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In 2010, my friend Steffi wanted me to hitchhike with her. We were in Turkey and planned to visit her family in Austria, and she wanted us to carry our bags to the highway, stick our thumbs out, and trust in the goodness of strangers to take us from Istanbul to Vienna.
I thought it was the stupidest idea I had ever heard.
But I looked up to Steffi. She was Austrian Canadian and spoke fluent English, French, and German. She was smarter than me, had traveled to more countries, and had read more books. I was serving in the Peace Corps and beginning to build a more global perspective, and Steffi was so deeply un-American that she took pride in pointing out just how American I was. She argued against many of the cultural values I took for granted or thought were inherently “right.” We debated everything from God to how to pronounce the word marry. Our conversations made me feel stupid in the moment but smarter for having had them. When she suggested hitchhiking, my reaction was to explain its obvious danger, but as usual, she eventually convinced me to reconsider. She had already done it a few times before—alone, no less. And after all, we had met when I was living in northern Macedonia and hosting “couch surfers” traveling through the area who needed a place to crash. Wasn’t I trusting strangers already?
When our first driver, a middle-aged Turkish man, picked us up on the side of the road, Steffi and I kept our bags and sat in the back seat of his car. She spoke with him in Turkish and translated to me, and I tried to hide how afraid I was. After about 15 minutes, the driver said that he needed to stop for gas. The moment he stepped out of the car and shut the door behind him, I turned to Steffi.
“He is going to kill us! This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life! He’s gonna kill me first, and then he’s going to kill you, and no one will be able to identify our bodies because he’ll take our IDs and we’re in the middle of fucking Turkey!”
I whisper-yelled that we should grab our bags and run while our driver was still inside, before it was too late. Steffi, meanwhile, was laughing. “Is that why you’ve been quiet? Is that what you’ve been thinking about this whole time?”
“Yes!” I yelled back. “Of course! How could you not be thinking about that?”
I spent those precious last seconds trying to convince her, until the driver came back and sealed our fate: He drove us west for an hour or so and dropped us back off on the road. And then we stuck out our thumbs for the next driver. And the next. And the next.