This is not a story about traveling. This is a story about being a woman. Who also happens to be traveling. A few nights ago I had one of the scariest experiences I have had while traveling. And the scariest part is that it could have been, and often is, much worse. I wrote it right away because I wanted to get it down while the details and emotions were fresh.
But I waited to post it. I took some time to think about what happened, and enjoyed the counsel of many other badass women travelers, and so now I share not just the story, but also the 6 thoughts I’ve focused on after.
I’m traveling and went for a walk down the “main” road to find some food/something to do. My Couchsurfing host had to help a friend with something, so it was just me. I’ve walked around here a small bit with him and another guy and felt like it would be fine to go by myself.
And it started out fine. Everyone was friendly and I got a few “boa noite”s my way. I walked passed people sitting outside enjoying the night, others headed to celebrate a wedding. The streets were teeming. A guy going the other way on his scooter looked at me as he passed. I didn’t think anything of it and kept walking.
A few minutes later, a scooter pulled over to the side of the road in front of me. As I got closer, cautiously, I saw that it was the guy who had been going the other way. He was friendly and said hello (well, boa noite) and offered me a ride. I said thank you and declined, and continued walking. He kept saying a few words I didn’t understand, but the sound of the traffic increased and eventually he drove off. Now on alert, I took in all my surroundings – drainage ditch to the right, lights up ahead, beach to my left, buildings, etc.
Yet further up, the sidewalk is on the beach side of a small wall, separating it from the road. A little dark, but off the busy road, so I switched over. There were a few people on the path and beach, but it was mostly empty. I made my away around a big tree blocking the path and casting a big shadow, and noticed someone sitting on the wall in the dark. I smiled and said boa noite, but as I got closer, I saw it was the scooter guy. I immediately felt trapped by the wall, the beach and the shadows. He started talking to me again, but I didn’t understand. I said, “sorry, only English” politely. As he pressed on I even found myself saying, “no, THANK YOU [<- WTF??]”.
Why was I still being demure? Soft?
Because it felt safer. I kept walking.
Then I heard his footsteps, now running towards me. I turned around, pointed my flashlight at hi surprised face and the tone was different. “STOP.” He stopped a few feet away, but didn’t turn around. “You need to stop. I’ve been nice, but you need to stop. Please go away. Do not follow me.” He turned around and went back into the shadows. I got to the street side of the wall as quickly as possible. I was shaking, but the darkness hid my nerves.
I was getting close to a restaurant (what I was actually out looking for), so I crossed the street, noticing a scooter headlight come on in the distance behind me. As I got to the restaurant, I saw that they were hosting a wedding, and closed off to other guests. I had passed a different restaurant on the way, but the guy, his scooter and the darkness separated it from me. I didn’t want to just stand outside of this restaurant, waiting (for what?). I decided there was enough street traffic for me to go back. As I started back, I again saw his headlight among the shadows. I walked along with a slow-moving construction truck, its headlights illuminating everything in front of me. But of course it didn’t stay at my pace and eventually sped off. I stopped where I was, the guy looking at me from the other side of the road. I stayed still. Signaling that I wouldn’t be getting any closer to him. He got on the scooter and turned it on, and it looked like he was leaving. But he just crossed the road, back to my side, and closer.
Traffic had thinned, but there were still people coming and going. I waved my flashlight at oncoming traffic and crossed again. I stood strong, looking directly at him. I wasn’t going to walk by him again and I wanted him to know it. He got on his scooter and started at a slow pace.
As I walked, another local either noticed what was going on or had great timing. He rode his bicycle on the street side of me, separating me from McScoot (at first I was really concerned they were in cahoots, but they weren’t).
The scooter disappeared ahead of me into the night and I ducked into the well-lit restaurant I’d already been to and trust. After getting a water and ordering some food, the situation set in.
Shit. That could have turned out way differently. A few tears welled up in my eyes. I texted my Couchsurfing host the short version as an FYI. He wrote back from helping his friend, but then called quicker than I could reply. He told me not to walk back, just to be sure, and where I could get a safe ride, lamenting that because he was helping his friend, he couldn’t come get me (above and beyond, since I was just giving him a heads up). So I’ll head back shortly, in a cab.
But first, pizza.
+1 for having a flashlight with me and in my hand
[note: after I wrote this and enjoyed my delicious pineapple pizza, the owner of the restaurant came out for a chat since we had talked the day before; he kindly gave me a ride back so I wouldn’t have to deal with a cab]
Six Thoughts About What Happened
This Isn’t a Story About Travel. It’s a Story About Women.
Before you scroll down to the comments to express your concern about me traveling after this experience, stop. This isn’t about travel. This is about a guy on a scooter who felt empowered to behave a certain way with a woman on foot. Yes, it did happen while I was traveling. And thank you for your concern. When I shared the story with a FB group that I’m in, I received response after response urging me not to let it change the way I view travel.
In a short aside, she makes the most important point. It isn’t about travelling as a woman, it’s about just being a woman who also happens to be alive. You’ll note that I left the location of the incident out of the story. Because it doesn’t really matter where it happened. It matters that it did and when I shared it, all of those responses were about not letting it spoil my travels, because…
This Could Happen Anywhere. This Does Happen Anywhere.
Also when I shared the story, I got responses along the lines of, “I had a really similar experience in Belgium/Singapore/Brunei/Alabama/Antarctica.” Gender is not a problem of geography. We often feel a sense of safety at home. Why? These stories aren’t of women being targeted for being foreigners, or travelers. It’s for being women. So rather than condemn this to another story from X country, we need to know that it happens in Y and Z and Q too. And writing it off as something that just happens somewhere else is dangerously sweeping it under the rug.
It’s one of the things that I have found most frustrating as I share my goal to travel to every country in the world. The response is [almost] always a nervous, “what about XYZ?” While I [almost] always appreciate the concern expressed for my personal safety, I think it’s interesting the reasons that people cite for their trepidation for the given country. As if the US, or any of the other “safe,” countries are exempt from incident. As if walking alone down any city street at night is as cheery as walking the yellow brick road. Actually, it is like Dorothy’s hike. You never know what’s hiding around the corner.
Be on Alert. Pay Attention to Your Surroundings.
Generally walking by yourself it’s a good idea to pay attention to where you’re going. While I’m all for “getting lost” in new places, I really don’t like to literally get lost. So I make mental note of where I turned, what landmarks can serve as my breadcrumbs to lead me back. But especially in this situation, it was important to take it all in – where were the paths, the lights, the obstacles, the other people. If things escalate, you don’t want to run away only to be dead-ended by a wall. Maybe this is a habit I picked up in high school. I remember after Columbine thinking about where I would go hide, depending on where I was when things went sideways. It isn’t something that high school kids should have to think about. It isn’t something that women walking should have to think about. But it is. I’m not saying you need to do some movie-scene-robot-scan of everywhere you go, but at least get your head out of your apps. Bonus, you won’t make any rookie “petextrian” moves.
Bring the Right Tools. And Leave the Wrong Ones.
I had a flashlight with me. Score. I actually have two flashlights in my backpack, but am pretty terrible about taking them out and about with me. I just forget. And then I’m fumbling around with my phone, trying to turn on the flashlight app. I also have a whistle. But I am WAY worse at taking that with me (i.e. I haven’t taken it with me at all). I knew it was going to be dark, so I grabbed my light.
No, I do not carry pepper spray or mace. For several reasons: (1) It’s illegal in a lot of countries and I’m not trying to deal with that, (2) I don’t know how I feel about having weapons on me, even if for protection, in general, and (3) I’m definitely not educated/skilled enough in its use to be prepared to jump into action (in this story, would I have used it? When? Would it have been the right thing to do?).
I also have a knife in my backpack. I do not carry it around. I have it with me mainly for functional things like cutting into weird fruits and I do not carry it defensively for the same reasons as pepper spray. The notion that I would be prepared to engage in a situation with a protective device without any training is naïve (and why I think people who think having a gun on their hip without proper tactical training will prepare them to react if they were in a mass shooting are out of their minds, BUT that’s a totally different topic for another day).
I’d rather be just a chick with a flashlight than have any false sense of security with weapons that I’m not prepared (mentally, emotionally or physically) to use.
Some Guys Are D*ckheads. But Some Aren’t.
When I say that this story is about women, I’m sure there are some male readers who are thinking, now wait a minute, I would never do that! Good job. This is a perfect example of the #yesallwomen movement that started a few years ago, which I’m confused by how people are confused. The point is that when we talk about the dangers that are being a woman who is alive, we aren’t saying that it’s all men who are bad. But at some point, all women go through it. Notice in this story that there’s only one bad guy, and several good guys. Whether it’s reacting in the situation, subtly or overtly, help after-the-fact, every action counts. Every action adds up. Cheers to you guys.
Men, when your lady friends are sharing experiences like this one, frustrated with “men”, they aren’t aiming it at YOU (unless you’re being a dickhead, then you have different issues to deal with). I think sometimes the first instinct is to get defensive and protect yourself and all your good-guy brothers. But, even with all the good intent in the world, saying, “hey, we’re not all like that” or “there are good guys out there too” doesn’t help. It doesn’t change the fact that she went through this experience. She knows there are good guys. That’s why she’s talking to you as your friend/girlfriend/wife/mom/daughter/sister/colleague/teammate/barista. Asking you to stand with us isn’t asking you to step back, aside or down. We have you in our lives because you’re awesome, and that doesn’t change when you ask your brothers to do better (well, it does, it makes you more awesome).
“No, Thank You” Isn’t Enough. And It Should Be.
Just this week I was reading an incredibly honest story by KiNG on AFROPUNK and what had caught my attention in the first place was an image.
After several interactions in my experience I was still softly saying things like “I’m sorry” and “thank you”. But I definitely wasn’t sorry and sure don’t thank him. For what, gifting me with his presence? As if!
Why do women still default to the demure when in a potentially dangerous situation? We are walking the ever-so-thin line of the male involved’s emotions. He’s interested in us, so naturally there’s some type of affinity there. We want to protect that affinity because in some fucked up way, that protects us. We don’t want him to feel rejected because when he no longer likes us, he no longer needs to respect/protect us.
This is why millions of women all over the world invent boyfriends every night they’re out at a bar or concert or restaurant or grocery store. To answer a man’s advances with “I’m sorry, I have a boyfriend” is safer than the simple, honest “no, thank you.” Because the fake boyfriend is not rejection. It implies that if it weren’t for this gosh-darned boyfriend of mine, I’d be running off into the sunset (or in more fantasies, your bedroom) with you. This obstacle boyfriend is about the situation, not the person. But “no, thank you, I’m just not interested” on the other hand is about you. And now, egos have to get involved.
I’m not talking about the rom-com persistence that we’ve been taught is “adorable”. There’s a difference between Travis Birkenstock’s pursuit of Tai and even, to keep the Clueless references rolling, how Elton reacts when rejected. “No, thank you” still isn’t enough. Many women feel they still have to accompany it with an excuse (aforementioned boyfriend, etc.).
But what comes first, us being honest? Or us feeling safe for being honest? As soon as we stand up for ourselves, how quickly we transform from an object of interest or desire into a bitch. And once I’m a bitch, it’s of course “ok” that all bets are off.
So before anyone questions what and why a woman did what she did when she was in an encounter, know that there are a thousand things that she is weighing when making those decisions – outside of the circumstances themselves, she’s trying to figure out what she can guess about this guy and his reactions, what might make things better, or what might make things less terrible?
The entire time I was thinking, “I don’t like this situation, I’m uncomfortable, I’m scared, what can I do to stop it?” I tried nice. I tried firm. I’m not really sure what “worked,” if anything. Maybe McScoot just got bored of me being a pain in the ass. I write this, feeling “thankful” that it ended. That it didn’t end worse, like it has and will continue to for women all over the world.
BONUS. Total Strangers Can Be Awesome. Connect with Them.
Since I left, I have been so pleasantly surprised by the connectedness of the community of travelers. Especially female travelers. I’m lucky to be a part of several Facebook groups of female travelers and these communities provide the most amazing support for each other – from tips on upcoming trips, to motivation and inspiration, storytelling, pictures, laughs, you name it. And even though we haven’t met, these women will jump at the chance to help each other. It has been really powerful to watch women build each other up and support each other in such measurable and immeasurable ways, instead of sticking to the stereotype of competitive in-fighting and jealousy. Thank you, Haley, for starting Girls Who Travel, and cultivating such a powerful, safe, inspiring community.
I shared my story with them right away because I knew that I could tell them what happened without the first reaction to be calling for me to head home, to safety. Another incident happened this week (as it is apt to do with 15,000 members in one group) and one member was in a bad situation, stranded, needing to get to a consulate. The community jumped in from all over the world with ideas on how to help.
Strangers rock. On this trip I’ve met so many amazing women who I first connected with online, and our itineraries found an overlap. Your community can be so much more, so much stronger, than just who’s in front of you.