van. I braced myself for the impact. Poor bugger, I thought, he won't know what's hit him. But at the last moment the gypsy swings the car into the emergency lane and switches his feet and we're round the van like a flash.

-- "And you know, I'm buying a new car! A Skoda!" he beams.
-- "A new car?"
-- "Yes, brand new! And so I take the registration from this one, and..."

He grins at me. I must admit the dodginess was quite impressive. The road is single lane now, and he pulls onto incoming traffic to get past a car in front of us. A truck is driving towards us deceptively quickly in the oncoming lane, headlights flicking madly. I just survey the scene with a mixture of boredom and fascination. Everything is completely clear in vision, completely objective. It must be the adrenaline. He pulls in just in time, and I breath out. Oh my god, I think, we are going to die.

This happens a few more times, and the road starts to wind. It was curiously thrilling to be in that car. He was a pretty good driver, and really pushed the machine into the corners and the curves and I could feel the engine straining and sweating. This must be how it feels to be in a real racing car, I thought. I then remembered that this was a 1980s Toyota bought for 250 euros and the driver was a chain smoking gypsy who kept checking his phone while driving at 110km/h in a 60km/h zone. It is now the town of Helsingor and pedestrians whizz past like spectators at a rally. Suddenly he stops at a school and tells me to get out and points the way to the center, and he turns into the school.

It's only been 15 minutes since he picked me up, over 40km away, and I'm never ever hitching a lift again.

2 comments:

  1. I bet you did hitch hike again after all !

    ReplyDelete