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.
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