The following was published in the January-March 2006 issue of Journey Beyond Travel Magazine:

Hitchhiking the World

“You’re enormous,” begins a message of admiration on Ludovic Hubler’s Web site. It’s just one of over 300 such postings from people around the world who have written to express praise and support for Hubler and his journey.

While the 27-year-old Frenchman from the city of Strasbourg may not be enormous himself, many consider his trip to be. On January 1, 2003, Hubler set off from France to hitchhike around the world, a journey he expects to complete by 2008.

Yes, around the world.

Speaking at a gathering of French enthusiasts in Chicago, Hubler recounts his often-told story. When he was eight or nine years old, he would look at maps and think to himself that he’d some day travel the world. When he reached his late teens, his parents let him hitchhike; he began in Strasbourg and then branched out in his region, to other parts of France, and eventually to other countries in Europe. He would seek out drivers at gas stations, a tactic that allowed him to choose someone with whom he felt comfortable.

Hubler began his trek around the world with one restriction: he wouldn’t spend any money to travel from place to place. (He would, however, pay to travel within a city once there.) Over the past nearly three years, he has lived a nomadic life, mostly using the technique of approaching people at gas stations when traveling over land and soliciting rides on boats to cross water. Other modes of transportation have included plane, snowmobile, donkey, and dromedary.

Before reaching the United States last October, Hubler touched 27 countries across Europe, Africa, and South America. (He decided to travel west, because westward winds make sailing easier in that direction.) He has a budget of about ten dollars a day, carrying most of his belongings between two backpacks and washing his clothes every eight or nine days. To fund his trip, he has obtained money from sponsors and written articles for local newspapers in France, in addition to using his personal savings. He has no phone but does carry international medical insurance.

The reactions in the U.S. to Hubler as a Frenchman have been diverse. “Some people love my country,” he remarks, “and some others hate it.” One man refused to pick him up because Hubler was French; five minutes later, another told him he wished that the U.S. and France had a better relationship— and was all too happy to let the Frenchman ride. All in all, Hubler generally has been well-received in this country, he says, especially by families. “They really want you to feel at home,” he observes of many families. “They want you to get the Coke in the fridge any time and wanna’ make sure you don’t need anything.”

By the same token, he has found hitchhiking in the U.S. to be more difficult than in other countries. He attributes this to what he sees as “a culture of fear and individualism more important than Latin America or Africa.” Once, for example, he found himself waiting next to a road under a strong rain for a long time, watching as hundreds of cars passed by. Another time, a police officer in Florida, where hitchhiking is illegal, offered him the choice of paying for a taxi or going to jail— both of which Hubler narrowly escaped when a driver who overheard the conversation offered to drive him. (When that same driver let him off, Hubler found himself approached by the police again. Only this time, the officers were sympathetic and helped him to find another vehicle.) On still another occasion, one driver did not pick up Hubler because the man wasn’t going in his direction— but did invite Hubler to Thanksgiving dinner.

Over the course of his journey, he has ridden with people who were drunk, who drove 150 miles per hour, or— on one occasion— who had a gun in the dash (Hubler was fine with that, so long as the driver didn’t use it on him). In Columbia, he passed through the so-called “red zone,” a dangerous area inhabited by guerillas. Throughout it all, Hubler, who is about 6 feet 2 inches tall, says he’s never been threatened.

He believes it’s important to share his experiences with others, and to that end, he speaks at schools, universities, Alliance Françaises, and other places and occasionally posts writings to his Web site, Recent entries have included musings on the Quebecois’ protectiveness of the French language, the insularity of the Amish community, and the diversity of New York City. He also sends out an E-mail newsletter— which friends translate for him into English and Spanish— to people on his mailing list every six to eight weeks. “If I would meet my parents today,” he says half-jokingly, “I wouldn’t have that much to tell them.”

Hubler estimates that 80 million people have heard of his trip. He has been interviewed numerous times by the media, including an appearance on Programa do Jô, the most widely-viewed Portuguese-language talk show. One of the most important audiences to him, however, has been a group of some 30 cancer patients at a Strasbourg hospital to whom he acts as a mentor. He writes to the patients, aged 15 to 18, about the places he visits, and they, in turn, use his writings— and webcam appearances— to study subjects such as geography, history, and math.

“The more you travel, the more you switch […] from a ‘local thinker to a ‘global thinker,’ and you start considering all the world around you,” says Hubler, who speaks confidently and has a big smile. He recognizes an inherent danger in hitchhiking but nonetheless sees it as an effective way to get to know people across social and cultural backgrounds. As for this trip, one of his greatest satisfactions has been seeing with his own eyes that “the vast majority of people in the world are honest and nice.”

Hubler, who received a Master of Science in Management from the Strasbourg Business School three years ago, is considering working some day for the United Nations or to strengthen ties between the European Union and Latin America. But all that is for later. At last check, Ludovic Hubler was in New Zealand. He had some 25 countries left to go.