Thursday, August 8, 2013

Day 1: The Drivers

Here we are in Hamburg at the end of a long first day on the road. We started off from Amsterdam at 8:00 this morning and arrived in Hamburg at around 18h. All our rides today were organized on the German "organized hitchhiking" website Mitfahrgelegenheit, where drivers can register and share their car with others for a small fee to cover gas costs and toll booths.

Amsterdam --> Bremen

Our drive from Amsterdam to Bremen was with Rolf, an Organizational Psychologist by training, in a red 4-year-old Dacia. Rolf has been participating in some form of car-sharing his entire life; from hitchhiking to Israel in the late 70s, where he lived and worked in a tightly-knit community for almost a year; to picking up hitchhikers himself; to participating in Mitfahrgelegenheit when it wasn't even a website, but just a small office in Bremen where you had to go and register yourself as a driver or passenger. Since he works in Amsterdam but lives in Bremen, he makes the drive between the two cities every two or three weeks; so he is still very active on the car-sharing scene.

While the primary reason for participating in car-sharing schemes for Rolf, as for many Germans, the practicality of cutting the costs of long-distance car travel, the sense of wonder and adventure that car-sharing passengers have remains a source of inspiration for him (while he loves to travel, it is getting increasingly difficult with tight timelines and rising costs). He lights up when he talks about all the interesting people that he's encountered on his many journeys - like a couple from Russia who he picked up at an airport and brought to Germany on their first trip to Europe.

Rolf has a left-leaning but very well-rounded worldview, and speaks like a man who is not only up-to-date on world news but has his own opinions on global politics. When we discuss the concept of open borders, and the way people interact with other people globally, he shrewdly points out that while the age of the internet has brought incredible transparency into our lives - so we can almost always know just as easily what's going on around the corner as on the other side of the world - people's priorities tend to remain within the limits, or walls, of their own country, their own culture, their own space in their lives. However, he points out that "there is a Canadian, a New Zealander, and a German in this car. We're all sitting here together -- that wouldn't have been so easy even 20 years ago."

Bremen --> Hamburg

Our interviewees are Adam and Dennis, who don't actually know each other but seem to get along as though they've known each other for years. That's probably thanks to our host (driver), Adam, who works in sales and is driven and energized by actively engaging with other people. He's great at making us all feel at home and makes the drive fly by. Although that could also be explained by the fact that he takes full advantage of the go-your-own-pace German autobahn, complaining that his company car - an Opel - can't go quite as fast as he wants (as we rip down the road at 170 km/h).

Dennis is a producer, working mostly with local DJs at the moment, but hoping in the near future to start producing larger films and get his message out into the world (once he figures out what his message is). He believes that one of the biggest problems facing modern society is that we live, breathe and eat advertising -- and that leads to us buying too much stuff that we don't need.

Both guys like fast cars and German engineering, a pretty typical pair for a short city hop in Germany. But they're interesting because when they use Mitfahrgelegenheit, they don't do it for the money - they do it because they genuinely enjoy, and are inspired by, spending time with new people. They're both eager to learn something new about others, to have a strange conversation -- perhaps to be filmed on a GoPro suctioned to the screen of their car. Something interesting tends to go on when car-sharing is involved. Although they are quick to point out that it takes a certain kind of passenger, too, to get a good car-sharing dynamic going. Some are just not open or talkative enough - and that's okay too.

Both see the cars of the future as moving away from gasoline-powered engines, although while Dennis seems excited by the possibility, Adam is skeptical - he believes that hybrid and electric cars will not change the world as quickly as everyone seems to think they will. He also points out that the major problem facing urban mobility is congestion, and that beyond improving upon current car-sharing schemes, there is not much that car manufacturers, or anyone really, can do, to fix that problem.

Nonetheless, both see themselves as part of a community - in their immediate surroundings, their cultures, society, the environment around them and their everyday interactions. And both believe that, just like while driving, the most important thing is to do well for yourself while not harming that ecosystem. 

-- Varia

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