My flight to Mumbai landed at about 4am local time. The trip from New York had been a long one: ten hours to Istanbul, an eight-hour layover at Istanbul airport, then another seven hours to Mumbai. I was, unsurprisingly, exhausted. Excited, but exhausted. I had one more flight left, to Goa, which is about an hour south down the west coast of India. To make that flight, I had to get from the international terminal to the domestic one, a simple transfer on an airport shuttle bus.
When we boarded the buses, the driver checked our domestic tickets and told us to get off at either the first, second or third terminal. He told me to get off at the third, and I climbed onto the bus, wondering what time my aching body thought it was.
The first stop came, and about half the passengers disembarked. The second stop came, and all the rest got off. Seeing that I was the only passenger left, and knowing that given my fatigue, there was a good chance I had misheard or misremembered the driver’s instructions, I got off the bus to check that my flight was indeed leaving from the third terminal. The driver said that it was, so I got back on the bus and waited. Alone. In the dark.
The driver and a man who had been loading suitcases into the belly of the bus got back on. But instead of starting the engine up again, the driver approached me and asked me for a tip. I wasn’t sure if it was customary to tip drivers in this situation, but custom aside, I had no Indian cash on me. The booth at JFK had been closed, and the one at Istanbul airport wouldn’t give me Rupees, so I had no money with which to tip him. I told him so, and he asked me again.
“No,” I said, more firmly this time. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have any money on me.”
There was a pause. “My flight is leaving from Terminal Three,” I said. “I’d like to go there now, please.”
He got back behind the wheel, started the engine, and drove, but before we arrived at any terminal, the bus came to a stop. The porter got out, and I watched as he walked oer to a group of armed soldiers who were sitting and talking under a lighted sign. I watched as one of them stood up, walked back to the bus with the porter, and got on. He sat down in the row in front of me, and the porter sat in across the aisle from me. Then, the driver got up and asked me, yet again, for a tip.
“I’m sorry,” I said for the third time, “but I don’t have any money on me.”
He stood there, swaying a little, looking at the steering wheel. He went over and twiddled a few knobs, and then stepped back, looking at the driver’s seat, as if to say, “well, the bus isn’t working right now, but I’m sure a few hundred Rupees can fix that.”
It was four thirty in the morning. The bus was stopped between terminals. I was alone, in the dark, with three men, one of whom had a firearm. I had just pissed one of them off by refusing to tip him. This was not good. This was really not good.
“I would really like to avoid being raped within half an hour of clearing customs,” I thought to myself. “I would really like to avoid being assaulted within minutes of landing in this country.”
It was at this point that I surreptitiously reached into my wallet, not to pull out money, but to pull out my house keys. I slipped them into my right hand, one on either side of my middle finger, and curled my hand into a fist.
I thought about my options. I could get off the bus, but I had no idea where in the giant airport complex I was, or where I could find help, and I spoke no Hindi. I could stay on the bus, and just hope that the driver would take me to the right terminal swiftly, and that no one would do me any harm.
I was aware, in that moment, that neither of these choices was appealing, and that both choices carried the risk of regret, and of judgment. If I erred on the side of caution and got off the bus, I would be accused of over-reacting, of suspecting all men just because they were men, of seeing a threat where no threat existed. It wouldn’t be the first time. If, god forbid, something had happened, people would ask why I hadn’t gone with my gut, recognized a threat, extricated myself from a dangerous situation. “Why the hell did she stay on the bus?” “What did she think would happen, alone in the dark on a bus with three men?” and on, and on.
I sat in the dark, thinking about all this and squeezing my keys in my hand, my nails digging in to my palm. I didn’t really think they would inflict that much damage in a physical confrontation, but they were better than nothing. I sat there, every muscle in my body tight, my jaw clenched. Within minutes, I had gone from exhausted and sluggish to alert and afraid.
Eventually, the driver started the engine and drove a short distance to the third terminal. I got out, grabbed my bag and marched toward the building.
“Terminal three?” I asked the airport employee standing at the door.
“Terminal two,” he replied. “There is no terminal three.”
Looking up at the airline signs on the building, I realized that the bus driver not been driving me to a third terminal. He had just circled around to some empty part of the airport after dropping all the other passengers off. I had found myself alone with three strange men on a bus in the middle of a dark airport because he had engineered it so.
Traveling alone can be a gloriously liberating experience. The freedom to make your own decisions, to move at your own pace, to literally choose your own path, is a wonderful thing. The realization that you are quite happy in your own company can be a surprising but welcome one. Traveling at all is a luxury I am lucky to have, and traveling alone is a luxury I have as a woman raised in cultures where women are allowed that freedom. But for women, traveling alone can come with a set of extra risks that men don’t generally run. And though I would encourage all people to try traveling alone if they can, it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.
As a result, for women, traveling alone can come with a set of extra fears that men don’t generally feel. The freedom to choose your own path is curtailed by the need to avoid situations like the one in which I found myself. Yes, I am happy in my own company, but if I had been traveling in the company of a man, or even of another woman, the driver probably wouldn’t have pulled the stunt he did.
I chose option two: stay on the bus, hope that the driver would take me to the right terminal swiftly, and that no one would do me any harm. And that is precisely what happened.
No one did me any harm, and for that I’m profoundly grateful. I won’t stop traveling alone, because I love it, and because in the six or so years I’ve been doing it, this was the first time I’ve ever feared for my safety. But I won’t forget soon forget that fear. I won’t forget that tightness in my muscles. I won’t forget the feeling of my keys slipping slightly against my sweaty fingers. I won’t forget that fear – and traveling alone, I suspect, won’t ever be the same again.