We give hitchhiking two thumbs up. (Photo: Lanee Lee and Lindsay Taub/The Voyage Vixens)
By Lanee Lee
Hitchhiking in today’s freak-filled world? Not a chance — especially as a woman. Or so we thought. But when trusted locals in the Cook Islands, near New Zealand, told us that hitchhiking was still somewhat commonplace and — gasp — safe, we decided it was time to check this quirky adventure off the bucket list. (Actually, full disclosure, we’re not really sure this was on our bucket list at all, but hey, when in the Cook Islands!)
Here’s how it went down. We were staying about 10 miles outside the center of Rarotonga, with 20,000 people the country’s most “urban” island, and one afternoon, we decided to do the hitchhiking thing back to our hotel. With cars and motor scooters whizzing by, we started walking down the two-lane, sans-sidewalk road, and stuck out our thumbs.
Thumbin’ it. (Photo: Lanee Lee and Lindsay Taub/The Voyage Vixens)
We couldn’t help but burst out laughing, in part because we felt awkwardly ridiculous (neither of us had “thumbed it” before), and in part because we felt nervous about the unknown. Blame it on our vivid imaginations, but we thought it might go down something like this: A driver sees two not-unattractive girls sporting sunglasses and festive summery outfits with smiling faces, complete with luscious locks blowing in the wind and friendly thumbs floating in the humid air. He (notice what gender we imagined) slams on the breaks and pulls over to be our rescue. We hop in his vintage, Pantone-orange Scout, which smells of coconut-scented sunscreen and salty ocean air. We discover our driver is a toned, tanned world champion surfer who hangs out in Rarotonga during the off-season. He drops us off, but not before Lindsay scores a date with our handsome hitchhiking hero, who may or may not have starred in “Blue Crush.”
So yeah, that didn’t happen. At all. Here’s how it really went down.
The quick version of our hitchhiking experience. (Video: Lanee Lee and Lindsay Taub/The Voyage Vixens)
Ride No. 1: Hippie hipsters
Most vehicles were motorbikes, so we didn’t try to catch a ride from them, obviously. But we quickly noticed that pretty much all of the non-moto drivers made a gesture not unlike the one you make when shooing away a fly when they saw us with our thumbs outstretched. What did that weird fly signal mean? Were they trying to tell us we were annoying?
Ten minutes went by, no takers. We quickly began to doubt the source who told us that hitchhiking was a common mode of transportation. Finally, just as we were about to give up, a Nissan Pathfinder pulls over, with a male driver. YES! We did it!
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He hopped out to open the door. He and his female companion seemed pretty hippied out — they smelled like sage, patchouli, and coconut, and were wearing Ray-Bans and Quicksilver clothing — so we assumed they were likely too chill to be dangerous, and hopped right in.
Come to find out, the mid-30s Australian couple ran a tour company on the island. When we asked the driver if hitchhiking was a thing on Cook Islands, as we had been told, he replied, “Uhhhh. Not really. Some people do it from time to time, but it’s not encouraged.” Huh? Not encouraged? Oh man. Our hippie helpers drove for roughly three minutes before they dropped us off at the turnoff to their home.
Ride No. 2: Grieving gals
On a mission to succeed, we stuck out our thumbs again, and a few minutes later, two older Maori women in a worn-out Toyota Corolla pulled over. Grandmas offering rides to hitchhikers?? We pounced on the ironic opportunity. Inside, it smelled like a church potluck. The passenger handed us a plate of what looked like large balls of fried dough and asked, “Hungry?” Lindsay flat out refused. I gave her an evil eyeball, trying to communicate with her without words: “They’re giving us a ride AND feeding us?! The least we could do is take a bite to be polite.”
One of the Maori women, offering us a homemade treat. (Photo: Lanee Lee and Lindsay Taub/The Voyage Vixens)
Curious as to why they had a paper plate of donuts in their car, I asked, “Are either of you a chef or a baker?” In response, they both proceeded to break out in adorable, high-pitched giggles, the kind of laugh that’s so gleeful, it’s contagious.
“Oh for heaven’s sake, no. We just came from a funeral at church, and these are leftovers,” the driver explained. “We’re going to find the single guys now and have fun!” They broke out into more giggles. A funeral? Single guys?! Oh boy. I swallowed hard — and the sweet ball of dough lodged in my throat.
As I proceeded to cough profusely, Lindsay apologized just as profusely, both for their loss and on behalf of her asphyxiating co-hitchhiker. “I told you so,” I whispered back once my choking fit was over. She still didn’t believe me, until the ladies told us that they were both widows, so now they just “have fun, island-style.” More giggles.
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Not sure if the coughing fit prompted them to pull over or they were at their final destination, but just like that, our time with the ladies came to an end. We thanked them for the funeral food and hopped out.
Ride No. 3: Carousing with kids
After our post-funeral fiasco, we walked for about a mile, but no one stopped, looked, or even waved us off. We decided to stop at a coffee shop for a jolt of energy (and confidence), and soon after that, a van pulled up.
“Do you need some help?” a Maori woman in her 30s asked.
“Help? No. I mean, yes. We’re trying to get back to our hotel,” said Lindsay sheepishly, giving up on the hitchhiking, and succumbing to the fact that we were going to be very late to our dinner that night.
“I have to pick up my kids from school, but I can take you part of the way,” she replied. We slid the door open, only to find a completely stripped-down van. No carpet, no seats, nothing. Weird, but beggars can’t be choosy, we thought.
Before we knew it, our stripped-down van turned into a school bus, making multiple stops, and picking up kids here and there.
The wheels on the (van) go round and round … (Photo: Lanee Lee and Lindsay Taub/The Voyage Vixens)
“How many kids do you have?” I asked, trying to mask the incredulous look on my face with a cheesy grin after the fifth kid got in. She laughed and explained that some of them were nieces and nephews.
So there we were, squatting on the van’s metal floor, trying not to clunk our heads or topple over as we hit potholes, among a bunch of kids who were just staring at us, wondering what the heck we were doing there. We were wondering the same thing: What the heck were we doing there? All this stopping was really cutting into our time. Our dinner was scheduled to start in 10 minutes. But once again, I had to remind myself, How could we complain?
Ride No. 4: Final four
At this point, the novelty had worn off. We were so done with this adventure. We were bored of walking, and now we had sore shoulders, too, from holding our arms out. (Side note: Can you believe it?! Hitchhiking is a workout!) We were ready to throw ourselves in front of anything with wheels, and pay them serious bucks to take us the entire way.
Just then, Lindsay pointed out a sign: “Banana Vodka Tasting.” This was the perfect distraction I needed from the dull task of thumbing one more ride.
Spotted: the perfect fix to take the edge off. (Photo: Lanee Lee and Lindsay Taub/The Voyage Vixens)
Just as I was about to bolt across the road to check it out, a truck pulled up. I was tempted to tell the driver no — there was homemade banana booze to sample! — but Lindsay saw my hesitation and grabbed my arm, forcing me to get in.
It was another lady, and we had a great chat on our ride, talking about the island, hitchhiking, and her life. She also told us what the shooing gesture we kept seeing meant: We were on the wrong side of the road! The drivers who shooed us were worried for our safety because we were walking with our backs to the traffic. Apparently, we did not study the “Hitchhiking for Dummies” book very well.
At the hotel’s driveway, we nearly kissed the lady out of sheer glee and gratitude for taking us home on the final leg of our voyage. She cocked her head, trying to understand our strange enthusiasm and said, “No more hitchhiking for you girls, OK?” We agreed, and she sped off.
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So what did we learn? Well, for one thing, while we had a totally safe experience, it apparently is not the norm in the Cook Islands as we’d thought. That said, it is a great way to mix with the locals and experience a tiny slice of island life. And for this reason, and this reason alone, we recommend it as a cool thing to try while in Rarotonga.