There are some stories that I feel I need to turn over in my hands, rough moments that have to grow smoother before I’m prepared to share them. There are some things that I need to take a little time on, to figure out what I think before I go throwing out words, untamed and untempered by a calm heart.
As a woman travelling alone you get used to a certain degree of harassment. Sadly that seems to be something that goes with the territory. It’s as much a part of the travel package as the bumpy bus rides and dodgy toilets.
Men and women often fall foul of one another in inadvertant muddles. There are times when harassment means stumbling onto an uncomfortable stare, a brush-by grab grope, harsh words shouted across the street. There are times when it is something closer, intrusive and more threatening.
My latest little horror was from hostel owner in a small town. He was friendly, chatty, and with hindsight, a bit too keen to please. I was interested in the civil war. He was keen to tell me all about it. When I was debating how safe certain places were to visit, he offered to drive me there.
He asked me to join him for an ice cream. On a sunny weekday afternoon in a sleepy little town there didn’t seem to be much risk, an ice cream innocuous enough.
Afterwards he took me to see the town’s oldest church. That was where the tone changed.
He put his arms around me. I told him that made me uncomfortable and backed away. He tried to kiss me and I told him I had no intention of getting into anything with anyone, never mind him, so to get his hands off me.
The lines fell thick and fast – “you’re not like other girls travelling, you wash, paint your nails and wear bangles”. Hardly the stuff that love’s young dream is made of. He called me “mi amor” and cold, heartless, uncaring in turns. By that point I was on my way out the door.
I would have left town but the last bus had left hours before I knew I needed it and there were no other hostels to go hide in.
That evening as I woke up from a nap, I found him coming in the door and climbing into my bed for a ‘cuddle’. I got up and told him he needed to leave me alone or he would get hurt. He said I could never possibly hurt his feelings. I pointed out that my punch in his face would be painful nonetheless. Sometimes bluster and fire is all you have left to fall back on and for all the sweetness, I have fire enough when I need it.
Later in the evening he made yet another assay, complete with laptop still open on the porn site he didn’t bother to close.
I told him directly that he had made me very uncomfortable and to stay away from me. By that point I was deliberately staying within earshot of other people as best as I could. He apologized and suggested we go somewhere more private so we could talk things through, suggested his room. I felt my anger rise another notch.
I spent an uneasy night in the empty dorm room, my bags piled against the door that wouldn’t lock, grateful for the little rubber wedge I had to slide under it.
I wondered whether I smiled too much, whether I was too friendly, and resented him just a little more for making me feel I should have edited myself, made myself flatter and less alive.
I could live life differently. I could choose not to travel alone, to take less risks. I could never trust an inch, never engage, see a come on in every kindness. I could be universally cold but I would miss a lot of great experiences and cut a lot of good men short before they had chance to be known.
I’ve written before about how sex too easily becomes a kind of consumption. To this guy I was a thing to be consumed, and that made me non person. For whatever reason of lust or loneliness, ego or just boredom, I think some drive had grown so large in his inner world that my response, thoughts or feelings were wholly irrelevant to him. Perhaps that was easier than risking feeling, trying for something real.
I could call him a bad man, think him awful, but that would only be part of the story. I wonder if he knew how much he frightened me, how hurt I felt without a blow being struck. I suspect not.
I make no excuses for him. But I do know at times we let our own stories, narratives, to swell until they block out other voices, other versions, visions.
It is always a challenge to stop, look, listen and try to see through other eyes, to make time and space to know, and to risk letting ourselves be known. That, in the midst of the muddle and the mess of human interactions, can really be something special.