After I hitchhiked to Athens in the winter of 2017, I flew back to the Netherlands in April. To take a break from travelling, to celebrate my mother’s 75th birthday and to give film workshops.
My idea was to have a four-week break and leave the Netherlands around 15th of May. Fly to Athens, ‘hopping’ some beautiful Greek islands, to Turkey and Cyprus, visit Istanbul and return to Greece. To finally end up in the Free and Real Community on Evia and make a documentary in the last week of August.
Whatever I did though, I did not manage to get the money for the flight. Booking a ticket moved further and further in time. It was only until June, when I celebrated my own birthday that I came to the realization that if I really wanted to get to Athens, I had to hitchhike the Balkans again.
On the 13th of June, with some reluctance and impatience I took the slow trail a second time.
I had been travelling for ten weeks and had come to Monastery Beach, a beach resort near Sarandë, on the south coast of Albania. The final destination of my journey, making a documentary at the Free and Real Community near Athens, had vanished on the day I arrived to Sarandë. As an answer to my e-mail that I would arrive some days later, I got the reply that making a documentary wasn’t such a good idea after all. Good luck with finding other interesting projects in Greece, which they thought would be no problem for me.
It was Monday, the first day of the last week of August. I was thirty kilometres from the Greek border. My final destination still was Athens, without time pressure now. After a night at Monastery beach, a beautiful sunrise and a refreshing morning swim, I sat down in the beach bar to start my new working week.
At the beginning of the afternoon, Wi-Fi went down and stayed down. I considered this the signal that it was time to move on. The moment the owner and one of his colleagues got notice that I was about to leave, they insisted I would take packed lunch with me. So I left Monastery Beach, happy to have discovered this place, with fried sardines, baked vegetables and fresh bread.
I climbed the dirt road to the main route going south, took my sign ‘Athens’ and watched the traffic coming from Sarandë. After 20 minutes, a driver coming from the dirt road surprised me by sneaking up from behind and invited me to come with him. His advice was to return to Sarandë and take a road with more traffic going to Greece. As always, I trusted the advice of locals.
Fifteen minutes later I was back in the city, at a complicated junction. Traffic coming from all directions, but definitely going south. I noticed more Greek cars here, which gave me hope to get a quick ride.
Three hours later, a young German couple with a cool van, invited me to come with them. Their destination was not far from Sarandë, an Albanian hamlet close to the Greece border. I hopped in and took a seat in the back. They were on a six-week vacation, travelling the Balkans with a van and exploring Croatia, Montenegro and Albania.
The guy worked as a tattoo artist, the girl was a goldsmith. Together they were exploring opportunities to combine working and travelling. In a very easygoing pace, this main route was still not more than a country road, we approached the Greek border.
At the junction where the couple turned right to exit the ‘main road’, I got out of the car and positioned myself to the road straight on. Greece was only some ten kilometres, I presumed. The day was coming to a closure, I had like half an hour before dusk would fall, it would become dark in one hour. ‘The middle of nowhere’ was an accurate description for this location. No road signs, some shattered farms, with a remote mosque here and there.
It had become almost dark, when a small Greek lorry stopped. A man with two small kids in the back, boy and girl. He looked at my sign and invited me to get in. He spoke practically no English, but for sure he was going to Greece.
We arrived to the Greek border after 15 minutes. I was excited to enter Greece again, the second time I managed to reach it hitch hiking. When we had passed the customs, the men pointed ahead, a little to the right and said repeatedly ‘My village is there’.
In the complete darkness I only saw the lights of scattered houses and small villages. I peered to my right hoping to see some sign of a beach or a port. The coast was to out right, but I had no idea how far we had gone inland. My hope was to end up as close to the sea as possible and find a place on a beach for the night.
One hour later, the village came out to be a small town on the sea, with a port. As we entered a boulevard, the man pointed to a small park on the right. He indicated that there was a small stretch of beach behind the park. I got out on the boulevard, in a pleasant and lively atmosphere of a Greek summer evening, with an enormous line of cafes and restaurants to my left and terraces at the seaside to my right.
I strolled around for an hour, passing the cafes and restaurants at first, walking back along the terraces on the seaside. Behind the park I found bushes that hid a small strip of beach. A perfect spot with view on the ferries coming and going from the port. With the buzz of the town in the background, I fell asleep right away.
The next morning, I found the direction ‘Athens’ easily. It was only when I reached the ferry port, that I found out the name of the town was Igoumenitsa. And that this town was actually an important connection, to Corfu and for traffic going to the south of Greece. Most of the road signs were leading to a highway, so I followed these until I found the first entrance to the highway.
Standing at the highway entrance, overlooking the port of Igoumenitsa, I got the feeling that my journey would speed up from here, after travelling secondary roads along the Albanian coast for days. After one hour, an elderly man stopped. He told me in broken English that he could take me in the direction of Athens. We entered the highway and speeded south.
Not for long though. After 20 minutes, the man exited the highway at Kristallopigi, s small town in a valley. Just before the exit, he stopped and suggested I could get out the car there to hitchhike to Athens. I got out and overlooked the highway. The road took a sharp turn and ascended some hundred metres, so I could see all traffic heading for Athens.
Remaining on the highway to hitch hike was no option, so I walked down to find the highway entry road. This spot was remote and hot. I had to wait several hours in the burning sun before the first car stopped. A man opened his window, handed me a bottle of water and told me that from here, no car went to Athens. Around 450 kilometers simply was still too far. He suggested I put ‘Ioannina’ on my sign first, which was 60 kilometres away.
This I did, but it brought no relief. Still no cars stopping. By the time it would become dark, I walked to the nearby village, Aghios Georgios. There I found a petrol station, mainly for truck drivers, with a place to take a rest, with free coffee, Wi-Fi and a friendly lady behind the counter.
When I shared my experience with her, she offered me the rest room for the night. And I could take a shower as well. Taking a shower and sleeping in a bed was six weeks ago. The next morning, after coffee , I warmheartedly said goodbye and went back to the road. After half an hour, a white van stopped and one hour later I got out, some two hundred meters from the highway exit on the two-lane road leading to Ioannina.
This busy road connected Ioannina to the highway. From this point, Ioannina was 7 kilometres. Athens was still 400 kilometres. I posted myself on the side of the road, behind traffic lights, hoping to catch traffic from Ioannina going south.
At first I started optimistically, but after one hour, for the first time in my short hitch hiking career I got fed up with standing on the roadside and waiting for cars to stop. I realized I had been travelling for 4 days and had covered only 175 kilometres. I got the strong desire for a place to stay for a few days.
I put away my cardboard sign and started walking the 7 kilometres to Ioannina, curious what I would find. During the ride to Ioannina, the guy had told me that it was a nice, small city, some 200.000 inhabitants and that it was on a large lake. The lake attracted me as a possible place to stay and maybe have a swim in the morning, a habit I used to have for the last two years I lived in Amsterdam.
When I entered the city, I checked for a library first. I asked around and found the library, a small classical building. It was closed and from the sign on the door I understood, because of summer holiday. I extracted this not from my knowledge of the Greek language, but from the dates. It was Wednesday, 30th of August, the library would open on September, 1st.
I had to find an alternative and found a small café opposite the library, with a great name: Library Café. Unfortunately, I had ran out of money and could not afford to spend the days working in a café. The friendly waiter told me it was OK for this first day, I could spend some hours to work in the Library Café.
At the end of the afternoon, I took a walk to the old town and found the lake. The lake was beautiful, unfortunately too polluted to take morning swims. I did find the perfect location to sleep, a small harbor with a jetty, protected by a high stone wall.
The next morning, Thursday, I walked to the university library, which was 4 kilometres from the city center. There I found a cool spot to sit quietly and work for two days.
I liked the library atmosphere, cool in two ways. Literally, the temperature was pleasant, especially during this hot summer season. And I liked being around students, working and reading in the study hall. And the University Library of Ioannina had a nice café and a terrace as well, for students to take a break, have a coffee and a sandwich.
As I had ran out of money and unsure when new money would arrive to my account, I was in ‘abundance’ mode. Which is a euphemism for ‘survival mode’: I was open to all opportunities to find whatever I needed.
From previous experiences I had learned that a cafe like at the university library would probably have leftovers at the end of the day. And they did. Both Thursday and Friday evening, half an hour before closing time, I notified the ladies behind the counter that I was in for leftovers. Both evenings they gave me a nice bag with sandwiches and snacks.
Saturday at the end of the morning I finished my work at the university library and prepared to leave for Athens. I did not feel like taking the journey without food and drinks. The two days before, while taking a break I had seen many students enjoying expensive iced cappucino's and eating luxury sandwiches and snacks.
That was the moment I decided to take my chances, prepare a short, like 30-second pitch about my journey and ask for money. Just before I left for the highway, I walked to the groups of students at the tables and said: "Hello, I am travelling low-budget, hitchhiking from Amsterdam to Athens. Can you help me with some money?"
In ten minutes, I had shared my story with ten to twelve groups and I had collected six euro's. With a big smile, I left the library, bought food and drinks at the supermarket and walked to the highway to Athens. And there, I got a ride within the hour, all the way to Athens.
I found a lot during the two days in Ioannina. The new project I found in Greece was the discovery that this lovely city was perfect to start a pilot for the media network I am building.
And last but not least, I discovered a new way to get support for my travel adventures and projects, as this was my first, but certainly not my last case of being 'supported by the crowd'.
Ioannina was my first experience with receiving money by just telling my story. The video clip that is linked to this experience, is 'Ya Mama', or 'Push the Tempo' by Fatboy Slim.
This hilarious video for me is a guarantee for a good laugh and 'feeling happy'. In short, the story is about making money in the strangest way, with a crowd going completely nuts.