Prologue

“They’ll never know what I have owned”

July ’15. The clothes have been laying on the floor for the past week and my room is a mess. I am waiting impatiently for the moment I pack everything and finally leave. I throw an eye at the calendar and I start smiling. Tomorrow’s the big day. I take my phone, call up my friends and make the plan for the Camino de Santiago. We have a really low budget for this adventure, so all we have to do now is just hitchhike 3000 to Spain! And this isn’t even the hardest part. Walking 800 kilometers in a pilgrimage across the Spanish Northern coast is the craziest adventure that I, Mihai, Goku, and Bogdan have ever planned. Camino de Santiago, here we come!

Day 1. Ploiești – Arad

One last sleepless night due to the excitement seemed like an eternity. It’s 7 AM, I grab something to eat and I jump in the car of my dad, who’s gonna drop me at my usual hitchhiking spot. He doesn’t seem really content with my crazy plans, but I gotta create some stories for his grandkids. Mihai, Goku, and Bogdan will start the race to Spain tomorrow morning. After 10 hours, I arrive in Arad easily, where I make the final stop at my friends’ house near the border with Hungary. It’s my last night of comfy bed and good food before the beginning of the real adventure.

Day 2. Arad – Nădlac

I wake up excited, but I fall one last time on the cold sheets as my head sinks into the soft pillow. I won’t be getting too much comfort of this kind in the following month, but weirdly enough, I am really happy about it. I’ve been holding my phone for the past few hours, waiting for messages from Mihai. Now it’s the time! I pack everything, grab some sandwiches, water and off I go to the outskirts of Arad.

I see a freshly shaved baby-face and a genuine smile on a big guy with a bigger backpack near him. Mihai had just arrived at midday in Arad, after 6 hours of hitchhiking from Cluj. We haven’t seen each other in over 3 months and we’re having a tru’ hug full of happiness, while we yell “Woohoo!” at the top of our lungs. If this is not happiness, then I don’t know what else is. We’ve been craving for adventure for the past year and I swear that nothing beats this feeling that we’re having right now.

We get into a convertible BMW and off we go to Nădlac (Romanian-Hungarian border). The wind blows through our hair and our minds already dream of Spain. At the customs, we go to every truck driver in the queue, asking if they go to Italy or even Spain. Huge mistake, as we’ve lost all of them while we should have done baby steps.

The Camino family is growing

I get a message from Goku and Bogdan, saying that they are in Sibiu and they are getting closer to us. While we are hopelessly sitting on the sidewalk, Mihai sees two backpackers getting out of a car and screams with excitement:

Mihai waiting for a ride

“Nora? Man, this is Nora!!!”

What the heck? Who is Nora? They met only for a couple of times but they jump into each other’s arms and laugh like crazy. The other girl and I are just watching awkwardly from the side. Nora wishes to go also on the Camino del Norte, while Janko on the Camino Portugues after they have hitchhiked all the way to Spain! What were the odds of this to happen? Goku and Bogdan arrive also in Nădlac and the group is finally together for the first time!

Courage ≠ recklessness

We draw the plan for the next few days and we take into consideration the small odd of us meeting at the same time in Spain to start the Camino together. Mihai and I go again to the truck drivers, this time asking for a ride to Budapest. The first one seems to be the jackpot!

“Excuse me, sir, where are you heading towards?”

“Damn me if I know” says the truck driver, struggling with the GPS.

“Well, are you going to Slovenia or Italy?”

“Look, boys… I have no idea where I’m going. I can’t seem to get this GPS started”, says the driver really mad.

“We can help you! If you take us with you to Slovenia”

“Oh, f**k… Ok, I will take you, but if you try something, I’m gonna stab you. I ain’t afraid of anybody! If something seems fishy to me, you’re dead!”

We agree with his terms and say that we will be waiting for him on the Hungarian side. Ok, I’m not getting in the truck with this psychopath. Mihai is a bit grumpy because he thinks the driver is scared of us and he won’t do anything. I don’t want to act reckless, so I end the conversation quickly. It’s 12 PM and we are spending the first night of the adventure on Hungarian land.

Day 3. Nădlac – Udine

It’s 6 AM, the sun rises and we’re getting back to the customs. A car finally stops and breaks the ice. It’s midday, we’re near Balaton now and the sun is burning like hell.

Goku at their wild camping place

I take the piece of cardboard in my hand and a Romanian couple that goes to Italy invite us in the car. It’s been two hours already and all we’ve heard was the RAP FUTURISTICO song. We’re slowly going crazy.

At 3 PM, we take one last break in Hungary at a gas station. It’s hot as hell and we run towards the only bit of shadow in the parking lot, behind a truck where we join some Romanian truck drivers for a small chat. Our driver starts panicking and he asks us how do we know those guys. Ok, the first red flag. His wife told him that we’re planning to do something to them. Everything at this point is so absurd and all I can think of is saying sorry for this and assure him that nothing will happen. The guy continues to say that he lived life amongst thieves and he understands how life works, but he has nothing to give to us. In the meantime, I get a message from Goku.

“Guess in whose truck we are in now!”

They are in the slasher’s truck. It looks like we were paranoid for nothing after all, cause he’s a really nice and family guy. Nora and Janko are stuck somewhere in the middle of Hungary and we already lost hope that we’re gonna meet in Spain.

Never go full paranoid

The drama comes to an end and we get back in the car. Rap Futuristico starts again. We stop in Slovenia for a short break and the guy starts telling us how his brother went to jail for him, everything about the drugs and hookers business they had in Morocco in a very detailed way.

It’s dusk and we’re having one last break on the emergency spot on the highway. A car stops there and the driver asks about directions to Milano. Our guy went full paranoid. We get back in the car, fall asleep and then wake up after one hour. I try to realize what’s happening, but I can’t. We’re parked in a gas station and nobody is saying anything.

“I asked you not to do anything, boys”, says the paranoid.

The car that stopped earlier is parked right near us and the pieces start falling into place. The guy thinks that we’re undercover and now he’s being followed by that car. We have to go out of here. Now. We get our backpacks out of the trunk and we’re happy that we’re alive. Who knows what he could’ve done? Mihai and I look at each other and start laughing about all this situation. We open the beans cans and have our first dinner in Italy. We look around for a good camping place and camp near the gas station, away from employees’ eyes.

Day 4. Udine – Milano

Italy gives me the shivers because of the reticence of the people towards hitchhikers. A Romanian couple saves us and tells us to jump in the car and we comply. This intellectual couple starts asking a lot of questions about our adventure and the man starts mocking us.

Nora and Janko managing to come closer to us

“Are you seeing Europe from the highway?”

His wife is protecting us, but we don’t care anyway. We’re laughing back at him with every memory that we made by traveling like nomads. At the end of the journey, we go out of the car, take our backpacks out and go for a hug. The woman takes out of her wallet a 50 euro banknote and my jaw drops. We’re speechless.

“No, no! There is no need, we have enough money!”

“Please take this, boys. We worked really hard for this money and you deserve it.”

We decline again the offer, but the woman keeps insisting. Well, I can’t say I will be sad with 50 euro extra in my pocket, so we take the money and promise we’ll have a toast with a cold Spanish beer at the end of the pilgrimage. At midday, we reach Milano, where we decide to have our first break from the highways. At Piazza del Duomo, people laugh and take pictures with us, because we look from another movie. We laugh back at them because we’ll have a 5 weeks trip with less money that they’ll spend on a city break.

First encounter with the police

After the feast that we had for dinner after getting to the outskirts of Milano, we find our way back to the entrance on the highway. There’s a huge sign saying “Autogrill – 1,5 km” (gas station and restaurant), so Mihai stands right by it while I point up my finger to hitchhike. It’s dark and we have really small odds to leave, but the first car comes and we’re really confident. I start jumping like crazy, pointing towards Mihai, Mihai pointing towards the sign. The car slows down, heck yes! The car stops near us and the siren starts and scares the hell out of us.

„What are you doing here??? Don’t you know autostop is not allowed here?”

“Well, I didn’t know… I had no idea, sorry!”

“YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED HERE! CARS CANNOT SEE YOU, AND THEY WILL FLAT YOU ON THE FLOOR!”

Flat me on the floor? I don’t know if the fine is worth it so I can burst into laughter, but I decide I want to eat on the Camino and I just say I am sorry and we’ll leave from here now. The cops are nice and they let us leave without any fine. Our budget is safe!

We find an abandoned gas station and put up our tent on some really hard terrain. It’s been a few hours of not being able to sleep and now I would do anything for a comfortable bed. I wake up back to reality and realize where I am. All my desire for comfort disappeared as fast as it appeared and I enjoyed my sleeping pad like a king size bed.

Day 5. Milano – Savona

Last night’s sleep was horrendous and I’ve never felt so happy hearing the annoying alarm. We manage to get to the gas station on the highway, but we realize this is the worst place to be. It feels like +40 degrees and we see more lizards than cars. We’re so bored that the only thing that keeps us awake is throwing rocks in each other’s pockets. I start to wonder if I still want to do this or not, but these thoughts vanish quite fast.

After 10 hours wasted, I get in the gas station, turn my Wifi on and notice the huge mistake that we’ve made. We thought that the way to France goes through Genoa, but just 30 km away, the highway splits in two.

Goku and Bogdan do not go through the same discomfort as we do. Goku’s father is in Genoa at a work conference, so they spent the night at a 3 stars hotel! There’s no such thing as coincidences…

It’s 9 PM already and a black Volkswagen Transporter just arrived in the gas station. I go directly to talk to them and the Swedes agree without hesitation to take us on the French Riviera. Half of the bed they have in the car is an actual subwoofer and my ass had shooked on dubstep music all the way to France. It’s quite late and the boys decide to stop in Savona, so our hitchhiking day comes to an end. We put up our tent in the gas station’s yard, hidden by a tree and a truck. We feel mentally and physically tired, but we have to stay strong for the last part of the journey. Spain is just 1000 kilometers away!

Day 6. Savona – Toulouse

“C’mon, wake up! Tomorrow I want to be drinking Spanish beer, there’s no time to waste!”

Before we go on any further, wait a second. Do you smell this? Yes, that’s us. We stink! Luckily, there’s a shower for customers, but there’s a 2 euro tax per use. Nobody’s at the front desk, so Mihai goes first while I’m dying of boredom. I already feel the cold water falling on my skin and removes all the filth gathered during the past 4 days. Mihai goes out with a smile on his face and I take my soap and the towel from my backpack. Same story for me, nobody at the front desk, so I get in and lock the door. I barely take my pants off and the guy responsible for the tax payment knocks on the door like crazy. I don’t say anything, hoping he will stop, but he unlocks the door and finds a dirty Romanian in his boxer pants.

“NO, NO, MONEY! TWO EURO! GIVE ME TWO EURO!”, screams the Italian guy.

“Excuse me? For what? I haven’t done anything yet!”, I reply nervously.

The Italian goes mental when he sees that there’s water all over the shower cabin and he insists that I should pay him.

“NO! Touch me to see that I’m filthy”, I reply to him and burst into laughter.

That guy will get the two euro only over my dead body! I took my clothes and left. Mihai starts rolling on the floor laughing when I tell him what happened. Meanwhile, Goku and Bogdan were enjoying their morning in Montecarlo. Life’s not fair!

Vive la France!

10 minutes after and we’re on the highway that crosses the French Riviera. It looks like we have entered another world. Viaducts, tunnels, the Mediterranean on the left and the mountains to our right. It’s one of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen!

Bella Italia? Adieu! It took us two days and a half to cross only 700 kilometers through Italy. Once we arrived in Marseille, our morale went skyrocket. We’re in France, the final country that we have to cross before starting the El Camino! We get out of the car and have a small break at the shadow of a few trees in the arid surroundings that we’re in. The final pâté spread can, croutons and pork fat are our first meal in France.

We head to the fuel pumps and the first guy we talk to takes us 120 kilometers to Montpellier. Vive la France! We managed to cross over 700 kilometers in one day and it’s only 6 PM. We go to the backyard of the gas station, where all the truck drivers go fishing and we start chatting with a Serbian. He’s fat, around 50 years old, has short pants and a blue tank top that perfectly shapes his belly. He doesn’t speak English, but a few words in Serbian, Italian, Romanian, French are enough to understand each other and have a good laugh.

“Taliban! No autostop!”, says the Serbian laughing and pointing towards my beard.

Casual meeting at the gas station

We go back to the fuel pumps and I start to play a different role for each car that comes. I make tricks with the cardboard, dance, and sing, but I have no luck. Everybody says no, but at least they smile back! One car stops at the pumps and I start my game, but I freeze for a moment.

“GOKUUUU”

Goku and Bogdan, that’s just amazing! What were the odds of us meeting at the same gas station, 2.500 kilometers away from home? I simply can’t comprehend what’s happening. The boys decide to go to Toulouse and hitchhike from the other side of the city.

It’s the break of dawn. We have to set the tent while it’s still a bit of light outside, so we don’t fall into the lake. When we’re about to leave, the Serbian truck driver comes to us with a 1 kg pack of biscuits. My taliban beard and his truck driver’s belly make the context quite hard for me to hug him, cause I would have done it otherwise!

His deed was priceless, almost got tears to our eyes. It’s time for a feast! I enter the gas station and buy an overpriced tasty box of milk. It’s a perfect mood. The sky is clear, everybody prepares to go home and next to us there’s a French couple enjoying a bottle of wine near their expensive car. Such a different context, but the pure happiness made us having an excellent evening. We go happy to sleep and we set the tent near the lake in one of the best days so far that this adventure has offered to us.

Day 7. Toulouse – Irun

The last day starts the worst way possible. The tent lays on us and we haven’t even started the Camino! Our home for the next month is not fully functional anymore, but we manage to fix it with duct tape. It’s 9 AM and we’re on our way to Pau, getting closer to Spain. Mihai starts charging his phone and we start to talk to the French driver, who can barely speak any English.

The guy drops us off at the last gas station before Pau and we start dancing around. It’s… Wait, what time is it? How should we know, if Mihai forgot his phone in the car? Our good mood just vanished! It’s so complicated right now and I’m very angry. I’m begging someone in the gas station to help us talk to the guy and found that the French guy left the phone at the highway tolls! After a few hours of asking around, we convinced some German guys to help us recover the phone. Perfect!

We cross the highway, jump over some fences and we go down on a sand hill under the burning sun. We have 40 kilometers left and all this crazy adventure will come to an end! The phone vibrates in my pocket. It’s a message from Goku! His texts usually get me into a good mood, but this one pisses me. Goku and Bogdan are on their way to Irun right now, after we led the race for the entire week! Nora and Janko split at the French border so that Nora can continue her way to Irun and Janko to the Portuguese Camino. It seems like the stars have aligned for us and we’ll all meet tonight in Irun!

Did we really lose the race?

I am getting really nervous and I start to talk to all the people in the gas station. A Lithuanian couple nods their confirmation. We’re in Spain!!! A big smile appears on our faces, but we passed over the exit to Irun. Stop, man! What’s this guy doing? The Lithuanian doesn’t say anything, but in 5 minutes he stops suddenly on the highway.

“C’mon, boys! You can go this way!”

YES!!! We have finally arrived! We’re screaming like lunatics in the city and our luck is that everybody is inside during their siesta. How can I explain what I feel right now? Impossible! Why? Because I have never hitchhiked 3.000 kilometers in 7 days, sleeping in random gas stations. All of this for what? To start another crazy adventure and walk 800 kilometers along the Spanish North coast! The world is literally at our feet.

After half an hour, we meet with Goku and Bogdan randomly in the city. I just cannot understand what is happening right now. After many hugs and laughs, I call my parents to tell them the big news and I pass the phone to the boys, just in case they don’t believe me. Now it’s time for Spanish beer and food from the supermarket, things that I’ve been waiting ever since I left from home.

The hitchhiking family is finally back together

Nora texted us and said she’ll arrive in Irun in half an hour and we start walking towards the meeting point, Ensanche square. The family is back together! The center is vibrating with people’s laughs and clinks of glasses, adding the last bit to our pure joy. I can’t tell if this is real or not, but I go with the flow. We draw the plan for tomorrow’s first 25 kilometers to San Sebastian with zero expectations and a huge desire for hiking.

Goku and Bogdan go to their host in Irun, while I, Mihai and Nora go to set our tent near a bridge, away from any curious eyes. The lights of a police car siren that drove past us give us a shiver, but we realize we don’t care anymore about getting caught. We have another status now: pilgrims. I fall asleep feeling free and truly happy with what we have accomplished. One adventure is finished, let the new adventure begin!