For me, my trip to Israel back in 2016 marked the first of many things. The first time I travelled solo, the first time I saw a camel in the flesh, the first time I stepped foot in a desert, and the first time I’d ever genuinely been scared for my life.
Now before we get into the juicy details, I just need to say that I don’t want this blog post to act as a deterrent to anyone who is looking to travel solo. Travelling on your own is something I would recommend to everyone to try at least once, and by no means has this experience put me off travelling on my own. However, this story is an honest encounter of why you should always keep your wits about you whilst travelling in an unfamiliar place!
Right, let’s get into it.
Picture this: a pale red head 19-year-old female walking around the streets of Jerusalem. To say I stuck out like a sore thumb would be the understatement of 2019. And throughout the trip, I was always aware of this. I wasn’t always wearing the typical local attire, and with my skin being 50 shades lighter combined with the Canon camera around my neck, they must have been able to smell the tourist from miles away.
Walking through Jerusalem I had to quickly become accustomed to the catcalls from the local young men. And when I say young, I actually got told that I had "nice tits" by a passing boy who can’t have been older than 14.
Another disclaimer: before I get shouted at, I can assure you that I was dressed respectfully. Almost all of the religious sights in Jerusalem (in and out of the Old City) ask you to cover up your shoulders. Some may also ask you to cover your head and/or knees. Just to be sure (like I wasn’t standing out enough already), I often had my shoulders and knees covered whilst walking around.
Anyway, I got used to the passing comments and quickly realised that I was just going to have to deal with looking out of place. It was something I’d never experienced before but was an interesting life lesson about culture.
There were a number of occasions where I found myself in situations that made me slightly more uncomfortable. One of the sacrifices of solo travelling is that you have to ask strangers to take your photos. Now I have no problem with that whatsoever (honestly, I’ll ask like 5 different strangers to take the same photo of me until I’m happy with it), but there were at least 6 incidences where the stranger would try to take me somewhere I didn't want to go.
As a born and bred Londoner, any more contact with a stranger other than “please can you take my photo?” “sure” and “thanks” puts me a little bit on edge (even more so this time as I was on my own). After being practically forced to be given a tour by a man who very clearly was not a tour guide, and another occasion of a man locking me in his shop until I bought something, I was starting to get used to it. One taxi driver insisted on taking a 10 minute detour to show me a view point. Granted, the view was pretty great, but he wouldn't take no for an answer. And this wasn't the only time this happened.
After deciding to call it a day on my full day of tourist-ing around Jerusalem, I was looking at my folded map to gather my bearings and head back to where I was staying. (Who knew it could have been even more obvious that I was a tourist?) A man in his mid 40s walked up to me and asked if I wanted my photo taken, to which I politely declined. He then proceeded to ask me where I was wanting to go, to which I insisted I was ‘all good, but thanks’. He gestured to his car, offering to take me to where I needed to go. The lack of taxi symbols was a huge red flag, but I could see an older couple in the back seats. He was being pretty persistent, and as a young woman in an unfamiliar environment, I was feeling pretty vulnerable. I’m definitely not good at saying no as I don’t like to upset people, so the fact that there were other people in the car was my justification that it was safe to get in. I was also SO tired after 8 hours of walking, and my accommodation was at least another 40-minute walk away. So yeah, I got in.
Talking to the couple, I found out they were on holiday from Brazil, and they were very lovely. The driver was pretty chatty and it all seemed to be legit. Phew. I told the driver the area I was trying to get to (of course I directed him to somewhere that was at least a 10 minute walk from where I was staying, just to be safe.) Through his broken English, it was hard to know what was going on, and when he drove PAST the place I’d asked to be dropped off, I started to get a bit concerned.
But it was okay because the couple were still in the car. I kept chatting away to this Brazilian couple, and eventually we pulled up to a hotel just out of the city. This where the couple were dropped off.
So now it’s just me and this very unofficial ‘taxi’ driver, a 20-minute drive outside of the city. Now, I always like to assume good intent, so that’s what I did. Maybe he was just genuinely being helpful, and maybe he dropped the couple off first because he had a deadline (I really couldn’t tell if he was part of a travel company or not).
Anyway, it’s just me and him in this car and all is good so far. He asked me what sights I had seen and what I’d been getting up to during my trip. Eventually we got to the edge of the Old City so I knew we were near where he was going to drop me, thank god.
Or so I thought.
He pointed out the Tower of David, which I had visited earlier that day, but hadn't gone to the very top. He then told me he would take me to the Ein Gedi the next day, for no cost. Ein Gedi is a national park almost a two hour drive away from Jerusalem. Luckily, I’d already taken a day trip to that area the day before, which I had pre-booked with a travel agency and paid about £60 for. He was offering it for free? No chance pal.
So once again I politely declined, but I started to notice that we were now heading in the wrong direction yet again. I honestly can’t remember much of what he said in the car from this point onwards because I started to panic. I just remember that the conversation made me pretty uncomfortable, as he was being very forward. Maybe he was just being friendly, but I wasn’t prepared to take my chances.
That was when we pulled into a car park.
He told me to get out.
Obviously, all these scenarios start to rush around in my head. I grabbed my bag and told myself that if I got any more uncomfortable, I would just run away. We were in the Old City, right by the Tower of David, so we were in a place popular with tourists. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
As it was towards the end of the tourist day (around 6pm), there was practically no one about. Shit.
Still, I carried on assuming good intent. He lead me to the tower.
“Okay”, I told myself, “He’s just showing me one of the landmarks. I totally told him that I’d already seen it but it’s fine. Maybe the view at the top is worth it.”
He then started to hold my hand.
I froze. It took my discomfort to whole new level, but still I didn’t leave. I was scared that he would do something worse if I tried to leave. I had no idea who this guy was. I suppose that, at the time, he was being creepy enough for me to assume he could be aggressive.
I decided the best was to play this was to just be straight with him and ask why he was holding my hand and being so ‘friendly’. He replied with the words:
‘It makes me feel nice’.
Whilst trying to process this comment, he led me up the stairs of the tower. We got to the top and of course, no one was there. And guess what, the view wasn't even worth it! Regardless, I immediately had an excuse to pull my hand away from his and hold my camera with both hands – desperately taking as many photos as I could get away with before he could justify grabbing my hand again. All the while, all I’m thinking is “how can I get back down?”. It was either down the staircase with him or jumping off the 150 feet high roof.
I knew I had to settle for the staircase (I admit the roof could have been a cool James Bond/Liam Neeson moment) so once again he attempted to grab my hand. This time I decided to pretend to look through and admire the photos I’d just taken, so kept my hands firmly on the camera. (I had literally taken about 50 photos of the same view so there really wasn’t much to admire).
Told you the view wasn't even that great!
To my relief we finally got the ground. Now you’re probably thinking “Well at least Lois is sensible enough to now walk away and not get back in the car.”
Hahaha oh I wish you were right. I got back in the SODDING car.
Guys and girls, I can’t emphasise enough how insistent this guy was. He would NOT take no for an answer. I must have refused things he had been asking me to do at least 100 times by this point. We pulled away, and after 5 minutes of more uncomfortable conversation, it finally hit me that this was not a good situation to be in.
I told him to stop the car.
By this point we were on a main road, so he refused to stop. I asked him again. I’d had enough, and I needed to get out of that car. Once again, he refused, so I then did what seemed like the only logical thing I had done that day, and opened the passenger door whilst the car was still moving. (That can be my Liam Neeson moment, right?)
He quickly pulled over, and started saying something that I’ll never know because as soon as that car stopped, I leapt out. Luckily, I knew roughly where I was, and remembered there was a pedestrian area around the corner. I ran to safety.
Now, he could have just been an overly friendly, lonely man in his 40s who just wanted to show tourists around his home city. But as a vulnerable 19 year old who has seen the film Taken, you can’t blame me for thinking I wasn’t going to make it back to where I was staying.
As my mother always says, everything in life is a lesson, and I certainly learnt a lot from this experience. I learnt to say no sooner in uncomfortable situations, and I learnt that when in doubt, just walk!
When this all happened, I had already been in Jerusalem for a few days, so I had already familiarised myself with my surroundings. Because of this, I knew straight away when something was up, but with iPhones and Google Maps being so accessible, it's easy to not to look up as much. Hopefully this story can remind any of you who are planning any solo travel this year to always have your wits about you and always pay attention to the environment, because you never know when it will come in handy.
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