Tuk-tuks, jeepneys, scooters -- I love open-air vehicles, and Asia is full of them.
I love the cool breeze over my face and taking in all of the city’s sounds and smells. The rickshaw holds a particularly special place in my heart, as it was my preferred mode of transportation when I couldn’t find a taxi late at night in Beijing last year. But it wasn’t always this way; I used to be solidly anti-rickshaws after a bad experience during my time in Beijing in 2007.
I was studying abroad and became fast friends with Jenny and Michelle. The three of us were inseparable, so naturally, we decided to team up during our summer program’s scavenger hunt. We were in it to win it, zipping around Beijing searching for rainbows, trying on traditional Chinese dresses and convincing cabbies to let us sit in the driver's seat -- all with photographic evidence.
We were running close to deadline, so we quickly scanned our list for the easiest tasks: Finding a baby in crotchless pants, leading a Chinese tour group and taking a rickshaw ride. Bingo: We could do all of these things in Tiananmen Square.
The first two were a breeze, and so we took our photos and looked for rickshaw drivers. We found one almost instantly. We'd heard lots of warnings to set a price before the ride because drivers were notorious for fleecing their customers, so we bargained with him until he set the price to the equivalent of $5. This was even a little high at the time, but we were in a rush, so the three of us piled into the creaky rickshaw with its worn, red velour seats as our driver pedaled out of the square.
We were only riding for a minute when two more rickshaws pulled up on either side of ours.
"Come in!" said the drivers to us. We declined, but our driver insisted that we each have our own rickshaw.
"No additional charge," he said. We saw the red flags but were too awkward and polite to do anything about it.
It was a beautiful day to weave through Tiananmen’s hutongs -- narrow, maze-like alleys unique to Beijing. I felt like Alice falling through the rabbit hole as we rolled deeper and deeper into the hutongs until suddenly, we hit a dead end. Seemingly out of nowhere, five more men appeared and our drivers stepped down. The men surrounded us.
"That's $200 for each of you," said my driver.
We were flabbergasted. "You said $5 for all three of us," we said.
The driver and his thug friends laughed through their yellow, crooked teeth.
"Why would I say that?" he asked. "But okay -- I'll let you each pay $100 instead."
Jenny, who had the quickest wits of the three of us, quietly took her cash out of her wallet and hid it in her waistband and started to do the same with Michelle and my money while we argued with the men and kept them distracted.
Unfortunately, the men demanded to see our wallets before we could stash away all of our money. They were distraught that all we had between the three of us was about $50.
"ATM," said my driver, the ringleader. I lied and told him that American bank cards didn't work in China. The thugs finally gave up and agreed to take us back to the square. Suddenly they were all smiles and my driver kept trying to help me back onto my seat.
"I can get on myself," I said. But it wasn’t my choice. He picked me up from under my arms and put me back on the rickshaw, slowly dragging his dirt-lined fingernails across my breast in the process.
I decided that I must have imagined it. But on our way back to school, I said to Michelle, “I feel like that guy touched my boob.” Of the three of us, Michelle was by far the most shell-shocked after our shakeup.
“That happened,” she nodded. “I saw it.”
We arrived at school and it turned out the other teams had basically given up after an hour or two, so we took first place by a long shot, but the glory and gift certificates to a revolving restaurant didn’t quite make up for the mugging.
Our teachers and female classmates were horrified that in this seemingly safe city, a group of strange men held up three young girls in a dead end alley. For our male classmates, however, I couldn’t have told a funnier joke. The guys could barely get the words out as they grabbed their stomachs.
“You paid … $50 for … a rickshaw ride!” they gasped.
Even though I was initially pretty nonchalant about the whole thing, their cackles made me angry. I singled out the one guy I had a crush on and pulled him aside.
“You know, my driver -- ” I motioned toward my chest “ -- touched me.” He looked deep into my eyes and was silent for a moment.
“So … “ he began. “You paid $50 to sit in a rickshaw and get your boob grabbed?” He cracked a smile and my crush vanished.
The incident became a running joke among the guys in our program, and two of them even made fun of us in a song they performed on the last day of our program. It was so far out of their reality that they thought it was only something that could have happened to three dimwits.
At the time, I didn’t know how to articulate why it was scary and not funny at all to us. I wish I had taken the opportunity to enlighten my guy friends and explain how threatened I feel walking alone at night or sitting in the front seat of a cab. I do this with my male friends now, and they understand, or at least they understand that they will never really understand.
That incident turned me off rickshaws and gypsy cabs for years, but one night last summer, I was searching in vain for an available taxi. Finally, I responded to one of the rickshaw drivers’ calls and asked him if he could take me to my apartment.
“Don’t scam me,” I said, wagging my finger. “I’ll call the police.”
He scowled and shouted, “I’m no crook!” I mounted the rickshaw and we whizzed toward my home. The wide streets were cloaked in darkness with an occasional stripe of light from the street lamps. The only sound was the whir of my driver’s electric bike; the city looked so different from a rickshaw at 3 in the morning.
No gropes; no scams. I got to my apartment safely and paid him the agreed amount, and I slept very soundly that night.