Hitchhiking in today’s freak-filled world? Not a chance—especially as a woman. Except when hitchhiking in the Cook Islands. As one of the last places on the planet where hitchhiking is still a common practice (or so we heard) among locals and visitors, we had to try it. Where else could we check this off the quirky adventure bucket list?
From the center of Rarotonga, the country’s most “urban” island of 20,000, it was roughly 10 miles to our hotel, Edgewater Resort.
With cars and motor scooters whizzing by, we started walking down the two-lane, sans-sidewalk road and stuck out our thumbs. BAHAHHAA! We couldn’t help but bust out laughing—partly due to feeling awkwardly ridiculous (neither of us had “thumbed it” before) and partly due to being nervous of the unknown that lie ahead.
Here’s how we pictured it going down. Enter harp, dream sequence music…
A driver sees two not-unattractive girls donning sunglasses and festive summery outfits with smiling faces, luscious locks blowing in the wind, and friendly thumbs 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 that smells of coconut-scented sunscreen and salty, ocean air. We discover our driver is a toned, tanned world champion surfer that hangs out in Rarotonga during the off-season. He drops us off, but not before Lindsay scores a date with the handsome hitchhiking hero. It could pass for a scene out of “Blue Crush.”
Part 1: Hippie-Hipsters
Greeting every vehicle that wasn’t a motorbike (most were) with a smile and a thumb, we noticed a repetitive gesture from the drivers. It looked like the gesture you make when shooing away a fly. What did that mean? Were they trying to tell us we were annoying? Or, something else? Time and time again, cars or truck whizzed by—not stopping—greeting us with the same sideways waving motion.
Ten minutes went by. No takers. We began to doubt the source that told us hitchhiking was a common mode of transportation. We were meeting our travel group for a dinner in 30 minutes. We’d never make if we had to walk the whole way back to our hotel.
Lindsay, with an incredulous expression that is all too familiar when I convince her to do something risky, asks, “Are you sure we should be doing this?”
“No, but I don’t see any other option than to keep trying,” I reply.
We had already walked beyond the town’s outskirts and the island has no taxis. The only hope was the public bus that circled the island in both directions every hour. The next bus wasn’t due for another 50 minutes.
Finally, a Nissan Pathfinder pulls over, with a male driver. YES! We did it!
He hops out to open the door. We notice he and his female companion look like the hipster-hippie types and jump in. Couples that smell like sage, patchouli, and coconut wearing Ray Bans and Quicksilver clothing couldn’t possibly be dangerous. Right?
Come to find out, the mid-30s Australian couple ran a tour company on the island. When we asked him 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 gawd.
They drove for roughly three minutes. We exchanged some pleasant conversation before they dropped us off at the turnoff to their home.
Part 2: Grieving Gals
A few minutes later, two older Maori women in a worn out Toyota Corolla pull over. Grandmas offering rides to hitchhikers? We pounce on the ironic opportunity. Inside, it smells like a church potluck. The passenger hands a plate of what looked like large balls of fried dough and asks, “Hungry?” Lindsay flat out refuses. I give 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.
She whispers to me. “Pretend. You don’t know what’s in it! And are you sure that’s a woman?” (The driver did look like a man, I must admit.)
Curious as to why they had a paper plate of donuts in their car, and trying to get Lindsay to believe me that they are both women, I ask, “Are either of you a chef or a baker?”
Both of them break out in adorable, high-pitched giggles (the kind of laugh that’s so gleeful, it’s contagious).
“Oh heaven’s sake, no. We just came from a funeral at church and these are leftovers,” the driver explains. “We’re going to find the single guys now and have fun!” They break out into more giggles. A funeral? Single guys?! Oh boy. I swallow hard and the sweet ball of dough lodges in my throat.
As I’m coughing profusely, Lindsay is apologizing just as profusely. One for their loss and two, on behalf of her asphyxiating co-hitchhiker. She volleys an evil eyeball right back at me that seems to say, “See what being polite does for you??!”
“I told you so,” I whispered back once my choking fit was over. She still didn’t believe me, until the ladies told us they were both widows and their husbands passed a few years ago, so now they just “have fun, island-style.” More giggles.
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.
Part 3: Carousing with Kids
We walk for about a mile. No one stops, looks, or even waves us off. After a stop at LBV, a local coffee shop, for a jolt of energy (and confidence), a van pulls up.
“Do you need some help?”, a Maori woman in her 30s asks.
“Help? No. I mean, yes. We’re trying to get back to our hotel,” says Lindsay sheepishly, giving up on the hitchhiking, and succumbing to the fact that we are going to be very late to the dinner.
“I have to pick up my kids from school, but I can take you part of the way,” she replies.
We slide open the door that reveals a completely stripped down van. No carpet. No seats. Weird, but beggars can’t be choosy.
Sure enough, this stripped down van turns into a school bus, making multiple stops, picking up a kid here and there.
“How many kids do you have?” I ask, trying to mask the incredulous look on my face with a cheesy grin after the fifth kid got in. She laughed and explained some of them were nieces and nephews.
So, there we were—squatting on the van’s metal floor board, trying not to clunk our heads or topple over as we hit potholes, among a bunch of kids that 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.
Once again, I had to remind myself, how could we complain?
Part 4 – Final Four
At this point, the novelty had worn off. We were so done with this adventure—bored of walking and now had sore shoulders (can you believe it?! Hitchhiking is a workout!) from holding our arms out. 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. We’d have a great story to tell the group when we finally made it to dinner…
Just as I was about to bolt across the road to check it out, a truck pulls up.
I was tempted to tell the driver never mind. There was homemade banana booze to sample!? Lindsay saw my hesitation and grabbed my arm, forcing me to get in.
Yet another lady to our rescue. We had a great chat about the island, hitchhiking and her life all the way back to our hotel (and we didn’t even have to bribe her to take us there! She offered.)
She also revealed what the shooing gesture we kept seeing meant. We were on the wrong side of the road. The drivers who shoo-ed us were worried for our safety because we were walking with our backs to the traffic. But, that’s how all the hitchhikers did it in the movies. Didn’t they?
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 the final leg. She cocked her head, trying to understand our strange enthusiasm and said, “No more hitchhiking for you girls, okay?” We agreed and she sped off.
Hitchhiking. Check. We did it.
Would we do it again? Heck, no.
Was it a great way to mix with the locals and experience a tiny slice of island life? Heck, YES!
Was it completely safe? From our experience, totally safe.
Is it the norm, as we were told? Not a chance. We looked liked freaks and didn’t see one other person hitchhiking!
Is it the cheapest way to get around the island, besides walking? Yes, but if you’re in a hurry, it’s the most expensive as far as a time zap.
Our hotel was roughly a 20-minute drive from the center of town; it took us an hour to get there! Big disclaimer: By mistake, we took the long way back. If we had started walking the other way, counter-clockwise or anti-clockwise (as the locals say) instead of clockwise, it was only a 10-minute drive.
However, that extra 50-minutes spent in order to meet some wonderful islander women (and have a doughnut to boot!) while hitchhiking in Cook Islands was so worth it. And for this reason, and this reason alone, we recommend it* as a cool thing to try while in Rarotonga.
Another completely risk-free option to mingle with locals is to do the Rarotongan progressive dinner (in photo above): four stops in four different homes, eating home cooked local specialties (they’ll even share their recipes if you ask) and listening to them sing or play music.
More Good Stuff from our Trip to the Cook Islands
For more travel ideas, visit Cook Island’s official tourism site.
*Caveat: We do NOT recommend hitchhiking in Cook Islands (or anywhere) alone, especially as a women.