Narratives From A Serial Hitchhiker

Reflecting on the good, the bad, and the ugly…

Over the years, I have done my fair share of hitchhiking. While I have been advised time and time again by friends and family against it, I have on multiple occasions been assisted by strangers that have given me a lift towards various destinations across the globe. Hitchhiking has always been a spontaneous and definitely not wise decision of mine, and although I am not recommending it, I have had some incredibly wonderful experiences hitchhiking that have introduced me to close friends, shown me true kindness in people, and has made my traveling adventures unforgettable.

Here are a few of my most memorable hitchhiking experiences.

One way in which I love to travel is the kind of adventure where I make no plans whatsoever. This means I do not know my plans for the day, much less where I will be sleeping that night. Traveling in this way is a true test to my flexibility, and teaches me to go with the flow, embrace situations and keep a positive attitude in stressful situations.

It was a beautiful July day on the island of Nusa Penida, Indonesia in 2017 when I was traveling in precisely this kind of carefree way that I found myself hitchhiking.

My younger sister and I were having the adventure of a lifetime, island hopping off the shore of Bali, speaking with locals in town each afternoon to help us find places to stay the night. Hearing from other travelers and locals that the island of Nusa Lembongan was worth experiencing, we walked to the docks and arranged with a fisherman to transport us between the islands.

Upon our arrival at the docks on Nusa Lembongan, we were surprised to find that the docks were a few miles from the city center that we had been advised to find a place to spend the night in. Taxis there were quoting us upwards of fifty US dollars, and so we decided we would walk there to save the money. We had not walked more than a mile when we decided to try hitchhiking along the main road.

Arriving on Nusa Lembongan.
Arriving on Nusa Lembongan. Photo: Zoe Zaleski

A kind man driving a pick up truck filled with bags of rice pulled over next to us, and asked us where we were headed. We told him the city center, and he informed us that he was driving there as well to deliver his rice. He had no space in his truck, so he told us that if we could fit, we were welcome to climb in the back of his truck and sit on top of his bags of rice. He asked us if we had just arrived to Nusa Lembongan, and when we told him that we had, he told us he was delighted to be the first to welcome us to his island, and that he would help us find a place to stay for the evening.

His rice delivery was at the beginning of the town, however he drove us further, stayed with us, and spoke with locals to find the best-priced accommodation for us for the evening. He then welcomed us to his island once more, and was on his way. While I know that hitchhiking can be extremely risky and have been in unsafe situations before, this man and his selfless kindness has stayed with me every day since, and encourages me to put out the same level of trust and kindness that I received.

This article is not just an ode to hitchhiking, as every great hitchhiking story comes one just equally as bad. On that same trip a few weeks after my time on Nusa Lembongan, I found myself up a mountain on the Northern part of Bali above Lake Beratan. My sister and I had to make our way to Ubud by that evening, which was just over three hours of driving. We had originally intended to taxi to Ubud for the long drive, but were surprised to find that no taxis ventured up the mountain to where we had stayed. The woman who had housed us the night before helped us flag down a driver heading past Ubud and communicated that we needed a lift. He offered to take us, and off we went.

Everything seemed perfectly normal at first, however about thirty minutes into the drive, the driver turned around and took a picture of my sister and myself. When we asked him why he took a picture of us, he responded that his wife wanted to know who he was driving, as he had texted her that he had picked up hitchhikers. While this was a fine response, I was immediately put on alert and paid closer attention to what he was doing on his phone at stop signs and red lights.

It was then that I noticed he had sent the picture of my sister and I in a large group chat that was receiving many responses since he had sent it. I alerted my sister and we agreed that this was an uncomfortable situation that made us feel unsafe. To play devil’s advocate, this could have been nothing more than a group chat with friends laughing about the two Americans that had wound up hitchhiking on the top of a mountain. However, we felt that given the circumstances, the risks outweighed the rewards, and so as we passed through a small town we asked him to pull over.

He was not thrilled to be dropping us out of the car and insisted on taking us all the way to our destination, but we were firm that we did not want to continue our journey by hitchhiking. We waited inside a strip mall, called the official taxi service on Bali, and made our way to Ubud that way.

Trusting your gut is beyond important when hitchhiking. I do believe we made the right decision to get out of the car when we did, and urge anyone that finds themselves hitchhiking in the future to stay diligent and aware, and to trust their intuition explicitly.

A year later, I was backpacking in Denali National Park, Alaska with two friends. Denali is an absolute dream, with miles and miles of off road nature to be explored. The beauty of the park is that there is a ninety mile section that cannot be driven by tourists; vehicles can drive into the park for about twenty miles, but after that the road is restricted to a bus that comes every couple of hours and transports people with permits into and out of the park. This keeps Denali relatively waste-free, while minimizing noise-pollution and keeping the surroundings pristine and wonderful.

Hitchhiking in Denali National Park, Alaska.
Hitchhiking in Denali National Park, Alaska. Photo: Zoe Zaleski

My friends and I had just reached the road after an amazing time backpacking in the wilderness when we saw the bus disappear out of eyesight ahead of us on the road. We were stuck on the side of the road for a few hours until the next one!

We had popped out in the area where other cars could drive, and as a joke, one of my friends stuck their thumb out. A car pulled over and two girls offered to lift us back to the Information center 10 miles out. We piled into their five-seater with all of our backpacking backpacks, and hauled everything out of the park. The two girls that picked us up explained that they had just arrived after driving all the way from Wyoming, through Canada and across the border back into Alaska to reach their final destination of Denali. They were so friendly and wonderful, and completely went out of their way to help us out. Hitchhiking can be a really great way to get to know people and hear their stories, especially while stuck in a vehicle together for who knows how long.

My most recent hitchhiking experience was as recent as a week ago, after a rescheduled and cancelled flight resulted in my being stuck in Botswana while I was supposed to be in Zimbabwe during a week-long vacation from my studies in Cape Town, South Africa. It is in high-stress situations such as this one when it is crucial to maintain a positive attitude and be flexible as plans crumble around you. With nowhere to stay for the night and no way back across the border into Zimbabwe, I was most definitely freaking out.

Catching a ride across the border from Bostwana to Zimbabwe.
Catching a ride across the border from Bostwana to Zimbabwe. Photo: Zoe Zaleski

It seemed as though everything that could go wrong already had. With the help from incredibly generous and kind people, we were able to get driven by a number of wonderful strangers to accommodation for the night and a ride back across the border into Zimbabwe. Hitchhiking is scary, and I would only recommend it in dire situations, however in moments of need over the years I have been met with so much generosity and unequivocal kindness that I will never forget. Putting positive energy out into the world will be met in the same kindness eventually, and my adventures hitchhiking have shown me this in more ways than one.

While I have had overwhelmingly positive experiences, the realities of hitchhiking are that it is an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous way of getting around. If you have the means, utilizing a transportation app such as Uber or hiring a taxi are more secure however sometimes costly ways of getting between destinations. If you are on a budget, try finding public transportation along well-traveled routes. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to get someplace and your only option for getting there is hitchhiking, be safe about it! Stay alert and aware, and if you at any point feel unsafe or uncomfortable, have them stop the car, and get out.

Hitchhiking can be a fun and exciting adventure, and has led to many wonderful and unforgettable experiences for me. Remember to keep an open mind, try to stay calm and positive, and happy travels.

Zoe traveled around Indonesia for a month, was in Alaska for two weeks, and is currently living in South Africa, where she has been for three and a half months.

Zoe Zaleski

Zoe has been an avid traveler her whole life. She grew up in California, has lived in Spain, and is currently living in South Africa. Zoe has traveled to over twenty countries, and does not plan on stopping any time soon. She loves being outdoors, and her passions include photography, diving, backpacking, and rock climbing.

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