When I was on the road, it was easy to forget that in the real world, people—especially young, Asian-Australian women—don’t hitchhike.
By
Sharona Lin

11 May 2018 - 9:06 AM  UPDATED 12 May 2018 - 9:10 AM

It’s a foggy morning in the small town of Picton, New Zealand, and I’m about ready to give up. I’ve spent the last ten minutes awkwardly sticking my thumb out at passing cars, feeling like an imposter only pretending to be adventurous, mentally counting each car as a tiny, stinging rejection. 

“I think that car stopped for you,” a voice says. I turn around, startled, to see a young man gesturing behind me to a car that has indeed stopped. The woman in the passenger seat sticks her head out the window, slightly amused that I haven’t noticed them. 

“Thanks,” I blurt at the guy, jogging up to the car and smiling awkwardly. Where am I going? Anyplace south of here, I answer. Blenheim? Sure; I have no plans – exciting but also terrifying. I throw my bags in the back and jump into the car. I’d done it. I was hitchhiking. 

I’ve always wanted to travel by myself. It took me 24 years to finally get around to it, and when I finally did, I decided to not just travel solo, but hitchhike. My best friend says it’s typical of me. I mention wanting to do something offhand—starting a Masters, getting a dog, hitchhiking across another country—and the next minute, I’m doing it. 

 I compare hitchhiking to skydiving: if something goes wrong, it has the potential to go terribly wrong. But those chances are miniscule, and I was ready to take a chance.

It’s not like I dreamed of being Jack Kerouac as a kid; I’d never thought of hitchhiking as a real option. But in my travel research, I came across stories from people who had had a great time hitchhiking New Zealand and swore it was safe.

I like my life, but I felt trapped in a bubble—work, gym, sleep—and hitchhiking was as far from that as possible. I wanted to do something daring and different that no one else I knew had done. I wanted to take a calculated risk, and hitchhiking in New Zealand was it.

The research certainly didn’t prepare me for the reality of hitchhiking, but two weeks after that awkward start in Picton, I had hitchhiked over 1500km around New Zealand’s South Island, through gorgeous coastal towns, winding mountain passes, the rainy West Coast, and eventually to the beautiful resort town of Queenstown.

I rode in 19 strangers’ cars, with bogans, retirees and fellow tourists. I’d argued with a French teenager named Jack about the merits of The Last Jedi and hiked with Cameron, an ex-Mormon from the US. I felt free, really free. 

When I was on the road, it was easy to forget that in the real world, people—especially young, Asian-Australian women like me—don’t hitchhike.

When I was on the road, it was easy to forget that in the real world, people—especially young, Asian-Australian women like me—don’t hitchhike.

 

The world isn’t safe enough to trust strangers, we’re told. That goes for everyone, but especially for women and minorities. Like everyone, I’ve read horror stories and news articles about tourists who were too trusting, women who were assaulted and killed while travelling. People invariably react with a variation on: “That’s so adventurous/brave/foolish—especially for a girl.” It’s sort of flattering to hear, but statistically, women are far more likely to be hurt by someone they know. On that logic, the choice to jump into a stranger’s car is actually relatively safe. I compare hitchhiking to skydiving: if something goes wrong, it has the potential to go terribly wrong. But those chances are miniscule, and I was ready to take a chance.

I didn’t tell my parents that I was going to hitchhike. I knew they would be angry, and I didn’t want them to worry. Mostly, selfishly, I didn’t want to feel guilty while travelling. My parents are relatively liberal—that, and I think they gave up on me sometime around the time I got my fourth tattoo—but my mum was particularly stern when I eventually confessed. “Don’t do hitchhiking in the future,” she messaged me. I can’t sway her with my beautiful stories of trusting in strangers; “It is not safe, you don’t know what happens next time.” 

But one of my most memorable encounters was with a woman in her fifties in a restaurant in Wellington. Laura gives me her address and says I can stay with her family if and when I come back. “I’m so inspired by you,” she says, perhaps extra effusive because of the wine. “I never traveled by myself when I was younger, I don’t think I could have done it,” she confesses. I’m sure you could’ve, and there’s still time, I tell her. She shrugs and smiles, suddenly melancholy: “Keep travelling.” I tell her I will.