He had a red helmet with a sticker of a blonde cartoon doll on the back. "Transport? Transport?" he asked. It was just after noon and I was walking along the side of the road towards an intersection to get a taxi. I wanted to pick up some souvenirs before leaving Bali, maybe an interesting ashtray or T-shirt.
The young man, in his late twenties, kept alongside me, saying "transport" in the shy butchered English that all motorbike jockeys know. In Southeast Asia, men hang around sidewalks hoping to get a fare from a tourist, and in many cases the few dollars they earn from that one ride is the only money they get all day. I rode motorbike taxis to work all the time when I taught English in Bangkok, sometimes side-saddle and in heels. So I thought nothing of hopping on the back of this guy's motorbike to beat the traffic to Kuta in southern Bali.
Bali only has a few main roads and highways, so navigation isn't hard to figure out. From where I was staying to where I wanted to go was a short five-to-ten minute ride. I first noticed things were weird when we got off the main road. Instead of the four-lane highway, we were going through narrow side streets and alleys where there was no traffic and only a few people. At one point he pulled over so he could take off his backpack and hang it from the handlebars. Then he scooted further back on the seat. I thought he needed more leg room, so I scooted further back to give him space. But he just moved further back until I was sitting on the last inch of seat. He was practically sitting on my lap, with my knees alongside his waist, and he kept pushing himself against my crotch. He started up the bike again and we kept going through the back alleys and small patches of fields.
He came to a stop at a dead-end row of small houses. The house numbers were erratically spray painted on the outer walls and the only other person there was a fat Balinese man wearing only a sarong. He went back inside when we arrived. My driver motioned for me to wait while he went inside 2A. Standing alone outside, I was more annoyed that we were taking a detour than bothered because I had no idea where I was. I was in Bali, the final destination in Eat Pray Love. I thought the worst thing that could happen was getting overcharged for some trinkets.
I once had a motorbike ride that consisted of side streets, dirt roads, and paying a toll to drive through someone's backyard while shitfaced drunk in the middle of the night in Bangkok. So waiting for a driver to pick something up from his house seemed like no big deal. After a minute he came back and went into a little shop next door. While I had been waiting I'd noticed that the door to the shop was open, but no one was inside. After a few more minutes he came back carrying two bottles of water. We had passed dozens of convenience stores and shops along the way, so I didn’t understand why he wanted to go all the way back home for some water.
Then I looked at the bottles. The one he held for himself still had the plastic wrap around the cap. The one he handed me didn't; the plastic ring along the cap was also broken. There was no mistaking it -- someone had already opened the bottle.
As we got back on the bike he motioned with his hand for me to drink. "I'm not thirsty," I said. He made the same motion of tipping back a glass. "Drink," he said. "Later," I told him. He kept giving me a look but finally started the ignition and we were moving again.
As we were driving, my mind was going over everything that happened. Was I overreacting? Was I being paranoid? Had I become suspicious of a simple gesture? Was this all in my head? Something felt wrong. Why didn’t he just take me to where I'd asked? It wasn’t far from where he picked me up.
To my relief, the highway appeared a short distance away. As we approached, I saw the road sign. In big letters it said "Kuta" and pointed to the right. When we came to the intersection, he turned left.
As soon as he started going the wrong way, I tapped his shoulder and pointed back. He started to accelerate, passing other cars and motorbikes on both sides of the road. He tried to pull my arm around him, but I kept holding on to the back, trying not to fall off when he went over bumps and potholes. He was taking me in the opposite direction, away from the towns and towards the countryside. My family had no idea where I was staying or what my plans were. They didn’t even know what part of Bali I was in. If I disappeared, no one was going to come looking for me. They wouldn’t even know where to start.
So what do you do when you're on the back of a speeding motorbike with a guy who's trying to (fill in the blank with your imagination) in a foreign country when you're alone and unarmed and have no idea if there's even a 911 to call?
You decide what kind of scars you can live with and what kinds you can't.
I clung to the back of the bike and I waited for the right moment. I shifted my weight to my left foot so I could swing my right over the bike without hitting the exhaust pipe if he slowed down. I was in shorts and a tank top, and I knew that the broken glass and jagged asphalt would tear through me the minute I hit the ground. I could live with that. I couldn't have lived with whatever was waiting at the end of the road, if living was even an option.
It never occurred to me to pray or cry or beg. The only thing going through my mind was "not today. This is what is not going to happen today."
Bali is called the island of the gods. Maybe there's some truth to it, because as we were speeding down that road, we were speeding towards a temple where a crowd of Balinese locals were crossing the street.
The bike slowed as it neared the crowd. I tapped his shoulder and told him to stop. I still wanted this all to be a misunderstanding, a communication error. But when I said stop, he tried to speed up. I started hitting his back, screaming. A silver van decided at that moment to cut him off, and he slammed on the brakes. In one move, I was off the bike and pulling off my helmet. I threw it at him and chucked the bottle of water at him as well for good measure. The expression on his face was a mixture of surprise and anger. I stared him in the eyes for one moment, and in silence said with my eyes what could be understood in a hundred languages: "I know what you were going to do."
Then I turned and walked into the crowd that had stopped to watch. After a few steps I looked back to see if he was following me. He was gone. Any legitimate motorbike driver would have demanded the two dollars I owed. Any honest taxi driver would have shouted at me to pay him. He took off before I could get his license plate.
I wrote down the name of the road I was on, and then I got a proper taxi to Kuta. The 10-minute ride was like any other taxi ride in any other city. On a map, I marked where I got on the motorbike, where I jumped off, and where his house probably was in the series of small streets. This was the final bit of proof for me. He rode in every direction except for where I had told him to go. From the start, he had no intention of taking me to where I'd asked.
I walked down the sidewalk in central Kuta, looking for the stupid souvenirs that had seemed important an hour earlier. As I walked, men lounging against scooters and motorcycles called out to me, "Darling, transport? You need transport?"
It took me three days to relax enough to cry, in the safety of my hotel room, in a different city, on another island. This was and continues to be the scariest thing to happen to me while traveling. It wasn’t a shock to know that there are people who will do terrible things to you if given the chance. What shocked me the most was this feeling of being alone, that I was in danger and no one was going to come save me. As women, we’re taught that there are superheroes, soldiers, and police officers who will whisk you to safety in your hour of need.
The truth is that no one is going to come save you. So learn to save yourself -- take that Krav Maga class you’ve been meaning to check out. Be cautious, and go with your gut if something seems wrong, but don’t be afraid to be in unfamiliar territory. I wish this wasn’t the world we live in, but it is, and it can be truly incredible if you go out and explore it. The rest of my trip was amazing. One person tried to harm me, but dozens of others were kind and generous. One hotel clerk even set me up to go sightseeing with another tourist after I told her what had happened.
I still travel alone most of the time, but instead of trying to do everything by myself, I try to meet up with other women who are also solo. I always make sure someone knows my travel plans. I only go out at night if it’s crowded and well lit. I do my research on things to be careful of in certain areas. As much as I love free booze, I don’t accept any drinks from people I don’t know. I can’t promise you that travel will be safe or easy, but I can promise it will be worth it.