He approached me at Rarotonga Airport, but he’d noticed me several days earlier; on a different island entirely. And now he was here.
He cleared his throat and invaded my personal space, quick-firing a series of questions at my face. Am I travelling alone? Yes. Why was I travelling alone? Because I want to. How old was I? Twenty-eight. Wow, you look so much younger than that. Okay. I thought you were younger. Okay. I thought you were sixteen! Okay. Are you flying to Tahiti? Yes. Where are you staying there? I don’t remember. You don’t know? I don’t know. But what is the name of your hotel? I don’t remember. You should look it up.
He stopped and waited for me to do something, but I shrugged, and he walked away, leaving me shuddering in his wake. He’d looked to be around forty, spent our entire conversation leering and refusing to take his eyes off me. No way was I going to tell him where I was staying.
I boarded the plane after he did and spent the flight gazing out at the vast Pacific Ocean. I’m so happy to be here, I thought over and over. I can’t believe I’m flying to Tahiti.
We touched down in the stifling air of a Tahitian monsoon season and I was first off the plane. I made my way across the tarmac until I was ambushed by two ukulele players and a girl in a grass skirt. I stopped in my tracks when they motioned for me to do so and watched as they performed a Polynesian dance. It was so over the top; so put on for tourists.
Or, at least, I thought it was.
Maybe that’s just how things are here.
I dragged my backpack off the carousel and an elderly American man with a sizeable fanny pack ran up to me and announced, that backpack looks heavier than you! You’re a very strong girl. Thanks, man.
Outside, I was ambushed once more.
Which hotel are you staying at? he asked, his eyes boring into mine. I pretended not to hear him and scoured the parking lot for a sign.
Ahead of me, there was a man holding up an A4 piece of paper with my name on it and another just below. I didn’t even have to ask to know whose name it was.
Hey, high five! Creepy Guy cheered. He held out his hand to me and I forced myself to make contact with it.
This is amazing! he grinned at the hostel owner. I was watching Lauren for the entire flight and couldn’t stop wondering where she was staying. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. And we’re staying in the same place! I mean, just look at her. She’s beautiful.
Dude, you thought I was sixteen, was all I could think about saying.
I threw my backpack in the back of the pickup truck and clambered onto the backseat.
We left the airport on a multi-lane highway and passed by a McDonald’s, then an enormous megastore. The sun was setting over the lagoon, transforming the sky from orange to purple, palm trees silhouetted in the gaps between the resorts. Tahiti reminded me of Hawaii, all built up with bright lights and big cars, but Hawaii didn’t have a Creepy Guy.
We stopped at an ATM, where I took out some cash and waited for him to do the same.
I don’t know the exchange rate, he said in a panic.
I told him what it was, but he didn’t want to listen.
How much money should I get out? he interrupted.
I don’t know.
How much did you get out?
He stared at me for a while, then started stopping people who were walking by, asking for the exchange rate. Nobody understood a word he was saying, but he continued to shake his Euros at them as if that’d help them figure it out.
I’ve told you what it is, man, I said, but he didn’t pay me any attention.
How do I use the ATM? he asked me.
Can you use the ATM for me? I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to use it.
We arrived at the hostel and it wasn’t that great. At $25 a night, I was staying in a rundown dorm room with only a single desk fan uselessly blowing the thick air around the room. There was no Wi-Fi. There was no security. There was no sound but the whining of mosquitoes.
I climbed up onto one of the top bunks and opened my laptop to begin composing an email to Dave. Just like in the Cook Islands, I’d be writing about how my arrival in French Polynesia had sucked so far.
Creepy Guy sidled up to my bed. Did you like Aitutaki? he asked.
I nodded. It was beautiful, I told him.
How was Teking Tours?
You took a tour with Teking didn’t you?
Yeah, but how did you know that?
I saw you! You were wearing a dark blue bikini with fluorescent straps. You took the tour last Thursday. I watched you on the boat. And you were staying at Ranginui’s Retreat, as well, weren’t you?
Suddenly, this weird and annoying guy didn’t seem quite so harmless. Suddenly, I was scared about spending the night in the same room as him.
Was I overreacting?
After the hostel owner had showed us to our dorm, he’d left the premises for the night, so I couldn’t even ask if I could change rooms. And if there was anyone to ask, what would I even say? He hadn’t done anything except say he’d seen me in another country.
Was I overreacting?
He wouldn’t leave me alone.
How many countries have you been to? he demanded to know.
I stopped to think about it. Sixty something? I think maybe sixty–
I’ve been to a hundred and twenty, he interrupted, a smug look spreading across his face.
Up until that point, I don’t think I’d ever actually met anyone who treated travel as that much of a competition.
How the hell had he been to a hundred and twenty countries and still had no idea how to use a freaking ATM?
I would later discover he’d travelled so much because he worked as a tour guide and got a lot of time off. He was really crappy tour guide by the sound of it.
My clients, he told me, they are always saying to me, please have a website. Please have an email address. We want to book online with you. And you know what I say to them? I say no! No, if you want to take one of my tours, you must phone me. I will not get an email address — not now, not ever! I do not want to be online. I have not been online for twenty years of running my business and I have been just fine.
Moments later, he decided to educate me about the travel industry.
Do you know Lonely Planet guidebooks? he asked me.
Well, I bet you don’t know that their guidebook writers are all given sweatshirts with the Lonely Planet logo on the front. And they walk around a city and tell everyone they meet that they are with Lonely Planet and ask them if they would like to be reviewed by them. If they say yes, that place will be in the guidebook.
I couldn’t contain my laughter. That’s not true.
Yes! It is! I know — it is hard to believe, but this is what the travel industry is like.
This guy was so clueless it was ridiculous. And never have I wanted an internet connection more so that I could livetweet everything he was saying.
I could have told him that I was a travel writer; that I know guidebook writers; that he had no idea what he was talking about. But I just wanted him to stop pestering me instead.
A second guy entered our dorm and I’ve never been more thankful to have another person sleeping in the same room as me.
I said hi and we ran through the standard backpacking questions: where are you from? How long are you travelling for? Where have you been? Where are you going next?
I told him I’d be travelling to Maupiti tomorrow, then Raiatea, Huahine, and Bora Bora.
I think I’ll go to Maupiti tomorrow, too, Creepy Guy announced. I was going to stay in Tahiti, but maybe we can travel together.
Oh, the flight is probably full, I said quickly. I don’t think you can book the flight this late. And there are only like, three guesthouses on the island. They’ll probably be fully booked.
Which guesthouse are you staying in?
I don’t know the name of it.
Look it up on your laptop, he said, pointing to it open on my bed.
I closed it shut. I’ll do it tomorrow.
I think I’ll come to the airport with you then and see if I can buy a ticket for your flight.
My stomach churned and filled with butterflies. But what could I say? I can’t tell someone they can’t go somewhere.
The following morning, I made my escape. I had my bag packed and ready beside my bed and was hanging out in the hostel common room waiting. Waiting for Creepy Guy to leave.
And when he announced that he was heading outside to explore, I ran to the hostel owner and asked if he could take me to the airport now, four hours before my flight.
I’m not sure I ever allowed myself to fully relax while I was in French Polynesia. In Maupiti, I spent every day convinced he had made it there and was scouring the island for my dark blue bikini. On Huahine, on Bora Bora, I was still convinced he was going to appear at my guesthouse and ask me how to use an ATM. It took leaving the country to feel fully safe again and that sucks.
I’m always reluctant to write these kind of posts, because I don’t want to put people off travelling alone, and I don’t want to make it seem as though it’s dangerous. Because I don’t think it’s a travel problem — there are creepy guys all over the world and you’re just as likely to run into them in your hometown as you are on an island in the South Pacific.
And if you do find yourself in that situation, your priority has to be taking care of your safety first. For me, that was humouring the guy while planning on ditching him, sleeping with my laptop beside me so I could bash him over the head if he tried anything in the night, and privately telling the other guy in the dorm that I felt uncomfortable, so I had him looking out for me, too.
Hey guys. I’ve been disappointed and hurt with the level of victim blaming comments I’ve been receiving on this post and social media, so I wanted to get a few things clear about what happened, and yes, it sucks that I feel as though I need to defend myself when I was not the person who was in the wrong.
- “You should have told him to fuck off” — I didn’t do this because I did. not. feel. safe. If I had been outside walking around and he’d randomly come up to me, I would have told him to leave me alone. But I had to sleep in the same room as this guy (and for a long time I thought it was going to be just the two of us in this room.) I did not know how this guy was going to react if I started shouting at him or if I told him to fuck off. I’m a small person and I can’t fight off a guy if he tries to attack me, so I did not want to get on the wrong side as him. I’ve reacted aggressively with creepy guys before, and it has not ended well for me.
- “You should have ignored his questions” — That’s easy to say, but have you ever been in a room with someone who is stood beside you asking you questions, and what? You just started staring out the window and refusing to respond? And can I remind you that when I experienced street harassment in Morocco and responded by ignoring the guy’s questions, he got very angry and threw a rock at my head?
- “Stop being so nice/polite!” — I was doing what I needed to do to keep myself safe. I wasn’t trying to be nice to him; I was trying to keep the situation under control. I figured that if I had this guy on my side, there would be far less of chance of him trying to hurt me, and it would be far easier for me to make my escape.
- “You shouldn’t have told him you were travelling alone” — Rarotonga’s airport is a tiny, open-air building and my gate had maybe 20 seats. There were eight people on my flight to Tahiti. It would have been very obvious I was lying if I’d have pretended I was travelling with someone else. He would have seen me sitting on my own, getting on the plane alone, and then obviously going to the hostel and staying in a dorm on my own.
- “You should have left and gone to a different hotel” — my hostel was not in a city; it was down a dirt track by a beach without much around. It was late at night when we arrived. If I had decided I wanted to leave, I would have had to walk down an unlit road for a long time with my backpack before I came to the first hotel. And who knows if it even would have been open? And plus, I didn’t have Wi-Fi at my hostel, so I would have had no idea where to go and which direction to walk in.
There is no one right way to handle these situations, and to suggest that there is is nothing more than you blaming me for this guy’s shitty behaviour. I’ve told guys to leave me alone in the past; I’ve told guys to fuck off; I’ve flat out refused to interact with them; I’ve politely talked to them; I’ve told them I’m not interested — and you know what all of these situations have in common? None of them have worked every time. Sometimes they’ve got the guy to leave me alone; sometimes they’ve made things worse.