Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: May 1, 1999
I turned up at the 3rd International Hitch-Hikers Conference with only a few days advance notice. Arriving on site I found my name on the program, not simply in the list of participants, but as a presenter. Nothing like having plenty of notice, and time to prepare!
In making the acquaintance of some of the delegates, someone asked about my web-site and whether he could have the address. I have a card for just such occasions, and when, on that card, my fellow delegate read "I speak English, German, French and Esperanto", I was asked of course, about Esperanto. The idea was known, as it is in many places, among many people, as kind of a flop.
"No, no, it's spoken more or less world-wide by a small yet rather active minority of enthusiasts", I ventured, "in fact Esperantists and hitch-hikers have got a lot in common." Needless to say that drew a curious, slightly skeptical "how?".
Well, I was on the program, and there I thought, was my talk. "I think I'll talk about that later", I said, and we let the subject rest for the moment, with a wink and a mutual smile of understanding.
The talk was well received. Delivered in slow, considered English for an audience not well versed in my language (if only I spoke Russian!) and a handful of interpreters working full time in my pauses for those who expressed interest but couldn't quite follow my erudite tongue. Ironic I thought, though hardly surprising, that I should be talking about a language designed to solve just this problem.
So what do Esperanto and Hitch-hiking have in common? Well, to begin with they are both minority movements, and I was drawn to both at least in part on account of that, in my youthful rejection of bourgeois values. But that's hardly all. They come together in the spheres of travel, and community. Indeed I've spent some four years on the road over the past eight I guess, and the two most useful tools of the trade I acquired were Esperanto and the use of my thumb.
My focus in uncovering the world was not its mountains, forests, rivers and lakes. Nor was my focus its architecture, churches, museums and sights. To be sure, I've sampled all of these, and enjoyed the taste, but they weren't very long (if ever) at the heart of my passions. It was the people that drew me -- the people, their values and cultures. I wanted to see the world through other's eyes I guess -- what made us all so similar and yet so different, wherein were the seeds of understanding?
I picked up a lot of things on the road. New culinary habits, new reading directions, writing, new languages, tolerance, humility, drinking, meditating, and time ... I left what I could at home, baggage in the usual sense, and of spirit, opinion, ideology and philosophy. Of course I couldn't empty myself, I was still me, but I could put all of that somewhat into the background and free myself of as much bias and judgement as I could muster.
Well into my travels I would come across the Zen (Buddhist) image of the empty tea cup. Given a cup of tea the master empties it onto the ground. Surprised (and bemused) the student asks, "why?". "Because only when the cup is empty, can I hope to fill it, and so too with your soul", came the reply. So goes an old Buddhist teaching about finding the Way ... (and don't they love odd metaphors those Buddhists!)
So it is with real learning. Our eyes are held closed by our own prejudice and bias, our own upbringing and way of thinking. Not until we bury those a little, can we begin to see a little clearly, what others, with other values, might be seeing. Of course we can't empty the cup completely, at least most of us can't even if the Buddhist master would ask it of us, but we can lighten the load and leave some baggage at home.
But this isn't a piece on Buddhism, and tea cups. It's just that not too long ago, I harboured all the prejudices I see in others, against Hitch-hiking and against Esperanto, and came upon them not on account of this Buddhist teaching (I hadn't heard it then) but because I buried that prejudice and bit of the apple (and, -- not meaning to incite anyone's passions, I still respect Adam for it).
In the end, of the many, many apples I bit into, I stuck with Esperanto, and Hitch-hiking (and Buddhism for that matter!) and the reasons are surprisingly similar, which brings us back to those similarities.
They both brought me into contact with people. People who liked talking more often than not, people with open doors, into a part of their lives, be it their car, their homes, or even once in a while their very person (their spirits or, without meaning too crude an allusion, their bodies). They are both social activities, engaged in by minorities, with much prejudice heaped against them by the popular culture. They are both activities with roots in tolerance and understanding, in communication with one another (though hitching admittedly has a motive motive as well :-). They are both widely misunderstood, and misjudged. They are both practised by their fair share of eccentric social outcasts on the one hand, and powerfully charming and model people on the other.
The International Hitch-Hikers Conference reminded me so much of many the Esperanto events I've participated in that I was genuinely touched. A large number of people coming together, with primarily social goals, to hang out together, get to know one another, catch-up, share stories and experiences, as an excuse to travel to some far away place. All held together with a program, to lend the semblance of structure and validity, to present a formal reason for coming together and a valid face to the world. Lectures, work groups, partying, carousing, courting ...
Indeed, while I can't see all Esperantists choosing to hitch-hike, nor all hitch-hikers enjoying Esperanto, there is a sizeable overlap among adherents. When I presented the idea of an Esperantists Hitch-hikers Association at the International Week of '97/'98 (a large esperanto gathering drawing some 300 youth from all over Europe), I found a good degree of interest among some of the Esperantists there. Indeed some of them were ardent hitch-hikers already!
The idea hasn't progressed much primarily on account of my losing all their addresses (along with my address book), and not having visited an Esperanto festival since (just too busy). Still, when I presented the idea of Esperanto to the hitch-hikers in Vilnius, a good many approached me afterwards for advice on learning, addresses and lessons ...
It is true ironically (and incidentally), that the thumb opens car doors, and Esperanto house doors. My door is open to Esperantists, as are many others, not because we're hoping to start a hotel chain, but because we find little use for Esperanto in our daily lives, and appreciate the occasional visit from someone who shares similar ideals, and would like also to practice a little, the language that embodies those ideals. There is a formal list of open doors and many more are open through word of mouth, and the shared interest.
Having said that, this kind of hospitality is by no means unique to Esperantists, nor are they the most prolific of hospitable people. I publish elsewhere a list of hospitality clubs in the broader world, of which SERVAS is undoubtedly the most widespread and well known. Hospitality is in the end, not the reason to learn Esperanto or any other language. Hey, even hitch-hikers banded together and formed just such a club, with almost a hundred members world-wide, not too long ago!
All hospitality clubs are subject to the free-hotel syndrome mind you, people interested only in a bed for the night, not subscribing to the cultural ideals of the club. Indeed some clubs promote this very idea, while others battle it. The Esperantists speak of the "eternal learner", who never seems to speak the language, is always in the process of learning, in order to exploit the hospitality of Esperantists.
To cut a long story short though, for all the filters some clubs, like SERVAS, try to apply to their travellers and hosts to avoid the free-hotel syndrome, special interest groups like Esperanto (and Hitch-hikers, there are many others) perform better in filtering the free-hotel traveller from the fold. What's left is people with a mutual interest in cultural exchange and getting to know one another, with a common interest around which base their conversations.
Which is perhaps the last and most cutting similarity between Esperanto and Hitch-hiking. You don't learn Esperanto unless you like the idea, and if you like the idea you're probably a friendly kind of person. So too, an American once said of hitching -- all the assholes drive by, it's the nice people who stop (which is far from completely true, but captures the essence of truth).
There are fundamental ideals of sharing and caring that underly both, and while there are people that hitch only to save money, there are also people who learn Esperanto only to play linguistics ... neither activity is reserved for the sharing and caring.