I was chatting up a pleasant looking German fellow at the bus stop while waiting for a bus to the town of Friesbig, a small town a few Kms from the Munich airport where I planned to grab a drink and a snack while on my five-hour layover. The drapes of dark clouds were pulled over the sky. Given I had just jumped a few time zones since starting my journey in San Francisco and confused by the ominous clouds that overshadowed the sun, it took me a bit to recognize the inkiness of the sky was in fact dusk settling in. Not quite a cheery welcome to Germany but I was determined to make the most of the few hours I had to spare.
“Hey there, I am looking for a town nearby. Do you know which stop I should get off on?” I asked the short, German stranger standing next to me.
“I would imagine you would want to get off at the last stop,” he said. “Are you looking to go into Munich city center?”
“No, I figured I don’t have time to do that. I have about 3 hrs to spare so I was just going to go into Friesbig for a quick bite. Do you know any places in town I could do that?”
He gave me a quizzical look and responded politely, “It’s a very small town, I know nothing about it, I have never been.” I nodded my understanding and out of the corner of my eyes noticed a man watching us and listening to our conversation. As I surreptitiously laid my eyes on him, I took in his head of wild, curly hair, the mound of fat pushing against his worn out t-shirt. He had no luggage in his possession. He stood there with his hands in his pockets, without lifting his gaze off me. I felt my pulse quicken, my senses suddenly hyper aware. I was conscious then that for anyone who was paying attention, I was clearly a lost foreigner (American no less) with only a backpack as my companion.
I tried to shake off the nervous flutter in my chest as the bus sidled into the stop a few minutes ahead of schedule.
“Germans,” the man who was giving me directions a few minutes ago, commented, “always on time.” He chuckled and walked onto the bus.
I made my way to a seat on the bus after stumbling my way through counting out 3.70 Euros for the bus driver who impatiently grabbed the coins out of my unsure hands. Happy to release my back off the pressure of my backpack, I placed it in the seat next to me. As the bus pulled away from the stop, I noticed that the paunchy man was sitting in the front end of the bus in a seat mirroring mine, so his back was to the driver. Even from the back of the long bus, I could feel his eyes on me. I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that he had chosen that seat just so he could get a view of me. I tried to shake off that feeling, telling myself I was being paranoid but the slight nervous flutter that had arisen inside me was now growing into a full-blown flap.
I have traveled to over 40 countries around the world, and about half of them, I have traveled solo. I have never let the fear of something terrible happening hold me back from traveling but I have found myself in many situations negotiating the boundaries of what I can get away with, maximizing the experience while minimizing the risk. As much as it hurts my soul that I have to think about this, I am aware that being a woman traveling alone makes me a target.
Sometimes it feels like there is literally a spotlight following me around the world. There was that time in Kiev, Ukraine where I turned out to be the only woman in a hostel that was otherwise filled with men where the hostel owner showed up at 2 a.m. belligerently drunk and falling over me. Or when I arrived at 3 a.m. at a desolate train station in Agra, India to a platform blanketed in pitch darkness to be flanked by cabbies trying to get me into their car. Or even that time I was sleeping in a room in my host’s house in a village in Uganda and their drunken neighbor was yelling and screaming a few inches outside my room door wanting money from me. All of these times, I have replayed every horrific story, every cautionary tale I have heard over the course of my life about the worst case scenario. Like a lot of other women, I was taught growing up that well, men will be men, and I had to keep my guard up to stay out of harm’s way, even if that meant I was restricted in what I could do.
In that bus hurtling through obscure German towns, while I sat across from the man who was watching me, contemplating whether I should just stay on that bus so I wasn’t caught in a foreign small town with no one to turn to for help, I questioned myself for the 1000th time,
Was I being appropriately cautious or being overly paranoid?
Did I not have the right to my adventures without them always being tinged with a fear of dire consequences?
But then again, if I listened to the indignant feminist in me and refused to be rattled by predatory behavior, was I just being foolish and playing right into the hands of those very predators?
That man and I got off at the same stop in the same small town that day. The steeliness of my face hid the hammer beating in my chest pretty well. I maintained a safe distance from him and walked with a crowd of four older ladies who had gotten off at the same stop. At some point, that man turned a corner and I kept walking straight. For a few blocks, I watched over my shoulder overcompensating for any blind spots. As the murky dusk finally turned to nighttime, I straightened my spine as my heartbeat slowed to a regular pace. I set my sights on finding the nearest cafe where I could find a stiff drink.
This post is part of the Solo Travel Series; short vignettes that showcase the adventures and misfortunes of a female solo traveler. These stories cover the span of around 7 years and 5 continents.