_As I write this, I am imagining all of you enjoying your turkey feasts and relaxing to a nice game of American football, a little jealous but I must say this has been a most surprising, unexpected and memorable Thanksgiving.

This morning Sam (my travel buddy) and I decided we would try to hitchhike the six hour journey from the small mountain town we were staying in to Marrakech.

We waited in the pouring rain for about an hour with high thumbs and high spirits. The Moroccans seemed to be getting a kick out of us and our soaking "Marrakech" sigh. Tomorrow is election day and the town was bustling with a parade of cars covered in photos of their favorite candidate driving through town throwing election flyers out the window and  honking in unison.

We had several cars stop, but they all wanted money to give us a ride part of the way to Marrakech. When we were about to put the sign away and grab some lunch and dry off, a 15-passenger tour van pulled over. We initially ignored the van, assuming they were stopping for a photo opp, but when the driver got out and shouted, "Marrakech" we were caught off guard. We asked, "no money?" and he nonchalantly agreed. This was too good to be true...riding in a comfortable tour van with English speaking tourists all the way to Marrakech for free. Wow!

As we continued down the road, the rain began to pick up. Parts of the road were completely flooded or washed out, but the driver persisted passing stopped cars and hydroplaning through river-like troughs in the road. The driver seemed to be having fun with this, and it turned into a sort of game. As we speeded toward each "river crossing" I closed my eyes and shuttered thinking, "that's it, this is the last one. The van is going to roll and we're going for a swim down the river." Somehow, we actually made it through...I guess I underestimated the abilities of a 15-passenger van.

Two hours into the trip, we got word that the highway ahead was closed due to snow. The van pulled over at a restaurant to eat lunch and wait out the road closure.

As all the tourists ate in the dinningroom upstairs, Sam and I hung out in the cafe below drinking mint tea and trying desperately to warm up. The driver and tour guides eventually joined us downstairs and immediately invited us to join them and their feast. Trying to be polite, we denied the invitation but our efforts were futile. We sat down and our van driver gave us all the food he had ordered and shared a meal with one of the guides.

At this point, all of the guides joined in the festivities passing us bread, chicken kebab, salad, tagime, fresh fruit and coke to drink. We were overwhelmed bothe with the amount of food and the kindness of people we had never met who didn't even speak our language. As we continued to feast a clip came on the news about Obama pardoning two turkeys for Thanksgiving and I knew there was nowhere else I would rather be than sharing a Thanksgiving meal with a strangers who probably didn't even know what Thanksgiving is.

Sam and I got back in the van with big smiles, full tummies and grateful hearts for the people who were so kind. The rest of the drive was sheer bliss. We trekked through snow-capped mountain passes and along quaint mud and brick houses nestled within the valleys.

I couldn't stop thinking about the inspiring people I've met during my trip, the compassion I've experienced from strangers and all of my marvelous family and friends at home who have supported me along the way.

Over the past two and a half months the beginnings of a trip to see the world have snowballed into a wonderful wander through three continents filled with gorgeous people and cultures, with each day getting better than the previous. It completely blows me away, I may just be the most thankfully happiest American this holiday.
My Thanksgiving feast!
Washed out roads
Trying to get a picture of the Atlas Mountains through the wet van window
After the Luis and Maria saga, Ilmer and I decided we were definitely hooked on hitchhiking. If anything, I was just getting Ilmer prepared for his world hitchhiking adventure! I had been planning to head to Spain for quite awhile now, but Ilmer somehow convinced me to spend another weekend in Portugal with the promise of showing me around the Algarve, the southern-most state of the country. He was headed there to visit his brother and sister-in-law for the weekend, and it didn't take much for me to agree to the detour.  In our adventuresome style, we decided yet again to try our luck with hitchhiking.

It was a three hour trip to the Algarve, so we got into hitchhiking position early Friday evening.  This time we were well prepared with Ilmer's sphisticated hitchhiking kit. Our plan of attack was for Ilmer to hold the "South" sign and I was in charge of the "It's my birthday" sign. We figured the passerbys would enjoy a little hitchhiking humor. 

We shortly got picked up by-believe it or not-Luis and Maria...a mother and son who offered to take us half of the way. They were friendly and we had a nice chat in Portuguese before they
dropped us off on the side of the road just as the sun was setting and it was beginning to rain.

The day had slipped away quickly and Ilmer and I were wary about our chances of hitchhiking at night. We considered taking the train or just staying the night in the small town, but I told Ilmer I was feeling lucky and if we didn't get picked up in ten minutes we would catch a train. Just as we got our "South" sign out, a 1980s model VW stopped 50 meters in front of us and was honking for us to get in.

What perfect timing! We grabbed our bags and ran for the car. This time, our new friend Bruno was headed to a town just 30 miles from our destination. Bruno was very friendly and anxious to learn about our travels, couchsurfing and hitchhiking adventures. He told us how he was planning a road trip from Portugal to Russia on a 60 year-old motorcycle next summer and he was excited to try CouchSurfing. We had great conversation during the ride (well Ilmer and Bruno did, as most of it was in Portuguese). Here is what I gathered about Bruno in a translation from Ilmer:

"Bruno's parents own a bakery and Bruno has a 10% share in the company, which is where he gets his income. He could work harder and own a larger portion of the business, but instead he choses to use the money and take random classes at university, travel and just enjoy his life."

Yay, Bruno! He truly had a care-free attitude and relaxed presence about him. Ilmer and Bruno seemed to hit it off and half way through the ride Bruno insisted on stopping in his hometown so we could have a tour of his favorite places (including his dream home) and meet his best friend. After, we drove a few miles down a windy dirt road through rural fields to the family bread factory. By now it was around nine P.M. and the workers were just finishing up the evening shift.

From the outside, the factory looked like a small warehouse with a muddy parking lot and stray dogs wandering around, but the air smelled of delicious warm baked goods. Bruno showed us around the small factory and gave us two giant loafs of bread hand picked from the oven. He then took us out back to the garage where his antique motorcycle resided. We admired the bike as he proudly told us how he had been working for months to fix it up for the trip.

After the full city tour and show and tell session, Bruno announced that he would drive us all the way to Ilmer's brother's house. When all was said and done, I was amazed at the total kindness of a stranger and how well everything worked out.

When I tell my hitchhiking stories to fellow travelers, they stare in amazement and ask why I'm so crazy to do this, or if I'm scared. I must say, that when you're traveling alone in a foreign country, you can't be too picky about who you trust, otherwise, you would never meet anyone or never get anywhere. You obviously have to be smart about who you get in the car with and expect the best rather pining over everything that could happen.

Thus far, all three of my hitchhiking adventures have been some of the best memories of my trip, given me some great stories and shown me that a little trust can go a long way.
It's my birthday, PLEASE pick us up!
Bruno and his moto
A few weeks ago I began to get bored with my normal travel routine. Bus-plane-hostel-tram-tour-plane was beginning to get tedious and a little too comfortable. I was seeing quite a bit, but felt like an important cultural element of my traveling was lacking. On the first day I met Ilmer, he told me of his plans to hitchhike around the world in a year, and right then I knew we would be great friends.

Tuesday was a public holiday and Ilmer didn´t have to work, so we decided to check out a natural park nearby and try our hand, or rather thumbs at hitchhiking. We took the train from Lisbon to Setúbal, and steaked out a promising spot along the road leading into the park for our hitchhiking endeavors.

We stood on the corner for 40 minutes with our two fold "Arrábida," sign watching car after car passby, I was beginning to get impatient. Ilmer said that if you juggle flaming batons or you write something like, "I don´t smell" or "it´s my birthday" on the sign, your chances of getting picked up increase. They all sounded great to me, I was willing to do anything at this point, so while we were pondering which of these options would be most suitable, a black Kia mini van pulled over. A woman jumped out of the passenger side and opened the sliding door for us.

Our two hosts, Luis and Maria, turned out to be a Portaguese/Italian couple who frequently moved between the two countries, and had just bought a home in Setúbal. They were headed to the beach for a day of fishing when Luis spotted us and insisted on stopping despite his wife´s protests.

We were expecting a short ride into the park, but Luis insisted on giving us a full tour. We stopped at a beach to take some pictures, and Luis decided that we would all have a nice clam and wine lunch and get to know eachother. We were impressed by such a kind gesture, and decided to go along with it.

The conversation began normally with small talk of where we were from and what we were doing in Portugal.
Ilmer told Luis about his life growing up in the Netherlands and Portugal, and Luis automatically assumed I was German...that is until he tried to speak to me in German and I stared at him dumbfounded and explained that I was from the United States.

At that point, Luis quickly changed the conversation, stating that he would rename Ilmer "Marco" because that was much easier to remember, and I would be called "Hamer" the (according to him) Turkish version of my name. He went on to insist that I must have some Turkish ancestry because my hair color was very Turkish. I decided it was better to let that one slide, he did buy us lunch and give us a tour of the park, so letting him pick our names was the least we could do.

We continued to eat and learned about Luis´ job for Coca Cola working in the bottling plants and traveling all over the world. He told us about living in Venezuela, the beaches in Thailand and his sword collection from Yemen. Finally, he started a side conversation with Maria in Italian and looked at us with an embrassed smile explaining that him and Maria had agreed to invite us to their house for dinner.

The adventure had been pretty interesting so far, and we decided it could only get better, so we agreed. They took us to the grocery store, handed us a basket and said we could pick out anything in the store for dinner. Ilmer and I had no idea what to do. We had never been in such an interesting social situation and weren´t sure how to politely do grocery shopping for someone else. Since Luis was obsessed with fish, we insisted that he pick out his favorite catch.

On our drive back to Luis and Maria´s place, things got a little more interesting. Luis started to explain that fishing was taken very seriously, and how it was common for fishermen to kill other fishermen in order to get the perfect spot. Luis continued on, "I´m not sure if you noticed, but in my right pocket I have my cellphone, and I also have something else...it is very important to protect myeslf."

Ilmer and I glance at eachother, a mixture of concern and fear on our faces as we think, "Oh, shoot he has a gun! What did we just get ourselves into?" We immedietly start regretting our decision to agree to dinner. Our minds are racing, should we think of a good excuse to leave, or we could always just open the van door and jump out. I considered several possible excape scenarios, all preposterous and sure to be awkward, but eventually convinced myself that Luis seemed like a nice enough guy, he would surely mean us no harm, right?

It turned out to be a good decesion, because it wasn´t a gun afterall! At dinner Luis withdrew a pocketknife from his right pocket and began to cut his fish. He was very proud of the tool and explained how he bought it for 1000 Euros in some far off land.

The remainder of the dinner was relatively uneventful compared to the earlier happenings. Luis insisted on watching the one German television channel he had, just so Ilmer and I would feel at home (half way through dinner, he switched it off and put on an Italian movie). Luis also assured us that we were great friends and he would do anything in the world for us. If we were ever in trouble, he would send someone...he knows people from all over the world and has kilos of contacts. He was also kind enough to give us his 24 hour direct phone line. Needless to say, I definitely got my dose of culture that evening.

By the time the food was eaten and the movie was finished, the last train to Lisbon was long gone. Luis offered to drive us back, and totally impressed us with his high-speed-chase-like driving skills and ability to zoom through red lights when no one else was around! We even learned that he once got four speeding tickets in a 26 minute span. Bottomline: If you are ever planning on getting involved in a high speed chase...I know your man, just ask I have his 24 hour hotline!

Lunch with Luis and Maria, our new hitchhiking friends!
The beach in Arrabia
My good friend, Alex, from high school is studying in Finland for the semester and a few months ago we decided to plan a trip to Russia. Not knowing anything about the country (other than the normal stereotypical stuff) we thought it would be a crazy adventure. I think we are both drawn to sketchy, corrupt and slightly dangerous places, so this definitely sounded like an amazing adventure.

As the departure date for our trip drew nearer, I began to question our rash decision to visit Russia. My image of the country was a tall, skinny man with pale skin, jet black slicked-back hair (and a matching goatee), clad in tight black leather pants, a leather jacket and army boots, standing on a rainy sidewalk smoking a cigarette. I guess you could call it the hardened criminal look, all I knew was that as the departure day grew nearer and said image continued to replay in my mind, I was afraid of Russia. On the night of our ferry departure, I'm busy envisioning the worst case scenario for our trip to the land of hardened criminals and begging babushkas, and Alex makes some comment about getting deported to a labor camp in Siberia. At least we were on the same page. 

If this stereotype image wasn't enough, all the laws Russia has regarding visas and loopholes you have to jump through to enter the country are enough to discourage any tourist. Regardless, we were drawn to this mysterious land and nothing could deter us from investigating the strange place.

On the day of the trip we had to make a two hour trek from Alex's town to Helsinki to catch our ferry. We decided any trip to a land as epic as Russia must have an equally epic start, so hitchhiking to Helsinki was really the only option.

Finland is an extremely safe country, however, Finns aren't very trusting people, and hitchhiking is virtually nonexistent in the country. Alex's Finnish friends advised us against the idea saying we would never get picked up, but we had to give it a try! I made a giant "Helsinki" sign on cardboard and we staked out a spot alongside the freeway entrance. Five minutes later, a black SUV pulled up on the sidewalk and stoped to pick us up. We were ecstatic!

As luck would have it, Harry, the man who picked us up turned out to be the ex-CEO of a company in Moscow. He was married to a Russian woman and had traveled and lived in Russia for many years. Even though he wasn't going directly to Helsinki, he was willing to go out of his way and drop us off at the ferry terminal! Talk about front door service, he had hitchhiked around France in his younger years, so I think he empathized with us.

Alex and I were so proud of our hitchhiking endeavor that we decided "Helsinki" would be our mascot for the whole Russia trip. Below are a few highlights of our adventures with Helsinki...
Hitching our way to Helsinki...
Of course we HAD to take Helsinki to the casino.
Helsinki was a real hit in the nightclub!