Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Hitch-Hiking Horror Story

Memory from June, 2012, aged 23.
Rarotonga, Cook Islands, New Zealand. 

When I was studying to become a primary school teacher, my university offered third and fourth year student teachers an opportunity to teach overseas. One of the options was to teach Maori children living on an island called Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands governed by New Zealand. A group of about 20 dedicated student teachers flew over together and lived in shared accommodation close to the main part of town. We were grouped according to specialisation and dispersed throughout the island. All of the schools were situated on, or a short distance from the 34 kilometre coastal road which looped around the entire island.

The school where I taught

On the day we arrived, our university supervisors gave us a quick tour of the island to point out where we’d be teaching. I felt relieved my school was no more than 5-10 kilometres from where we stayed, as we were expected to find our own way home each day. One of the supervisors who’d chaperoned past trips told us it was considered safe to hitch-hike with locals, which usually meant riding in the tray of their ute. Since there were two other young female teachers appointed to the same school as me, we agreed to walk home together until we got to know our surroundings and the local culture.

We couldn’t wait to get home each day after school because our backyard was a beach lined with palm trees. While the sun was up, children would be knocking down coconuts and scouring the sand for unique shells to sell to tourists. They would bring us pieces of fruit and expect us to entertain them for hours after if we accepted their offerings. Since most of us were in our early twenties, all we really wanted was a sun tan and a glass of wine. I remember becoming agitated whenever one of us got held up after school because it meant sacrificing the opportunity for quality sunbaking.

Our backyard

We quickly grew tired of kicking up dust as we walked home under the scorching sun each day. The local cars passing by went from looking unfamiliar and scary to convenient and comfortable. The first time we hitch-hiked, we met a lovely family who were fascinated to know why we were visiting. The second time the driver didn’t speak much English so we sat in silence. Hitching a ride home worked its way into our daily routine; the same as eating taro root and passing goats in the street.

Friendship quickly developed between the three of us who taught at the same school. Each day we took turns to stick our arm out towards the cars and ask for a lift. On a particularly sunny day with about a week left of teaching, one of the girls had to stay back longer than usual. Since my grade 5 students had already drained my patience, I decided to head back solo without a second thought. Both girls looked at each other tentatively before giving their approval. They told me to enjoy the sun as they waved goodbye. As I began walking, I wondered whether I remembered to hang my bikini out to dry overnight.  

Me trying to get us a ride home

Several cars drove past me as I walked the first 500 metres with my thumb out. I kept reminding myself it was still better than sitting around at school. Finally, an old commodore heading in the opposite direction pulled over; the wheels churned up dust as one side veered off the asphalt. A man who looked to be in his thirties lower his window and asked where I was going. His eyes were concealed behind a pair of sunglasses with colourful reflective lenses; the type only bogans wore back home. There was something off-putting about the tone of his voice and he had bad poster like a gangster in a rap video. I smiled politely and thanked him for his offer before saying I was fine, as if he’d mistaken my gesture. He continued driving the other way which struck me as odd, but during my stay I’d gotten used to witnessing unusual behaviour so I wasn’t really concerned or surprised.

I’d listened to at least two songs on my iPod before another car pulled up. It didn’t stop straight away so I jogged over, mindful not to keep the driver waiting. I was so eager to get out of the sun, I practically had one leg in the car before I acknowledged the person behind the wheel. I went to say a cheerful hello, but just as my voice box started to produce the first sound, my brain caught up with my eyes. My tone noticeably altered mid-sentence as I recognised who I was speaking to.

Now up close, I noticed the man’s shabby clothing matched his gangster lean. The interior of his car door was resting on my back leg; the leg which felt abandoned by its daring counterpart. Earth gave me a microsecond to replace the hovering leg back down onto the roadside. But my body ignored all panic signals and flopped into the fabric seat. Why did I feel too guilty to reject the man again? I immediately regretted my actions, starting with how I behaved back at school.

The man gave off a wild, nervous energy. He kept wriggling in his chair and his breathing was loud and irregular. He asked me a few questions, but I got the sense he wasn’t really interested in what I had to say. He was staring straight ahead and driving as fast as he could. Whenever he got an opportunity to overtake, he got so close to the car in front I stopped breathing. His erratic driving matched the way he spoke. He told me he was thinking of getting a haircut in town, but drove as if he was delivering a beating heart to a hospital. His explanation about why he decided to turn around and travel in my direction made no sense, but he didn’t seem to care what I thought anyway.  

Working with my students

As we started to near town, I contemplated opening the door while moving and flinging myself out. Each time we got stuck behind a turning car, I wondered whether it was the right time, visualising how my body might roll along the road. At one point we almost came to a dead stop, but I hesitated for a microsecond too long. My brilliant imagination depicted a graphic array of where and how this journey could end, unfortunately none of which featured a smile or wave goodbye. It was like I was on a real life version of the rollercoaster of death. I desperately needed to create an emergency exit.

I wasn’t prepared to do something drastic like grab the wheel, so I needed to figure out a way to steer his mind instead. I wanted him to regard me as person, and know why I had come to the island. I told him the name of the school I taught at and how I loved getting to know the whole school community. I mentioned a big group of us were living on the island, adding how our arrival even featured in the local newspaper. I wanted him to know I wasn’t a lone backpacker just travelling through on a whim. I wanted him to feel accountable for whatever he was planning to do to me. I kept talking without taking a breath, and eventually he interrupted. He said the name of the school where I taught, then asked which grade I worked with. When I told him grade 5, he said I must teach his little nephew, who he believed was a good student. We spoke about his nephew for a few minutes, then I asked him about his own schooling. He kept his answers to the point, but his demeanour seemed to lighten ever so slightly.

A stall in town

The traffic slowed right down as we came into town. Just after we passed my accommodation I asked him whether I could get out. As soon as I felt the car stop, I clutched at the door handle. I flicked it up like I’d done thousands of times before, but the door remained shut. I started rattling it up and down in panic, like someone trapped inside with a Huntsman spider. He just sat there watching me for what seemed like minutes, but was probably a matter of seconds. The stress had caused my brain to tire and my face to crack. As I turned to him for help, the mask I wore throughout the car ride shattered, revealing a terrified, tortured, young girl underneath. My red sweaty face and wet eyes spoke the words I couldn’t.

“Reach out the window,” he cooly ordered, gesturing for me to grab the outside handle. I can only assume he child-locked me in when I first entered the car. I did as he said and the door popped open. I burst out onto the street and slammed the door behind me. I thanked him through the open window; can you believe it? As soon as the traffic cleared, he ripped a dramatic U-turn and sped off down the road, back in the direction we came. Just before he lifted the window, he gave me an eerie little smirk, as if to say “you’re welcome.”