The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Namibia
As WT volunteer Elizabeth adjusted to Namibian culture, she learned proper hitchhiking technique, here demonstrated by three of her enthusiastic learners.
As I have often mentioned in previous posts, hitchhiking, known here colloquially as simply “hiking,” is the most common mode of transport in Namibia. In the village, few people own their own cars, so the only way to travel out of the village is to catch a ride with those who do.
But, I bet you are wondering, how do you even go about getting a hike? I thought I would show you by taking you on a virtual hike, from Omatjete to Omaruru! I can tell you are so excited; let’s go.
First things first, you have to figure out where the hike point is. In villages, it’s usually a central location on the main road to town, like a crossroads or a recognizable natural landmark. In small towns like Omaruru, it’s usually a covered area with benches, kind of like a bus stop. In bigger towns like Swakopmund or Karibib, you can always find a ride at the gas station at the end of town. In the big metropolis of Windhoek, where people from all over the country are going all over the place, the hike point can really be anywhere, so you gotta ask a cab driver where you should go. In my case, to get a hike from Windhoek to Omaruru, I wait on the side of the on-ramp to the B6 freeway.
In Omatjete, though, the hike point is a tall, shady tree right outside the clinic. Great, first step accomplished. Take a seat on a large-ish rock in the shade and get ready to wait.
Hiking is always a waiting game. You have to leave early enough to make sure you reach your destination before dark (it’s not really safe to drive after dark in Namibia due to a lack of street lights and the habit of wild animals and cattle to wander into the road) and you have to factor in at least a few hours of waiting, because you never know when a car will drive by. The shortest wait I have had for a hike has only been a half an hour, but the longest has probably been close to 5 hours. So, to be a successful hiker, you definitely have to be patient.
Once a car does drive by, though, you have to jump up and complete step number 2: the “I need a hike” hand signal. This involves sticking your arm straight out and flapping your hand at the wrist. (If you’re desperate, you can also throw a harried “hey, hey!” in there too, if you want.)
At this point, it’s time for step number 3: translate the driver’s “I’m driving but I can’t pick you up for some reason” hand signal. Like I said, hiking is super common in Namibia, and most people will pick up hikers if they are able to. But, if for some reason they can’t, a series of hand signals have been developed to let the would-be hiker know why not. You know, so they don’t just rudely drive by without any recognition of your plight.
The first signal involves making one hand into a fist and laying your other hand flat on top of it, like when paper covers rock in rock, paper, scissors. This means, “So sorry! My car is full! Either with people, or tons of baggage, or the goats I am taking to market.”
For the second signal, the driver sticks his pointer finger in the air and moves it around in a circle, kind of in the way you do when you are trying to indicate that someone is crazy. This means “Yes, I am driving, and yes, my car is empty, but I am staying in the area/village/town so I won’t be able to take you much farther than down the block. Sorry, Charlie. Maybe next time!”
The third involves sticking your arm out and turning your hand to either the left or the right. This means “I would pick you up, but I am actually turning left/right, so I am not going in the direction you want to go.” (This one comes up most often on really well-traveled, established hiking routes, like the road from Karibib to Swakopmund. For that hike, you want to turn left at the end of the road, so if someone indicates that they are going to turn right, you know they aren’t going where you want to go.)
The fourth and final driver signal is the standard shoulder shrug. In my (expert, ha) opinion, this could mean a variety of things, and you often have to study the driver’s face to figure out what he/she means.
For example, if he seems to have an angry face, the shoulder shrug could mean “Really? REALLY? You are asking me for a hike?? What, just because I have a car and you don’t and I am going in your direction and I have plenty of space and you only have your small backpack and you would pay me to get where you want to go, you think I should pick YOU up?? In your dreams!”
On the other hand, if they have a sad or sympathetic face, the shoulder shrug could mean “Oh, oh, sorry, I would stop . . . but I am going too fast . . . oh no I’m not pressing the brake . . . oh, oh no . . . I’m passing you . . .I’m passing you . . . I’m past you! SOOOOOoooooorrrrrrryyyyy!”
Or, if they have a confused look on their face, the shoulder shrug could simply mean “Huh??”
But, eventually, a car will slow down and stop. At this point, you initiate step 4: run to the driver’s window and negotiate a hike. This always starts with a formalized greeting of “Good morning, how are you? I am fine, thank you.” (If you can do it in Otjiherero, you get bonus points.) The savvy hiker then asks where the driver is going, to find out if this is the ride she should take without revealing her ultimate destination and then not being put in an awkward situation if she wants to refuse the ride.
If they are headed your way and you can agree on a price (hike are always paid for, unless the take pity on you as a poor volunteer – which is rare) you have successfully made it to step 5: hop in the truck bed! That’s right friends, you have found yourself a hike!
Getting a hike seems like second nature now, but before I got here it was one of the things I was most worried about. Mostly because, in the US, from the time we are first able to walk and talk, we are taught to NEVER, EVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES hitchhike (or pick up hitchhikers). Because you will die. Or at the very least, be abducted.
But the thing is, I have never once felt unsafe while hiking, or thought that my driver wouldn’t take me where I wanted to go. Like I said, hiking is so commonplace, and so necessary (otherwise everyone would be stranded in the village) there is like an unspoken social contract – I will pick you up and take you where you need to go, because when the positions are reversed, you will do the same for me.
It’s pretty great.
That being said, the safety of the hikes doesn’t means they aren’t an adventure – they most definitely always are. I thought I would wrap up this post with a list of my top 5 craziest hikes:
5. Being lectured about Born Again Christianity by my driver because apparently Catholicism is only “the first step,” then listening to Shania Twain blasting the rest of the way.
4. Having about 20 learners give the kombi (think 16-passenger van) a running push down a hill so the car would start.
3. The car breaking down halfway between Omaruru and Omatjete and the driver walking out into the bush and finding a random piece of wire to reattach the part of the car that had fallen off.
2. Sitting with two extremely elderly Herero woman who were passing a bottle of beer back and forth under a blanket because to be seen drinking beer “wasn’t proper.”
1. Riding in the back of a bakkie with two learners, a tank of gasoline, and a live donkey.
*SIDENOTE: My models, Venaune, Sewa, and Taa, were beyond enthusiastic with their task and thus found it extremely difficult to stay still long enough for me to take a good picture. Sorry for the blurriness of the photos!
-WorldTeach volunteer Elizabeth
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