Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Hitchhiking across the globe

The Hindu : Metro Plus Chennai : Around the world for free

He hitchhiked to the ‘end of the world’. And when he reached Ushuaia in Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, Ludovic Hubler paused for breath under a sign declaring ‘Fin del mundo.’ Then, decided to keep going.

Now in India, Ludovic is still reeling out names of countries he needs to travel through: “Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Iran…” The 29-year-old Frenchman has been hitchhiking for more than four years now, surviving mainly on goodwill and persistence. “When I was a child, I’d say, ‘I want to see the whole world’,” he says, holding out a worn map with his route drawn across in bold red arrows. “Then, when I graduated, I decided to travel across the globe. But by using no planes, no trains, no buses, no taxis.” His challenge was to travel on an average of just $10 a day (“most of which I use for visas, food and museums”), never spending money on transport for the actual journey. Instead he would ask for lifts, or offer to work on boats when he needed to cross oceans or seas. “No one had done it before, and I didn’t even know whether it was feasible when I began. I just thought, ‘Well, there are roads, so there must be cars. And if there are cars, there must be drivers. And if there are drivers, there must be hitchhikers’.”

So on a cold, snowy night, Ludovic began his life as a nomad at the Val d’Isere’s ski station in the Alps on January 1, 2003, equipped with just a backpack. It certainly wasn’t easy. “There are hundreds of times I have found myself in the middle of nowhere, with no idea what to do next. In the Sahara, the Atacama, the Gobi… And it is not just in the deserts.” And, on average, for every 20 people he asks for a lift, only one agrees. “I stand at gas stations with my map, and explain what I’m trying to do to drivers who stop for fuel. Sometimes I get hundreds of ‘No’s.”

His path crossed over the Strait of Gibraltar into Africa, past Morocco, across the Sahara, into Senegal. He then found himself in Dakar, making his first attempt to “boat hitch” across the Atlantic Ocean. “I went from captain to captain, asking if I could work my way across.” It took him two months to find a willing sailboat. After 16 days of doing everything from fishing for dinner off the side of the boat to making porridge in its miniscule kitchen, Ludovic reached Recife in Brazil. He stayed for six months.

“I had started enjoying myself, and developing the journey into a mission,” he says. He began speaking at schools, (“maybe 300 so far”) discussing global warming and world poverty. He is also mentoring about 30 children, victims of cancer and leukaemia, at the Strasbourg-Hautepierre hospital in France. “I share my experiences with them through e-mail, photos and discussions via web camera. The teachers at the hospital use my travels for history, geography and drawing classes. When I’m in the Antarctic, they’re drawing penguins. When I’m sailing the Atlantic, they’re drawing sailboats. I try to make them tour the world with me.”

Thanks to the website-based communities like Couchsurfing and the Hospitality Club — where people invite travellers into their homes — that he’s been using for accommodation, Ludovic has made many friends (“probably thousands!”), and said many goodbyes. “I miss never having a girlfriend. But it’s a question of prioritising. I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror if I didn’t finish this.”

Many times he almost hasn’t. He’s been threatened with a gun at a remote farmhouse in Argentina. “I put my hands up and shouted, ‘Please don’t shoot me. I’m French!’ Then, he took me in and we had a beer.” He’s been trapped in a car travelling at 200 kilometres an hour in Spain; travelled with a driver with cocaine in the backseat in Brazil; and survived a would-be mugger in Peru. “In many parts of the world, people have guns in their cars. As long as they don’t use it on me, that’s fine.”

He’s also eaten iguana in Nicaragua (“Not very nice”), spiders in Cambodia, grasshoppers in Thailand, snake in Laos (“Snake is better. A bit more tasty”) and scorpions in China. He’s survived temperatures of 42 in North Canada, 30 in Mongolia and 10 in Antarctica “since it was summer.”

His route has taken him through Columbian roads controlled by narcotics traffickers and remote islands like Yamdena, in Indonesia. “In places like this, I realise that I’m the ambassador for not just my country and Europe, but also the western world.” He’s even managed to get into North Korea, “which was fascinating, like the Soviet Union in the 1970s.”

On January 1, 2008, Ludovic will finish his journey, in exactly the same spot he began. But as a completely different person. “I’ve learnt so much. Hitchhiking is a fantastic school of life... Sometimes I spend three hours with a minister, and ten minutes later three hours with a farmer. To me, it’s a tour of mankind.”

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