The Nomadic Life

Thumb Journeys: Riding for Free Across Three Continents

A collection of memories traveling across Africa, Central America, and Europe told through the generosity others gave me.

Lugano – Berlin

Biglietto, per favore,” (ticket, please) the ticket collector said.

I took a breath and tried not to look as nervous as I felt. “Um. Er. Do you speak English?” I asked before launching into a pathetic explanation about why I didn’t have a ticket. “I have a flight back to the U.S. in Berlin in 14 hours… I need to be there… my wallet was stolen… I have no money for the train.”

He looked at me sternly for a few seconds and finally replied, “do you have your passport?”

“Yes,” I said, handing it over. I watched him silently examine it, still tense with anxiety about having boarded the Lugano-Zurich train without a ticket.
“And your flight is in 14 hours?” (We were still 10 hours away.)
“And you already have that ticket?”
“Stay here. I will talk to my supervisor and come find you at the next stop.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
He left to continue taking tickets and I went back to staring at the snow-capped Alps passing us by, mulling over all the possible outcomes of the situation. Could they arrest me? Fine me? Will I make my flight? Will I have to find my way to a highway and start hitchhiking? No, no, no, everything will be fine. I tried to reassure myself. But when the next stop finally came, some hours of anxious “what-ifs” later, I panicked and started to flee. By some weird luck, the ticket collector I had talked to was standing on the platform talking to his supervisor when I hopped out of the car, and instantly turned to usher me over.

“Good news, you can stay until Zurich. But then, the trains cross into Germany and you have to get off.”

I thanked him profusely and awkwardly walked back to my seat.

Ouazazate – Marrakesh

After three hours of winding through the Atlas mountains towards Marrakesh in the passenger seat of a semi, my butt was beginning to seriously hurt. I had long ago stopped feeling uncomfortable about my driver’s silence, assuming he knew even less French than myself, but was cursing every curve and the pain they brought to my body.

To my relief, he suggested we stop for a coffee and pulled to a stop at the next town — which really wasn’t more than a small row of storefronts on a cliff, each illuminated by naked light bulbs against the darkened, nighttime valley below. I knew we had to look like a bizarre pair; a round, aged Moroccan truck driver, and a young, white, foreign girl, but honestly wasn’t all that concerned about social appearances at that moment.

He parked the truck and headed to one of the town’s two cafes, set with generic, white plastic tables and a TV broadcasting Arabic newscasts with fuzzy reception. It was empty save two men chatting at the bar, one of which came over to us when we sat down. The driver said something in Arabic to him and a few minutes later the man returned with two coffees. Continuing our silence, I tried to distract myself by watching two cats chase each other underneath the cafe’s tables. Apparently, the driver did the same, because when one of the cats mounted the other he let out a chuckle and said “c’est l’amore“.

I simply raised my eyebrow and made up my mind to abandon ship (or, truck rather) asap.

Marrakesh – Agadir

I met Matthias in a field. He had ridden from the north with a weed-loving Californian kid on the back of his grandfather’s motorcycle, and when I stepped outside the all-girls school our Couchsurfing host taught at to meet the pair, the American kid insisted we make a b-line for the soccer field next door. “It’s a full moon tonight,” he explained, and out of politeness we stood there with him, smoking cigarettes and staring at the sky until we had been outside long enough to worry our host.

En Route to Agadir

Several days later, I strapped my bag to his bike, replacing the Californian kid as Matthias’s hitchhiker, and headed for the coast. Without a helmet, my hair quickly filled with sand, but when he took his off too the Moroccan police stopped us. After four hours of driving, we made it Essaouria where we spent two days posing as a married couple. Suddenly, shady men stopped shouting “bonjour, ma gazelle!” and making kissing noises at me, and instead whispered “hashish, hashish,” while we wandered around the town’s maze-like souks. I told him about hammams, the Moroccan bathhouses, and he reminisced about living in Paris.

Tired of the windy coastal town, we packed our bags and continued further south until we reached Agadir. Unable to find our host, we took advantage of the overwhelming presence of tourism and cracked beers on the beach while we waited. When we finally did find her, she told us about living as a woman in Morocco and offered to teach us how to surf. But time was short, and the desert was calling me. So I signed my name on his motorcycle case along with the hitchhikers that had come before me and once again set out solo against the barrage of sexist cat-calls.


After shouting “ciao” to the Spanish truck driver who let me off next to a shopping center somewhere outside Lyon, I managed to get a ride into the city from a couple and their teenage daughter. I sat in the back with the girl as the mother talked excitedly and rapidly, almost too rapidly for my level of French, about whatever came to her mind.

“Oh, you’re from America!” she crooned, “Marie, did you hear that? She’s from America!” She said to her daughter.
Ouais, maman.” (Yeah, mom.)
“Marie has always wanted to go to New York, she plans to go there next year! In fact, she’s studying English right now… Marie! You should practice your English with Jessie! What a great opportunity!”
“Uh-huh,” the girl grunted, looking slightly embarrassed.
“What? Your English is very good!” She continued, even though the mother knew none herself.

In my mind I was rolling my eyes at this all too familiar conversation, but then turned to the girl, saying in English, “don’t worry, my parents would say the same thing to me.” And for the first time since I had hopped in the car, that grumpy-looking teenager cracked a smile and let out a small laugh.

Costa Rica – Panama

An earlier trip, flagging down the bus...

“Is he stopping for us?” Shaina asks me as she points to the large semi that has stopped, blocking all traffic on the Interamericana, several hundred yards in front of us.
“I think so, quick!”

And as fast as we can with our backpacks on, we rush up to the truck where the door is already waiting, open for us, and a heavy-set Costa Rican driver shouts and ushers us in. In baby Spanish I ask if he’s headed towards the Panama border to which he excitedly shouts “Sí, sí, voy al sur!” (Yes, yes, I’m going south!)

We clamor in, and he pulls a large bucket from the back, setting it between the seats for one of us to sit on. He nods at us. “¿Bueno?” he asks. “Si,” we reply in unison. Satisfied, he shifts the gears, turns up the music, and we continue on our way. We make some small talk, but mostly just listen to music and sweat as the humid, tropical air blows in from the windows. At some point the driver asks if we’ve ever had agua de pipa. Shaina and I look at each other, each hoping the other knows what he’s talking about. We don’t. So our driver simply shrugs and pulls the truck over a few minutes later and without saying anything or turning off the engine, gets out. When he returns, he has three large coconuts with straws in them. “Agua de pipa,” he says smiling, and hands us each a coconut.

Coconut water in hand, he settles in, but just as he is about to leave, spots a girl walking on the other side of the road. He hits the horn on his steering wheel but instead of beeping, the horn sounds a loud cat-call over the truck’s noisy engine. In any other circumstance I may have found this obnoxiously sexist, but for whatever reason simply start laughing with the others and exchange a “did that really just happen?” look with Shaina.

By Jessie Beck

SEO and content strategist with a passion for travel, bikes, and food.

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