The Honest Answer to the Question “Is It Safe to Hitchhike Alone as a Girl?”
Well, what do you expect I will say? Of course I’ll say yes.
Yes, mother. Statistically speaking, I’m a lot more likely to be hurt by a classmate, acquaintance, friend, or even lover than I am by a stranger. Besides, you know better than anyone that I was born with a gut I can trust, and if I listen to it, I’ll never need to know what it’s like to face danger, never know what it’s like to escape.
And yes, sister, we share this gut, there are godesses within us both, and mine has taught me how to turn highway into red carpet, turn water into wine and whiskey, she can turn enemy into stone with just one look.
And yes, driver. Of course I feel safe, because there are good people out there – like you, of course. And besides, theoretically speaking, if I was to face any danger – well, look at all these weapons I carry in your passenger seat.
The only person I don’t say yes to is myself. There’s no use in lying when I am asking myself whether it’s safe to hitchhike alone as a girl with every piece of cardboard I pull out of the trash, hold that marker like the world’s most powerful and most breakable baton, and write the names of cities like lottery tickets, and I can’t even imagine what will happen if I draw the short straw.
The first time a driver asked me for sex while hitchhiking, it was a Turkish truck driver between Zagreb and Belgrade. Only 100km down the road he is asking me for sexy, asking me again for sexy, again and again for sexy. I’m alone in the cab of a truck with a strange man asking me for sex. Maybe I should have been afraid in that moment, that all those warnings I brushed off as myth were going to come true – would I be kidnapped, raped, murdered, left alone by the side of a desolate highway. Well, I wasn’t. Wasn’t kidnapped, raped, or murdered, and wasn’t afraid, either. I just pointed to the next autostop, 2000m down the road, and asked him to drop me off.
See, that was the first time that a driver asked me for sex while hitchhiking, but it won’t be the last; and it wasn’t the first time that someone looked at my body and saw only commodity, that I mistook someone’s actions and kindness when they meant it as currency. The men who’ve actually hurt me were never random truckers, I was never taught to be afraid of them, but they spoke the same language. “Wasn’t I good to you?” “Haven’t I been kind?” “I gave you something, now give me something in return.”
I’ve learned to look at my body as a goldmine, but that’s never made me feel wealthy, only made me afraid of pickaxes. This capitalist wasteland has taught me that something is only worthwhile as far as it can be bartered, traded, or sold. But let me tell you, that’s not true. There are no gems under this skin, I am made only of flesh, I am made of bone, I am made of stardust, which means I can blow away with the wind. This mind is vulnerable, this heart is fragile, there’s only so far that this body can defend itself.
Within my first ten rides hitchhiking, someone asked me for sex. Within my first ten days on a college campus, I was invited to a party where jello shots are free for freshman girls. Within my first ten times sharing a bed, I learned what it’s like to say no, and I learned what it’s like to say no again and again and again, and I learned what it’s like when that’s not enough. This world has never given me a shortage of reasons to be afraid, but the only way to survive in it is to keep living.
I’m at a truckstop in the middle of Austria when an older woman comes up to me with a lifetime of worry in her voice. “You look like crazy,” she says in broken English, “Do you have angst?”
I want to tell her the truth this time, that I am crazy, but insanity is just a rational response to irrational circumstance, and I’ve been anxious since before I knew words like “rape culture” and “patriarchy” to explain why. I want to ask her about a time she’s been afraid, but survived, I want to ask her about a time she’s been afraid and didn’t, I want to ask her to hold my hand and pray for my journey, if that’s what she does, and if she doesn’t, I want to ask her to just hold my hand.
But I see my mother in her eyes, I don’t want her to worry; and besides, I don’t speak any German. “It’s okay,” I lie, “nein angst. Danke.”
Co Se Stalo S Lukašem, or, For Little Boys
It’s summer camp, and my 6-year-old boys are basically puppies. They go between wrestling and cuddling and wrestling and cuddling and wrestling and cuddling and nuzzling and cuddling and wrestling until they’re a little cuddle puddle on the ground. I’ve given up at trying to break them up; you can’t tear apart and intimacy so close.
My 7-year-old boys could talk to their best friends for hours; about Minecraft and Star Wars and Pokemon and ninjas, I really don’t know how haven’t run out of things to talk about yet, but the moment they’re apart, they ask when they’ll see their best friend again. I guess friendship that deep is endless.
My 8-year-old boys hold each other’s hand when they cry because they scraped their knee, they hold each other’s hand when they cry because they are homesick, they hold each other’s hand when they cry because someone hurt their feelings, then they forgive each other with an embrace.
My 9-year-old boys still fall asleep with their stuffed animals worn down by a decade, and rest their heads on each other’s shoulders when they share a book.
My little girls brought hair colors to camp. 10-year-old boys flock to their door to get streaks of red, green, and purple in their hair. That night at our disco, two boys dance together to slow song – just for a moment, then run off giggling to the sidelines.
At bedtime, I ask each kid if they would like a hug or a high five. I used to only do this with the girls, figured my 11-year-old boys would never want to hug; most of the time, they don’t, but their eyes light up as they ask for a high five. By the end of the week, a few of them embrace me. I hold them close. I don’t want to let them go. Not into this world.
My little boys are bundles of affection, they’re hearts made of gold, they’re friendships of diamond. My little boys are caring and compassionate and supportive. They could talk to their best friends for hours – about games and stories and fears and secrets.
I don’t understand how this world manages to break even these friendship apart, why it crushes these hearts, why it murders my little boys. I don’t understand how it’s possible that any of these boys could grow up to be adolescents that call each other pussies and say ‘no homo’ instead of saying ‘I love you’, into adults who’ve forgotten what it’s like to hug, forgotten what it’s like this share, forgotten wants like to support each other.
I’m not at summer camp anymore. I’m in a world of giggling little girls and little boys too scared to put color in their hair: of grown-up little girls raised in a world of trauma and grown-up little boys with their hearts torn out. I’m in a world of sorrow, destruction, and isolation, a world where by far most violence is committed by men, and suicide rates in boys spike in their late teens. And I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever met a man who loves his best friends as my little boys do, but I’ve seen enough love in my little boys to save the world.
We need to treasure this love, we need to cherish these friendships.
For each other.
For the world.
For our little girls.
For our little boys.
For little Tobias, 7-years-old; he’s looking at the out the window at night and talking about stars and planets. Everyone in his room listens. Slava compliments him on his knowledge.
For a little Tom, 9-years-old. He doesn’t like swimming, but watches the game of water dodgeball carefully from the sidelines, makes eye contact with his best friend Miloš from across the pool to check-in on how many lives he has left.
For 10-year-old Jara and Laďa, the last two kids left on the field in a competitive game. They sit down in protest – ‘I won’t compete against my best friend’ they tell me.
For 8-year-old Lukaš, who is with prone to fits of screaming and throwing things. We put him in timeout, 20 minutes later someone taps me on the elbow. His best friend Artur hasn’t forgotten. ‘Co se stalo s Lukášem’, he asks me. What happened with Lukaš?
And for 11-year-old David, who asked me for a hug every night, two hugs on the last night, three hugs on the train ride home; when his dad picks him up at the station, David turns down my hug and asks for a high five instead.
Co se stalo s Davidem?
Co se stalo s Arturem?
Co se stalo s Milošem?
What will happen to little Tobi, little Láďa, little Slava, little Tomík, little Jara, what will happen to my little boys when I let them out into this dangerous world.
Grown-up little girls: we need to nurture these boys, we need to nurture their friendships, they are counting on us.
And grown-up little boys: I know how much your hearts are capable of now. Hug your best friend, tell them you love them, ask them how they’re feeling. Hold on to this affection, make intimacy, care, and support into things that are celebrated. Nurture these boys, nurture their friendships. Our little boys need you; they can’t save this world without you.
Kae PILER (*) is a Russian-American traveler, activist, and performance poet. She is the founder of Prague’s Spit It Out! poetry open mic and author of two chapbooks: “The Patient Has No Friends” and “Unicorn Tears”. Her poetry deals with love, trauma, and navigating the complex world. Today, you can find Kae somewhere on the road – traveling, studying languages, and learning something new each day.