On February 24 2008, around 1pm, I was kidnapped.
More than three years have passed since this unfortunate event. Luckily, nothing tragic then happened to me. I was neither raped nor stabbed, sequestrated nor assaulted; I was only threatened.
Still, this incident marked the first test of my mental preparation, a giant leap out of my comfort zone, a jump with both feet, almost unconscious, into a danger zone. It marked the end of seven years of quiet, undisturbed hitchhiking. The fly in the ointment but also the beginning of a new era. The end of innocence and the beginning of an intense mental preparation. The dawn of my real career as a hitchhiker.
In late January, at Cologne’s carnival, I had met an eccentric man whom I liked. My life unfolded as a series of road trips in the Ruhr area, between Essen, where my pied-a-terre was, and Cologne where my lover lived.
As always, I was hitchhiking as a main means of transportation
As always, I was hitchhiking as a main means of transportation, although the area had a reputation of a Hitchhiker’s Trap. Indeed, it is one, coupling a high population density with a multitude of highways and motorways in a zigzag configuration. It is particularly difficult to predict the most used route between any two points, and gas stations are scarce. There are dozens of ways of going from one point to another, and few points from which to hitchhike safely while being visible.
Hitching back towards Essen, my lover gave me a lift to the Shell Schoß Röttgen-Ost station on the A59 motorway. The waiting time was fairly normal, a quarter of an hour. A man stopped and offered to take me to Dortmund, provided however that he could make a short stop on his way to pick up someone or something, I did not understand. He did not speak English nor French, only German or Turkish, as he was of Turkish origin. Being in Germany only for a few weeks, my knowledge of German was poor and we managed to communicate although I really needed to concentrate in order to handle the conversation.
The man was single, childless, worked as a mechanic and was going to Dortmund to meet up with friends. He warned me soon enough that we needed to leave the motorway to fetch what he had to pick up (man or thing). After riding for about twenty minutes, we arrived at a residential area and he parked the car. He motioned me to wait inside, which made me trust him in return for his own trust, letting me wait inside the car.
Ten minutes later, he returned with a box full of keys and pointed a keyring, explaining that now he could fetch the thing he needed to, and then we would leave for Dortmund. I was disappointed by the extra stop we now needed to make, but I bore with it because I had no real idea of our location, and because the final destination still suited me.
As with the boiling frog, the stress level rose slowly and I did not react right away. If I had known from the start that there would be two stops and a major detour, I would not have taken the lift but rather waited for another opportunity to go North. Here, my major mistake was of course not to pay attention to the path my driver used. I was too confused with the complexity of the road network and understanding German to pay proper attention to the surroundings.
About fifteen minutes later, we reached a parking lot where many cars were parked. He asked me to follow him, and I did since we were near a commercial building. Carefree and curious, I left my backpack in the car. We passed in front of what I thought was a car dealer to get to a locked place. The man opened the door and showed me inside. Formerly a discounts shop, the premises were empty, except for a few posters hanging from the ceiling, announcing socks or hats on sale, and a few piles of tires on the ground to the right, near the bay. My driver pointed out numbers embossed on the tires, indicating their size. “My friend must tell me which ones I need to bring”, he said, or at least that’s what I assume he said. He showed me where the toilets were and said I should help myself if I needed to go, and so I did.
When I returned, he had closed the door, but I didn’t notice that right away. In fact, I only later discovered that he had locked it from the inside …
When I returned from the restroom, the man was standing by the tire piles, in the main room. I got near him, but stood at a comfortable distance. There was a strange silence. Then, he asked me if my hands were still cold. “Nein, nein”, I replied – barely aware of my own needs. When hitchhiking, I never complain for being cold or hungry, I do not even ask myself those questions, as a way of keeping a positive mind…
The man got closer to me, looking at me with a neutral face, then grabbed my hands as to assess their temperature. His touch was too soft to be harmless and appropriate. “I don’t know what you want, but it’s NO!”, I said, trying to slip my wrists out of his grip. He didn’t hold them so tight, so I quickly escaped his clawed fists and stepped back. He nodded, suggesting that I should give in, and motioned me to come closer.
I shook my head firmly and declined. Again, he tried to grab my hands but I stepped back faster this time, bending my knees as if I was looking for a stable battle stance. He stopped and the silence set for a while.
Then, he asked me why I refused. “It’s nothing personal. You are ok. I do not want. I’m in love! It’s ok to ask. Some girls are not ok when one asks, but I am. You ask, I say no, it’s not ok to ask again and again.” I was losing the little German I knew… He stopped and stood there in silence. But soon he was soon insisting again, offering me money and nodding at me, pressing me with his eyes and without a smile. I was getting upset so I angrily asked if his friend would soon call soon. He sighed, exasperated and said he just wouldn’t call back.
My heart was pounding fast. He gave up and beckoned me to follow him to the main door, which I did. That’s when I noticed that it was not only closed, but locked, and that the key was in the lock, so as not to be disturbed.
The Boiling Frog story is a widespread anecdote describing a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually.
At this point, my brain went numb. We were leaving the garage as I was realizing that I had been locked. I was both surprised and relieved to be getting out of that situation without having been harmed. I went back to the car and, instead of grabbing my luggage and leave, I got back on board. We resumed our trip, or so I thought. “So, Dortmund, finally!”, I said. The man did not smile.
“No, we’re not going to Dortmund.” I was struck with sudden panic. “WHAT?” I shouted nervously. “We’re not going to Dortmund because you do not want to cooperate. You go to Cologne. You can still change your mind… I can even take you to your friend in Essen, if you make an effort … But if you don’t want to, I’ll just let you on the side of the motorway”, he said.
The roadside can be a very dangerous place, especially when considering the speed at which cars sometime race around Germany. There’s no way he should leave me there. “Not on the motorway – on the highway. I’m not going to Cologne, I’m going to Essen. I must go on the road to Essen, I want safety.”, I said in a firm tone, obviously still panicked. He replied emotionless : “Now you go to Cologne, and I let you on the motorway. You can still change your mind …”
My thoughts were rushing in my head, and I was trying hard to locate where I was, checking whatever signs could help me figure it out. Even the motorway numbers weren’t familiar. His cell phone rang and he picked up the call, but I remained silent. We passed a roundabout and a Lidl supermarket, and then he took the opposite direction. Was the call from his friend? Was there any truth in the story he had told me? I glared at him, trying to make him understand that I could scream and cause a scandal right now…
He ended his call and suddenly stopped the car on the fast lane, near an interchange going to Cologne. “Here, you go to Cologne. You can hitchhike here, or you know what to do.” I got out of the car, slamming the door and desperately clinging to my backpack. Maybe he hoped that I would panic and go back in the car, because he did wait a few seconds. I hurried myself over the rail to get away from the road. There was a steep ditch, and I ran down the embankment. I heard his car leave with great noise.
My breath was short and I began to sob as I walked towards the roundabout. I was crying with fear, relief, shock. Then I started to comfort myself out loud, telling myself that everything was now fine, that I was safe and sound, that it was not my fault …
Insanity is sometimes beneficial. I quickly came back to my senses.
I walked for two miles along the fields, in the mud, well out of sight. I listened to music, I practiced my German with audio-classes. I got in the supermarket, bought sweets, ate, and then set to find out where I was. I was on the other side of Cologne. I sent an SMS to my lover and, not carrying a map with me, I got back on the roadside in order to hitchhike to the nearest train station.
It was nearly three o’clock. Two Russians took me under their wing, taking me to the train station Horrem and helping me to buy a ticket. From then on, my only focus was the landscape surrounding the railroad.
Despite hitchhiking over 40,000 km over nearly seven years before, I was kidnapped on February 24, 2008. Fortunately, I came out of this experience alive and unharmed, though in shock.
The following day, I hitched out of Essen, testing a new starting point in a suburb, Gelsenkirchen, and I did not regret it – I was picked up by a couple who offered me snacks and tea, taking good care of me. I was quickly going beyond my shock and my fear, exactly like when I had a gun pointed at me by an heroine addict during a hold-up when I was 16, working in a fast food restaurant.
My concern was to report the incident to the police. I was no longer in Germany, but in Norway with my best friend when I decided to write down all the event details as accurately as possible in English (French being my first language). I used a police declaration form on the regional police’s website.
Shortly after, I posted an account of my story on forums, to foster comments. On women’s forum, reactions were initially empathetic, but they quickly castigated me, to my surprise and anger. Come on, don’t you know hitchhiking is dangerous, it’s obvious, I’m surprised it took so long for something bad to happen to you. We should listen to our moms, and never talk to strangers. In socio-criminal jargo, it is called victim blaming, a form of secondary victimization in which a crime is justified saying that the victim has a share of responsibility in it. It’s a way that people not taking any risks (is that possible?) reassure themselves. It’s fairly common when it comes to sexual offenses, but barely happen in cases of theft …
But what was she doing there at that time and dressed like that? …No wonder she got raped!
My gypsy musician friend Malika Selami recommended that I copy my post on Couchsurfing’s hitchhiking group. It snowballed, leading to the largest online collection of bad hitchhiking stories that I know of. It was a balm on my wound: almost all encouraged me to continue to hitchhike.
What I find most important, however, is to learn from my misfortune. What were my mistakes? What technical aspects of my practice could be improved? In retrospect, here is my analysis of what happened.
Gender: (-) Being a woman, I’m more exposed than men to kidnapping and sex crimes.
Experience Level: (+) Seven years of experience have given me skills to manage my relationship with the driver; (-) lack of mental preparation on the possibility of violent crime, (-) little knowledge of self-defense (-) little knowledge of the itinerary.
Degree of Language Ability: (-) Inability to communicate effectively with the driver.
Body Type: (=) Clothing, strength, etc..
Factors related to the ride
Number of hitchhikers (-) Being alone, I am nearly ten times more likely to be assaulted than if I’d be accompanied.
Time and Darkness: (+) It was early in the day, while a majority of crimes occur after 6 p.m.
Distance: (=) It was a long distance trip (less risky than intracity), but short and in a very densely populated area.
Rate and type of local crime: (+) Germany is generally considered safe.
Perception of hitchhiker: (+) Hitchhiking is common in Germany.
Perception of foreigners: (=)
Current Events: (+) No war, major political instability, etc..
Characteristics and intentions of the driver and passengers (-) The driver had a hidden thought of obtaining sexual favors.
I have an opportunity to influence some safety factors when hitchhiking. In this this precise case, I could have travelled with a friend, learned German and better manage my relationship with the driver. How? By knowing the itinerary and checking on it in order to always know where I was and where I was heading, by enforcing a strict code of conduct – avoid major detours, not tolerate any bullshit, meaning setting my limits and sticking to them as much as possible, notifying my driver whenever he’d cross my boundaries,leaving immediately situations where I’m uncomfortable, before the driver spots a flaw, a weakness, an opportunity to trap me.
There were gaps in my preparation, both physical and mental. I wasn’t ready to react to an extreme situation, not because I was reckless but rather because I wasn’t worried anymore – comforted by seven years of good to average experiences.. I have since reviewed many scenarios and imagined the worst, checking on my reaction until I manage to imagine an issue, a possibility of survival and preservation of my physical integrity. This preparation has been useful to me in Turkey a year later because I had to leave two other vehicles, in just two days of hitchhiking: one left his hands wander, the other dropped his pants …
But that time I was feeling Zen. I was ready. www.globestoppeuse.com