The reason we were heading to Thessaloniki was that the BBC were making a documentary about the pilgrimage of St Paul, narrated by David Suchet. St Paul was famously converted to Christianity after seeing “a sign from Jesus Christ” while on the road to Damascus. After the conversion, Paul travelled tens of thousands of miles around the Mediterranean spreading the word of Jesus. Known for his ability to deliver convincing oratories to initially hostile recipients, St Paul was fundamental to the success of Christianity in 1 AD and beyond.
We were hoping for a bit of divine intervention, seeing as how difficult we were finding hitchhiking through Greece. The receptionist in our hotel, Theo, kindly drove us to suburban town on the edge of Thessalonika. We sat on the side of the road with our sign to METSOVO, which is just over 200 km from Thessaloniki for hours. We mainly entertained ourselves with games that involved trying to hit a road sign with a stone. It was fun for the first couple of hours, until we ran out of stones.
Although hitchhiking is often adventurous and exciting, there are some times like this, when you’ve had enough. It was often the case, however, that just when we’d lost hope, and the tedium of existence weighed down on our bones, a vehicle stopped for us, and we felt a rush of elation that we were on our way again to a new town, with new people, with new possibilities.
Not this time though, not in Greece.
We dragged our feet back into town to get some pie.
“What are we going to do?” I asked Michael.
“I’ve got a hankering for something sweet”, he replied, licking his lips.
“Not about the pie! The hitchhiking!”
“Oh right. I don’t know. It seems that no one wants to pick us up here”
We thought about what we could do for a few minutes when Michael said, “We could go and ask at the bus station if we could hitch a ride with a bus”
“Hitch a ride with a bus?!”
He shrugged his shoulders.
Although I doubted anything would come from it, we had no other option, other than staying the night in the town and trying to hitch again in the morning.
“I’ve just seen a sign!” said Michael.
“A sign”, he nodded.
“If it’s Jesus telling you to go on a pilgrimage, it’ll have to wait unt-”
He pointed to a sign above a shop on the other side of the road. I couldn’t read the words but it had a picture of a bus and a picture of the Albanian flag.
We walked in and saw a woman watching cartoons on a black and white television.
“Hello, do you speak English?” Michael asked her. She answered with a blank response
“English?” Michael repeated, giving her one of those faces that are somehow intended to convey “sorry I don’t speak your language, do you speak any of mine”. She spun around and called up some stairs. A podgy 12-year-old boy stuck his head into reception. The mother and son had a brief conversation and he sheepishly walked over to the counter to translate.
“Hello”, said Michael, shaking the kid’s hand enthusiastically.
“Hello”, the boy replied, looking slightly worried.
“We’ve hitchhiked from Indonesia. We want to hitchhike to England. To do that, we need to get to Albania”
The boy looked at him. He said something to his mother. She cackled.
“She says you return when my father return. One hour.”
“I think that went well”, said Michael. “Pie?”
Thessalonika is actually famous for it’s pie, the bougatsa. It’s like a sweet, fluffy cloud pumped full of custard and dusted with icing sugar or, in my case, melted chocolate. We decided that I’d do the talking this time. The sugar rush was so intense it was making my head spin. I felt confident, I felt energised, I felt ready to go in there and deliver a convincing oratory to initially hostile recipients.
We returned to the bus depo and I explained to the father, Andros that, so far, we’d hitchhiked 18’000 km, from Bali, Indonesia. I also explained that everywhere we’d been, we’d always managed to find a person to help us but in Greece we’d had three days without success. Andros, who was from Albania, studied us with his eyebrows furrowed as we talked. He invited us around behind the counter and offered us a cup of tea.
“I consider your situation,” he began, “but you need understand that if I give free bus to tourists, I soon have no business”
“Yes, but how many tourists do you meet that have hitchhiked 18’000 km in 92 days? Plus, we’re raising money for charity. Have you heard of War Child? It’s an international charity that aids innocent victims of war”
“Mmmm,” he said, as he turned to his wife who shrugged her shoulders, giving nothing away.
“Okay I make deal to you,” he said, “I agree like charity and reason I leave Albania was because of war. What you do is crazy. You help bus with the bag I give you ticket for bus to Durrës, in Albania”.
We shook the man’s hand, arranged to met later to load the bags and left the depot.
“I can’t believe we just did that,” I said to Michael.
“Yeah, what an outcome!”
“And it was all thanks to you”
“Oh, it was nothing really, just an idea I-”
“No, I was talking the bougatsa,” I said, getting the leftovers out of bag. I wonder if they had bougatsas back in 1 AD?