The Ship Hitching Guru

On the ferry from Zanzibar to Dar Es Salaam, I met possibly the most interesting woman I’ve ever met. She had mastered “ship hitching” and had a lot to tell. In my eyes she is the ultimate traveler and as close to a World citizen as one gets.  We sat down together in the lounge and she told me her story. It seemed like no one had been interested in her story before, and she was ready to tell it. And a great story it turned out to be.

I don’t know her name, but she said every one called her Aunty. She was probably 50 years old and hailed from Moscow, though she hadn’t been there in years. She told me how, when she was about 15 she left home with hardly any money in her pocket, knowing only Russian, but with a sense of adventure and a high level of determination to never return to her. She had had a rough childhood, with her father becoming abusive and a drunk after the war, which eventually led to her mother murdering him. When this happened, she was 10 years old.

She bounced around from foster families for years, until, when she turned 15, she hit the road. with the equivelant of $20, she hitchiked south until eventually reaching Egypt. When she arrived there, carrying a small bag of clothes, no money, and knowing only Russian, she was thrifty enough to be able to do odd jobs here and there just to get by. An Egyptian family took her in soon and let her work at their hotel in Dahab to pay for her accommodation and  meals.

After about ten years in Egypt she had transformed into a completely independent and adventurous woman. She had traveled nearly all of Africa, from Egypt to south Africa to morocco. Never flying or expending large amounts of money to get to a place, she just worked in order to travel.

Even though she hadn’t been educated higher than 8th grade, she knew four languages, Russian, English, Afrikaans  and Arabic, and had traveled a great distance independently. In other words she had become the backpacker we all wish we could be, a real life nomad and wanderer of the world.

After that 10 years in Africa, when she was 25, like any true traveler, she started looking towards new horizons and wanting to see the rest of the world, seeing as how she had conquered Africa, if Africa indeed can be conquered. I sat quiet and eagerly listening, realizing that I had assumed that was the end of her story, but in reality it was the beginning.

At age 25, she left Dahab and crossed over into Israel. From there, with little money, she hopped on trains, hitchhiked, and did what she could to get to India. It took her a year, in which she became completely fluent in Farsi. She visited Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally India. No small feat, then or now.

When she was in New Delhi, she didn’t plan on staying for so long but was robbed and forced to stick around and work while living in the most sparse conditions. She didn’t leave India for four years, though she saw every inch  of it and experienced most of what there was to experience of India. By the time she was ready again to keep moving east, she was 30 and had learned another two languages, Urdu and Hindi, bringing her number to 7, making her a real polyglot.

From India she trekked her way all the way to Indonesia, passing through the likes of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Philippines, and finally Indonesia. she spent about a year in this trek, since she had to work along the way to fund her travels. She did odd jobs like cooking, maid services, teaching English, house cleaning, hotel reception etc. She had nothing or no one holding her to any one place, and always after a while, to move on.

She found herself teaching English in Bali when she was 31, but started missing her adopted family in Egypt that she hadn’t heard from or talked to in 6 years, since she never used the Internet or telephones or the likes. She remembered how it had taken her six years to get this far and was looking for a much faster way to get back to Egypt to see her loved ones. She started working at bars around the shipping docks and eventually found a ship captain that was willing to hire her in the ship kitchen, to pay for her passage to Mombasa, Kenya, getting her rather close to Egypt. So, at age 31, after mastering Indonesian, Aunty took her first container ship passage, unknowingly starting a trend for herself.

After this quick trip across the Indian ocean to Kenya, she made her way overland to Dahab, only to find out her loved ones had past away. After some deliberation, she decided not only did she want to see more of the world, but that she rather liked the passage in ships. She made her way back to Mombasa, and got herself a job near the docks, and made friends with every captain and ship crew she could. This was very doable since she was fluent in 9 languages, Swahili being the latest, and because of her being so outgoing and sociable.

Eventually she earned passage back to Indonesia as a cook. From there it was not long before she gained work on a vessel going to Australia, and it was the same vessel she had taken that first time from Bali to Mambasa, cementing that relationship and contact for life. From Darwin she hitched her way to Sydney, and took up work near the docks once again. Eventually she got a kitchen job on a container ship going to Lima.

Once in Peru, she worked and traveled her way through every country in South and central America, subsequently learning her 10th language, Spanish along the way. Taking passage on ships as a worker as much as she could, she not only visited all 21 countries of South and central America, she was also able to cheaply traverse many countries in the Carribean, visit the Falkan and Sandwich Islands, and skip around the South Pacific to the likes of French Polenisia, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, New Caledonia, New Zealand, New guinea, and others.

This went on for years, her just going to a new place on a whim. It got easier and easier she said, as she made valuable friends and contacts in each and every ship she took. For reasons I still do not understand, she always ended up back in Mombasa, working around the docks until she got a new ambition and wanted to see somewhere new, then she would pick the appropriate ship and appropriate work on it. She had been to most of the countries in the world, spoke ten languages fluently, and had contacts all over the globe. She did it with no help from back home, no bank account, and solely on her own ingenuity.

It was the most surprising thing in the world to learn that her nationality was actually Russian. In fact, the language she spoke the least and had started to forget was Russian. she was very tanned and wrinkled, and besides her light hair, she looked nothing like a Russian. She was the greatest traveler I’d ever known, and an enormous inspiration.

As if to prove her stories authenticity to me, she took me to the ship yards. As we walked down a peer, she was hailed by no less than 10 captains or first mates. They called her by name. “Hello Aunty! Where ya off to today?”. She said she could go to nearly any countries’ port and be recognized this way. I was, am, so impressed by this woman, that I doubt very much I will ever meet someone as interesting or as worldly as Aunty, a true world citizen.



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17 thoughts on “The Ship Hitching Guru

  1. AndyonReply

    What an incredible story Justin. Those are the reasons I travel, to meet people like that. There is nothing more purely adventurous about her life. I cannot even begin to imagine what someone like that has seen.

  2. Curious NomadonReply

    Awesome story. When you don’t have much to work with, we can figure out ways to get creative. Her success seems to be built from her relationships.

  3. JamieonReply

    What a superstar. If there was ever a true traveller, this is it. Presumably she will continue this life indefinitely? Thank-you for sharing this story.

  4. BexonReply

    What an amazing woman! I am travelling as a passenger by container ship on 23rd June from Piraeus Athens to Hong Kong via Europe & Singapore.
    Maybe I’ll get to meet Aunty, I hope so! She sounds like the sort of woman I want to share a cabin with, curl up at night and let her tales and wisdom lull me to sleep.

    Respect for this woman! Thanks for sharing this story Justin.


  5. FrankonReply

    Wow, incredible story! What experiences she must have had. Makes us travel bloggers pale in comparison.
    I worked in the shipping business for over 20 years and it is fascinating what the crew goes through and the different ports of call they visit. I would often go to see one of our vessels loading: I remember once visiting a ship loading wheat in Montreal during February. It was cold, the ship had frozen rivers of ice hanging off the deck and the front of the ship was basically a frozen block. Bangladeshi crewmen worked on deck, their bears white with frost. A few days later they sailed off, the next port of call Lagos, Nigeria, about 60C difference with the -30C in Montreal on that day. Imagine crossing the Atlantic on a cargo ship in the middle of winter!
    Fascinating post, must have been an interesting encounter.
    Frank (bbqboy)

  6. Vintage CCGonReply

    Nice story, but not plausible.
    Since the implementation in the 1980s of the International Maritime Organization’s STCW Convention (International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, one cannot simply hop aboard commercial vessels without obtaining a variety of professional licences.
    SCTW provisions apply to ships registered in all signatory states, and additionally to all ships visiting those states. By 2014 that comprises 99% of all commercial shipping.
    One does not get aboard commercial ships simply by “making friends with the captain”. That is as ridiculous as suggesting somebody could routinely cross international borders without a passport, merely by making friends with the border security personnel.
    Sorry, but I call “shenanigans” on this tall tale!

    1. True NomadsonReply

      Well that sounds a little close minded to me. I’ve met lots of people that have worked on cargo ships. And whose to say she didn’t have the proper licenses or whatever. She could have all the proper permissions and then just wait around the harbors until she got a job. It happens all the time. You think these captains or whoever go to a special recruiting office to hire people that already have all the proper paper work? We are also talking about Africa, not USA or Europe.

      1. Vintage CCGonReply

        Do I “think these captains or whatever go to a special recruiting office to hire people that have all the proper paper work?”
        Um yes, pretty much. The story described commercial container ships and the like, not some dude’s family fishing boat. Again, commercial ships on international routes require SCTW-certified personnel … it is not optional.
        And no, they do not hire people wandering in off the streets. That is simply not how it happens. That would be like thumbing a lift on a commercial airliner! Doesn’t happen.
        Cute story, though.

        1. True NomadsonReply

          Well the thing is, it does happen. All the time. Shes proof. Maybe it’s harder these days, but not so much in her day. That said I knew a guy in Bali that did the same thing. Went down to the docks and got a job on a big ship. Easy

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