My Bloody Romania: The hitchhiker’s guide to Romania

One of the things that I love about Romania is that there’s still a sweet naivety in many aspects of life. The largest peasant society in Europe still thrives in the northern Maramure?? region (though EU membership seems destined to squash it), even the die-hardiest urban resident has a close relative in the countryside who routinely provides them with eggs, cream, milk, cheese, onions or potatoes and access to a lightning-fast, wide open file sharing network (where one can freely download software, games, music, TV series and movies, sometimes within hours after they hit the theaters in the US) still comes standard with all internet service. Is this country cute or what?

Among these facets is the enduring, widespread practice of worry-free hitchhiking. Virtually every Romanian has done it, including little old ladies and even children on the way to/from school in the next village. With dirt-cheap and surprisingly reliable trains, buses and maxitaxis crisscrossing the country, in truth, there’s usually little need to bother hitchhiking, but some truly arresting areas remain inaccessible by public transport and if you’d prefer not to expose yourself to the ass-tightening milieu that is driving in Romania, there may come a time during your visit which calls for polishing up your thumb.

Actually, posing Fonzie-style by the side of the road will do nothing except cause drivers to wonder why the crazy foreigner is pointing at the sky with their SMSing finger. If you want to hitch a ride in Romania, you need to do a pat-the-dog-like gesture, arm extended, about waist high. Furthermore, hitchhiking in these parts isn’t like traditional, goodwill hitchhiking. Drivers expect that you will spot them a few lei (Romania’s currency) for the ride, usually the equivalent of bus fare for the same distance. Other times, particularly in the deep rural areas where you’re more likely to get a ride on the back of a horse cart, proffering a few cigarettes is vastly more appreciated. If you, the wealthy foreigner, are the driver, you may only get a nice thank you (and maybe have your car blessed), as it’s assumed that anyone who can afford to travel for fun must be stinking rich and therefore doesn’t need a few piddly lei.

I’ve mostly had good experiences picking up hitchhikers in Romania, with a few notable exceptions. Apart from breaking up the interminable monotony of long, slow drives, taking on passengers affords all kinds of wacky opportunities for getting a singular Romania experience, like rigorous training on all the curse words that Romanian drivers use on each other. And let me tell you, when a foreigner cuts loose with those words, Romanians can’t believe their ears (followed closely by them getting super pissed off).

My one and only truly scary experience with picking up hitchhikers was the time that one almost leaped from my moving car. But first a bit of back-story…

There’s a regrettable past in much of the former Eastern Bloc with girls being kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. Not long ago, northeast Romania was one of the hottest zones, as such TV and radio ads warning girls about this possibility still air today. Typically, the kidnappers are foreign men that lure the girls into leaving home with the promise of a lucrative job abroad, before shoving them on a flight to Amsterdam or a bus to Tiraspol. These ads have opted to err on the side of caution and paint a picture that no male foreigners are to be trusted under any circumstances (which probably explains why Italian guys stick to the south and Black Sea coast when they roll into Romania looking to hook up).

I can attest that these ads are quite effective. Women were wary of me the entire time I lived in Iaşi. The girls that served me pizza five days a week never warmed to me even after months and months of seeing my face. Whenever I tried to push the conversation beyond “how are you?”, they would noticeably stiffen and excuse themselves. Seeing as how my breath is delicious, I was assured by friends that this behavior was a result of the ongoing ad campaign.

So back to the Romania/Moldova border, which, incidentally, was often the first leg of many ill-fated girls’ unspeakable journeys. I’d just cleared Romanian immigration (guards still laughing and pointing at the stupid American that bought a Dacia 1310) when I was flagged down by two college girls. They jumped in, said they were heading for Iaşi, and off we went. A few moments into our casual conversation they realized I was a foreigner. They looked at each other in a panic and my ass tightened to walnut-crushing tautness as one girl made to open the door and presumably jump out of the moving car. Fortunately for everyone, getting the doors open on that effing car was no easy task and with an extra few seconds to consider the situation she thought better of her flight impulse. Not making the connection between their behavior and the probable cause – a friend patiently explained the situation to me later – I cautiously asked what the problem was, but the two had settled into a state of quiet terror, refusing to look at or speak to me as we drove the mercifully quick 15 minutes into town.

Once at the center, I dropped them off at the first piaţa before anyone could hatch a new suicidal extraction strategy. They quickly climbed out of the car, closed the door and, once safe, reached in through the window to hand me a few lei.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for more tips on how to instantly repel women around the world.