Mikael Korpela is one of the admins of HitchWiki, the biggest encyclopedia for hitchhiking in the world inspired by Wikipedia and Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy containing detailed information on how to hitchhike out of big cities, cover long distances, maps and much more.
In this interview for The Travel Club, Mikael tells us about the future plans for HitchWiki, sleeping in abandoned hotels, why he sometimes hates hitchhiking in Germany and how fun it can be in Thailand and Laos. Besides, he speaks about HitchGathering, the traditional annual meeting of hitchhikers that will take place in Albania this August.
What is hitchhiking for you?
I started back in 2006 because I needed to go the other side of Finland and I didn't have money – and I was like „Wow, this actually works!" After that I started hitchhiking more and more. Nowadays it's not about money at all. It's nice to save money, but there's much more to it: meeting local people, getting advice, sharing stories, getting to know the culture instead of sitting on a bus. Hitchhiking is freedom, freedom to change your plans and go wherever someone can take you.
Why do you think hitchhiking is important (obviously, important enough for you to dedicate your own time and energy to helping other people do it)?
Nowadays people don't trust each other anymore. People ask me if I'm scared to hitchhike, they ask me that even in Finland or Germany, the countries which are among the safest on Earth. It's important to hitchhike in order to restore the trust among people.
Also, I support the concepts of free economy and share economy. It's not only about hitchhiking, I don't mind people paying for a ride – they also are sharing the resources. It's much better than one dude driving a car alone.
Some people see hitchhikers as beggars or social parasites, waiting by the road and begging for a ride, instead of getting a decent job and buying their own car. We can clearly see that from some drivers' faces and gestures. What would you have to say to such people?
I think some drivers are scared and don't trust people they don't know. They were told not to talk to strangers since they were kids and it got incorporated in their brain, their style of thinking.
Some other drivers are simply selfish and miser. They probably think about how hard they had to work to have what they have and don't want you to just stand there and get the same thing for free. An advice to those people: Work less and enjoy more.
It's all accompanied by individualism. That's why I like Eastern Europe. Because of the unemployment problems, they need to rely on their families and friends, and consequently people build trust among them and it creates strong communities.
Tell us how everyone can help HitchWiki grow. And why should anyone bother to do it in the first place.
It's actually pretty obvious – you just fill it in. Anyone can create an account and update the articles. You use it to check the information others have shared with the world and you share the information you have so the others can check it.
What is NomadWiki for?
For example, where can you put your tent for free or where can you find free wi-fi. It's all about free or the cheapest way to travel – it's like Lonely Planet but for hippies and tramps. But it's amazing, those Wikies – we just put up a form and people start filling it!
Think about distant future. Where do you see HitchWiki? Where would you like to see it?
This winter we organised a hackathon (a marathon where you hack a lot) in Lisbon and did a lot of programming for HitchWiki and BeWelcome. We rent a small house and 10-20 people come there. There can be up to 12 people at one time, which is not much comparing to the Travel House, but still, it's a lot for a small apartment. The landlord was chill and he actually brought us extra mattresses. Some people got friends with neighbours and got hosted by them.
We have plenty of ideas for HitchWiki. We're basically three dudes working on it, but the other two dudes don't have much time, so lately I've been doing most of the stuff. There are some usual ideas for upgrading the maps and other features, but in distant future I would like to see it not only as a source of inofrmation, but as a community. Now there are a lot of people searching for information on Facebook via hitchhiking-related groups, but I'd like to see it happening on HitchWiki instead. So we have to get people there to ask questions and share their info.
Another thing we're thinking about is HitchWiki hosts. The logic behind it is that people are more keen on hosting „their own kind", hitchhikers love to host and be hosted by hitchhikers, cyclists love to host and be hosted by cyclists because it's easier to be understood and to understand what the other person does, what they need etc.
Do you think CouchSurfing has changed?
It has changed a lot and in a horrible way. Nowadays they want you to spend more time on their website because that's the way to make money for them.
Also, now when you want to register, a page appears telling you that you have to pay €19 to register and somewhere down in the corner there's a tiny link saying that you can skip it. That way many people have been tricked into paying that fee.
The profile of an average CouchSurfer has changed and now a lot of tramps, hippies and alternative people don't feel comfortable there so they started moving away to BeWelcome and other hosting websites. BeWelcome is significantly smaller than CouchSurfing, it's even smaller than HitchWiki so it will take some time to build a community that is big enough.
Can you tell us about your weirdest, most bizarre hitchhiking experience? How about the most emotional hitchhiking experience? Have you ever felt in danger while hitchhiking? Tell us your scare-story.
Once we were hitchhiking in Thailand and we hitchhiked a motorbike that already had two people on it so we were four in total coming down the slopy mountain roads. Hitchhiking in South-East Asia is always bizarre. I sometimes hate hitchhiking in Germany. People speak English and you move fast across the country, it's a bit boring, while in Laos you're hitchhiking in a jungle and nobody speaks English and nobody gets the concept of hitchhiking. There's five people standing around you trying to figure out what the heck you're doing. And then you end up in the back of a pick-up truck and it starts raining and you're in a jungle... The whole Asia is crazy.
I've never felt in danger, sometimes I just felt uncomfortable when a driver would drive too fast.
One time I was trying to go back from Ukraine to Poland. So I come to the border and the officials say that walking across the border is not allowed and that I need a car. It gets dark and I don't want to place a tent there so they don't think I want to smuggle something. I find this shabby hotel, there's no one there, it's totally empty and then this dude shows up asking what I want, do I want to stay the night. He gives me the key and I pay something small for the room. I enter and not only there's no hot water, but there's no water at all. Everything is very dirty, the linen looks like nobody has changed it for years but I just wanted to sleep somewhere so I put my sleeping bag there. In the morning the whole lobby is empty, there's nobody in the hotel, it appears that I'm the only soul in the goddamn building. I look behind the desk and there's nothing but the office chair there – no papers, no cassa (cash register)... I'm trying to find the dude but there's no trace of him so I figure that's an abandoned hotel and the dude just took the opportunity seeing that someone wants to pay some money. I leave the hotel and looking back I see that the half of the hotel sign is off and some of the windows are broken, but I didn't notice it the night before as it was dark and I was tired.
So I go back to the border and the officials say the same thing as the day before – no walking across the border. I finally hitchhike a car that agrees to take me to Poland, but it's full of prostitutes and they also get stopped at the border and they have to go back. Finally, one of the officials asks the next car: "Are you going to Poland?" and they confirm, to which he says: "Ok, take this hippie with you!"
Compare hitchhiking in different countries. Which is the best one, which is the worst one?
Western Europe is complicated, there are highways and it's hard to reach gas stations and it's always from one gas station to another... I prefer Eastern Europe, it's so much easier. Sometimes you can lift the thumb in the city centre and someone will stop! Especially in Turkey, it's a wonderland for hitchhiking.
Give us one hitchhiking tip that we probably don't know.
Many people don't know that there is HitchWiki phrasebook which can be found also as an app for smart phones. It's important to know the basic hitchhiking phrases so you can communicate better where do you want to go, where do you need to be dropped off etc. Just knowing how to say "I need to get to the other side of the city" can help you a lot.
You might already know this, but having a map of the region you're travelling in is extremely useful. I prefer paper maps, but on a mobile phone you get to see where are the gas stations, which is very useful in Western Europe. Actually, we're thinking of making a printable map where you can see the gas stations.
What is HitchGathering? What does it look like to be there? Why do you organise it, what is the purpose of it? How can people contribute?
The initial idea behind it is to promote hitchhiking. It's not actually organised, there's no programme. People often ask me if I organise it, but I'm just a dude who posts a lot on Facebook. The project is self-developing, so feel free to organise it.
The first HitchGathering was in 2008 in Paris, under the Eiffel tower. 150 hitchhikers came to Paris and camped in the middle of Paris. In the morning, at 6 a.m. the police would come and tell everyone to get going. It was very short, less than two days.
The next one (2009) was in Odessa, but it was more about camping and meeting hitchhikers than promoting hitchhiking. We were camping outside city centre and at night we would go to a park to hang out. Odessa was a bit out of hand so there was only 80-90 hitchhikers at that HitchGathering.
Afterwards there were HitchGatherings in Portugal (2010), Bulgaria (2011), Lithuania (2012), Slovakia (2013).
So far we had no problems apart from Paris and Odessa when police was coming to tell us we can't drink there. In Slovakia we got a fine because of the fire and at that time it wasn't allowed to have a fire at all in Slovakia. So we got a €60 fine and got told to get away, but they also pointed us a field where we could go. In the local newspaper there was an article about us saying that there's an illegal trance party in the woods! (laughter)
Where is HitchGathering this year? How do you decide on location? When is it?
There's no real decision making. For example, someone writes: „Hey, I've found a location, do you like it?" We need someone local to confirm that the spot is good for HitchGathering and basically, the location that gets the majority of votes by potential atendees is the location we choose.
For example, this year one Albanian girl found a village and there's a lot of space for camping outside of it so she talked to the locals if it would be okay that a bunch of us comes there and camps. But the location can change even 3 days before the HitchGathering – I mean, not to another country, but someone finds a better spot to camp so the location can move a few kilometers.
So, the HitchGathering 2014 will take place beginning of August in Albania. The local people said it's ok for us to camp there, but I'm not really sure they understood what they invited there – it's going to be a bunch of hippies running around!
And sometimes there's a chain of events, pre-gathering and post-gathering. There were local gatherings in Finland and Norway in June, then one in south of Germany, maybe one or two in Croatia on the way to Albania.
You often mention hippies. What's your definition of hippies? Who is a hippie? Do you think hitchhiking is strictly a prerogative of certain subcultures?
That's a good question. I'm using the term "hippie" broadly because it sounds funny to say "alternative people". Also, if you'd ask my mom or folks from the office, I'm a hippie. I'm sometimes saying just tramps, vagabonds, nomads, travellers... those words are maybe more describing?
To me it looks like "subcultures" are more alive and becoming more mainstream than ever. "Weird things" are more accepted than before and people are seeking more alternative stuff. As for hitchhiking... It's still a hobby of a very small group of people. In Western Europe, that is.