After the Argentine economic collapse in 2001, Juan Villarino realized that he was probably going to be poor for the rest of his life; he tried moving to Belfast and working low-waged jobs, but couldn't get ahead there either, so he decided to become a lifelong, professional hitchhiker, and got very, very good at it.
Villarino achieved fame through his blog and through a Spanish-language bestseller called "Hitchhiking in the Axis of Evil," which documented his amazing travels through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Syria and Iraq. It was an uplifting tale of the kindness of strangers, the essential goodness of humanity, and the practicalities of getting a ride, enlivened with league-tables giving the average pickup times by country (Iraq leads with 7 minutes, Sweden trails at 51).
His fame found him love, after an email-based romance with Laura Lazzarino, an Argentine woman who sent him a fan letter describing the transformative effect his book had on her life after she was devastated by her boss shutting down his shop and stealing her final wages.
Now the two hitch the world together. The New York Times has run a long, engrossing profile by frequent Mother Jones contributor Wes Enzinna, who hitched through sub-Saharan Africa with the pair.
Enzinna gives us a glimpse into the ninja hitcher skills that Villarino acquired or invented, including hitching by a road obstruction that makes drivers slow down, eschewing the use of hats and sunglasses, and relying on a giant, goofy grin and elaborately choreographed hand-gestures to hail rides, in a performance that starts when the car gets into sight and doesn't end until long after the car has gone by, as many rides can be procured from drivers who see the performance's coda in their rear-view mirrors and reconsider their choice to pass you by.
A Yaris hatchback groaned up the road. Villarino's gestures involve a deceptively complex process: After the driver makes eye contact, he pivots his left foot toward the car and subtly changes his hand signal from a thumbs-up to a pointing motion with his index finger in the direction he hopes to go, like the "Walk Like an Egyptian" dance. If the car still passes, Villarino smiles widely, all white teeth and dimples, so the driver might notice him in the rearview mirror and, seeing his genial countenance, decide to reconsider. Sometimes he folds his hands in prayer. It's a performance designed to advance the conversation between hitchhiker and driver, to evolve the communication between strangers toward mutual trust. In reply, drivers make a swirling hand motion to say they're just driving around locally; they point straight ahead to signal they're not going very far; they put a fist into their palms and make a grinding motion to show they're stopping up ahead. "A driver has less than three seconds to make a decision," Villarino said. "And that decision is made in response to unconscious factors and subliminal communication."
Hitchhiking, he believes, is a form of dialogue, not a test of strength or stamina, and he contrasted it to other "extreme" activities like rock climbing or sky diving. "These activities stress independence," he said, "but hitchhiking is about cooperation and dependence."
The World's Best Hitchhiker on the Secrets of His Success [Wes Enzinna/The New York Times]