Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Scariest thing that's Ever Happened to me while Traveling?

You'll notice the title of this post is punctuated with a question mark. While, objectively, the experience I describe here is probably the scariest thing that ever happened to me while traveling, I don't have any kind of traumatic aftereffects, I felt pretty okay about it even just the next morning, and I while I remember thinking I was terrified, crying, shaking, I only remember feeling the adrenaline. So take from this what you will, maybe I'm just weird like that, but I am very rarely afraid while traveling. I think something about being out in the world, especially on my own, is empowering. I feel more confident, more in control, like I'm choosing to affect the world rather than just sitting, shuffling through my daily routine, letting the world passively shape me. So this experience perhaps has made me more cautious, I make different decisions in certain contexts, but on the whole it has not definitely shaped or changed any of my travel decisions, my perceptions of any place or people, or my daily life.

**This was just one experience that happened to me once. While I don't want to try and sweep under the rug any serious issues that underlie society or disregard others' similar experiences that may have a more traumatizing effect, I do not intend this story to scare you or make you think deeply and critically about the dangers of traveling or sexual assault. In fact, I have been reticent to share it exactly because I was worried that it might scare solo female travelers (or my parents). But I feel like I should share it, mainly to show that yes, sometimes bad or scary things do happen while you travel, but there are ways out of bad situations and if you keep your head and make smart choices, even a bad situation can turn into just an interesting blog post.**

So, here goes nothing:

Summer 2013 I was selected, along with nine other American students, as a winner of a national essay contest sponsored by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Youth and Sport and received a twelve day, all expense paid educational trip to Azerbaijan.
On one of our last nights in Azerbaijan, we were in Baku and I was feeling very confident in the city. It was a beautifully warm night and several of us went to a restaurant/bar on the Bulvar, about a 10 min walk from our hotel. This is the main drag, the most developed, safest, most touristy area of the city. The Bulvar is well lit and there were still plenty of restaurants open, plenty of patrons sitting and chatting, and a few strolling along the waterfront.

the Bulvar
So we ended up sitting down and smoking hookah, but I wasn't really into that, and some other stuff happened with the personal dynamics of the group, plus I was exhausted so when 2 am rolled around I was ready to head home. Everyone else wanted to stay, so I just left on my own. As I said- it was brightly lit, there were plenty of people on the Bulvar, and the hotel was like 10 minutes away. Probably not a great idea, but it wasn't without conscious thought.
I walked about halfway down the strip and I passed a group of waiters hanging out at an empty bar. As I had experienced consistently in Baku, I got calls of "devushka" (girl in Russian) because they probably thought I was Russian since I'm obviously not Azeri. (also, absolutely not that it matters, but I was wearing knee length khaki shorts and a loose tank top- nothing more revealing than any other Baku woman would wear). As I passed I just ignored the calls like always, but after several meters I still heard a man calling after me. I could hear him trying to get my attention, walking behind me, and getting closer. I snuck a glance behind me and saw one of the waiters about 15 meters behind me. I sped up and continued to ignore him. I heard his footsteps pounding- he was running. I didn't want him to see him see that he was scaring me so I didn't run, just walked faster. As he closed in I reached the end of the Bulvar. I had a decision to make to reach the hotel:
  • keep going forward off the Bulvar into some other buildings. The area was deserted except for three middle aged men sitting on chairs on the sidewalk talking to each other. I couldn't be certain whether those men would side with me or the waiter. Especially colored by my immediate experience of being followed by an Azeri guy, I wasn't feeling very trusting, and the last thing I wanted was a 4 against 1 situation- so I rejected that option.
  • stand at the edge of the street and wait for a break in the traffic to cross to the hotel. Unfortunately, even at 2 am traffic in Baku is insane. I was worried that if I was standing at the curb and things got physical, I might get pushed into traffic and smushed. Also, we had seen a really bad car accident quite close to that spot the night before, so I rejected that option.
  • cross through the under pass beneath the street- this is the main way to get between the hotel and the Bulvar. Of course, that would mean isolating myself with the creep following me in a dark, confined, underground space. Unfortunately, that was my best option. So I prayed there would be no other potential threats in the mysterious underpass and scrambled down the stairs.
He caught up with me about halfway through the tunnel and grabbed my arm. I stopped an confronted him. He was skinny and short and I probably could have taken him, but I thought he might have a knife or something and that would have made the situation much more dangerous. I tried to yell at him in English, demonstrating I wasn't Azeri or Russian. I tried to tell him "fuck you" in Azeri but I probably said it wrong and just confused him because there was basically no reaction.

At this point I gave up and just started running. He was inches behind me, and I didn't look back. I put some distance between us, but there was a final set of stairs leading up out into the city, basically to the doors of the hotel. Halfway up the stairs he reached out for me again, this time one hand on my ass and one grabbing my arm. I turned around, pumped full of adrenaline, with freedom just a few steps above, and I pushed him with all my strength down the stairs back into the underpass. He disappeared and I never saw him again.

I tripped up the last few steps and there were several taxi drivers standing around the entrance that heard the commotion and asked me if everything was okay. I nodded and quickly ran into the hotel. Thank God for those men, because they really balanced out my experience. One bad man, three unknown but doubted, and three or four good guys reminded me not to generalize.

My roommate listened to me and let me cry on her shoulder (shout out to Rhys!) and I went to sleep, and in the morning I felt fine. Anyway, that's basically the whole story. What do you think- was it worth being scared over? Should my fear have lasted? Did I scare you??? (plztellmeno)

**please refer to my disclaimers at the beginning**


  1. Any chance you left your glasses and he was trying to help? ... of course not. Glad you trusted your instincts kid

  2. Hmm that's very outgoing for an Azerbaijani.
    Sorry that happened to you.