One August afternoon of 2018, I was hitchhiking in the heart of Sumatra, Indonesia. I headed towards the northernmost region of the island, the conservative region of Aceh, where Sharia law has been applied since 2004, in response to the deadliest tsunami in history that destroyed the region. That day, I was not in an ordinary place trying my luck with the benevolence of the drivers that were driving through the road. In fact, I was in a very unique place I had never been before, right on the Equator Line, which passes through several countries in the world, including Indonesia.
Back then, I already had thousands of kilometers of experience behind me hitchhiking and riding vehicles with strangers who offer themselves altruistically to help, in countries like Iceland, China, Myanmar, Taiwan, Laos or Malaysia. But it was the first time that I was on the line that divides our planet into two halves: the northern hemisphere, and the southern hemisphere.
I love hitchhiking. Not because of saving some money on transportation, but because of the random situations that arise when encountering such interesting people that decide to stop for a moment to help a young foreigner who is gesturing with his hand on the side of the road. Traveling in this free way, without specific plans, and only somewhat more dangerous than the conventional way, allows the traveler to reach a point of connection with the locals that would be impossible, or at least very difficult to, with the inhabitants of the place. I say “more dangerous” because there is always the remote possibility that a boring movie script will be fulfilled if you meet a driver who turns out to be a serial killer or an organ dealer. But, after hitchhiking with hundreds of people of all kinds in all kinds of places, there is something that I am very clear about: PEOPLE ARE GOOD
In general, a person who decides to step on the brake and stop the car to help a stranger will most likely be good, empathetic, and generally outgoing and generous. For me, a trip has more meaning if my interaction with the locals is deeper, and sitting for hours in a car next to someone gives me enough time to break the ice, or an iceberg, and get to talk about any topic. Whether or not the same language is spoken, there is always a way to communicate: with gestures, or with technology, because it is the 21st century and we have something called Google Translate.
That day, I had started my adventure in the morning. I was aimlessly heading north, in the town of Bukittingi. First, I was picked up by a man who drove me for several kilometers. A few minutes later, the second vehicle stopped with three men. For a couple of hours, I was able to practice my limited Indonesian skills, which I had been learning intensively for 10 days on the road. With them, I stopped at a roadside restaurant and the driver invited me for rice with fish and vegetables. Later, the third driver of the day, in a blue van, stopped and took me to the exact place where there is a monument on the road that represents the equator line that separates our two hemispheres. That was the first time that I had found myself in such a place, and honestly, crossing from the southern hemisphere to the north in a double-decker van with the windows down and admiring the rice-filled field in a tropical country of Southeast Asia, was, without a doubt, hella cool!
That hot August afternoon, I was under the shade of a tree, doing the hitchhiking gesture that is used in Asia. It’s not by showing your thumb, but by reaching out and moving it up and down quickly. It had already been 15 minutes and at least 20 cars passed in the same direction that I wanted to go without any luck. Fifteen minutes may sound like a short time, but usually I get picked up in the first five minutes, especially in Asian countries. But that wait was worth it. Why? The next vehicle to give me a ride would bring me one of the most interesting and enriching experiences that I had ever lived.
Suddenly, an SUV with two people stopped. The driver was an Indonesian man named in his forties, who works for the UN to assist medically in the event of natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, or volcanoes. The other was his brother, a young guy my age, in his twenties. They asked me where I was going and if I had imminent plans. I said no, and I also told them that I had more than two weeks ahead of me and that I would just play it by ear. So, that’s when the surprise came: they invited me to their sister’s wedding that was going to be celebrated the following day. I was like whaaaaaaat!?!?
I was able to enjoy three days in a town called Rau, where a foreigner had pretty much never been before.; I went to the wedding of the sister of my new Indonesian friends, practiced my Indonesian which at that time already allowed me to start basic conversations, because in reality Indonesian is fairly easy to learn; and I was also able to sleep in a local house where the hospitality of its guests was incredible. That is one of the greatest things about Muslim countries, they are super hospitable, they always give their best and they make you feel very welcomed. We were also able to go for a swim in the river the day before the wedding at sunset, where I met many of the locals my age and younger friends of Arie, the younger brother.
During the wedding day, which was actually the first wedding I ever attended, I could see what kind of traditions they have in an Asian Muslim nation. Men of all ages got together and performed certain types of tasks such as setting up the wedding venue, held at the bride’s house, as well as cooking for the guests. Women were in charge of the ingredients for the food, such as feeling and chopping vegetables or serving the food. Later, when the ceremony was over, everyone started eating, listening to music, and chatting. Children played and did karaoke, teenagers got together and chatted; or played with their phones too.
Indonesians are humble, warm-hearted, generous and very friendly people; and when they see a foreigner, they cannot contain the emotion and shout with joy, “bule!” which means “foreigner” in their language. Considering that this town is very far from any tourist area, I was probably the first foreigner in a very long time. When locals saw me, they wanted to take selfies with me, but I was already used to that kind of attention in Indonesia. During the whole wedding, I probably took photos with more than a hundred people, leading me to exhaustion at some point, but it was fine. The wedding ceremony was one of my favorite parts. It took place inside the house, and was decorated in bright colors of red, yellow, and green, covering all the walls of the first floor. Inside, people crowded together; separating men, in the central part, from women, in the outermost part. In the middle was a man, a religious figure, and the couple. The ceremony lasted about ten minutes, in which the groom and bride had to do a series of signatures and rituals.
Later, it was time to eat again. The women spread out dozens of bowls on the floor in order to serve the food to all the guests. The men sat on the floor inside the house, next to the walls, leaving the center empty. Many of the guests were also outside the house, where the temperature was somewhat cooler.
I would say that this experience, if it had not been for hitchhiking, it would not have happened. That is why I always encourage my friends to try it, because the adventures that occur thanks to this style of travelling are not found in tours or travel agencies. And always remember, PEOPLE ARE GOOD!