My Conversation with Juan Pablo Villarino

Juan is sometimes considered the world’s greatest hitchhiker, and this was one of my favorite installments in the series.  We talked about “the joys of connecting with people, why it’s so hard to avoid stereotypes (including of hitchhikers), how stamp collecting guides his trips, the darkest secrets of people he’s gotten rides from, traveling and writing books with his wife, the cause of violence in the Americas, finding the emotional heart of a journey, where he’s going next…” and which country has the most beautiful women (and men).  And why Colombia and Transnistria are two of his favorite places to visit.

Here is the transcript and audio.

Here is one excerpt:

VILLARINO: As a rule of thumb, I always like to say that you stop cars with your smile and not with your thumb. There are actually a lot of things you could do to improve your chances of getting a lift.

It’s not like go there, stick out your thumb, and get a ride. Definitely, smiling as a car is passing — it’s a really important thing. Then there are very subtle things that people wouldn’t guess that have an impact, and they do…

For example, a driver has on average three seconds to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. He sees you, he’s driving maybe 80 miles an hour, and you suddenly pop out. There are a lot of things going on unconsciously through his mind to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. You have only these seconds to convey any message of trust, and so you have to do things.

For example, one is smiling. The other one is, when you manage to get eye contact, then I reinforce. Let’s say, I’m showing my thumb, but I also switch my hand signal and point it to the direction in which I’m going as I’m smiling. This makes a more personalized link over the general link you are already doing, which is thumbing.

Then the way you are dressed, the way your backpack is positioned . . .


COWEN: In your six slowest, you have in that worst six Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark with slow times [for being picked up hitchhiking].

VILLARINO: Oh, yeah. Scandinavia.

COWEN: Those countries have plenty of cars. Why are they so slow?

VILLARINO: That’s amazing. To be hitchhiking in Scandinavia, you see all this row of Volvo cars passing you by [laughs] and they will never ever stop.

I had talked to a Swedish friend of mine, and she just said, “Yeah, I wouldn’t stop either,” she said, “because it’s so cheap and affordable to have a car. Then if someone is hitchhiking and doesn’t have a car, you would think he has second intentions or something wrong is going on here.”


COWEN: Would you describe yourself as a workaholic hitchhiker?

VILLARINO: Yes. [laughs] I am. People would be so surprised to see how much time there is involved on the backstage behind the screen because you hitchhike, you have books, and you have a blog. The blog is so time consuming.

Juan had the very best answer I thought as to why the New World is more violent than the Old World, overall.  It starts with this:

VILLARINO: Probably because in our evolution as territories, we have had violence as a part of it much more recently in the timeline. We were conquered by means of powder. I think that’s probably in the genetic of our culture. I hope not.

Strongly recommended, and I hope to read and see more of Juan in the future.


"New World is more violent than the Old World"

Is this true? I thought Pinker demonstrated that it is not...

People adapt to new norms. Perhaps individuals in the world do desire to be more violent, but we're just far better at avoiding that violence.

The three most deadly wars in history were the Taiping Rebellion and the Two World Wars, all started by old-world countries. And then there are the millions of people murdered by old-world governments in the 20th century. The new world is more violent only if you don't count violence perpetrated by governments.

Agreed. Death-by-Government remains the most likely form of violent death. A tally of violent deaths per capita year has to count it.

But you need to count Meso-Americans as New World too. They are....not so good on that metric.

Is Australia violent? Or New Zealand or Canada?

Very good talk. I agree that the relationship to the Chileans is always extremely friendly when Argentineans visit. I have no idea how Chileans feel when they visit Argentina.

"As a rule of thumb . . . ." That's funny. His description of how a hitchhiker makes a connection with the driver of a car applies to a writer making a connection to the reader, a salesman making a connection to a customer, etc. One has but a few seconds to make that connection. I especially appreciate the advice to make eye contact. I ride a road bike, on the road. When I am approaching a car at an intersection, I try to make eye contact with the driver. If I do, I know we have made a connection and she won't pull out in front of me; and if I don't, I assume I haven't and she might. We go through life trying to make a connection with others, whether it's a potential friend, potential lover, or potential business partner. We are all hitchhikers.

This past week we were almost mowed down (walking back from the hiking trail) by a guy who slowed down, waved at us, I waved back, we stepped out, and then he surged at us. We jumped around his fender with six inches to spare. Then he says "sorry" and goes on.

I guess the lesson is that waving can be ambiguous. He was just saying hello?

Be careful out there.

The ambiguous wave strikes again. I am waiting for a plumber but he can't find the place, so I stand in the doorway, a van drives by, a plumber waves at me ..

Ten minutes later a phone call. He's lost. Then we establish that it was him, and he waved. Being friendly. He's on the way back.

Another ambiguity that I've read about: when you're driving at night and come upon a bridge that's only wide enough for one car at a time to cross, and a car going the opposite direction comes to the bridge at the same time, what do you do?

In some countries you flash your high beams to say to the other car "you go first".

In other countries you flash your high beams to say "get out of the way, I'm coming through".

As more and more people travel and drive internationally, solve for the stochastic equilibrium.

It's a fun case study.

Fortunately, this isn't In Real Life a single-move game. It's a game of many small turns of either pausing and "edging forward" until one side moves and other does not. At which time a Schelling point is established and the two participants move to that equilibrium.

The game doesn't have an infinite number of turns though; if both sides keep "edging forward" then both Get Stuck resulting in a humiliating reverse and further delay even for eventual "winner". The risk of Getting Stuck prevents "edging forward" from becoming a dominant strategy. Suspect population probability of strategy (edge forward) is proportional to the number of turns mutual s(edge forward) can occur before Getting Stuck occurs.

What a down-to-earth guy. There are some empathy ideals behind the travel books but he acknowledges traveling + writing is a business model.

Early on he admits to being a stamp collector, at which point I found the whole thing too disturbing to continue reading.

Why? A lot of us collec stamps and I cant think of a better way to learn geography and history. The rest of his talk (the part you didn't allow yourself to listen) was about confronting our prejudgments. But if you can't overcome your own stereotypes about stamp collecting even less your are likely to understand this guy's challenge while hitchhiking places like Syria of Afghanistan.

Brazil became independent in the 1820s. Mexico too.

Spain had a vicious civil war in the 1930s. Greece in the late 1940s. Europe in general was reshaped just 70 years ago after mass slaughter.

The new world has had plenty of time to recover from their sometimes violent origins. And if it was proximity of time to a violent origin that explained violence today, then violence should be declining, not rising as it is in Brazil and Mexico.

"And if it was proximity of time to a violent origin that explained violence today, then violence should be declining, not rising as it is in Brazil and Mexico."

Not necessarily. Organized violence on large scales require building up sufficient state capacity which gets translated to better policing, punishment and so on after the war. Europe was also aided by cleansing of minorities of all kinds and reshaping of borders that eventually resulted in a lot of homogeneous ethno-states post world war 2.

I am amazed that the world's foremost hitchhiker visited 90 other countries before he ever ventured to the ancestral home of hitchhiking, and that to talk to TC. He must be motivated by interest in culture over landscape.

You get a lot of bang for your buck in the US, in terms of varied scenery.

Do people agree with his assessment of Lithuania having the most beautiful women?

Yes, though one could agree that Latvians share that spot. Georgia (European nation, not the US state) also has breathtakingly beautiful women.

Yes, though one could argue that Latvians share that spot. Georgia (European nation, not the US state) also has breathtakingly beautiful women.

Nope. I've visited eighty-odd countries (and worked with many Lithuanian girls) and I wouldn't have them in my top ten. As far as Europe goes I'd put Moldovan women first. I'd have Germans above Lithuanians as well.

"Juan is sometimes considered the world’s greatest hitchhiker..."

... by people unfamiliar with Ford Prefect, the greatest hitchhiker in all possible worlds.

From the excerpt, he seems to ignore the actual positioning of a hitchhiker - if a vehicle cannot stop within reasonable (and safe, but that is a driver judgment call) distance of the hitchhiker, it won't stop. But then, my experience in only on a couple of continents in a few countries, both alone and as a pair (with a couple of different women over the years), both with and without backpacks.

And since he mentions travelling, maybe the point of having a sign telling people where you are intending to go was not relevant - but if you have an actual destination, a sign is very helpful, as pointed out by a Nova Scotian back when I was hitchthiking there.

And his time estimates are fascinating - mine are all based on how much rain is falling, because standing in the rain hoping to get a ride while hitchhiking basically seems a total waste of time - with a backpack, better to just keep walking to get somewhere.

And the Nordic countries sound like the U.S., without the extra level of fear - the only place I have been shouted at was northern California during a semester break, with the people in the fairly battered pick up shouting 'get a job' - which was hilarious, since the job I then had included enough vacation time to travel up and down the West Coast for a month.

Yes, though I was waiting for him to add another genuinely important factor:

1) Be hitching with at least two beautiful women (one might be a girlfriend, but two means at least one for the driver!)
2) ...everything else

Interesting. I didn’t see any reference to the precipitous decline in hitch-hiking in North America and Europe since the 70s, say (when I frequently did so). Except the claim of easier access to cars (in Scandinavia). My assumption is that the serial murderers (both drivers and hitchers) — in reality and in film — gave it a bad rap

He could have titled his book "The Hitchhiker's Hails"; his guidelines on hitchhiking remind me of the all-time great scene with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert from "It Happened One Night".

That clip is worth watching all the way through but the tl;dr is: to successfully hitchhike, be a woman. Or at least be with a woman.

What happens when he (or Tyler, for that matter) goes to countries where he doesn't speak the language? How does he get to know the locals? Does he hire a translator? Or is he only conversing with people with whom he shares a language?

There is no sense in which car ownership is relatively inexpensive in the Nordic countries. They just thought he was Muslim.

I'll doubt Villarino will find a lot of Lutheran churches around Konigsberg/Kaliningrad, due to the ethnic cleansing of Germans and decades of enforced atheism during the Soviet era.

I enjoyed this one, especially as I don't think I would have encountered the guest otherwise. I wonder what other travel writers I've overlooked.

I had low expectations but was pleasantly surprised at how interesting I found this discussion. He’s not what I was expecting.

Regarding Scandinavia: I live in Sweden and most hitch-hikers I see are standing on onramps by the freeways (probably because the hitch-hiker knows all cars there are going in the right direction). But it's illegal to stop there. That's the main reason for me not stopping to pick up hitch-hikers.

Yes. A smarter spot I've seen seems to be just outside motorway service and petrol stations. People are already out of their cars and have plenty of time to evaluate all your "goodsigns" and think about taking you.

Villarino is undoubtedly helped by the fact that he is Argentine-the land of Maradona and Messi. For most of the world, which is soccermad, Brazilians are the luckiest; Argentinians are next. Soccer players are virtually heroes even in the remotest corners of the globe, and some of the greatest soccer players are from South America.

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