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My first time hitchhiking in India | Ummi Goes Where?

My First Hitchhiking Experience in India on a Tractor

Hitchhiking is the act of asking strangers for free rides in their vehicles to get to your destination.

This is usually done by standing on the roadside and showing the universal hand signal, i.e. sticking your thumb out, either pointing upward or in the direction of travel. Some hitchhikers may also carry handwritten cardboard signs denoting their intended destinations.

Thumbing
Credit: Drozd / Wikimedia Commons

While hitchhiking was common practice in the past, these days it has declined and is often perceived as dangerous for both the hitchhikers and drivers. Some countries, like Singapore, have outright banned it.

However, there are still many places in the world where hitchhiking is legal and popular, such as in poorer nations, where many people do not own cars and public transports are infrequent. Cuba has made it mandatory for government vehicles to pick up hitchhikers if there is space in the car.

And in many countries in Europe, such as the Netherlands, Poland, and Israel, there are even designated waiting locations for hitchhikers.

Why Do People Hitchhike?

There are various reasons why people hitchhike and why drivers pick them up.

Some people hitchhike because they have no other choice. Hitchhiking is indeed the cheapest way to travel (in some countries, it may be customary to pay for rides, but in most parts of the world, it’s free).

And some people choose to hitchhike because:

  • It’s a great way to meet people. Making friends with locals is one of the best ways to make your travels more meaningful. You’ll get a different perspective on the place and gain a better insight into the culture, politics, etc. You’ll also get to practice the language.
Sharing a car ride
Credit: Ismail Ilgun / Wikimedia Commons
  • It helps boost self-confidence. Let’s face it — it takes a certain level of courage to get into a stranger’s car. Overcoming your fear and people’s prejudices makes you stronger mentally, and if you succeed, you will feel like nothing is impossible.
  • It provides an element of surprise. Some people live off the thrill of the unknown. When you hitchhike, you never know what interesting character you’re going to meet, when you will arrive, or where you will end up. There’s so much possibility of adventure.

Is Hitchhiking Dangerous?

Being part of the backpacking community has introduced me to so many hardcore independent travelers who swear by hitchhiking as their favorite mode of transportation.

And I have massive respect for them, especially women who hitchhike solo, like

  1. Iris from the Netherlands, who has hitchhiked solo through several continents,
  2. Alyssa from Canada, who, as of 2012, has hitchhiked for over 50,000 kilometres, with her last known location in Afghanistan, and
  3. See, a fellow Malaysian solo traveler who hitchhiked through 7 countries in the span of 7 months.
Hitchhiking in Iran
Credit: Sait Can Kutsal

However, hitchhikers — especially female ones — are often judged harshly and even blamed if anything bad were to happen to them because they ‘brought it upon themselves’. While it’s true that there are risks involved (just like everything else in life), statistics show that hitchhiking is not as dangerous as most people think.

The most important thing is to never let your guard down and always be prepared for worst-case scenarios.

My Earlier Attempt at Hitchhiking

The first time I attempted hitchhiking was in Australia in 2012. I was broke as hell and was trying to hitch a ride from Melbourne airport to the city center.

I didn’t have a cardboard with me on which to write my destination, so I simply stood on the roadside and very self-consciously stuck out my thumb. After two cars passed by without stopping, I gave up. That was too much rejection for me to handle in one day.

In the end, I walked back to the airport and took a bus.

Hitchhiking
Nope, not really trying to hitch a ride. Just posing for the camera.

After that incident, I gave hitchhiking a wide berth. Apart from the obvious safety concerns, I was also extremely embarrassed about standing alone on the roadside, facing the oncoming traffic.

And then there was also the problem of not knowing what to do and how to behave if I did get a ride. What should I talk about? Where do I look? What if the driver doesn’t speak my language? What if he/she finds me boring?

For some reason, I always feel super awkward being in an enclosed space with another person, even if it’s a close friend — which is why I avoid going on road trips or taking the elevator if I can help it.

me and a friend on a road trip in New Zealand
An awkward road trip in New Zealand in 2012.

Being a passenger in anybody’s car — especially if I’m the only passenger — makes me feel like it’s my responsibility to keep the driver entertained in return for giving me a lift. Now that’s just something that I don’t excel at.

So, although I was still intrigued by the idea of hitching rides with strangers, I let my social anxiety get the better of me.

My First Successful Hitchhiking Experience

Several Years Later…

Of all the places that I could think of for my next hitchhiking attempt, I never thought it would be India. Because let’s be honest — although I have met many kind souls in this South Asian country, we can’t ignore the fact that it’s not the safest place for solo women to travel, let alone hitchhike.

But that was where I had my first successful hitchhiking experience, albeit unintentionally (because I didn’t actually stick out my thumb).

I was going to Auroville from Chennai, and the bus driver had dropped me off at a junction, where I had to walk the rest of the way.

On the bus from Chennai to Auroville
On the bus from Chennai to Auroville.

It was only around 4 kilometres, so I didn’t really wait around for a ride, as I figured it might actually be easier and faster if I just walked. So, walk I did — only slowing down to look behind me whenever a car was coming.

Less than a kilometre later, a tractor slowed to a stop ahead of me. The driver turned around and asked me if I was going to Auroville.

I shouted, “YES!”, and he motioned me to hop on.

I was practically jumping for joy. Not only was I hitchhiking for the first time, I was doing it in India, and on a tractor! The driver introduced himself as Kannan. It was not the most comfortable ride — I had to hold on to his seat to keep my balance, what’s with my backpack and scarf and all — but boy, was it fun!

Hitchhiking in India
Hitchhiking for the first time!
Tractor hitchhiking India
My cool ride.

I stayed in Auroville for one night, where I learned more about this unusual place. If you’ve never heard of it before, Auroville is a ‘universal town’ in Chennai, where people from various countries live together in a cashless, self-sustaining society. Religions, political views, and nationalities do not play a role here.

Read: Auroville, India – What It’s Like to Visit this Experimental Utopia

The next day, I walked on the same road to go back to the highway and catch a bus to Pondicherry. It was baking hot. I was hoping to bump into Kannan again, but luck didn’t seem to be on my side that day. None of the cars stopped.

However, after about two kilometres, when the traffic had thinned out a little, a motorcyclist passed by. A few minutes later, he was back, and asked me where I was going. I said Pondicherry, and he said he was going the same way.

Hitchhiking in India
With Tamil – the motorcyclist who gave me a lift.

To this day, I’m still amazed to think that he had turned around just to give me a ride. He didn’t simply drop me off at the highway; instead, he drove me all the way to Pondicherry and dropped me right in front of my hostel.

To get there, we had got lost, and gone back and forth a few times before we finally found the place. And yet, the motorcyclist, who introduced himself as Tamil, refused any payment. He even offered to take me sightseeing that day, all free of charge, which I unfortunately had to decline.

What an amazing person. What an amazing experience.

Now, I’m beginning to see what hitchhikers mean when they rave about hitchhiking.

How to Hitchhike Like a Pro

I’m not a pro hitchhiker myself, having only inadvertently scored rides twice. And being a shy and timid person, I don’t think hitchhiking will ever be my favorite way to travel. But I may give it another try in the future, just as a personal challenge.

Hitchhiking in Canada
Credit: Benoit Rochon / Wikimedia Commons

These are some tips I found on the internet on how to hitchhike like a pro:

  • Find out where you can hitchhike. In some places/countries, it is illegal and can get you arrested, so make sure you check beforehand.
  • Wait near the city outskirts. Drivers in the city center are often going in all directions and mostly for short distances. You should wait near the edge of the city just before the highways.
  • Make a large clear sign of your destination. This is to help filter out drivers who are not heading in that direction, and also confirm to the ones who might otherwise be unsure if they could help you.
  • Look presentable. Nobody will be too eager to pick you up if you look like you haven’t showered for a week, or worse, if you look like an escaped convict.
  • Pack light. The sight of multiple backpacks plus the entire content of your house might deter drivers from picking you up.
  • Stand in a convenient and safe place for vehicles to see you and pull over. You may be doing everything right, but if you wait in the wrong location, cars may not be able to see or stop for you.
  • Wait near slow-moving traffic. On roads where cars are moving too fast, the drivers may not have enough time to decide to stop for you.
  • Ask people at gas stations. Sometimes, the reason drivers don’t pick up hitchhikers is because it feels too random and dangerous. Approaching people at gas stations gives you more time to establish a connection and convince them you’re not a serial killer.
  • Make strong eye contact with passing drivers. This also helps you create a connection and makes the drivers feel like you’re specifically asking them for help.
  • Smile! Drivers usually pick up hitchhikers because they want company and some pleasant chit chat. So, don’t look like a sourpuss.
  • Maintain a positive attitude. Hitchhiking is a game of chance. Things may not always go your way. It’s important to stay positive and not lose faith.
  • Be prepared to walk. It’s called ‘hitchhiking’ for a reason: you’ll get a ride if you’re lucky, otherwise, you hike.
  • Don’t forget to bring the essentials, like a raincoat, a jacket for cold weather, and enough food and water.

Safety Tips for Female Hitchhikers

As female travelers (and as women in general), there’s always that added risk of sexual advances or aggression, especially when most of the drivers who will stop for us are likely to be men. Being in a moving vehicle that you have absolutely no control over can make you feel powerless.

While I neither encourage nor discourage you from hitchhiking, here are some tips to consider if you ever decide to try it:

Girl hitchhiking
Credit: Roger McLassus / Wikimedia Commons
  • Avoid hitchhiking in unsafe places/countries. This is subjective, but I wouldn’t recommend hitchhiking in countries that are known to have high crime rates or cases involving violence against women.
  • Don’t hitchhike at night. In many places, you may be mistaken for a sex worker looking for work.
  • For the same reason, don’t wear revealing clothes.
  • If possible, hitchhike with another person.
  • Look and act confident. Bad people often look for easy prey, not someone who will fight back.
  • Choose your ride wisely. If a driver looks drunk or stoned, don’t get in! It’s safer to go with a single female driver, a couple, or a family, instead of lone male drivers or a car with several men. However, a lot of female hitchhikers do ride with male drivers. Trust your instincts on this one.
  • Don’t be afraid to turn down a ride if something feels off. Remember, you’re not obligated to accept a ride. You can make up some simple excuses or pretend that you’re heading to a different destination than theirs.
  • Take note of the car license plate number, its make, model, and color before you get in. Snap a photo of the car and send all of this information to a friend. You can let the driver know that you’re texting a friend their car plate number as a safety precaution.
Volkswagen
Credit: Evan Kirby / Wikimedia Commons
  • Sit in the front passenger seat if you can. Rear doors often have childproof locks on them, which stops you from opening the door from inside. If you have to sit in the back, check that the child lock is deactivated before you close the door.
  • Keep your backpack with you or within easy reach, in case you need to make a quick escape. At least, have some of your valuables with you — in or under your clothes — especially your travel documents. Keep them in different places, so that if you lose one, you don’t lose them all.
  • Always stay alert — never fall asleep in someone’s car, so don’t hitchhike when you’re tired (or tipsy!). Otherwise, you may not notice when the driver suddenly takes a different route.
  • Know where you’re going. Have a rough idea of the highways and roads leading to your destination, so that you know the driver is not making a surprise detour.
  • Consider carrying pepper spray or something similar for self protection.
  • Have some conversation topics ready. Talking about your family and asking questions about theirs will turn you into a regular person in their eyes. They will be less likely to assault you if they feel like they know your family personally, and you know theirs.
  • If you feel unsafe during a ride, try to get out of the vehicle at the safest opportunity. Ask to be let off early or fake motion sickness.
  • In a worst-case scenario, you can grab the handbrake or steering wheel to cause a minor accident. But only do this if you truly believe your life is in danger, as even small accidents can be fatal.
Also, check out this article by Ana Bakran for more safety tips for solo female hitchhikers.

Have you ever hitchhiked during your travels? Is it something you would try? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Posted in India, Travel Tips

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44 Comments

  1. Tekkaus

    I doubt I will ever do this. Perhaps I have watched too many movies and the horror that come with it. Once you are unlucky that’s when all hell break loose. Still I applaud you for your adventures. 😀

    • ummi

      You’ve got a point there, Tekkaus. I actually did this only a few days after I almost got kidnapped in a taxi in Jaipur. So, it seems like I never learn from experience. Either I’m very brave or very stupid 🤣

        • ummi

          Thanks Edahyu. I agree, it’s not for everyone. And if you don’t feel it’s for you, I hope you’ll never need to do it. I personally would love to give it a few more tries. Wish me luck!

    • ummi

      It’s true — hitchhiking doesn’t come without risks, especially for women traveling alone. Maybe I should be glad I never watched those movies.

  2. Lea Razali

    I used to do it with my best friend while in boarding school. Imagine with public transport that has to wait for hours, we were lucky when a humble couple from Singapore took us to johor bahru by their car…but I dont think I will repeat that again, haha !

    • ummi

      Oh, you started early, Lea! You’re so lucky to have met the wonderful couple. Glad that it turned out well for you and your friend. 🙂

  3. Fadima Mooneira

    Wow!!!!!!!! What an experienced! I never tried hitchhiking before. I wonder if hitchhiking is allowed in South Korea? 🤔🤔🤔 if yes, I wanna try hitchhiking when I visit South Korea again. I wanna hitchhike handsome oppas. Who know I might get Kim Seon Ho. Hehehe. Thank you for sharing your experience with me. This is a totally cool post.

    • ummi

      Thank you so much, Fadima! Ya, I wonder too if hitchhiking is allowed in South Korea. If it is, I hope you will find some handsome oppas to ride with!

  4. Dikbee

    Wah.. Salute la dengan ummi. Kalau i mmg takde keberanian nak tahan kereta. Tp i pernah nampak ada tourist tahan kereta kat highway masa balik kpg. Hope ada la yg tumpangkan mereka 😅

    • ummi

      Thanks, Dikbee. Hopefully ada la yang tumpangkan tourist2 tu. Sebab konsep hitchhiking ni masih agak asing lagi di negara kita. Saya ada baca artikel seorang hitchhiker wanita solo ni, dia kata pengalaman dia hitchhiking di Malaysia adalah yang paling tak best, especially yang melibatkan pemandu lelaki. Hmm.

    • ummi

      Thank you, kak Siti! Ok, saya cuba jaga diri. Semoga akak pun berkesempatan untuk melawat India suatu hari nanti. Memang banyak tempat menarik.

    • ummi

      So do I, Grace. And after having had several bad experiences with bus drivers and taxi drivers, I’m even more apprehensive about hitchhiking. Then again, it’s hard to draw the line between taking care of yourself and having faith in humanity. Because I have been surprised time and again by the kindness of strangers.

  5. Angela

    How brave of you to attempt hitchhiking. I know it used to be very popular in the 60’s and 70’s infact the easiest way to get around but I’d be terrified to try it thinking I would be attacked and never seen again.

    • ummi

      Oh, Angela, I did have the same thoughts actually. Call me paranoid but those are real possibilities. I think it’s wise to be prepared for the worst — safety should always be our priority especially when traveling alone. Only that this time around, I took the chance and was glad that I did. 🙂

  6. Retnawati Mohd Yusof

    Wow really respect n salute kat u,
    especially when u’re travelling ALONE.
    Kita pun belum yakin nak travel sengsorang, masih perlukan at least sorang teman…
    Pape pun like to read ur adventure stories here… keep it up!!!

  7. Bhushavali N

    Wait what!!! Wow!!! First of all, welcome to our Incredible India that too my own hometown, Chennai. I too have a massive respect for women who hitchhike solo! I really don’t have the guts to do that. I’m heading over to read Alyssa’s blog. I’m so fascinated.
    You had me laughing at “Nobody will be too eager to pick you up if you look like you haven’t showered for a week, or worse, if you look like an escaped convict.” True that!
    I might try hitch hiking when I’m traveling solo next. You have inspired me!

    • ummi

      Thanks, Bhushavali! Glad to have inspired you. I hope you will find the tips useful when you do go on your first hitchhiking trip. Just please, please, please remember to keep safety as your main priority in whatever you do. 😀

  8. Danik the Explorer

    I love reading this post and your experiences on the road. I only done hitchiking a few times in Portugal, Scotland and Slovakia and never had a problem. Now I got children, would I do it? Probably not. Unless we were in a desperate situation. 🙂 But it was good to know India it is still possible and you had no problems,

    • ummi

      Yup, I’m glad I didn’t encounter any problems in India, and it’s good to know that hitchhiking safely is still possible in this day and age. I think it’s probably a good call not to hitchhike with children unless you’re in a desperate situation. 🙂

  9. Catherine Kaiser

    So lucky you, girl! That yea, among the many places that you could possibly get a hitchhike, was in India. As we all know, there were so many horror stories about hitchhiking, especially in some places that were probably unsafe for women solo travelers, like India. Of course, I’m not saying that women shouldn’t travel there, just have to take precautions and extra careful. Though, you got a good experience. Truly, there are lots and lots of beautiful souls around the world! You’ve got some good tips for hitchhikers, too!

    • ummi

      Thank you, Catherine! I was so lucky to have met these beautiful souls and had a good experience. But you’re right — we should always take precautions and be extra careful.

  10. Ambica Gulati

    You are very brave. Even as a native, I have never dared to hitchike in India. Also, I wasn’t aware Cuba has made it a mandate for government vehicles to pick hitchikers. That is a nice thought. I wish we had more of these laws in place to help solo travellers. Just thought to point out, Auroville isn’t a part of Chennai. It’s a separate township and certainly the East Coast road is beautiful.

    • ummi

      Ah, I must have confused Chennai with Tamil Nadu. Thank you for pointing that out, Ambica. I never imagined that I would hitchhike in India either, especially after a bad experiences I had with an Ola driver just the week before. Anyway, glad that everything went well in the end.

  11. Marielle

    Love this! I’ve hitchhiked here in the French Alps but it’s so brave of you to do it elsewhere. Your tips are so on point. And I do agree that hitchhiking is a great way to meet new people. I definitely have met some cool people by hitchhiking and it’s an experience to remember! Bravo to you!

    • ummi

      Ooohhh lucky you! I’d love to do more of it, especially in countries that are mostly safe for solo female hitchhikers, but I think I’d be too self conscious to. And not knowing the language might be a problem too. Anyway, thank you, Marielle. And I hope you will have more adventures in the future!

  12. Blair Villanueva

    I admire your dedication and braveness in choosing to hitchhike as your way to travel. I guess I am too pampered travel that I would be cranky to do hitch-hiking (expect disaster happened and no other choice). But I wouldn’t mind stopping by someone who needs a ride.
    No matter how comfortable you think is hitch-hiking, always stay safe.

    • ummi

      Thank you, Blair. Safety is always my topmost priority. I don’t think I’ll ever make hitchhiking my main mode of transportation. I’m much too shy and timid for that. Haha. But it’s great that you wouldn’t mind picking up hitchhikers. 🙂

  13. Paul Healy

    Sounds pretty adventurous to me, not sure I’d be up for hitchhiking. Maybe in somewhere, I knew pretty well but in an unknown destination, I think I’d take paid transport. Maybe I”ll have to try it one day, see how i go.

  14. Medha Verma

    I am glad to know that you had a good experience while hitch hiking in India. Having said that, I think its probably not the safest country to do it in, in my personal experience. I do agree that there is a lot of precautions required, especially for a woman, in most countries. But I can tell that you’ve mastered that art and that’s really good for you! I’d still think ten times before actually doing it, my personal experiences haven’t been that great unfortunately.

    • ummi

      Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that you had bad experiences hitchhiking, but glad to know that you’re all right. It must be traumatizing to go through something like that.

      I don’t think I’ve mastered the art of hitchhiking, haha. Far from it. And honestly, because of my lack of self-confidence, I don’t think it’ll ever be something I truly feel comfortable doing. But I’ll still give it another try when I have the opportunity. 🙂

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