Each time I hear that women have turned up dead in a foreign land, I go numb. My motherly instinct kicks in and I desperately want to shelter them; gather them into my arms and comfort them. Be the superhero that appears, in the nick of time to rescue them. Like in the movies. But this is real life, where things are not scripted. Where there’s hardly a good ending, where many times it’s too late.
I ask questions. I probe, I dig deep, read the news reports over and over, try to get more information. I hope to God that these women were not raped, and cringe when I find out they were. I weep when I find out they were bludgeoned to their last breath. I often wonder if there had been a chance for them to escape. If there were red flags they were oblivious to.
It’s frightening. Scary. Mostly because I am a woman. Who travels. Solo.
There have been times I have arrived at a destination too late. There are times I have arrived too early. Most of these times, I have mulled around stations, and airports; in safety, waiting for daybreak, and for places to open up again. The risqué factor is ever present for a lady sojourner.
I must say that I have been attacked. I know what it feels like to be attacked, to have someone violently attempt to take advantage of my femineness; groping and touching without consent. My consent.
But I also know what it feels like to fight back. To come out shaken to the core, but triumphant..and alive. I pray I will never experience what it feels like to be on the losing side of an assault. So as a solo traveler I may sometimes act totally paranoid; it’s my defense mechanism. I have ruled out hitch-hiking, for the simple reason that I can’t visualize myself jumping out of a moving car, if the driver decides to leer at me, assault or invade my privacy. I rarely feel comfortable with couch-surfing, and must admit I have never done it. I have been more comfortable as an Airbnb host. I’m on my turf. Thankfully, I have had very courteous and well-behaved guests, and never felt I was in danger opening up my apartment to them.
Years back, in Amsterdam Bijlmer I accepted an invite from a house-mate to go clubbing. Four of us girls shared an apartment, she didn’t invite the other two. We went together. I felt out of place for the most part; clubbing has never been my thing..and a few hours later; with the smell of smoke, perfume and sweat in the stuffy club clinging onto our jackets; weary at having spent the night on our feet, we stood outside waiting for a cab. It was daybreak. Time to go home. She didn’t tell me I would have to return home alone. She opted to follow her boyfriend to his place. So I jumped into a cab and got to my apartment block. Alone.
As soon as I got to the lift, there was a man waiting. I had seen him getting out of his cab moments before, at the parking lot. I thought nothing of it. I had seen him at the club, causing scenes with ladies. It was clear he lived in the tall apartment block. His eyes were glazed. I could tell he had one too many, but I remember he had a nice grey sweater on, and a scar on his cheek. He looked decent and clean, like someone who paid attention to himself. He was of a dark chocolate complexion; African like me.
He asked what floor I would get off at, like any respectable man would. Ladies first.
He pressed his floor first..7, then abruptly recalled that he was alighting at the same floor as I was. 5th floor.
When I exited the lift, he exited as well..and begun to ask me hurried questions, stalling my departure from the hallway to the entry of my apartment, his glazed glare making him look quite creepy. I wondered why he was asking questions, and didn’t notice that with each query he took a step closer.
He grabbed my wrist, and couldn’t let go. He told me what he wanted to do to me in a menacing vulgar way. I was alarmed. I tried to release his firm grip, and pushed him away. We both lost our balance in the struggle and landed on the cold hard cement floor, my hair-clip somewhat cushioning my head from a fatality. Him ontop of me.
It’s funny and yet strange, that at a time you are down on the floor, his body pressed against yours, his fingers fidgeting with your trouser button, a conversation begins. A frantic conversation. In your head.
“God, I can’t believe this is happening! This is not happening.” I silently cried out.
“You have two choices; either you lie there doing nothing or you choose to fight!” The clear and authoritative voice spoke in my mind.
“I choose to fight!” I responded with urgency.
An image flooded into my mind. A past Oprah talk show I had watched, about rape and how to fight back. I needed something to hit this guy with, but all I could see was a pile of old newspapers, and they were a few meters away.
The second image flashed as quickly as the first.
River Tana, Kenya. Crocodiles. I had read somewhere that when villagers are fetching water and they are attacked, they are advised to go for the eyes, hit the croc hard in the sockets, and the huge reptile will let go.
I went for his face and eyes with my hands. I fought back with every strength I could muster even as I was pinned down, crushed under his weight. I felt layers of his skin gather beneath my nails, as I scraped lines across his face, mouth and eyes..I clawed him ferociously like an angry wild cat.
“Now scream as loud as you can!” The voice commanded.
I screamed my loudest, “Help me, Help! Somebody help me!!! Help help! Jesus!!!!
“Shhh! Stop screaming!” I remember the guy pleading.
I shouted even louder. He cupped my mouth with his hand. I turned my head from left to right, shaking his hand off, then opened my jaws widely and clamped down mercilessly with force. He let out a loud howl. I could taste saltiness and blood, but I continued to snap at his hand.
I felt I was weakening and wondered how long I would have to fight.
The guy suddenly shifted his weight off me, rolled off and crawled to his feet. He took off, bolting in fright down the staircase, like a battalion of soldiers was after him.
I sat upright on the floor, and heard myself scream continuously. I was in shock and my mouth had run ahead of my mind. It felt incredibly surreal. My hair clip was at the far end, my jacket partially ripped and a couple of buttons were on the ground. I cried out again, then composed myself and took the lift down to the ground floor, opened the door and screamed into the dark night. No one responded, every apartment had its lights out, my voice echoed back to me, an empty hollow sound.
I took the lift back to fifth floor, and went into my shared apartment. I remember feeling like I had to shower. Wash off the odours, as if to make the experience vanish. When I spat into the sink, I was spitting blood. I looked at my face in the mirror. I had slit my lip and broken some nails. I called 112 and reported the incident. Five minutes later two police vans arrived, with a mix of male and female police.
They brought me to the police station to report the incident. It was a long process, filing a report there, then being brought to the victims office, where the skin under my nails was carefully collected for DNA evidence. When I was calm, and the adrenalin had worn off, I had horrible headaches, my neck and shoulder throbbed painfully.
There followed a year-long psychiatric treatment. They said they had to treat me for post-traumatic stress disorder. The hardest part of the treatment was relaying the events of that day to the psychiatric..again and again and again, eyes tight shut…each time I turned up for an appointment.
I’m sure it helped me somewhat, but even now, I’m super-alert to my surroundings. Any time of day I enter a lift with a guy, my hands are in my pocket, a fist clenched and another firmly holding my set of keys ready to fight. In gatherings or outings, I prefer not to drink. Anytime I see a group of guys in the shadow of darkness, I prefer to cross to the other side, keep my distance.
I love to travel, and will travel..most times solo..but will avoid any situations that will pose a danger to me.