8 mins

From London to Malaysia by thumb with Steve Dew-Jones

Author and hitchhiker, Steve Dew-Jones talks about the generosity of Iranians, The Rule of Thumb Part 2 and the fake Burmese passport stamp

A long day hitching... Steve Dew-Jones

Daisy Cropper: Your initial idea for the hitchhike was developed over Sunday lunch. Tell me, what did your friends/girlfriend/family think of your plans at the time?

Steve Dew-Jones: I think their reaction could best be summed up in a cumulative shaking of the head...

DC: Your friends didn’t seem to think you would make it to Malaysia, were they surprised when you did?

SDJ: I’m sure there was some surprise that we survived the distance, but I’d like to think that those closest to us knew that there was little chance of us giving up.

DC: Hitchhiking to Malaysia seems, to me, quite a scary prospect. Did the two of you ever feel as though you were in danger? Or is that a common misconception?

SDJ: There were a few isolated moments when we felt in danger, but I’m glad to say that very few of these related to the fact that we were hitchhiking.

Crazy drivers - i.e. every driver in Iran - accounted for the bulk of our fears while going from place to place, but it was very rare (if even at all) that we felt scared while thumbing a lift. The overriding emotion in those moments was frustration, not fear.

Unrelated to hitchhiking, we experienced the odd hairy moment, but I can count these on one hand and believe we would have been just as likely to experience them had we spent six months wandering the streets of the UK.

DC: You had two rules: ‘Never pay for transport’ and ‘Never refuse an offer’. Did you find that in different cultures or countries drivers expected money from you. If they did, what did you do in these situations?

SDJ: This was one of our greatest challenges because it becomes rather difficult to reason with drivers when one does not share a common tongue. One of the first phrases we learnt in each new country was: “No money” – which, although wasn’t quite accurate in our situation, was the easiest way we could explain that we weren’t able to pay for their services.

We tried to make sure that every driver knew we weren’t able to pay them before we got into the vehicle – to ensure there would be no awkwardness/unpleasantness at the end of the journey – but sometimes this proved impossible.

Although we had only a handful of misunderstandings in this regard, these were enough to make us question whether or not we would abide by the same rule in the future. It is one thing, when sitting in the comfort of one’s home in England, to make it one’s mission to hitchhike all the way from England to Malaysia without paying a penny; it is another, when staring in the bemused face of a man who has just driven you a very long way as a result of sheer benevolence, to stubbornly defy him payment.

DC: Did your second rule ever leave you driving around in circles? Or returning to places you had already been?

SDJ: Our second rule had all kinds of strange consequences that we couldn’t have accounted for, but this was precisely the reason we created it in the first place. It seems to me that this rule best sums up the spirit of adventure because, as with hitchhiking, you place yourselves unreservedly in the hands of those around you and trust in the innate good of mankind to see you through to the end of each day.

One of the most amusing incidences of this came in the historic Iranian city of Shiraz, where our hosts kept persuading us to stay for another day. It is quite amazing to find oneself in a country where being the host seems almost more pleasurable than being the guest. When, finally, we asserted our desire to leave, we wound up staying just 50km down the road because of another characteristic offer of Persian hospitality.

DC: Some places along your journey seem harder to hitch than others, where would you say was the hardest?

SDJ: The hardest place was almost certainly Pakistan. This wasn’t because of any fault with the natives of the country, but purely because the infrastructure of the place – especially in the impoverished south-western province of Baluchistan – made finding our way nigh on impossible. The map we bought in Quetta did little to improve our plight and if it weren’t for the chance coincidence of bumping into some truckers driving across the breadth of the country, I’m not sure how we’d have made it across.

There was also the problem of hitchhiking being a completely alien concept to the natives of Pakistan, as it proved also to be in Iran, Nepal and Bangladesh – leading to some further frustrating, “no money, no money”, exchanges. It wasn’t that in these countries the natives weren’t familiar with giving each other lifts; rather, they weren’t used to the Western idea of doing it simply to get between places, without it also necessarily involving an exchange of finances.

DC: Whose idea was it to fake the Burmese passport stamp? Do you know how much trouble you could have been in had you been caught?

SDJ: I would like to blame the fake Burmese stamps upon an NGO worker whom we met in Dhaka, Bangladesh, although it would be unfair to pin it all upon this man. He simply gave us the idea and it was our choice to follow it through, placing our own lives in peril for no particular reason, other than the fact that we simply could not see another way into Burma and had come too far to turn back.

In terms of the troubles we could have faced, landmines, lifelong imprisonment or death by trigger-happy members of the Junta were all mentioned to us... Bizarrely, the gravity of the risks didn’t take effect until long after we had attempted the smuggle – not once, but thrice.

DC: Did you raise all the money you had wanted to for The Trussell Trust?

SDJ: No. We raised £1,500 but had hoped to raise £5000.

10% of the proceeds of sales will go to The Trussell Trust as I hope, eventually, to settle that debt.

DC: Would you do this journey again?

SDJ: Without a doubt, yes.

DC: What did you learn, about yourself and others along your journey?

SDJ: I suppose that, above all, I learnt that the world isn't such a scary place after all. Of course there are always ways of putting oneself in greater or lesser danger, but there are no certainties in life.

I'm a firm believer that "fortune favours the brave" and, having hitched through more than 25 countries now, I can safely say that you could be in just as much chance of danger in parts of Britain as in the so-called "unstable" nations of Iran or Pakistan. What's more, as a stranger travelling through, you're much more likely to experience a warm welcome in those countries than you would be in Britain.

DC: You took your journey in 2008. What have you and Will been up to since your epic hitchhiking adventure?

SDJ: Having returned in April 2009, I spent the bulk of my time writing up the account of the journey, before getting married at the start of 2010. Since then, my wife and I drove to Afghanistan as part of a pioneering rally for Afghanaid – for whom I am running this year’s London Marathon – and I trained to become a journalist. I am currently reporting for a local paper in Hammersmith & Fulham, while also working on a couple of websites (www.ruleofthumb.co and www.thefreeshow.com).

Will has been working for a church in Richmond since returning in January 2009, as well as getting heavily involved in the local music scene.

DC: And what’s next for the both of you? Do you have any future journeys planned? Or any future books?

SDJ: A hitch from Alaska to Argentina was mooted as Part Two to ‘The Rule of Thumb’ and I hope that one day we will do this. The struggle will be to set aside another year or so in which we can afford the time, and finances, to do the journey.

DC: As for hitchhiking... Would you really recommend it as a way to travel?

Without a doubt, I would. If you have the time on your hands and want to go beyond the typical tourist trail, there is nothing like hitchhiking for opening your eyes to what a country is really like. If you only travel through places by train, bus or car, your chances of meeting the natives and truly getting to know them are much slimmer. Hitchhiking presents you with no other option than to trust in the good will of complete strangers and to rely upon the sure fact that you are far more likely to meet good people than bad and to experience hospitality than hijacking.

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