Looking for Prince Charming

“Not tall enough. Too tall. Sandals? Oh boy! Cuddling with a kitten? Not manly enough. He doesn’t like cats? He has no heart. Posing in the mirror in underwear? What a self-obsessed moron! Doesn’t do any sport. Can’t relate to that.”

I’m not a judgmental person in real life. How can I be the exact opposite when it comes to filtering online dating profiles?

“Baseball cap with a straight stiff bill – are you 50 Cent, or what? I want hair. More on the head, less on the body, please. I’m not sure if I want kids or not, but he says he doesn’t want any? No. No-no-no. He HAS to be wanting kids. Eventually. Too old. Too young. Old enough but looks too young. Unattractive. Way too attractive.

Looks totally different in all his pictures, which one is the reality? Is that your ex-girlfriend next to you in that photo? Cute, but really? Argh… another photo with his car… and a half-naked picture. OK, let’s not be so harsh on him. There’s nothing wrong about being proud of his body or car, he certainly has worked hard for both. Oh, that’s not your niece but your daughter? How adorable! Or not.

Come on, girl, give a chance to this guy, he’s just a couple of inches shorter; you hate high heels anyway. Looking for a “relatively” intelligent woman? What does that even mean?

Looks like my ex-boyfriend. Doesn’t look anything like my ex-boyfriend.”

No matter what, he is just not right. I’m going to die alone.

Online dating is a weird mess. It’s this “thing” that nobody really believes in, but everybody tries (only once, of course) and gets hooked on because we all like compliments, even if they come from complete strangers or people we would never even notice in real life. And you also hear these stories how your friends’ friends met online and got married. So, how dare you not give it a chance, right?

For me, it all started with a research I was doing for a screenplay I’m working on. (See how we even lie about it?) And also out of boredom. I like meeting new people, and the Internet offers the opportunity to get to know thousands of interesting strangers from all walks of life on a silver platter. I went on a couple of dates, and even though I never got into anything serious, I almost always had a good time (or at least, an experience that makes a good story) and made some new friends.

(By the way, the research part is true. I’m writing a screenplay about a liberal, free-spirited grandma and wanted to see what’s out there for people at this age. Too bad, you can’t sneak around on the page without people knowing that you visited their profiles. Imagine how surprised – or flattered – the eighty-year-old grandpas were when they saw that I checked them out.)

One time, I went on a date with a guy in London. He took me to a really nice bar I’ve never been to. He was kind but also funny and laid-back; we got along really well, and I could almost see us as a couple already. Until we sat down and he moved closer to me. His breath stank like sewage, rotten eggs, and garlic all at once. And that was it. I couldn’t deal with it. We spent hours together (me keeping a safe distance from his mouth); laughed and talked, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I didn’t want to kiss him. End of story.

There was a positive outcome, though. A week after this less than ideal rendezvous, I took a girlfriend of mine to the exact same bar to celebrate her promotion. While I was waiting for our drinks, a guy with a cute smile approached me and we hit it off right away. (After I ran a quick, secret smell-check on his breath, of course.) We spent the whole night talking and walking around the city and had our first real date the very next day, and it was one of the best first dates I’ve ever been to.

Have you read my story about the LA creep?

LA – The City of Angels or Creeps?

I’m in Los Angeles right now and am staying in Venice, which is the part of town where skateboarders, artists, fortune-tellers, and hippies like to hang out. As I was strolling down the Venice Beach Boardwalk, trying to avoid eye contact with the dozens of homeless people and hipsters, memories rushed through my brain. There was one I recalled particularly detailed. One that burned itself into my mind forever, one that I don’t like remembering.

It happened a few years ago when I first visited the City of Angels. I found myself in a disturbing situation, but thanks to my intuition, I got out of it. You might not believe in “sixth sense,” but I’m sure you all know what it’s like to encounter someone that gives you the feeling that something is “off” and you just want to get away from that person. The one that makes you uncomfortable purely by his presence.

I didn’t know the city at all that time, and just like in every place I ever visited, I was going to use public transportation to get around. My American friends thought I’d lost my mind when I told them about this plan. They weren’t even sure if a public transportation system existed in LA. Americans drive here, but there are many subway and bus lines all over the city and they are safe to use. Except when they are not.

I stayed in a hostel in a somewhat dodgy neighborhood and the nearest subway station was a fifteen-minute drive away. Thanks to the generosity of the staff, this wasn’t an issue as they offered a free lift from the station whenever you needed. You just had to call them and wait for the pick-up. I must say, though, you didn’t want to hang around by yourself too long in that neighborhood. It was right next to a highway and there was nothing around. No shops, no bars, no restaurants, no public phones, no gas stations, and no people. And not much street lighting.

I took the subway from Downtown LA. I was standing on the platform, waiting for the train, and minding my own business when I saw a creepy guy hovering around and glancing at me from time to time. He shuffled closer and closer, and his occasional looks became constant stares, which made me nervous. I couldn’t tell why, but I didn’t like the guy. He was giving off this unsettling vibe, and somehow I knew he was going to try to talk to me and was already thinking of ways of how to get out of an unwanted conversation. Surprise, surprise, a moment later, he stood right next to me and asked me where I was heading to. My inner alarm went off, but I didn’t want to seem nervous, so I told him I was going south. (Which he already knew based on the side of platform I was standing on.)

The train came and we both got on. I sat down sideways, facing the window to minimize the chance of having to look at him, but this didn’t make it more difficult for him. He moved to the closest seat that was looking into my direction and started staring at me. I could see him out of the corner of my eye and I could feel his gaze on me. He wasn’t looking away for a second. After a few minutes, I felt so uneasy that I had to move.

I didn’t want to be too conspicuous, so I lingered around for a while and pretended that I preferred standing, but then moved over to a seat farther away from him. I could still see him, which meant that he could see me too, and I felt his eyes on me again.

By then, I was sure that he was up to something. Something that couldn’t be good. I could feel it. I started to panic. I knew that he was going to get off at the same stop as me, and I didn’t even want to imagine what could happen once we were alone in that godforsaken neighborhood. I didn’t know what to do, but it was indubitable that I couldn’t let him get off at the same station because my inner alarm was screaming inside me. I felt sick.

We were only two stops away from my destination, so I needed to come up with something rather quickly. As the train was slowing down to approach the next station, I jumped up and made my way to the door. I kept an eye on the guy, who raised from his seat, too, and moved to the door closest to him while still staring at me.

The train stopped and the doors opened. I hopped off and stayed so close to the metro car that my left shoulder was rubbing onto the dirty metal surface. Other passengers were moaning because I was in their way, but I didn’t care.

The moment I heard the “Stand clear of the closing doors, please!” announcement, I jumped back on, clutching onto my backpack, which almost got smashed by the closing doors. My heart was pounding like it wanted to burst out of my chest. I was trying to calm down and looked through the door window. The guy stood right in front of me, staring into my face. His eyes flared, incandescent with rage, and I breathed a sigh of relief as we were moving along and his face was fading away into the distance.

Fancy another creepy story?

My Haunting Lie

I’m reading a book from Richard Branson the founder of Virgin Group. You know, the record label, the airline, the mobile network, the trains, and the first company that will take tourists to space. The book is about his approach to life and business, and to say that he’s been living an extraordinary life would be an understatement. The guy is crazy – in a good sense, and reading his stories, I realized I share certain character traits with him. (Let’s hope this means that I’ll become a billionaire, too.)

His unquenchable thirst for adventure, that he thinks outside of the box and always finds another way to do something if one approach doesn’t work, that he believes that no system is set in stone and rules can be interpreted more loosely sometimes, and his constant urge to learn and act make me feel less of an outsider and accept that just because there are people who don’t approve of things I do, I can still do them and get somewhere.

One thing that we have in common is that we are honest, straightforward, and outspoken people, however, we both tell white lies to make things better or to get out of confrontational situations. He shared a story from when he was in boarding school.

He got friendly with the principal’s daughter and spent the night with her. When he was returning to his room at dawn, the door was closed, so he had to climb through his window to get in. He got caught and had to report to the principal, who asked him why he was climbing through the window. So he told him as it was, that he was coming back from his daughter’s room.

He got expelled straight away. Fearing that his parents would be upset with him, he quickly jotted down a fake suicide note, gave it to the most gossipy person of the school and told him not to open it until a day later. His plan panned out exactly the way he wanted, and of course, when his parents arrived to pick him up, instead of reprimanding him, they were exceptionally nice to him.

This story made me remember one of my lies from my teenage years. It was more like a stunt, which I pulled off so truthfully that I’m bearing the consequences until today.

I was fourteen years old and seeing a guy, who lived far away from our house. Getting home from his place was always a pain as the bus I had to catch ran only every hour or so and we never managed to say goodbye fast enough, so I would always miss the bus.

This caused me trouble as I had a curfew and if I missed the bus, I was definitely not going to make it home on time and my mother would be utterly upset about it and would lecture me for days. I was late already on three occasions that week, and guess what, I missed my bus for the fourth time. I felt really bad. Not so much for my mom, who I knew would be worried about me, but for myself, knowing that she’d be angry with me and I had to face her.

I didn’t think I could take another fight, so I decided that dishonesty was the way to go. I figured that if I pretended to be sick, my mom wouldn’t start an argument. But I “had to be” really sick. So sick that she wouldn’t call an ambulance, but so sick that her motherly caring feelings would overtake her motherly nagging feelings.

It couldn’t be a simple “Oh, mommy, my belly hurts.” sort of thing, it had to be something more grandiose. And it had to be believable. So, I got on the bus, collapsed onto a seat, and curled up in fetal position. I closed my eyes halfway and tried to make a miserable face. I was trying to go for the effect when someone is in excruciating pain and suffering in silence. I must have been authentic as people around me started staring. (It’s strange how they always look but never say anything.)

As my stop was approaching, I gathered all my energy (at least, that’s what it must have looked like from the outside) and pushed myself up from my seat. I shuffled across to a guy sitting by the window and told him that I wasn’t feeling well and I didn’t think I could make it home without help. He stared at me like I was from another planet, but I didn’t let him off the hook. I asked him whether he could get off the bus with me and walk me home. I could tell from his facial expression that he was cursing the moment he opted for the bus instead of a cab, but I kept insisting and grimaced as if I was in a lot of pain, so he surrendered in the end. (I was a fourteen-year-old harmless girl after all.)

I made him walk me to the door of our apartment. We lived on the eighth floor. And I made sure that he stayed with me until my mother came out. I needed a stranger’s reassurance for her that I was being unwell. The guy squirmed, and I almost felt sorry for him but I couldn’t ruin the stunt by showing empathy for him. Not when I was so close to succeeding. Mom grabbed my arm, nodded a thank you to the guy, and took me into the living room.

I kept my eyes halfway closed and by then, I mastered the facial expression, so my poor mother had no idea what to do with me. Fully clothed, she helped me on top of the bed where I placed myself in the fetal position again (thinking that it suggested vulnerability) and started to breathe heavily. I also shivered a little, just to make sure. My mom said I was pale as a ghost. (I don’t know how that happened, but I didn’t argue.)

And then she asked me whether I was on drugs. Boom! I was devastated that she would even consider something like that. I’d always been a good girl. No drinking, no smoking, no drugs. “WTF, mother?”

I told her that, of course, I didn’t take any drugs, but she kept saying the whole night,“You know you can tell me everything, don’t you? Even if you took drugs…” I almost broke and told her the truth. But then I didn’t. I just went to sleep and woke up healthy next morning.

Sixteen years later, I took Mom out for dinner and confessed. I told her the whole story and said that I owed her an apology. She didn’t believe me. She knows me and she knows that I never touched any drugs in my entire life, but she still thinks that on that particular night, I slipped and I’m too ashamed to admit it.

Why Your Mama Tells You Not To Hitchhike

It was the summer of 2006. Low-cost airlines in Europe have just become known in wider circles, so you could still get dirt-cheap tickets. My boyfriend, Greg and I decided to go on a spontaneous trip – eight destinations in four weeks for about three hundred dollars. Not a bad deal, huh?

We were to fly from Porto to Madrid, except we missed our plane. Not only were we penniless students, but this also happened right after I’d been robbed in Barcelona – our first destination on the trip. We couldn’t afford an extra flight ticket, nor could we have paid for a hostel room, so we stayed at the airport. For four nights. We searched for an abandoned spot, laid out our sleeping bags on the floor, and so our “semi-homeless” life began.

I must say the place was perfect. Clean, in a far corner that not many could see, and in close proximity to restrooms. No one bothered us, and the only thing that caused some inconvenience, at first, was hygiene. However, by day 4, I felt no shame in locking myself in the disabled toilet, getting naked, and washing myself like I had been doing this my entire life. When we finally continued our journey, I almost started to miss our airport home.

Instead of flying, we decided to take a bus that was supposed to take us to a small town by the Spanish border, and we thought we would hitchhike from there. When we bought our tickets, we were asked us if we wanted to get off at the last stop or the one before. Not sure why, but there was a big difference in price, so logically, we went for the cheaper option.

The crew was pretty laid-back, and nobody cared what was going on, which led us both to the same idea. As we were approaching our stop, Greg and I shared a terrified look, and instead of gathering our stuff, we remained seated. We didn’t say a word, but we both knew that we had been toying with the same idea. The bus pulled into the stop, a couple of passengers got off, and two minutes later, we hit the road again.

We grinned at each other filled with pride but felt a little guilty. Cheating wasn’t our style. (Well, not before.) Our logic suggested that the town at the end destination would be bigger than the one we bought our ticket for, and so it’d be easier to find a cheap bus to Madrid or hitchhike. Huge mistake.

We ended up in a village with no proper infrastructure and no English-speaking souls. There was ONE sixteen-year-old girl, who could understand some English, and she translated everything for the whole community. Because of course, everyone got curious when they heard about the two crazy foreigners without any money and Portuguese language skills, who wanted to hitchhike to Spain. And what was their reaction? They simply laughed in our face. They shook their head in disbelief and kept repeating that nobody would ever pick us up. Since the next bus to Madrid was going to leave in two days only, we didn’t have much of a choice but give it a shot anyway, hoping that someone would eventually pity us.

To increase the odds, Greg and I split and stood at different intersections. Sadly, the village people seemed to have been right: all we got was a lot of honking, smiles, and raised thumbs. Some drivers pulled over just to tell us how crazy we were and have a giggle, then wished us good luck and drove away.

As time went by, our initial enthusiasm had waned a little, but we didn’t give up. The clock almost struck 11 pm, and I started to get grouchy when I saw Greg running towards me. “Come on, a Spanish guy takes us,” he said, grinning.

A Spanish guy… What a weirdo he was! Which, of course, I wasn’t aware of at that point.

When we jumped into his car, he didn’t even bother to say hi to me or even look at me, but he was all over Greg, so I thought he was gay. I didn’t speak Spanish or any other Roman languages, whereas Greg was fluent in Italian, so everything was in his hands. He sat in the front seat, I stayed in the back.

Half an hour in, and the guy started yawning and said he needed a coffee, so we stopped at a restaurant. We walked in, and without saying a word, he grabbed my shoulders, pulled me to his chest, and squeezed me like we were best friends that hadn’t seen each other for a long time. I was a little shocked but not as much as when he, a second later, kissed me on both cheeks – leaving a trickle of saliva on my face – and cheerfully screamed into my ear how lovely it was meeting me. Awkward. It was past midnight and pitch black outside when we finally got back into the car.

We were driving on a highway in the middle of nowhere, and I didn’t have the slightest idea how far we could be from Madrid or even the Spanish border. Out of the blue, a police car appeared and signaled us to pull over. Two cops walked over to us; they wanted the guy and Greg out of the car and instructed me to stay inside. Strange. They talked so loud, it almost sounded like screaming, but I didn’t understand a word. They were patting them down, looking for drugs. WTF? (Before you asked, we didn’t have any.)

One of the police officers was speaking to Greg, glancing at me from time to time. Even though I didn’t speak the language, I could sense that he was worried. A few minutes later, they let us go, and we disappeared into the night again. Greg told me later that the cops said to him we were idiots to have gotten into a stranger’s car. Not a good sign.

I accidentally looked into the front mirror and, to my surprise, I found myself gazing in the eyes of our driver. I turned away and started to wonder whether this meant that he was watching me instead of the traffic. Then I remembered one of my teachers in 6th grade mentioning in Physics class, “If you can see someone in a mirror, that person can see you too.” This memory and the recognition made me uneasy.

I was avoiding his gaze.

A moment later, I felt hands on my legs. Hands that seemed to be searching for something. There was a water bottle lying next to me on the floor, so I thought he was thirsty and handed him the bottle. He took a swig and placed the flask back, “accidentally” bumping into my legs with his hands.

Five minutes later, the same scenario happened; except that this time, he was staring at me in the mirror while “looking for the water.” I was still in naïve mode (not even a little bit suspicious!) and gave him the bottle again. He drank. For the third time, he didn’t even try to pretend, he simply grabbed my legs and started stroking them. The penny had finally dropped. I froze for a moment, but then my brain finally decided to cooperate – I pushed his hand away. He didn’t give up that easily, though. He touched me again, which I rewarded with a hard kick into his hand and giving him the meanest look ever in the mirror.

At this point, I switched to a “semi-panic” mode. I didn’t know what to do. It was 1 am; we were still on a highway in the middle of nowhere, and the guy was twice as big as Greg. My brain was working hard, “Should I tell Greg what’s happening? And then? What could he do? What could we do here in the middle of nowhere?” So I decided to keep it together and deal with the situation by myself and tried to be as firm as possible.

In the meantime, the weirdo kept talking to Greg, and I could figure out that he was trying to convince him that we spent the night at his place. I leaned forward to whisper into Greg’s ear that under no circumstances I was willing to stay in the dude’s house. Luckily, he wasn’t going to consider that option either.

I spent the rest of the ride chanting a mantra: “Please drop us off at the train station, please drop us off at the train station.” It worked. The guy lived in Avila, which is about fifty miles away from Madrid, and around 3 am, he finally pulled over at the local train station to drop us off. He made a last attempt to persuade us to stay with him, pointing out that the train station wouldn’t be open until 5 am, which was true, but we insisted that we would be fine, so he finally left us alone.

The moment his car lights disappeared in the darkness, my shaking body collapsed into Greg’s arms, and I told him everything that had happened. He had no idea. He hugged me tight until I calmed down.

We spent the next couple of hours trying to sleep in the staircase of the only one apartment building we’d found unlocked and caught the first train to Madrid in the early morning.

Want to read about more trouble?

Goodbye to All

An awful, awful thing. I hate it. You can’t get used to it, and it never gets easier. Saying goodbye. The word in itself doesn’t make any sense; how can a “bye” be good? Especially in situations when you are almost certain that you won’t see each other ever again.

It’s been a tough couple of days: way too many goodbyes, to way too many people that are dear to my heart and who I will most likely not have the chance to meet again.

I always make a promise to myself that I wouldn’t cry, and most of the time, I’m okay until the “[big sigh] Well [pause] maybe we’ll see each other again sometime… [swallow]” part, but then the hug comes, and I completely lose control. My tears fight themselves through my carefully built up guard, running down on my cheeks recklessly.

It’s strange how sorrow can manifest in physical pain. Every time I have to say goodbye to someone, it feels as if a small piece of my heart would crumble and dissolve in my blood stream, carrying the bitter memory of all the goodbyes of past years. When I close my eyes and concentrate on the inside, I can still feel it in my body. I think the tears are there to make sure that the heart doesn’t break into two halves, but even so, a part of me dies every time I have to say goodbye.

And why is it that a third party always appears at the worst time and interrupts the most emotional and intimate moment? And all of a sudden, you start feeling awkward, so that last kiss, that last hug, that last stroke on the arm never happens. There’s just a smile and a look. A smile, into which you try to put all the unraised questions, ungiven advice, untold stories; all the joyful moments you want to remember; all the lies you want to tell about seeing each other again; and all the pain you feel by leaving someone behind or having to let someone go. A smile that is powerless and a little forced but, at the same time, real and makes the other person smile back the same way. And that picture burns into your heart forever. And when you miss someone, you dig out that faded picture from the deepness of your heart, and the smile becomes sharper and sharper – the one in front of your eyes and the one on your face.

With love

To All

I ever had to say goodbye to.

I miss you all.

Have you read my story about happiness?

Happiness by the Po(u)nd

Have you ever had the experience that you weren’t quite sure what was wrong but felt that something was “off” and you were not being yourself? It’s been a while since I was myself. I’ve felt somehow disconnected lately. Disconnected with my inner self.

It was one of those early spring mornings when it’s still cold to leave your coat hanging but warm enough to get you sweat when walking up a hill. Sunrays breaking through the clouds to warm your skin and a light breeze catching your hair and bringing the smell of the first blossoms.

I headed to a nearby park and found a lonely bench by a pond, looking over the meadow. Pure perfection. I was sitting there for hours, staring into the distance, doing nothing, just listening to my inner voice, and letting my thoughts chase each other in my head. I felt happy.

I always thought of happiness as a momentary thing. You can have an infinite number of moments and they can follow one another rapidly, but they will always last only for a short period of time. Like an impulse or flash.

So, what is happiness?

a hot cup of tea,
feeling the stroke of sunrays on your face,
the smell of lilies,
waking up to a kiss,
cuddling with your boyfriend, girlfriend, dog, cat, a pillow,
curling up under a warm blanket on a chilly night,
enjoying sweet idleness,
spending a Sunday in bed,
late-night talks,
reunion with old-time friends,
making love,
making love and falling back asleep in each other’s arms,
pancakes,
ice cream,
pancakes with ice cream,
the sound of the sea,
the smell of salty air,
wandering around aimlessly for hours,
singing out loud while walking down the street and realizing that someone is behind you,
being the one behind when a 60-year-old thinks he is alone and is lustily singing Adele,
the first bite into the crust of freshly baked bread,
a stranger’s smile,
a ladybird that can find her way out of the water,
laughing out loud when reading a book,
(even more so if it happens on the subway, and even more more so if it happens on the subway and you cannot stop),
listening to your grandma’s childhood stories,
hugging your beloved ones after returning from a long trip,
laughing until your belly hurts,
getting tears in your eyes while watching a movie,
catching sight of a rainbow,
candles with cinnamon scent,
listening to raindrops knocking on a window,
the smell of rain-soaked earth,
your blushing cheeks after a good run,
your blushing cheeks when the guy in the deli gives you a compliment,
the touch of a soft plush animal,
singing birds,
a good night’s sleep,
walking home after being out all night and catching the sunrise,
making someone’s day better by doing something really small…

And a thousand other moments…

Today I realized how easy it is to forget how lucky we are… to have two legs and arms or a roof over our head or running hot water or good health – a chance for all the things listed above. It’s so easy to immerse in our own misery, but it takes only a moment to come to our senses when we see someone, who doesn’t or cannot have one of these…

Today I’ve found something I didn’t have for a long time. My inner peace. The harmony inside of me, and for that, I’m grateful. And I know that everything will fall into place in the end. It always does. It just takes longer sometimes. And to realize this, all I needed was a bit of sunshine, a light breeze carrying the scent of flowering trees, chirping birds, a lonely bench, and a cup of tea. Or let’s just call it spring. When not only does nature revive, but also believed to be dead souls do.

Click here for another story.

The Brain Might Fail, But Instinct Never Lies

When I started traveling by myself as a young girl, my parents used to freak out and I would always tell them that they shouldn’t be worried as I was cautious and taking care of myself. And this is how it was. I always made sure I stayed out of trouble, and I thought I was clever enough to make the right decisions to keep myself safe during my travels. And I was always proud that I never had a problem to stand up for myself and get out of situations I felt uncomfortable with. I also believed that I could never be so dippy as some of those solo travelers you hear about that get into strangers’ cars and disappear without a trace.

Well… I’m sure that – at least once in your lifetime – you found yourself in a situation you didn’t mean to end up in and kept mumbling, “I will never do this again, just please, get me out of this without any harm…” Situations where your mind betrayed you and your time-tested tactics failed.

I’ve made my own experience, too, and I was so embarrassed by my own stupidity that until this very day, there’s only one person I shared this story with. I never told this to my parents as they would have been worried sick every time I had gone on another trip and I didn’t want them to know how I failed to use my brain I was so proud of having. I haven’t told my friends either because I felt ashamed and even today, just talking about this makes me cringe.

I was backpacking through Australia and trying to find the cheapest possible way to head down from Cairns to Sydney. I also wanted my trip to be “hip” and a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I didn’t even consider taking the Greyhound bus or any other hop-on-hop-off versions of it. My driver’s license was almost brand new, so renting a car sounded adventurous enough, but after doing the math, I had to face the sad truth of being absolutely broke. So I figured I would share the ride with a few other penniless people.

I did what all young travelers would have done at that time: I went on Gumtree (the Australian Craigslist) and scanned the ads for a rideshare. Within a few minutes, I found the perfect match: two twenty-something Aussie guys were heading down to Melbourne in their own SUV and were looking for one more person to join in. I emailed them straight away and got a response shortly after. We agreed to meet in a nearby cafe to see if we would get along and to discuss details.

I arrived at the cafe and as I looked around, my eyes met an older guy’s, who had the brightest smile on his face. I smiled back but kept searching for the two dudes when I heard somebody calling my name from the direction where the old guy was sitting. I turned my head back and saw him rising from his seat and making a step towards me with an even broader smile on.

“It’s Pete,” he held out his hand to me, “the guy with the SUV,” and when I still looked at him perplexed, “heading down the coast… we emailed yesterday,” he added. I shook his hand and I almost heard my brain ticking, trying to understand what happened there. This should have been the moment where my gut feeling should have told me to leave. Except it didn’t. Until today, I fail to understand why, but I sat down with him to have a tea. It might have been his warm smile or his soothing voice, I don’t know. He just seemed so friendly. And harmless.

But that didn’t stop me from asking the obvious: “So, Pete, what was this story about two twenty-six-year-old guys looking for a third person to share the fuel cost with?” He cast his eyes down and, I swear, he even blushed a little. “I’m sorry I lied, but I was desperate. I’m fifty-two. No one wants to travel with an old guy like me, and I really could use some company. It’s a long drive, you know.” Melbourne was almost two thousand miles away, I couldn’t deny that, and all of a sudden, I felt sympathetic. Silly Sandra.

We chatted for a good hour and he was keen on giving me tips. He grew up in Cairns, so he knew the  place and the surrounding area in and out. When I shared my travel plans with him and mentioned that I wanted to go on an organized tour in a rainforest, his face lit up with excitement and he told me about a trip he had just done in one of the jungles “right out of town.”

I must admit, I enjoyed his stories and appreciated the insider tips he shared with me. So, even though I decided not to join him on the road to Melbourne, he was so kind and enthusiastic that I let him talk me into a mini-trip around Cairns. He offered to drive me around and show me a few “hidden gems in the neighborhood.” Ding ding ding!!! Where were the alarm bells? And why did they all decide to go mute?

I got in his car.

I got into a stranger’s car whom I met on the Internet a few hours earlier and who was lying about his age to trick me into meeting him. As much as I’ve been trying to justify this ill-judged decision of mine, I still can’t.

The first bit of our trip was fine. He would tell me more travel stories and we would make short stops to take photos of nice-looking places. Then we arrived at a rainforest. By then, we were at least sixty miles away from Cairns and I hadn’t seen a single soul for the last hour. It was still daylight, though, so I didn’t hesitate too long when he suggested that we should take a walk in the woods.

The forest was beautiful. Lush and peaceful, and it smelled like rain-soaked earth and eucalyptus. He had his camera on him and offered to take pictures of me, which I gladly agreed to as my dad always complains that I’m never in the photos I share with him.

All this would have been fine, hadn’t he started to behave in a way that made me uncomfortable. He took an awful lot of pictures of me, which was already pushing me out of my comfort zone, but then he started instructing me how I should look into the camera and tilt my head, where I should place my hand on my hips or that I should lick my lips a little and look sexy. And he made comments on how beautiful I was and how naturally I came across, which wasn’t even true. I never felt more uncomfortable. I got out of the situation by saying that I hated being in pictures and I’d prefer to see some more places, so he agreed to head back to the car.

The turning point came when we hit the road again. I can’t really explain what happened or how my inner alarm finally went off, I just knew I had to get away from him. From one moment to another, the light in his eyes changed. His harmless and friendly look had something terrifying and mad in it, and I just felt that something bad would happen if I stayed with him. I started panicking, but luckily, my brain kicked in and kept me focused. I was weighing the different scenarios in my head while he was chatting away and kept staring at me with his crazy eyes.

I knew that it depended on my behavior whether I could get out of there with no harm. I figured that I could be straightforward with him and say that I didn’t feel comfortable and wanted to go home, and I could firmly ask him to drive me back. But I wasn’t sure whether the change of tone wouldn’t trigger something in him, so I gave up on that idea. What I did know was that I couldn’t show him my fear. I felt that revealing my helplessness would turn him into a monster and taking advantage of my weakness, he’d “just” rape me or straight away cut my throat and leave me bleeding out on the side of the road.

With those thoughts in mind, I was shaking inside, but I pushed myself to play it cool. I was maintaining the facade and carried on with our conversation in a light-hearted manner. I glanced at my watch and casually suggested that we get back as I had a meeting with a friend in town and didn’t want to keep him waiting. He asked me details about the meeting and the person, and I lied to him like I was reading it from a book.

He said he wanted to show me one more spot before we drove home because it was especially stunning at sunset. A few minutes later, he pulled over at a sandy beach – of course, no people around. I desperately needed to pee, so he said he would wait for me on the beach until I “did my thing” behind a tree. He was in a proper distance when I squatted, but my heart almost jumped out of my chest when I looked up after zipping up my pants and he stood right next to me and asked whether everything went all right.

My discomfort and the level of my anxiety had increased with every minute I spent with him, but I kept repeating to myself that that was the only way out. As we were walking down to the beach, he reminded me that he was a certified reflexologist and could give amazing foot massages. I pretended that I didn’t hear that by enthusiastically discovering a beautiful shell in the sand, picking it up, and shoving it into his face. “Look how beautiful this is,” I chirped. He smiled and in the next second, he kicked his shoes off and  buried his feet in the sand. “Come on, feel this. Isn’t this amazing? It’s very good for you; it’s like a natural scrub.” And he didn’t leave me alone until I, too, removed my shoes and socks to walk barefoot on the sandy beach.

A lonely bench stood there facing the ocean. He sat down with the bench in between his legs and motioned me to join him. Somehow I felt more comfortable pulling my knees close to my chest, which turned out to be a wrong decision. A moment later, he grabbed my feet (both of them at the same time), pulled my legs into his lap, and started massaging my feet. My instant response would have been a hard kick, but I just pulled away and said that I didn’t feel comfortable when people touched my feet. “Oh, come on, you know this is my profession,” he argued and took my feet in his hand again. I didn’t want to upset him, so I reluctantly gave in. I recall saying to myself, “It’s OK, Sandra, it’s only a massage; there’s nothing wrong with that, don’t be so paranoid.” A shiver goes down my spine even now as I think about it.

He looked happier and happier as he was massaging my feet and asked me to take a picture of him. With my feet in his hands. Hoping that I could make this horror end, I grabbed the camera. I thought it couldn’t get worse, but when the camera clicked after the shot, he pulled my feet to his face and pressed them against his cheeks, rubbing them on his skin. He was grinning like a baby after a poop. I felt disgusted and  frightened. I wanted to cry.

And I don’t know how I managed to keep it together, but I said to him that I really needed to go see my friend, so we should get back to the car. He promised we would leave a minute later, but he wanted one last picture. And that, of course, with my feet on his cheeks. Ew! I let him put my feet to his flabby cheeks again. And I photographed it. I felt sick.

The moment I pressed the button on the camera and gave a relieved sigh, thinking that we were done with that horrible scenario, he strengthened his grip on my feet (still on his cheeks) and forced BOTH of my  big toes into his mouth. Unable to speak properly as his tongue was blocked by my TWO toes, he mumbled commandingly, “Take a picture,” and that scary look in his eyes raised to a new level. I can’t describe what I felt. It was fear and sheer shock but also embarrassment, shame, disgust, and anger. I was so angry with myself for being so stupid and couldn’t stop repeating in my head, “Let me just, please, get out of this; let me just, please, get out of this.”

He drove me back to town. He said he would burn the pictures on a CD and gave them to me. As I was getting out of the car, my legs were shaking so much that, for a second, I thought I would collapse right in front of him. But I didn’t. I waited there until his car disappeared around the corner. I sat down on the curb of the sidewalk and started to cry.

Was it relief? Sure. But it was more gratitude. I felt gratefulness that “nothing” happened to me in the end. I knew it was only a matter of luck that I was sitting there safe after a day that could have ended much worse. An important lesson in my life.

I couldn’t believe how unwary and brainless I was, and I promised myself that I would NEVER do such a stupid thing again. Because seeing the good in people and trust them is great, but we need to be careful. We need to think. But most importantly, we should NEVER ignore our instincts. They can save our life.

I have beautiful memories of Cairns, but I spent the following three days constantly watching behind my back to see if a white Hyundai would roll up.

Fancy something more “poetic?” Check this out.