Different for Girls

There comes a time in every woman’s life when you realise that travelling just IS different for girls. For me, this little epiphany happened en route to Lombok’s Bau Nyale festival.

Because I’m cheap, I took the slow boat. Because I’m an incompetent fucktard who shouldn’t be allowed within miles of a child, I switched my phone off and slept through the alarm. And because I’m jinxed, by the time I surfaced Zac was late for school, and the childcare gal had sent me 18 text messages, most of them from outside my house, then taken another job.

New in Bali, knowing few people, and being far too tight to hire an agency nanny, the only available substitute was her boyfriend, who I figured should be introduced to my spawn before, ya know, picking him up from school and looking after him for four days.

The dude can’t cook – not even mie goreng! – but Zac has a limited repertoire, sufficient to feed himself for four evenings with reasonable variety anywise, and he’s quite happy shopping for ingredients, so that’s all dandy.

The need for childcare derives from the fact that he can’t really get himself to school without a motorbike or a bitch of a walk, not to mention someone to shout him out of bed in the mornings. And, further, looking after himself in the evenings solo in a house that’s just been burgled while I’m on a different island for four days could be scary.

But I digress. Push comes to shove, instead of leaving Canggu around 8.45am to catch the slow boat 11am-ish and ride from Lembar to Kuta around teatime, arriving long before sunset, I’m leaving Canggu in a flustered-even-for-me mess around 4.15 pm and getting the 6pm boat.

The type of people who are interested in doing more than hanging out topless by a mosque on Gili T on a shroom comedown and wondering why the locals are acting shirty.

I’m a big fan of the Lombok slow boat. It takes five hours, but you don’t get seasick because it’s big, and travel lore states it sinks/catches on fire less often than private boats in these parts. (Top tip! Never Google “Indonesian ferry disaster” before boarding an Indonesian ferry).

Further, it’s a great place to meet Indonesian travellers, and Indonesians on their way home, and a genuinely nice class of bule traveller, too, the type of people who are interested in doing more than hanging out topless by a mosque in the Gilis on a shroom comedown and wondering why the locals are acting shirty. It’s also a great opportunity to practise my rubbish Indonesian, which is sadly neglected in Bali – I’ve even brought my dictionary!

I’m happy as larry, not least because the Sasak attitude to Ramadan is, like Sasak attitudes to much other stuff, relaxed. In contrast to the more rigorous Middle Eastern Islam, many believe you are excused fasting if you’re travelling, so the galley floor is awash in Pop Mie cartons, peanut shells and replete, snoozing travellers.

I’m chatting away to a new Balinese friend, who’s a bartender, a dude from Sumbawa who tells me they’ve finally fixed that godawful road, and some guys from Lombok, who think the Bau Nyale festival might have been and gone already.

This makes me rather nervous as I’m a Bona Fide Travel Writer on Assignment® and supposed to cover the fucking thing, and there won’t be much of a story if I get there after it’s happened, given I’m not Hunter S. Thompson or P.J. O’Rourke, either of whom could spin 10,000 words of deceptively effortless copy out of that sort of clusterfuck, and the client’s an inflight magazine so doesn’t want gonzo anyway, ta very much.

I’m modestly clad – loose trousers, and a long-sleeved cardigan over a non-spaghetti-strap top – and my handbag’s under the seat, so I figure I should be fine.

I mention my intention to get to Kuta tonight. “It’s too late for you to ride that road alone,” says my Balinese friend. “We’ll ride with you to Mataram.”

The wisdom of this sinks in, briefly. Yeah, it’s dark, I’m on a bike, I’m a woman on my own, yada yada.

And then it disappears. By the time Lembar harbour hoves into view, I’m fully caffeinated and fully geared for the blissfully enormous empty well-built road that whizzes for 60-ish Easy Rider kilometres across Lombok.

Also, frankly, the idea of navigating Mataram in the dark does my head in. I actually like Mataram for the same sorts of reasons I liked Tarakan, and like mid-sized Indonesian towns in general, but its charms are not immediately obvious to the casual observer.

It seems easier just to belt down to Kuta, given I know the road. I’m decently clad – South Bali short-shorts and tank top replaced with loose trousers and a long-sleeved cardigan – and my handbag’s under the bike seat, so I figure I should be fine.

The guys look solemn. They offer to escort me to the junction.

“Give me money,” one of them says. I look at him, vaguely surprised by the cheek of this. He’s about 12. Well, 18. “No,” I say, in my finest schoolmistress/mother of teen boy tones.

I lose them at one point, after they do a tight overtake between a lorry and an oncoming pickup and I then take a wrong turn. This is when I get my first indicator that Lembar-Kuta solo on a bike in the middle of the night during Ramadan is possibly not the best travel idea I’ve ever had.

I ought to note that my personal scale for really bad travel ideas is pretty high, running from hitch-hiking pre-apartheid South Africa solo to paddling my spawn down the Mekong in a skiff sans lifejacket via dropping acid on beaches patrolled by guards with guns. So this is definitely on the possibly-not-the-best scale at the moment, rather than actively bad.

My map falls out of my bike. I turn to retrieve it. A bike pulls up. Two kids get off. I pick up the map.

“Give me money,” one of them says, just as I stand up.

I look at him, vaguely surprised by the cheek of this. He’s about 12. Well, 18, or thereabouts. “No,” I say, in my finest schoolmistress/mother of teen boy tones.

They look equally surprised, and bugger off. Off I head, and find my white knights at the correct junction. (The map is less help than it might be as the road wasn’t built when the map was printed, so there’s all sorts of crap happening that’s not on the map, and anyway I’m rubbish at map reading, what with not knowing my left from my right and all.)

The guys bid me farewell. I thank them, profusely, and whirl off down that absolutely fucking wonderful open road. It is – fact fans – a two-lane dual carriageway, a rarity in Indonesia in general, and an absolutely gorgeous ride, day or night, because there’s rarely anything on it. In the warm, empty dark, I feel…

Well, I feel A.M.A.Z.E.! I’m on an adventure for the first time in what feels like absolutely bloody ages. And I have no one to answer to but myself. I can do exactly what I want, when I want! Stop where I want, when I want! Got wheels, got cash, can travel! Yay!

He’s on me, steering one-handed so he can grab at my upper arms, though not, mercifully, my breasts. I make a trial attempt to shake him, pushing the bike up to 100k or so, but it’s not happening.

It’s rising midnight when the guy falls into line about a metre to my right, and starts chatting, thereby revealing one of the disadvantages of being female on a motorbike, which is that you’re entirely exposed to passing sex pests, with neither windows to roll down or doors to lock.

I try and give him the cold shoulder, but answer the routine questions, “From London.” “Bali.” “Kuta.” “My husband? In Australia.” “Working.” “For the government.”

And then I make the mistake of looking at him. My first reaction is “Jesus, he’s a kid, he’s just being friendly, nothing to worry about here!” He has chubby cheeks and might, perhaps, be 21. He’s also shorter than me, not that that makes a great deal of difference.

I suspect he may read my expression of relief as a delighted response to his charm and good looks.

From this point on, he’s on me, steering one-handed so he can grab at my upper arms, though not, mercifully, my breasts. I make a trial attempt to shake him, pushing the bike up to 100k or so, but it’s not happening.

My bike can do a reasonable lick – I’ve never come close to maxing it – but his bike’s bigger, more powerful and manual. Further, he’s from Lombok so rides a bazillion times better than I ever will, and he knows the fine details of bumps and surfacing on the road, so there’s no way in hell I’m going to outrun him. He keeps up effortlessly, continuing the persistent grabbing and banter.

There is no one around. Absolutely bloody no one. A car steams past at about 140k on the opposite side of the road, and that’s it. But at least the road is lit.

I run a quick calculation which runs as follows: if he wanted to physically run me off the road and rape my bleeding corpse/steal my tasty-yet-cunningly-hidden electronics, he would have done so already.

What’s odd, here, is that I’m not scared. I spend most of my life in a state of brain-tingling, pulse-pounding neurosis, but when the shit does actually hit the fan, I’m strangely calm.

I run a quick calculation which runs as follows: if he wanted to physically run me off the road and rape my bleeding corpse/steal my tasty-yet-cunningly-hidden electronics, he would have done so already. Ergo, I can relax.

He is undoubtedly harassing – actively enjoying the fact that his attentions are unwanted – yet he’s also in a place where he can self-deceive that he’s just being friendly. Further, he may genuinely believe he’s in with a chance with this bule whore-slut who’s out on her own in the middle of the night with neither female companions nor husband.

By far the biggest risk to my safety, I decide, is that I try to outrun him, lose control of the bike, and find myself splattered all over Lombok’s finest tarmac, bleeding to death from internal fractures. Provided I don’t lose control of the bike, I figure, I’m actually fine.

Top tip for ladies! You can press a bike horn continuously for a good couple of minutes, and it only takes 5 seconds to recover once it falters.

This isn’t to say that the constant grabbing is pleasant. It’s pissing me off, and I’m worried about controlling the bike, so I use my lights and horn, which is all I’ve got.

For a bit I tail a stray car, flashing lights to signal help, but it’s going faster than I’m comfortable going on a bike, particularly with someone grabbing one of my steering arms at unpredictable intervals, and the driver shows no sign of noticing.

Then I use the horn to drown my suitor out, get him out of my face and just conceivably attract attention from the houses. (Top tip for ladies! You can press a bike horn continually for a good couple of minutes, and it only takes 5 seconds to recover once it falters.)

There is, still, no one around, although the road is well lit (splendid road! Recommend it, especially by daylight!). I’m concerned that if he tails me all the way down to Kuta, we hit a genuinely dark and creepy forest road, which is also windy and potholed in places, and my exit strategies narrow.

On the other hand, there’s nothing open, not a warung, not a hotel, not a roadside stand, most of the houses have all their lights off, and I don’t want to stop unless I see someone to stop BY, because he will read that as an invitation, and that could be disastrous.

So I continue, thumb on horn, and he continues grabbing at my arm, then falling back, then grabbing at my arm, then falling back and it’s all – well, annoying. Not scary, per se, just rage-inducing.

I have a tankful of gas, I’m pleased by how well I’m handling the bike, despite the mauling, and the second I see a fellow human being I will pull the merry fuck over.

“Evening, ladies!” I say politely, in my finest rubbish Indonesian. “Sorry but there is a man on a bike – big problem. Do you know where I can stay?”

After what feels like hours but isn’t, I see – hallelujah! – a group of women, on my side of the road, heading out to (I’m guessing) a pre-dawn feast in festival gear and festive mood. I screech to a halt and unleash my rubbish Indonesian.

“Evening, ladies!” I pidgin politely. “Sorry but there is a man on a bike – big problem. Do you know where I can stay? What can I do?”

There’s a hotel 5k down the road. They give me the name, and a description, and I stay chatting with them for a while until I’m confident my suitor has got bored and buggered off, and, frankly, even if he hasn’t, it’s only 5k more.

Back on the road, he appears to have given up, which is nice, though I have never been so pleased as when I wheel into the blissfully safe, guarded car park of an Indonesian business hotel.

And, further, I’m not bloody immortal, so I should probably exercise some basic common sense and take advice when it’s offered. Not rocket science, is it?

The hotel’s only available room is a junior suite, which in this neck of the woods – a part of Lombok which is clearly expecting a gadzillion international business travellers from the still-fairly-new international airport, drawn, of course, by Lombok’s thriving international business scene – means $50 for a table with a telly crammed in a corner by the bed and a dubious looking LAN point.

Whatevs. It’s clean. I’m off the road. And… They have beer. And wifi!

I chug two, head online to bitch and whine a little, then hit the sack.

The moral of this story? Some parts of travel really ARE different for girls.

And, further, I’m not immortal, so I should probably exercise some basic common sense and take advice when it’s offered. Not rocket science, is it?


Image credit: Motorbike by Beverley Goodwin on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

17 Responses

  1. Lia says:

    OMG! What a good read! You did well! Very proud of you. 🙂

  2. Oh wow – well done you! Sounds like you handled the situation really well. Glad you’re ok, and that you came out of it alright. 🙂

    • Theodora says:

      I think I did too (blushes). I’ve been in a couple of genuinely terrifying scenarios – rape situations (though I’ve always got out of them) – and I think it helps when you’ve got that kind of context to put it in…

  3. sharon mceachen says:

    oh dear, we’ve all been in those situations. The ‘holy feck get me out of this one and I’ll be good’. Amnesia, driven by cheapskatedness in my case, kicks in and you think, ‘oh, it’ll be alright’…..stupidest one of many in my case was hitch hiking across Anatolian plain with a truck driver, alone I thought until his mate jumped in as we moved off, many scary hours, culminating in a 2am truck stop in feck knows where , full of Turkish truckies watching hard core porn. Story ends with me getting expensive cab to nearest town. Sum saved: nil, sum spent: one of my nine lives and a week’s budget. Lesson learned: none and so it goes on….Thankfully the stupid gene appears to have skipped my daughter.

    • Theodora says:

      Ahahahahaha! Yes, indeed – my worst truckie hitching moment was in South Africa, when the Afrikaaner driver starts explaining how the “kaffirs” were all going to rape me, and I shouldn’t get in a combi, then pulls out a handgun. “You’re safe with me, because I have this!” As it happens, I was, but as a Brit – any gun is a holy fuck moment. The stupid gene appears to have skipped my son, too, for which I’m eternally grateful. 🙂

  4. Dale says:

    I forgot how much of an amazing storyteller you are. Forgive me for not reading you enough this past year!

    Clearly travelling as a woman is by no means easy and is most certainly different to how solo male travellers experience things, and that’s an terrible shame. Even with my being beside Franca at times I see the attention that she gets from men in some countries and I can’t help but feel that if she was travelling alone she’d be getting advances from all sides.

    • Theodora says:

      Oh, yes, she would be! It’s very different. There are pluses to being female, in that you get access to female-only spaces, and being female with a child you get a great deal of help/support that wouldn’t be offered if you were a guy (from lifting things to invitations into the home). There is also the obvious negative of verbal and sometimes physical harassment, which lasts I think until you become sexually invisible: sexual visibility drops off past about 35 and I’m guessing expires altogether around 70.

      And – that’s fine! I’m struggling with a backlog, and adapting to not being nomadic, and the rest of it, which means I’m still grappling with narrative. I also need to earn more than I did when we were travelling, so I’m posting less frequently, and some of what I’m doing is a little bit flat. I’m finding my groove again, though, I hope ;_)

  5. Sofia says:

    It’s a good thing that you’re a good driver, because with all those chasing and grabbing, you could have lost your balance.. and that was quite scary.. and yes, please, take advice when it’s offered. Great read. 🙂

    • Theodora says:

      I’m not actually a terribly good driver, I don’t think, but I guess I must be OK. I’m an absolutely hideous reverser, but on the bike you don’t have to do that.

  6. Will says:

    Awful experience … hope it didn’t sour your impression of Indonesia! Best of luck in your travels ahead…

  7. Ronny says:

    Scary story … glad you made it out ok!

  8. Rose says:

    I’ve been reading your blog on and off for the last few years… I just want to say I think you’re an inspiration, and you sound like a fantastic mother and traveler!

    Anyway, this post in particular is great! Travel definitely is sometimes different for us women, I’m glad nothing bad happened in the end. It really is a great road 🙂

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you! Not sure my son would say I’m a fantastic mother, but we do get on quite well. We did this road again quite recently, and it looks like it might deteriorate quite fast. Hope it doesn’t!

  9. Zoom says:

    Hit the nail on the head…it is just different for girls. When I was in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam I couldn’t ditch this creeper on the boat. You did a good, and funny, job handling it 🙂 I dream of the day when it doesn’t have to be like this!

    P.S You’re hilarious.