(Graphic: Kat Borosky/TueNight.com)
I may have the word “open” tattooed on my back, but I consider myself overly cautious.
By nature of being a sex writer, many people think I’ve offered myself up for explicit, inappropriate conversations, and that’s forced me to keep my guard up. Normally, I don’t answer my phone unless I know who’s calling. I vet strangers I’m meeting extensively online beforehand. On a recent flight, I even took my laptop to the bathroom rather than leave it unprotected in the seat back compartment.
My caution is what stopped me from contacting a man I met on my flight to Dubai after I let him borrow my phone charger; I didn’t want to give him the wrong impression.
I was excited about this trip to Dubai, and announced it on my blog, Twitter and Facebook in case friends had recommendations or knew people there. The primary purpose of my trip was to find the world’s first and only Hello Kitty Spa, which had recently opened (yes, I was 36 going on 13, and am more than a little obsessed with Sanrio’s most famous character).
The trip went from being a vague, maybe-someday idea to something I felt compelled to do, and even 24 hours of traveling (one of my flights got cancelled) hadn’t dampened my enthusiasm. I often travel alone — and actually prefer solo travel. This was the farthest I’d ever traveled on my own, and I felt proud of being able to navigate the trip’s contingencies by myself. I didn’t think I’d miss company.
A few days into my trip, on a Tuesday, I got multiple emails from a man who’d seen my tweets about my Middle Eastern adventure. I was suspicious but definitely intrigued. His English — not his first language — had the slightly garbled wording of spam. I cautiously replied that perhaps we should meet for coffee on Saturday. To my surprise, he took it a step further and asked if we could meet that day. I put him off, not having any intention of meeting a complete stranger. We emailed briefly, but nothing of consequence occurred.
That day, I wandered in the heat, looking for the mall where the spa was supposed to be. An hour later, I hadn’t found it, and decided to head back; just as I was exiting, a man approached me. I quickly realized he was the man from the emails. He recognized me from his Google image searches, including a photo I’d posted of my new purse.
“I found out where you’re staying,” he told me proudly.
That sufficiently creeped me out, especially since I hadn’t expected the Four Points Sheraton Hotel to confirm a guest’s identity. But I still set my stalked radar aside. He seemed friendly enough, despite having tracked me down in a completely inappropriate way. I decided since we were in public, it couldn’t hurt to sit with him; after all, he might be the only local person I’d meet in Dubai.
Over Kentucky Fried Chicken from the food court (his treat) and a cupcake (mine), he told me about his job, the ins and outs of Dubai culture and geography, and asked me about my life as a writer. Afterward, he walked me over to the adjacent mall that housed the spa I was longing for, took my photo in front of it and graciously helped me buy a SIM card. When he offered me a ride to my hotel, I refused. “I don’t know you,” I said, and he didn’t push the issue. I took a taxi, glad to have met someone local I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered.
The next morning, I wasn’t that shocked to see him sitting in my hotel’s lobby. If this had happened in the U.S., I would have immediately tell him to get lost, but I just said, “Hello.” Looking back, I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t try to get away at that moment, though I suspect that my sense of “normalcy” had flip-flopped in the alternate universe of my vacation. He didn’t seem dangerous, and I knew he had to go to work, so he shouldn’t be sticking around all day.
Since I hadn’t invited him, I ignored him while I hooked up to the free hotel Wi-Fi. When I was done, he asked where I was going, and this time, I accepted his offer of a ride. I did this because by then, I’d talked to him enough and had deemed him harmless. Plus I knew he had to go to work, so I wasn’t worried that he was going to try to spend the day with me.
He dropped me off (at yet another mall, this one with an ice bar), and I figured that was that. He was pleasant enough, and I’d enjoyed chatting with him, but didn’t intend to spend any more time with him during my trip.
Later that night, though, things started to feel murkier. He sent me an email telling me that my “boobs” looked nice in my Facebook photos. Maybe the physical distance between us, or the fact that we were, essentially strangers, coupled with me being a sex writer, made him believe I was interested in more than friendship (though even friendship seemed more serious than what I considered him — a travel acquaintance). I regretted having trusted him, and was upset that our previously cordial interactions were now marred by his crudeness, but was grateful I wouldn’t have to see him ever again. I had the hotel block all calls to my room and screened his number from my local cell phone. I ignored him completely, because to do otherwise felt like it would only be encouraging him.
Saturday morning, there was an unexpected knock on my hotel room door. When I asked who it was and heard his name, I’m ashamed to say my immediate response was, “I’m sorry, I’m going out now.” I was too shocked to say, “Leave me alone.” I was shaking, horrified that he would find a way to get inside my room, even though I’d bolted the door. Technically, you needed a key card to get to floors where guests stay, but apparently that was easy enough to skirt.
I called security, stammering out a request to send someone up. I heard voices in the hallway, but nobody knocked to escort me downstairs. I waited for 10 minutes before daring to peek into the hall. No one was there, so I gathered my things, shut my door and hoped that he wasn’t waiting near the elevators. In the lobby, I saw him sitting in a chair and hurried past him to grab a taxi and escape. He followed me and begged me to tell security not to call the police. I didn’t want to embroil myself in an international police matter — I just wanted him to go away — so I agreed. “Are you sure?” the hotel staffed asked me. I was, and raced off to enjoy my day of unabashed tourism, hoping there’d be no further issues.
That night, I returned to find an email from this man, one in which he pulled the classic move of making it sound like I was the crazy one: That I had mistaken his innocent interest for something nefarious. “My visit was to meet and talk and tell some real stories…not to check how clean is ur closet,” he wrote, eerily referencing a hoarding essay of mine. I was shocked that he was still offering to take me around to local art galleries. There wasn’t even a hint of an apology, but again, he turned the table on me.
“If you had said no to talk or meet after we first met, I would have contained my infatuation and we would be even happier than now.” I was torn between ignoring the email completely or replying. Part of me wanted to tell him some basic truths, in the hopes of saving another woman from his overly attentive interest, but I never replied. It is never okay to show up at someone’s hotel room, nor is it acceptable to stalk them through an entire city.
While there was absolutely no violence involved, I can’t help but think of the parallels to many tropes about rape and sexual harassment. If he claims not to have known his attention was unwanted, does that make it okay? I don’t believe he intended to harm me, but even so, his obsessiveness was unacceptable.
When I’m traveling, I’m well aware that I’m more vulnerable than at home, and that sense of being at the mercy of strangers in an unfamiliar place is actually part of what made me put down my guard this time. As a solo traveler, I now know I can’t afford to give anyone the benefit of the doubt when it comes to my safety. I was so desperate for a friendly face that I created one without heeding the red flags he was waving right in front of me. I wanted him to be a nice guy, even when his behavior from the start clearly fit any basic definition of stalking (New Oxford American Dictionary defines “stalk” as to “harass or persecute (someone) with unwanted and obsessive attention”).
“Did you learn a lesson?” my boyfriend asked me over Skype. I did, but I’m not so sure it’s the one he was hoping for. Did I learn never to talk to strangers again? No. Did I learn that all men should be treated as suspicious until proven otherwise? No. Did I learn that I don’t automatically have to defer to someone just because they seem friendly? Yes.
Next time I travel solo, I will make sure I have at least one solid contact in whichever city I’m traveling to before I arrive, and I will definitely limit my social media usage, at least until I return home. Most of all, I learned that even when faced with a scary situation, I am not a damsel in distress. I can always take care of myself, and ask for help when I need it.