Joshua Kettlewell | Projects

Joshua Kettlewell

Ph.D Student,
Singapore University
of Technology and Design

BUMMIT

Running the worlds largest hitch-hiking group

Can you remember your introductory address at university, the speech the Dean and the student president give to all of the new students? I can - which I believe is probably a rare thing. I only remember it in part but it had a great affect on me - and the rest of my life.

And to think... I was almost to hungover to go...

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The address was given by the current student union president, who I remember being refered to as 'Tall Tom' - reaching what looked like 6ft 5. He spoke a little about how univeisty is the time to try new things, embrace challenges, and to 'say yes to new experiences'.
But then he gave an example about a time he joined a small hitch-hiking club to go to eastern Europe and during a cold night, without any cash in his pocket, was forced to hide from border patrol in the back of his lifts van as they crossed the border Lithuanian border from Belarus. The name of the club was Bummit.
My immediate thought was "That sounds fun. In fact that sound more than just fun... That sounds like a story. ".

After the talk I forgot all about the hitch-hiking club, and continued to enjoy the first week of university and initiation into the physics society (which almost exclusively envolved binge drinking). Several weeks later, coming back from lectures through the quad, another student approached me (she later turned out to be a committe memember in the hitchinghiking club) asking if I was interested in Hitchhiking to Edinburgh in a short hitch called Baby Bummit. If did I would guaranteed to be able to join the main event travelling across Europe in the spring.

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And that was it! I remember the words about the importance of saying yes to new things and told took a leaflet she was offering. I got up early the next day, dragging a close friend along with me, so we could both get tickets to join the club (Yes tickets ! There were limited places to join the hitch-hiking club as dinners and parties were organised during the travels and through the year in Sheffield).
I hitch-hiked to Edinburgh with about 100 others, waking for a frosty 5am start one weekday in October, and arriving to the bar in Edinburgh at about 6pm that night. People hitch in pairs of threes (ocassionally as a 4, but it makes life muh harder as there are few people who can pick up all 4 of you in one vehicle). Everyone begins from the students union at Sheffield, theres a countdown, then everyone is supposed to meet either at the hostel, resturant or club that the committee has booked for the evening (which one you meet people at depends on how quickly you arrive!). After a great party night I got up and 6am, very much the worse for wear after a night of excessive fermented wheat consumption, to go back to Sheffield in time for an Mathematics exam (which I completely flopped and had to retake a month later). After that I was hooked.

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I went on to travel around Europe with the group, the first trip being to Budapest via Berlin, and then joined the committee, growing the organisation to its largest size yet and raising over 100,000GBP for charity.

I traversed Europe 3 times with the club and also used my new found hitching skills to travel coast to coast across the USA one summer during university. Then a year after leaving the society the world didn't seem that big anymore. So I moved to Singapore.

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How does BUMMIT work?

(From the wiki) Bummit is a student-run hitchhiking society at the University of Sheffield Students' Union, which raises funds for local charities by organizing several annual hitchhiking events, both within the UK and across Europe. It is the world's largest student organised hitchhiking group (and probably the worlds largest hitchhiking society) consisting of approximately 600 people per year, and is run by an elected committee under the umbrella of the university's RAG (Raising and giving) society. The aim is to travel to the chosen destinations without spending any money on transport, solely relying on the kindness and hospitality of strangers. The trip's main destination is known in advance, but the halfway point is usually kept secret until the morning of departure. The wiki page can be found here and the official website is here which has and FAQ section on how the whole things makes money for charity, and how we avoid anyone being murdered.

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In short; in order to come with us on one of the trips, you had to raise a certain amount of money, which we would hand over to charities. We would help you raise the money by organising charity events, licencing to go and shake buckets in the city (note: aggresive bucket shaking is no longer permitted by law now) and methods to help you sqeeze funds out of friends and relatives. You would also pay a ticket price. This ticket gets you insurance for the trip, a 3 course dinner, hostel stay, and club entry at the final destination (and the halfway point for the larger trips). The halfway point was left as a mystery until a few days before the trip, this means you can't make any plans ahead of time by organising lifts! We would also give you some training on how to hitch effectively, a t-shirt and an incredibly warm, and garishly coloured hoodie (which serves to keep you warm and acts as a uniform so potential rides may recognise you are doing some kind of event). There is also a tracker - by which you can send in an SMS message and we update your position to a live map on the site we host. This allows the committee, and any worried parents at home, to see when you are and the route you've travelled. We can also use the same system to send uout message to the all memembers incase anyone is doing something stupid... usually trying to hitch on the motorway...
We also provide you with what we called the Bummit bible, which contains maps and hostel infomation for every city you may be likely to stop in, translations of useful phrases (such as "I'm a student", "Charity hitch-hike" and "Where is the nearest pub"), advice on WHERE to hitch-hike in each country and common problems (theres some notorious junctions which look great on a map to get passing traffic, but are actually a nightmare to get out of) and, most importantly, a Letter from the Dean of the university and student president explaining what the society is and asking for a lift (again, translated into every European language). into every European language. Heres a scan from one from 2009 , the year before I joined, and some other scraps I found from my old PC.

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During my time in the society, I hitchhiked (in Baby events) to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Glasgow, and on larger trips to Budapest (via Berlin), Krakow (via Budapest), and Sofia (via Bratislava). I also stopped at almost every European city between Sheffield and the destinations; one of the perks of hitch-hiking is the route is meandering, with regular stops at major cities. I also slept rough on the cold paved floors of several train stations and outside many service stations. The society taught me how to travel with confidence and that if you can smile and talk to people, usually things will work out OK. It was the best society I've ever joined, or ever heard of.

I also realise that my experience with Bummit isn't unique. I joined as a fresh faced student who had only been to a few rock festivals and school trips, which was about the extent of my travelling with friends. After one year I was volunteering to work at festivals all over the UK with oxfam (I did 5 one summer..), weekends in Eastern Europe with friends, and travelling western Europe with girlfriends. Using only a student loan and some part time jobs. I joined the committee, and took over running the society as the older students graduated and handed down responsibilites. I did my part to keep the group running and try to make improvements, and then handed over my responsibilities when I graduated.

Ever get in trouble?

Surprisingly no. I did have some suspect characters try to get me into their car, but it ever felt wrong me and my friends would never get in. Part of our training was that you are never obligated to take any lift offered to you. Usually this means people being nice but going the wrong way, but sometimes it means wierdos. Also, there are certain realties that have to be addressed, such as the fact girls are much more at risk, so every team much have at least one male, and a male must ALWAYS be the first one in and last one out of any car. Always.
On serveral occasions I did get picked up by the police; but always because they were going that way and were curious what we were doing. I must say British, German and Belgian police are relentlessly friendly. I also found that Austrians had a distinct habit of trying to buy me lunch.

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The worse things that ever happened on the trip, that I can recall are: a guy drunkenly tripped over a stray dog in Bratislava and broke his wrist (insurance covered it), and another guy dislocated his knee playing football in Dresden train station (insurance also covered it). I find people are actually disappointed it isn't more dangerous.

Best memory

Either

  • Finding out The Subways were playing in Budapest when I was there, and seeing them work the crowd into a frenzy.
  • Being in Sofia at the end of my final trip with the group, and having people say they want to join the committee next year. A lot of people have told me Bummit was the best thing they've done at university. It was the best thing I did at university as well.