It was October 2013 and I was in Charleston, South Carolina, for a three-day speech pathology symposium. At the end of that third day I was fried and more than ready to return to our hotel. 2013 being pre-Uber, I called for a cab. “We’ll have a taxi there in five,” the dispatcher told me.
I waited outside the conference center alongside two other women, fellow attendees. They were obviously friends and chatted while I stood apart, letting my mind wander to the past few days. Yes, I was at a work conference, but Dale and I had spent our free time that weekend discussing the future. We were making plans for an extended trip—what would eventually evolve into our 2015 European travels—and at the time we didn’t know where we wanted to go. Asia? Australia? A road trip across North America? We hadn’t figured it out yet, but exploring lovely Charleston, a new town for us, made us want to travel all the more. I basked in the muggy Carolina heat and daydreamed about Thailand and Chile and the American South.
“You waiting for a cab?” A voice interrupted my thoughts, and I looked up to find a tall, well-dressed man striding toward me.
“C’mon,” he said, gesturing toward a shiny Lincoln Continental sitting across the drive.
I was confused. Was this my taxi driver?
But then he said, “You don’t have to wait. Taxi’s take too long; you’ll be waiting forever. My vehicle is nicer than some old cab; I’m here, I’ll give you a ride, c’mon. Let’s go.” He talked non-stop, and I allowed myself to be swept along by the stream of his words and the way that he moved toward me, herding me to his car without a touch. The other women watched this unfold, and I contemplated saying something to them, but what? Instead, I followed him to his car.
Even before we’d reached the vehicle, I realized that this man was not, in fact, my cab driver, yet I got in anyway, sliding to the middle across the smooth leather and buckling my seatbelt. The man climbed into the driver’s seat, confirmed my hotel and then started the car without another word.
By this point I’d gone from dazed to full-on panic, as if the situation in which I’d placed myself was just now occurring to me. What was I doing here?
I looked around and saw details that comforted me: the interior of the car was clean and polished, and an identification card displayed the driver’s first name. This guy must be legit, right? I asked myself.
No dummy, I answered. Anyone can laminate a piece of paper and duct tape it to their dashboard. And where, by the way, is that roll of duct tape?
Dark thoughts filled my head. I was in this man’s car, the most vulnerable place I could be. I looked out the window at the unfamiliar city speeding by, watching as we left the heart of Charleston and headed to the more industrial, rough-edged North Charleston, where Dale and I were staying.
The panic made my stomach lurch, and I remember gut-wrenching regret. What if I never saw Dale again? Or my family? I loved my life and the people in it and had so much to look forward to. What had I done?
At some point my cell phone rang. It was the taxi company; no doubt my driver had arrived and was trying to locate me. I swelled with shame. Not only had I gotten into a strange man’s car, but I had jilted the cab driver. I ignored the first call, and a moment later the dispatcher called again, but I let it go to voice mail.
At the beginning of the ride, I had mapped the route on my iPhone and watched it closely, clutching the phone in my hands. Initially the driver had taken a route that was different from the one recommended by Google, but as the drive progressed we got on track. There were no detours to the edge of town; no swamps or lonesome fields surfaced outside the window. We would soon be at my hotel.
When we arrived, he asked for the fare: $25 for the ten-minute ride, more than twice what a taxi would’ve cost me. I didn’t care. I handed over the money without a word and was so relieved that I almost cried.
I debated whether or not to tell Dale because he’d be terrified by what I had done. I couldn’t keep something like this from him, however, and when I immediately confessed he was upset, not only because I’d gotten myself into a dangerous situation but also because I had so few skills to defend myself. We both left Charleston feeling shaken.
Learning from my mistake
When I told Dale that I was writing a blog post about what happened, he shook his head and pulled me into a hug. Five years later, it still haunts us both.
Yet we’ve learned so much since that time, and he agreed that it would be good to share these lessons with others. So here goes…
Why’d I get in that car?
Obviously this question had to be addressed, and yet it was hard to answer, and once the initial horror wore off I put the experience out of my mind.
But it gnawed at me. This wasn’t the first time I’d been taken advantage of. In fact, it happened with regularity, mostly minor stuff: someone might cut in line at a store and I wouldn’t say anything. A co-worker might make sexual and misogynistic jokes, and I would laugh uncomfortably instead of reporting him to a supervisor. Once, when I took my car to an all-service carwash and asked for a basic wash, the guy tried to up-sell me to the “deluxe” package. I politely refused but he did it anyway, and I was furious but paid for it without a word. Whenever this kind of thing happened, I’d walk away and then simmer and stew, fantasizing about what I should’ve done and hating myself for my weakness.
So I was a push-over. Why? Through time spent meditating and journaling, I came to multiple realizations:
First, I’m too damned nice. My heart pounds and my armpits go to mush at the mere contemplation of saying “no,” and I’ll go along with something unnecessary rather than engage in confrontation. I could’ve told the driver, “No thanks, I have a cab on the way,” but I didn’t want to be rude.
And I care way too much about what others think of me. I’m a pathological people pleaser, especially when it comes to authority figures and men, and my driver was both. He projected confidence and acted like a bully, and I got into his car because I didn’t want to disappoint him. Even after I’d realized my mistake, I did what was expected of me, buckling my seatbelt and sitting quietly.
Last, I have some serious self-esteem issues. I valued myself so little that, in Charleston, I put a stranger’s feelings above my own safety. Not only did I think it was rude to refuse him, I didn’t think I had the right to. I wasn’t worthy of standing up for my own needs. I was obligated to take that ride.
The mistakes I made
Examining my psyche helped me to see the subconscious programming that shaped my decisions and led to the mistakes that I made that day:
- I had poor situational awareness. I’m a habitual daydreamer, and that afternoon in Charleston was no different. I was oblivious to my surroundings, which allowed the man to catch me off guard. It may’ve even been why he targeted me.
- I went willingly to the car and then stayed, even after I’d realized that I shouldn’t be there. And once we got going, I could have also asked him to pull over at any point, yet I didn’t.
- I sat in the middle of the backseat as opposed to behind the driver, which made me less able to defend myself.
- I didn’t text Dale to let him know what was happening.
- I didn’t have a plan for the what-ifs. What if he did take me to an abandoned building or remote field? Rather than making a plan for the worst case scenario, I sat in numb panic. Instead of thinking offensively, I assumed that there was nothing I could do to mitigate the situation I was in.
There were a few things I did do right: I kept my cell phone handy, and I mapped the route and watched it closely.
- Learn to say no. I know I’m not the only one who melts at the thought of saying no, but it’s essential we learn how to do just that. We must be willing to say no:
- when something or someone makes us uncomfortable or puts us in danger
- when it’s something we just don’t want to do!
- Don’t negotiate. If you tell someone no, do not negotiate. Once you’ve said “no thank you,” you’ve established a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Don’t go beyond it.
- The responsibility of looking out for me rests with me. We must take responsibility for our own safety and do what we can to avoid unsafe situations. And we shouldn’t assume that anyone else is looking out for our well-being.
- Situational awareness is really, really important. By paying attention to what is going on around us, we can be alerted to situations and people that might put us in danger.
- Learn how to defend yourself. Since 2013, Dale and I have taken multiple self-defense courses (which I’ll about write in an upcoming post), and we practice our skills at home. I have no intention of getting myself into such a dangerous situation again, but I also need to be as prepared as possible for random predicaments, and having the ability to defend myself will always be valuable.
- Don’t think like a victim. Despite being in this stranger’s car, I wasn’t necessarily at his mercy. I still had options. Placing myself behind the driver, for example, would’ve been advantageous: he wouldn’t be able to see what I was doing, and I could’ve pummeled him if need be. These days I practice visualizing different scenarios and defense strategies; just as important, I think about what I can do to a perpetrator rather than just what he can do to me.
- Use Uber or Lyft when they’re available. Dale and I now use Uber because it offers advantages that many taxi services don’t. With the Uber app (and this is true for Lyft as well), you know who your driver is. You’re given multiple identifiers, including the name and photo of the driver, the make and color of car, and the license plate.
- Use situational awareness anytime you travel with a stranger. I’d like to think that I would have been safe if I’d had access to Uber or had caught my original cab instead of taking a ride with a stranger. But they’re all strangers, and there’s no guarantee that a ride in my designated taxi would’ve been any more secure than the one I found myself in. Anytime we use a transportation service, whether it’s Lyft, a cab, or a shiny Lincoln Continental, we can’t assume that we’re safe. Even after you’ve met your Uber driver and confirmed his name, the make of his car, and his license plate, you still need to pay attention to your environment and bail if something makes you uncomfortable.
- Be gentle with yourself. One reason I didn’t want to think about my mistake in Charleston was because it made me feel like an idiot. By getting to know myself, however, I’m beginning to accept my flaws, learn from my mistakes, and love who I am. And these insights ultimately make me stronger and safer, because I’m more likely to stand up for myself and say “no” when no is called for.
In the end, the only thing that happened was that I took an uncomfortable ride in a fancy cab. Nothing more. But it was an invaluable experience, one that taught me all kinds of lessons.
We’d love to hear from you. What was your worst travel mistake, and what did you learn from the experience? Email us with your thoughts, experiences, or safety tips!