Yesterday morning, I set out to leave London and get as close to Belgium as possible. I went to the bus station at 6:30am only to find that all direct buses to across the channel were sold out until Christmas. So, instead I got a bus ticket to Dover, the UK’s ferry port.

I arrived in Dover around noon to find the port packed with stranded travelers. I estimated that there were several hundred people crowded in the ticket area, waiting to get a spot on the only ferry line that allowed foot passengers. I got in line, but no one moved for about 30 minutes. Then we heard the announcement: “There has been a power failure and all of the computers are down. We can’t book any tickets at this time. Please wait, we have an engineer working on the problem right now.” Fantastic. So I waited just like everyone else, but there were no changes after another 30 minutes. I put on my pack and left my place in line.

I went outside and tried my luck at hitchhiking, but I was not the only one with this idea. There were about 10 or 15 other travelers also standing on the side of the road, trying to catch the attention of every car that drove past and was heading towards the ferry. No one stopped. Most cars were packed with both people and holiday gifts, but even the empty ones didn’t stop. After some time, I gave up at the road and tried my luck in the parking lot.

I started knocking on windows of random cars, only to find out that most people were just there to drop off a friend who was a foot passenger. One woman seemed especially sympathetic to me. She invited me to sit in her car and warm up while we discussed the situation. I told her about the massive crowd trying to get tickets and said that the only feasible way to get across was in a car. She went inside to try to find her friend and was overwhelmed by the crowd. Upon returning, she suggested that we fill her car, split the cost, and she could drive us across even though she had other plans for later that day. It was a very generous offer.

Her friend, an older French woman, returned, and we discussed the idea but wanted to try our luck at hitchhiking once more. We went straight to the beginning of the car line and this older woman started waving down every car that came by. Still no luck. We were just about to give up and ask her friend for help, when a large van stopped. They had one empty seat and the French woman pushed me towards the vehicle and said, “Go!”

I went. The two men in the car were Hungarian, and were heading back home after a few months of working in the UK. We drove into the ferry port only to discover that they did not have a ticket and had no idea where they were going. So we returned to the ticket office and I helped them get a ticket on the only ferry line that I knew had no queue, which also happened to be the one that went closest to Belgium.

Now armed with our ticket, we boarded the ferry and it left right on time. The trip was surprising smooth. After crossing the channel, the Hungarians were heading towards Austria to meet up with one of the men’s sister. At first they said they were passing through Brussels, which was very convenient for me, but later they changed their minds and thought it would be faster to turn off the main road and just head south. I didn’t really want to be stranded in any random town, and so I checked their maps and suggested that continuing through Brussels would be the most direct route to Austria (which is a debatable point…). I told them that I didn’t want to inconvenience them, though, but they insisted on continuing to Brussels anyways.

We arrived in the city and I had no idea where to get dropped off. I was meeting my friend at the North train station, but that’s all I knew. So I stayed in the car for as long as I could until we got to what looked like a central, populated area. The Hungarians pulled over and let me out. I offered to pay for some of the gas/ferry ride, but they said that was not necessary and wished me a Merry Christmas. I could not have been luckier.

I asked a man on the street where the North train station was, and it turns out that they unknowingly dropped me about 1/4 of a mile away from the station. For once, my travel luck seemed to be back. I finally made it to Belgium, and I was still in time to see snow on the ground (a rare occurrence for the country) before it melted.

I think it would have been easier to make this trip in Africa rather than in Europe. Africa is prepared to handle crazy, unexpected, and dysfunctional situations. They don’t depend on electricity to run their ticketing systems. They don’t limit the number of passengers based on tickets but rather stuff people into mini-buses and buses until they pop. And so if the train goes down in Africa, they will break every law but still get people to their destinations. Europe, on the other hand, left people stranded.

The only technique that worked to get me out of London was to treat this trip like I was still traveling in Africa.

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