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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hitchhiking from France to Uganda


Many Ugandans talk of adventure but few if any have tasted or smelled its intensity as much as Jeremy Marie has. A year after his bachelor’s degree in tourism, the Frenchman, spurred by the spirit of discovery, hugged his family, friends and countrymen and began his hitchhiking mission around the world.

Hitchhiking means “to get a ride from a passing vehicle, usually by standing at the side of the road and holding out the hand with the thumb raised,” according to Microsoft Encarta Dictionary 2007. The dictionary however omits the fact that the hitchhiker does not pay for the ride.

For Marie, it began with his childhood fascination with the works of fellow Frenchman, Jules Verne (1825-1905), the author of fantabulous fiction such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days. So he kept it lodged in the deepest corner of his heart that when he grew up he too would distinguish himself by some thrilling enterprise like Professor Lidenbrock and Phileas Fogg –two indefatigable heroes that make Jules novels unforgettable.

At university, Marie read many travel books to prepare for his impending voyage. And after graduation he worked for one year and saved. He also got some sponsorship from the ministry of youth and sports of the French government and with the encouragement of his parents and beloved twin sister; he was ready for his trip.

Aware that thumbing up for a free ride would be the easiest and most interesting way of meeting people, Marie made his first step out of his home town of Caen, singing along to Marvin Gaye’s classic, Hitchhike. But he was not hitchhiking ‘round the world” to “find that girl”, as the song says, although he’s single and might meet the woman of his life along the way.

“Discovering different things and people and their way of life is the passion of my life,” he said fervently during an interview held at Daily Monitor head office in Namuwongo. “My goal is to observe the world and prove that solidarity and help are still present on our planet.”

Down his bushy eyebrows, eyes moving intelligently behind his glasses, and speaking good English but in a strong almost incomprehensible French accent, Jeremy went on, “My project is to visit schools in the world and try to talk to the children; I try to promote peace; I explain to them that people give me lifts, so from France to Uganda I’ve paid nothing for transport and I’ve been helped everywhere, so that means there are good people everywhere.”

Strapped around his waist was a black rectangular leather pouch containing his papers –passport, a map of the world, some money and a promotional flag that shows him with French children from a school back home.

To get the feel of what truly awaited him, Jeremy first hitchhiked his way around Northern Europe –from France to Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and England. That was in 2005. Then he decided to discover his country and toured it, talking to the people before he left. Even then, he used “hitchhiking because it’s the best way to travel.”

And when, 10 months ago, Marie solicited his first ride atop a lorry, marking the beginning of his exhilarating circumnavigation, his soul didn’t allow him time for prejudices because it was on the verge of bursting with joy.

“From France,” he began with a toothy grin, “I’ve crossed Europe; from Switzerland, Italy, countries of ex-Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Jordan, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, and then I went to Bulgaria and Greece, to go to Turkey. From there I went to Middle East – Syria, Jordan and I travelled to Africa via Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and now I’m in Uganda.”

The virtue of riding on 325 vehicles including motorbikes, lorries, donkeys and a ferryboat, crossing 20 countries and covering 19,200kms of distant lands so far, impels people to listen when the small and bubbly Frenchman claims to know what Mark Twain meant when he noted that wholesome and charitable views cannot be acquired by vegetating in one corner of the earth.

It has also been extremely difficult to communicate especially in countries that speak only Arabic and Aramaic. Luckily he has a written brief about his mission in almost every major language and that has helped.

All through, Marie who travels with a small rucksack that contains a few clothes, his washing stuff and sleeping bag, finds free accommodation on the web through

“It’s difficult sometimes but hey, when you do what you really like to do you don’t have difficulties.”

For Marie the thrills outweigh everything else. That’s why he was torn between which of his exciting stories he should share. With a glint of nostalgia, he laughs and says, “I just cannot pick one. There are so many. But Sudan was the easiest place to travel because of the people; for a traveller they are very hospitable. Wherever you travel you get invited for eating, for sleeping, for drinking. In one restaurant I went to pay my bill and I was told a certain Monsieur had paid for me…small stories like that make the trip nice and make me feel that people are good everywhere.”

He also met a gentleman in Slovenia who owned “a folk guitar he said was hidden in the middle of nowhere in Istanbul! Through google earth he showed me where to find it and when I reached Turkey I looked it up and found it, and sent it to France where I will find it after my journey.”

Jeremy entered Uganda a week ago and found it “very peaceful.” He has so far visited Entebbe and was planning to hit a club to check out the nightlife of Kampala. He’ll then head to Mbale and preach peace in primary schools there, then go to western Uganda and round off his one-month stay in the south of the country.

“My next destination will be Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa. From there I’ll take a final sailing boat across the Atlantic to go to South America, still without paying for transport.

I hope to safely arrive in Brazil and from there I’ll go to South America and the west side of the continent like Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, to Central America and then on to North America. After that I’ll have to go back to Central America to find a boat to cross the Pacific to arrive in Oceania and the south west of Asia, then Japan, China, and India, before going back to Europe.”

Asked if he truly hoped to sail freely on a ‘Henrietta’ of sorts like his friend Phileas Fogg of Around the World in Eighty Days, to cross the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Marie said it may be difficult but he would ask to work as a skipper or wash the dishes in exchange for the sail. After all he had worked in a hotel for a month in Jordan when he ran out of money.

He’s yet to decide if he should chronicle his exploits but said it’s an idea he may not shy away from upon the realisation that he can promote peace through the book.

After the interview, he stood by Namuwongo roadside and struck the hitchhikers trademark hoping to snatch a free ride to Kamwokya but the taxi touts didn’t comprehend the Mzungu with the raised thumb.

By the end of four years, Marie will have fulfilled his dream in its entirety. Then he can, if he wants, stroke his beardless chin and thump his chest saying, “Yes Jules Verne, I didn’t travel only in imagination like you! I’m the bold traveller! I’ve been around the world and back!”

--Sunday Monitor, July 27, 2008