Recently I was traveling with a new buddy I met online. I'm usually the more rugged of whoever I'm traveling with and with this gal it was a nice change to have someone who travels more hardcore than I do. We had similar styles in budget, transportation, and what was acceptable accommodation (our standards were pretty low!). But one thing that I would not have thought to do on my own or with any of my other current travel partners, is hitchhiking!
Back when I was 30, my boyfriend and I first travel-hitchhiked in Australia from Melbourne to Brisbane (over 1000 miles!). We ended up with a 3-day ride from Marlon who became a fast friend. We had some fun road-trip adventures including a moment when we thought for sure he was going to chop us up into little pieces as we drove down a dirt road to "explore an abandoned house". After actually (and thankfully) exploring an abandoned house, we enjoyed a night in the local pub of a town with population 14, stayed together in a caravan at the Australian version of Nashville and even spent the night in a religious camp. A very successful hitchhike.
Fast forward 18 years. I'm 48 years old in Comoros (a small country off the East coast of Africa) and my travel buddy decides we should hitchhike ("hijack" in her broken English) to our next destination; the tiny town of Itsamia. It didn't take too long for us to get a ride and it was just like what you would see in the movies. We sat in the back of a pickup truck atop 50lb bags of freshly harvested cloves. Not only was the smell of cloves intoxicating, but I felt like a real rugged traveler. Did I show some semblance of "cool" tossing my pack on top of the pile and sitting on the bags trying to act like I wasn't sliding off every time the truck turned?
Then a few weeks later in Tanzania we had just finished a safari in Mikimu National Park and were ultimately heading to Singida (about 450 miles away). The manager of our hotel confirmed that it was without a doubt completely safe to hitchhike even as 2 women. He did tell us, however, that we should take a tuktuk to the other side of town past where the trucks have to pass the authorities as they are not allowed to stop (or maybe even take passengers). So not only for safety reasons, it's a good idea to ask some locals before you hitch!
Since we were on the main trucking route from the port in the capital city of Dar es Salaam to the neighboring country of Zambia, it didn't take us more than a few minutes before a big truck stopped. Without sharing a single word of common language, we had an enjoyable 120 mile ride to the crossroads town of Iringa. The truck went SO SLOWLY up the hills but we had a great view to see all the baobab trees, flowering bushes, roadside onion stands, and even some monkeys on the side of the road.
We shared our candy with him and he bought us cob corn off of a street vendor who ran along side the truck handing the corn high up into the moving truck's window (it was going that slowly! ha ha). The driver grabbed one of the ears with both hands, broke it in half, and gave us each a piece. Wanting to wipe my corn down with hand sanitizer, we politely dug in. We also learned that his cargo was a load of manure. A slow ride in a shit truck. This is living. And it was! He dropped us at a main intersection where we got some roadside food (the ubiquitous chipsie maiai) and headed to the bus station.
The next bus was not going to leave for another 9 hours. Okay, looks like more hijacking for us! We found the main road and tried flagging down cars. One guy stopped and told me that we would have better luck if we were at the edge of this (rather large) town. I asked him if he'd drive us there and he agreed.
Tried and tried and tried for quite a while in our new spot with no luck. This was not looking good. Nobody even stopped. Suddenly the guy was back, pulled over just up the road and yelling at us to come quickly - he found us a ride! What? We jumped in, trying to not break his front seat any more than it already was, and we sped off down the road.
He stopped behind a very nice sedan on the shoulder. "Hurry, hurry" he says, so we run up to the car. It had dark tinted windows and little flags on the hood - government! We hopped in the back seat and got a 3 1/2 hour ride from a member of parliament!! Can you image that ever happening in the States?! She was a lovely woman who spoke good English and who even took the effort to find us a hostel at our destination.
From a shit truck to leather seats and air-conditioning. Such is my story of hitchhiking in Africa. :)
Moral of this story: 1) Always ask if it's safe. 2) You never know what adventure this mode of transportation might bring!
UPDATE 2018: Me and my usual travel pal got a bit stranded in part of El Salvador earlier this year so we flagged down a work truck on its way back from the field. We stood up in the back of the truck with the rest of the workers while one guy showed me his chicken-in-a-bag he planned on eating for dinner and a rather large pig licked my friend's shoes. Success! LOL