On the road with the world's greatest hitchhiker

2,358 rides hitched; 100,000 miles travelled; 90 countries visited; 1,884 — longest hitch in miles; 143mph — fastest speed travelled; 2 — number of times robbed.

Wes Enzina meets Juan Villarino, a man who has hitchhiked far enough to circumnavigate the globe four times.

Juan Villarino counts cars. If one passes him every minute, that’s excellent; one every five minutes, and he gets worried. One every 20 minutes, and he knows he’s really in the middle of nowhere.

He once waited for two days in Tibet before a single car stopped; for 24 hours, on a frigid winter route, in Patagonia.

Based on notes he keeps in pocket-size spiral journals, he compiles statistics, including average wait times in every country he has ever hitchhiked across, and the numbers aren’t what you would expect — which is, in part, why he collects them in the first place.

As he noted in a Guide to Hitchhiking, a primer published in 2016 with his travel partner, Laura Lazzarino, the countries with the shortest average wait times are:

Iraq: 7 minutes

Jordan: 9 minutes

Romania: 12 minutes

The longest:

Norway: 46 minutes

Afghanistan: 47 minutes

Sweden: 51 minutes

People generally believe hitchhiking takes no particular know-how; and it’s true that to catch one ride, you don’t need to do much but stand there. But when, like Villarino, you rely entirely on hitchhiking to traverse tremendous distances, there’s a great deal of skill involved to quickly and safely arrive at your destination.

Villarino has catalogued every ride he has ever caught: 2,350, totalling about 100,000 miles in 90 countries, or enough to circumnavigate the globe four times.

I met him on the final leg of his latest transcontinental journey, this one through Africa, about which he is writing a book with Lazzarino. 

For the 14 months before our meeting, Villarino had been thumbing it 20,000 miles along a route that included the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he skirted the country’s civil war, and Somaliland, where he was stoned by an angry mob and held at gunpoint by border guards after refusing to pay a bribe.

My plan was to join him on his travels from central Namibia to Cape Town, South Africa, a route of about 1,000 miles.

Equal parts Don Quixote and Che Guevara, Villarino describes his peregrinations as protests not just against boredom but also against parochialism and even capitalism.

“The 12-hour workday,” he wrote in an early manifesto, “is more dangerous than hitchhiking.”

A Latin American, from a downwardly mobile middle-class family — he watched his parents be crushed by those 12-hour days — he defies the old characterisation of hitchers as “uptight, middle-class white people, imitating poverty”, as James Baldwin once famously put his pin in the Beats’ balloon.

Villarino didn’t choose to be poor, but he did choose how to be poor, and for him, hitchhiking is less about simulating poverty than about chasing after the world he wants to live in.

The media shows images of the world that are worse than it actually is. And it’s a feedback loop — those images make us think we’re actually worse than we really are. It’s a cycle of fear.

We were perched on Namibia’s B4 highway as it snaked toward a coastal town called Lüderitz. Around us, the desert unscrolled in every direction.

Villarino wore a big grin slapped across his face — “an idiotic smile is the only weapon I carry” — the sun squeezing through the cracks of his squinted eyelids. Broadcasting his beaming optimism, he stuck his thumb out as if telling the world: Good job!

For a modern-day hobo, he kept to a tight schedule: up at sunrise, out on the road by 8am, when long-distance traffic is at its peak. He believes getting a ride or not — and doing so safely — is largely the responsibility of the hitchhiker.

“You don’t catch a ride with your thumb,” he said, as we waited. “You catch it with a smile.”

Before us was a bend in the road pocked with a huge, five-foot-wide pothole, which Villarino described as “perfect”.

The ideal pickup spot, he explained, has not only a place for cars to pull over safely but also some obstacle or obstruction that forces them to slow down as they approach you.

Standing just before or after a hill, or a train track, or a wye, a stoplight, a traffic circle, or even a speed bump would have worked just as well as our pothole. Villarino forbids hats and sunglasses because they hide your eyes from drivers; sitting is discouraged because it obscures your physical size.

He intentionally dons the uniform of a backpacker — brown hiking boots with red laces, gray synthetic cargo pants that unzip at the knees — because people all around the world are familiar with that archetype.

A Yaris hatchback groaned up the road. Villarino’s gestures involve a deceptively complex process: After the driver makes eye contact, he pivots his left foot toward the car and subtly changes his hand signal from a thumbs-up to a pointing motion with his index finger in the direction he hopes to go, like the ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ dance.

If the car still passes, Villarino smiles widely, all white teeth and dimples, so the driver might notice him in the rearview mirror and, seeing his genial countenance, decide to reconsider.

Sometimes he folds his hands in prayer. It’s a performance designed to advance the conversation between hitchhiker and driver, to evolve the communication between strangers toward mutual trust.

In reply, drivers make a swirling hand motion to say they’re just driving around locally; they point straight ahead to signal they’re not going very far; they put a fist into their palms and make a grinding motion to show they’re stopping up ahead.

“A driver has less than three seconds to make a decision,” Villarino said. “And that decision is made in response to unconscious factors and subliminal communication.”

Hitchhiking, he believes, is a form of dialogue, not a test of strength or stamina, and he contrasted it to other “extreme” activities such as rock climbing or sky diving.

“These activities stress independence,” he said, “but hitchhiking is about co-operation and dependence.”

His techniques, which at first struck me as a little silly, paid off almost immediately. The Yaris passed, slowed down over the pothole, accelerated, and then the driver seemed to undergo a moral reckoning and pulled onto the shoulder and stopped. It was just the third car we’d seen.

We had waited less than 10 minutes.

“We don’t see many people like you guys around here,”’ the driver, Rita, said, after we climbed in.

“Why not?” Villarino said, with a flirtatious smile creeping across his face.

He put his hand on Rita’s arm.

“Because we’re so handsome?”

Villarino gave in to the siren song of the highway after the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001, when he was 23.

His parents moved into a smaller apartment without room for him; inflation erased people’s life savings, and his friends protested and clashed with the police in the streets.

Villarino, then a psychology student at the National University of Mar del Plata, about 200 miles outside of Buenos Aires, dropped out.

I realised that you could work your whole life for a house, a career and overnight it all could vanish.

In 2003, he moved to Belfast, where he worked in a cheese factory, as a security guard and as a bellhop, and sent remittances back to his parents. But, after a couple of years, with $4,000 in savings, he made “the most important decision of my life” and set off on the trip that would form the basis of his first book, Hitchhiking in the Axis of Evil.

On a budget of $5 a day, he recreated, loosely, the old Hippie Trail through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, with detours in Syria and Iraq. His quest through the Middle East was motivated not just by a desire to fulfill his fantasies but also by a sense of political provocation.

Iraq and Afghanistan, he felt, had been unfairly maligned by the Bush administration and the international press, and the vilification of Arabs and Middle Easterners, he thought, was a handmaiden to US imperialism.

In Belfast, he had protested the Iraq War with some Irish socialist friends but felt as if it didn’t accomplish anything. Maybe he needed a grander gesture.

“I travel to depict human goodness,” Villarino wrote, describing his motivations, “above all because I believe that in our time, portraying examples of hospitality has a political character.”

Or as he told me: “Hitchhiking is a process of reconciliation between the haves and have-nots. I like to put myself in a position of powerlessness and see what happens.”

At the border crossing into Afghanistan, he almost lost his nerve and turned back. After tamping down his fears and hitchhiking to Herat, the first large city across the border from Iran, he was given free lodging in a home and slept with a knife next to his pillow, just in case — he didn’t yet believe his own gospel about the kindness of strangers.

The following morning, he was ashamed to find that the hosts he feared might kidnap him had instead cooked him breakfast. He next hitched a ride straight through Taliban territory with an Indian contractor who, Villarino later learned, would himself be abducted and murdered by militants.

‘‘Obviously, I know perfectly well that there are debased people everywhere, victims, killers, people who ruminate on the hatred that the system produces,’’ he writes.

But he made it to Kabul without incident and found that, even in Afghanistan, just as in Iran and Iraq and Syria and Turkey, strangers invariably ‘‘support you, they give you lodging, they get behind you and give you what you do not have, because they feel that it is necessary that you continue doing what you are doing, precisely because of the quixotic nature of the quest and perhaps sometimes because they feel your dream is also theirs.’’

When he finished his trip, he rented a cheap room in Chiang Mai, Thailand — sharing it with an entire circus troop — and wrote a draft of the book, which he sold to a mainstream Spanish-language publishing house.

Hitchhiking in the Axis of Evil made him a cult celebrity in Argentina. He would walk into bars peddling pirated copies of his new best seller for $5, ripping off his own publishers. In hostels, he stumbled on copies of the book, left by travellers and inscribed with dozens of testimonials from people who had been inspired to quit their jobs and hitchhike around the world.

In Buenos Aires, three men tried to mug him, but when they realised who he was, the thieves gave him money. ‘‘Hitchhiking is dangerous,’’ one said, before slinking off. ‘‘Be careful!’’

Soon, Villarino set out on a journey for his next book, Invisible Routes, an attempt to hitch the length of the Americas, from Antarctica to the Arctic. At an internet cafe in Jáchal, Argentina, he received an email that caught his attention.

He always hoped he would find a “wandering princess”, and he had a premonition that this fan, Laura Lazzarino, a 24-year-old travel agent from Argentina, might be her.

After a passionate exchange, Villarino proposed they travel to the village of Alemania, where, while hitchhiking as a 24-year-old college dropout, he had first dreamed of “becoming a nomad”. He would teach Lazzarino to hitchhike; she would provide him some much-needed companionship.

Villarino didn’t tell her at the time, but he had always feared the wages of nomadism were bachelorhood and loneliness, that “suffering is punishment for hedonism”.

And she didn’t tell him that she had already decided to run away. Not long before writing him, she had shown up to work one day to discover the owners had shuttered the shop and disappeared with the back pay they owed her.

Soon after that, someone recommended Hitchhiking in the Axis of Evil, and she bought it the same day. By the second page, she was in tears.

She would later write:

If he felt that way and I found it in a book then I must not be the only one with unease about the world that went beyond adolescent capriciousness. If there were others like me, then I wasn’t alone.

By their third day together, they’d fallen in love. They hatched a plan: Villarino would break his contract for Invisible Routes, and they would instead write the book together as a quatre mains and self-publish it, which Lazzarino believed (correctly) would be more profitable.

They spent the next 18 months hitchhiking through the Americas. They were robbed and slept on the streets when no strangers opened their homes to them, but Lazzarino finally felt free.

“I had, I’m not going to deny it, the illusion that I was the star of a movie,” she wrote about meeting Villarino in Invisible Routes when it was published in 2014 by the publishing house they founded. The pair sold 6,000 copies in the first few months, and they’ve made enough money from book sales to finance their travels indefinitely.

They have been hitchhiking together ever since, and Lazzarino’s blog, Los Viajes de Nena, devoted largely to the peculiarities of life on the road as a female, today has about 100,000 followers, narrowly eclipsing the readership on Villarino’s site, Acróbata del Camino.

The blogs bring in advertising dollars, and they recently earned $3,000 each for starring in an online commercial for the Colombian airline Avianca. They continue to live on about $7 a day each and travel as they always have, leading a life almost entirely on the road, without a fixed address or jobs or bills.

Lazzarino had been taking a brief respite from their African journey and was going to meet Villarino at the South African border. Barring disaster, they would ride together into Cape Town, the final destination in their 15-month trek.

“You slept in a location?” said a man named George, after we boarded his 50-ton semi. We were three days into our trip, having hitched 12 rides, covering about 300 miles. The night before meeting George, we slept in a town called Grünau, in a formerly segregated shantytown, or what Namibians call a “location”. 

It was a bleak place to pass the evening, with biting dogs and passers-by warning us to be careful not to get stabbed, but Villarino couldn’t have been happier. “What could be better than this?” he told me after we pitched our tent in a woman’s dirt yard.

At the time of our visit, South Africa was strained with tension: The since-deposed president, Jacob Zuma, had threatened to expropriate white-owned farms for use by impoverished blacks, which sparked outrage among some landowners.

Standard & Poor’s had just downgraded the country’s credit rating to “junk” status. There were an astronomical 52 murders per day — a murder rate six times as high as that in the US.

Especially inauspicious for us was a common tactic by highway robbers to pretend to be distressed on a roadway only to then kill good Samaritans and steal their cars. None of this was apparent to us as we walked out of the immigration office and into the country.

Villarino smiled as he strolled down this ribbon of virgin highway.

“Mi amor!” Lazzarino called out when she saw us. “I thought you’d never make it.” She was standing on a glittering patch of asphalt and had already arranged a ride — a Namibian farmer named Margaret, who was driving into the South African interior in order to sell some equipment for scrap metal.

“It’s my day to be a saint,” Margaret said, congratulating herself as we crammed our bodies and packs into her Toyota SUV which idled on the side of the road.

Juan, clearly exhausted, as was I, let Lazzarino do the talking; they held hands, and Villarino drifted off to sleep.

Lazzarino cuts the image less of a hobo than of a stylish spring-breaker.

She dresses in khaki shorts and tank tops, and her eyes are soft and smoky, her coal-black hair lassoed by a calico scarf. Her prettiness can be a liability, but more often it’s an asset: It helps them get rides, and to many drivers, who often go to extraordinary lengths to help her and Villarino, she’s even more perplexing and intriguing than he is — a female hitchhiker? In Africa?

It echoes one of the general paradoxes of hitchhiking, which is also a paradox of romance: The less desperate and needy you seem, the more likely you are to be picked up, and thus the people who probably need a ride the most are the least likely to get one.

‘‘Do you think there’s a big difference being a woman travelling?’’ Margaret said, touching Lazzarino’s leg as she spoke.

“You have to be more careful,”said Lazzarino said. “There are things you don’t do alone: Sleep in cabs with truckers, take rides from large groups of men.”

Lazzarino is more candid about danger than Villarino, and her experiences in Africa emboldened her to be slightly more forthcoming about her fears.

After she was sexually assaulted by a cab driver near Alexandria in Egypt — Villarino ran the assailant off — she found herself reflexively covering her crotch with her hands in public.

She has never written about the actual attack or its lingering trauma, though she spoke candidly about it with me, and it prompted her to write a moving essay, ‘We Aren’t Unbreakable’, on her blog.

“I’m afraid of travelling, I’m afraid of thinking, I’m afraid of writing, I’m afraid of saying what I feel,” she wrote. “I knew Africa was going to be difficult, but I didn’t think it would be that difficult.”

I understood how silence could be a survival skill, but still, it seemed to me like a position of convenience more than principle.

That day in Springbok after Margaret dropped us off, no one picked us up. We were stranded. The apologetic smiles and hand motions of Namibians were replaced by drivers with empty passenger seats or empty truck beds gritting their teeth and pretending not to see us. White, black, everyone ignored us, except for a few people who jeered.

We should not look like threats to them but in the process of becoming fearful, they may have just gotten selfish.

There were other moments like this in our journey. Excruciating waits, tense exchanges, cruel indifference.

One day, when travelling alone, I got marooned on a country back road in 95-degree weather and, dozens of miles from the nearest town, ran out of water. Even a cop passed me without stopping to help.

Another time, a driver asked for money and slammed the door in my face when I said I was hitchhiking. We experienced real flashes of fear too, like when a driver aggressively confronted us, mistakenly thinking we intended to carjack him.

And yet salvation always arrived, in one vehicle or another, sometimes in startling fashion: A white supremacist who took me far out of his way and then bought me dinner; a vineyard caretaker who let us sleep amid his grape vines; a carload of drunken men, one of whom told me: ‘‘I hate white people — but I love you.’’

Villarino likes to say that if people treated their neighbours the way they treat strangers, there would be world peace.

We finally got out of Springbok too. It took two days. After failing to get a ride that first night, we pitched our tent on a rugby field in town, and in the morning, after another several hours waiting with our thumbs out, a white driver and black passenger in a little hatchback, both men drinking beers for breakfast, took pity on us.

The driver, Abrey, didn’t explain away the unkindness that we experienced — the racial tension, the dagger stares, the squinted glares — but he didn’t have to. Here he was, a white man and his black friend sharing Saturday cocktails and listening to R&B on the radio.

This one little car ride instantly redeemed us and rejuvenated us, offering an almost irrational hope for what lay ahead on the road. This, I realized, was the real magic of hitchhiking: not how it supposedly affirmed your faith in the goodness of humanity, but how it could make and break that faith, over and over again, often multiple times in a single day.

For someone who likes to wager on existential matters — are people good or bad? — I suddenly grasped how the constant daily gamble it demanded could be so addicting, even if for most people, myself included, it was an exhausting game to play, and one in which the stakes seemed, simultaneously, a little too low and a little too high for all the effort required.

“We’re writing a book about the kindness of strangers,” Villarino told Abrey, after he gave him his standard spiel about travelling from Cairo to Cape Town.

Villarino and Lazzarino held hands in the back seat beside me as they puttered toward their destinies.

Read more about Juan's journey on his blog.


More in this Section

Uphill battle against Trump’s emergency

Asleep at the wheel on public projects

It’s time to fire the three monkeys: Silence is still an engine of subjugation

Insect populations collapsing: We’re codding ourselves again


Lifestyle

Brooches, berets and all the best accessories at London Fashion Week

Spaghetti on his face and barbecue woes: The Body Coach on his food memories

How to choose the right compost for the right spot

A fear of regret can lock us into bad relationships, jobs and habits – here's how to break free

More From The Irish Examiner