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Hitchhikers' guide to the Americas

Posted: June 9, 2012 - 11:01pm
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This photo, a timed shot from photographer Amelie's camera on the ground, shows Marion and Amelie walking on a dirt road near the Quilmes ruins in northern Argentina in March of 2011.  Amelie Laurin
Amelie Laurin
This photo, a timed shot from photographer Amelie's camera on the ground, shows Marion and Amelie walking on a dirt road near the Quilmes ruins in northern Argentina in March of 2011.

Only days after the 20-somethings making up A Trip South departed from Douglas on their way to Patagonia, Amélie Laurin, 30, and Marion Laurin, 28, arrived in Juneau after hitchhiking from the same region north. It’s likely that, after nearly two years of travel, the Laurin sisters might have had some sage advice for the recently departed group. But as is necessary of two-year-travelers who were never certain of when or where they might sleep or eat, the sisters were accepting of the circumstances.

Beginning their trip in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in September of 2010, Amélie and Marion had initially planned for a year of travel up to Alaska by normal means for backpackers. They would take buses or trains, perhaps buy a car, and stay in hostels. But circumstances dictated otherwise.

“We didn’t plan it — we just planned to travel on the American continent with Alaska as a (goal) for a year and a half, for 18 months, but it turned out to be longer than that because we spent more time on the way than we planned. We didn’t think of hitchhiking but it just came that way because we didn’t have enough money for the bus and they didn’t accept the credit card and there was no ATM nearby and the bus was leaving, the next one was 12 hours later. So the only option was hitchhiking. Or waiting 12 hours. And then we just kept on hitchhiking all the way.” Amélie said.

It was a lucky, it turns out, since the sisters agreed they would not have made it all the way north had things gone as planned.

In Juneau, they stayed with Aja Razumny, a contact through a woman who was an exchange student about 15 years ago.

“We work a lot of contacts, we try to find people who might know people that we can stay with or hang out with or know things to do or people to meet, like those guys we could have met, we always try to have contacts…”

Though they occasionally use couchsurfing.org, after the first shot at hitchhiking, their philosophy of travel changed completely.

“Usually we find hospitality as we find rides along the way. So usually we just go to a gas station to find a ride, or just stay on the side of a road and wave at people and stop. And then to find hospitality we knock on doors or talk to people and that’s how we find a place to stay or a ride somewhere. And we don’t really plan, it just goes like that.” Amélie said.

From Brazil to Argentina to Latin America to the U.S., the rides and beds (or gardens, backs of trucks, etc.) haven’t been hard to come by (though some surfaces are harder than others). Another benefit they found to hitchhiking and staying in homes was the people they met.

“It’s very cheap to travel that way and also, mostly because it is very interesting, to ask hospitality and rides, you meet more people, more local people, I mean if you go to a hostel and you take a bus, you’ll be with travelers – it’s much different. You don’t get to know about what’s going on here, what’s good stuff to eat, good bar to go to, the local things, it’s what we travel for.” Amélie said.

The method also provides a great deal of flexibility. Or perhaps it requires flexibility.

“(The trip) was supposed to be a year, and then very, very quickly after that it was a year and a half, and then during a trip pretty much within the first few months we realized it was going to be too short a time… and two years is a nice mark anyway, instead of going 21 months, 22 months, we’re gonna make two years altogether.” Marion said.

“We keep adding things, we though we’d stay on the coast and we don’t go to Utah, Wyoming, but on the map we thought, you know, it’s not too far, and hitchhiking is, what, two days there and two days back.” Amélie said of their numerous detours.

“You meet way more people, you know like in Wyoming or Montana you get to meet cowboys, people we might not get to meet otherwise.” Marion said.

World travel isn’t new to the sisters, who recently traveled for four months in Australia, where they concocted the idea for the northward journey of the Americas. Amélie worked as a photographer in Paris and Marion worked in the restaurant industry in Ireland for six years prior to leaving for this trip. Despite the time apart, they grew up together and knew they could travel together under circumstances that might prove disastrous for other relationships.

“It’s very hard to find somebody that you can do a trip like this with… it’s very hard to find people that don’t need security and don’t need, you know, a place to stay, don’t need to know what’s going to happen tonight, what they’re going to have for dinner, or if they’re going to sleep on the floor or in the back of a truck or in a tent.” Marion said.

Their parents are worried but proud. A normal reaction, the sisters believe.

“(Our dad) would have loved to do that, our mom is much less adventurous, but our dad would have loved to do that, so he is very happy with us.” Amélie said.

The hitchhikers’ guide should include what to pack, or not, and plenty of tips, though the sisters have stated the book they will inevitably write will not be a guidebook, but more “journalistic.”

Still, here is what they had to say about things.

“We have a tent, some cooking gear, we have a sleeping bag and mattress.” Amélie said.

“So basically we rely on people for transportation and or accommodation if we can find it, but it’s not necessary, like we can be very independent as well… Even if we’re stranded on the side of the road we can spend the night and wait for the next day.” Marion said.

And of course they have some clothes, which they grew tired of, especially mending them constantly. More tiring was the terrible, cheap food they consumed on the road at times.

“Bread, mayonnaise and refried beans.” Amélie said, cringing a little.

And Marion admitted to really enjoying a good cup of coffee after drinking so much instant coffee along the way.

Occasionally, to keep some sense of normalcy, one must paint one’s nails or wear flowers in one’s hair, it seems.

The best things along the way (real, literal things) might be pillows and beds.

“What feels really good is when we arrive in a place and we don’t know what to expect, well, you never really know what to expect, we’ve slept in hundreds of houses in 20 countries in black, white, old, poor, rich, young, families with babies and everything, and sometimes we end up with a bed each and a pillow, a very nice pillow, and that’s always wonderful when we arrive in a house, where we have a nice room and a nice bed, a nice place to stay for the night it’s always wonderful.”

Such accommodations aren’t a regular occurrence, say the sisters, who can check of hospital, police station, gas station, fire station, church and back of a pickup as places they have slept. The vehicles for travel have been varied as well. With almost 800 rides logged, they have traveled in cars, trucks, semi-trucks, a four-wheeler, a horse, by bicycle, jet ski, boat and golf cart.

Back to technique, it would seem that traveling as a pair is a good idea. Then one can use the same technique as the Laurin sisters.

“When a car stops, one of us usually stays with the bag because the car stops way ahead, one of us stays with the bag and the other goes and talks to the person usually, you get, after so many rides, you get very, very quickly the hint of what’s gonna happen, if the person is good or not. We think, we’d like to think we are better now at decision making than we were at the beginning, so we decide quicker and we kind of see through the people a little better, a little quicker.”

The flexibility might better be described as an ability to adapt. The sisters said they learned a lot about how to judge quickly if a situation would be safe and they only had to exit a vehicle once. They learned how to say no and what to say or not say.

In poorer countries, they would be careful when talking about their personal belongings, any expenses, or even careers.

“I used to say I’m a florist because, if I’m a photographer, I might have a camera…”

And they realized after having a phone and camera stolen early on, a photographer equals a camera, which equals money. They replaced the camera but not the phone, because, they said, “20 different countries, 20 different SIMs.”

And they met people by asking to use their phones to call potential hosts, with the phone-owner sometimes becoming the new host.

“It’s not as risky as it sounds like. Many people warned us, ‘It’s so dangerous.’ Yeah, it is, but it’s dangerous to do so many things. Like, everything might be dangerous. Walking the street in Paris — anything could happen. And actually it’s not that risky because there’s much more good people than bad people. So far almost 800 rides and we’re safe.” Amélie said.

Along the way, they have learned about traditions, foods, dances, cultures and languages. They had to pick up Portuguese in Brazil and Spanish in the rest of South and Latin America.

Everyone’s least favorite question is his or her favorite anything. But sometimes it has to be asked. Favorite experiences?

“We’ve done a lot of amazing stuff, random stuff, and some stuff might not even seem great for a lot of people, but for us, at that time, with that person, it’s amazing.” Marion said.

“For me it’s the magic of traveling and traveling this way, it brings more magic…” Amélie said.

Nobody can really pick one favorite.

In Juneau, they saw the canoes incoming for Celebration. They also, at the time of the interview, were planning to see some dance performances.

From Juneau, they will continue to Haines and farther north, eventually to Prudhoe Bay, just because it’s as far north as one can hitchhike somewhat reasonably. Another rule they follow is that they won’t take a ride to nowhere, they at least want to get to the next village or gas station. They weren’t worried at all about being able to find a ride in the less populated parts of the state.

With confidence that hitchhiking for two years and tens of thousands of miles requires, they swore there are always cars going to even the most remote places.

Razumny, who was present for the interview, said “They don’t worry about anything.”

“I said something about the insecurity of not knowing what’s next,” Razumny said, “and they said, ‘It’s an opportunity.”

The Laurin sisters have learned a lot about life, people, hitchhiking and much more, but what they hope others might learn from their trip is that there is no excuse not to travel if it is a goal.

“A lot of people don’t travel enough because they always have many, many reasons to justify not doing it. … it’s not because you’re old or because you have kids and family or because you have a mortgage, you have work, you don’t have enough money … people have a lot of excuses and I think, during this trip, all the excuses have been covered. And you can do it anyway.” Marion said.

“Many people say, “Oh I love what you’re doing, I wish I could do it, but… But what?” Amélie asked, having earned the right to ask, as they have, combined, left behind a mortgage, friends, family, a boyfriend, jobs — shoes.

With all the risks they have taken, the other thing they hope people can learn is this:

“… the majority of people are good and it’s not that risky to go and travel and to be adventurous.”

• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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