A cautionary tale for the solo traveler.
I must have walked down every uneven street in the city center, taking in every crooked canal house and dodging hundreds of bikes all day. This is my first time traveling by myself – something I’ve always dreamed of doing but always felt too young to do. After saving up enough money, I decided to spend my birthday in one of my favorite places: Amsterdam. As the hot day in July came to a close, I took my place on one of the many green park benches placed along each canal, dreading my flight back home in the morning. I sit there eating a waffle watching the sun go down. The dark orange hue of the sky reflected off the water painting the street in a deep shade of honey, eventually being replaced by the soft glow of the streetlights. Riverboats overflowing with tourists along with small boats of locals drinking and singing pass by me. I’m listening to music, enjoying the last moments of my trip.
After the sun goes down, I pull out my phone and put in the address of where I’m staying and start following my GPS. I look down at my phone for directions when the screen goes black, and my phone dies. I have a backup charger with me, but I used up all the juice from listening to music all day.
At this moment, I feel both uncertainty and determination. I know this city very well, so I should have no problem finding my hostel on my own. I didn’t get lost once throughout the whole day, this shouldn’t be any different. I zip my phone up in my purse and confidently walk in the wrong direction away from my hostel.
After a good amount of time crossing bridges and zig-zagging through alleys, every building becomes less and less familiar. It’s different to walk around this city at night than during the day. Silently, I pray to stumble upon something I can recognize. Pushing through my uncertainty, I turn a corner and immediately recognize my favorite spot in the city; the docks outside of the Anne Frank house where a houseboat covered in flowers sits.
A wave of relief rushes through me as I pause to smile at the sight. I only have to make a couple more turns from there to get to my hostel. I take a left at the next canal and make my way towards Oud-West, the area of the city I’m staying in.
I cross a larger canal and notice a windmill I had seen earlier that day as I went into the city. On the bridge, I take off my shoes. At this point in the day, I had already walked well over 10 miles in shoes that were giving me blisters.
As I’m bending down to untie my shoe, I hear a motorcycle stop a few yards away from me. I look up and see a man looking at me with one foot on the ground and both hands on the handles.
“Are you lost? Do you need help?” The man asks.
I clearly look like I’m lost. I probably do need help, but I know better than to get it from a strange man passing by on a motorcycle.
“No, thanks. I’m fine, my feet just hurt. I’m almost home.” I say, cautiously.
“Are you sure?” He pushes.
“Yes, I’m sure,” I say, waving him off. He kicks his foot off the ground and takes off.
For any girl who has ever walked alone at night, this is enough to be put off but not enough to feel a true sense of danger. At this point, I know that I need to be on guard, but it isn’t much longer till I’ll be safe in my hostel.
After finally taking off my shoes, I keep walking, crossing the bridge into the western area of the city.
I approach a small cafe that has three small blue tables and plastic chairs sitting outside. Overcrowding one of the tables, five men sat laughing and talking loudly in Dutch. The closer I got to them, the quieter they became, stealing glances in my direction. One man motioned his hand that held both a cigarette and a Heineken at me while speaking Dutch, making all of his friends erupt in laughter. I don’t think I want to know what he said. Pretending not to notice, I continued past them as he shouted more things in my direction.
I turn the corner, a bit more shaken than before. I roll my eyes, thinking about how disrespectful and ridiculous some people can be. Not even thirty seconds pass when I hear a motorcycle coming up behind me. I look to my left as I walk as my friend from earlier that night matched my pace on his bike.
“You’re lost. Let me help you.” He says.
“Fuck. No. Leave me alone.” I shout, keeping my eyes on him.
This is much worse than before. He didn’t just stumble across a lost girl on the road; he was looking for me. To my surprise, he left me alone and took off down the road.
I need to make sure he is really gone. I watch him until he reaches the end of the long, straight road, and he turns left and disappears from sight. Now that I’m not so wrapped up in trying to keep strange men away from me, I realize that I had made a wrong turn. I turn to go back to the main road. Back to my catcalling friends.
They see me before I see them, and this time I think they know that I can’t speak Dutch. The same man as before looked at me, my shoes in my left hand and a bag in my right, and says, “If I was your man, you wouldn’t have your hands full with those.”
I knew I didn’t want to know what they said before.
I’m pissed now. I stop walking and look at the man laughing with his friends and say, “Thanks, but I don’t need a man to do things for me that I can do perfectly fine by myself.” I walk away, hoping I never have to see these men again.
I know where I am now, and I also know that I have to turn soon. I’m feeling so tired at this point and just want to sleep. I turn down a residential road that looks very similar to the one that I’m staying on. I make my way down the street and recognize the windows on the buildings when I see a man on a motorcycle park and light up a cigarette about 20 feet away from me.
Luckily, this is not the same man as before. However, he is the only other person on the street, so I feel especially nervous to walk past him. I keep walking because I’m almost certain that this is my street. He kept his eyes on me as I walked past him, but there isn’t a problem. I’m safe.
Unsurprisingly, I start feeling discouraged further down the road as my surroundings become unfamiliar. I am so done. I turn around to get back to what was familiar, keeping in mind that the man on the road will know I’m lost if he sees me coming back.
I am on high alert. I see him up ahead leaning against a small tree, bending it backward from his stocky build. I get closer to him when he notices me, putting out his cigarette and wiping his hands on his red shirt. He takes one last look at me before retreating into his apartment building.
I walk to the tree he had been at, and I realize that he never went inside. He is standing outside the front door behind a wall with his back facing me, discreetly creeping his head out from behind the wall to look at me.
I stop dead in my tracks. He’s waiting for me. He’s going to grab me when I walk by him. He’s going to do something terrible to me. Noticing that I stopped, he steps out from his hiding spot, facing me no more than 10 feet away. Even from this far away, I can see how big he really is. He is at least a foot and a half taller than me and probably weighs twice as much as I do. I wonder how I could possibly defend myself if he tries to hurt me. I don’t stand a chance. It feels like minutes as all these thoughts race through my mind, but it can’t be more than ten seconds.
It finally registers that I am in danger. I start laughing, shake my head and say, “Oh, fuck no.”
I turn around to walk away when the hair on my neck stands up and my palms start to sweat, and I realize that I need to run. Before I have time to think, my instincts take over and I go into a full-on sprint. Running faster than I ever thought possible, I know that he’s still behind me, and slowing down isn't an option. My bare feet are pounding against the brick sidewalk and it feels like I am flying. I run for a few minutes before I briefly pause to duck behind a wall to put my shoes in my bag.
I need to find help. Not too far away, there’s an intersection and I see a restaurant on the corner. It looks closed, but two blonde girls are sitting inside talking. I run up to the clear glass door and pound on it, getting the girls attention immediately.
The girls rush to me and ask what’s wrong. I beg to use their phone, but they have to say no because it’s dangerous to let someone in after close. I ask them where I can go, and they direct me to a bar just around the corner. I thank them and run there as fast as I can, crossing the street still barefoot.
I see a glowing sign directing me to the bar on the fifth floor and I frantically rush my way up the stairwell and into the bar where groups of people are playing games of pool and joking around in languages I can’t understand. I feel envious of the fun they’re having as I rush past them, attracting looks of concern, directly to the bartender to ask for help. I don’t even sit down as I stumble over my words, explaining what had just happened to the bartender. To my relief, speaking perfect English, he calms me down and gives me a charger for my phone.
I sit down on a stool at the bar with my phone plugged in trying to catch my breath. The bartender is telling me that this is not the first report of something like this happening in the area tonight. Apparently, two other girls had reported something similar just a couple of hours earlier. After telling me this, he calls the police to tell them about my situation.
“I’m on the phone with the police, can you describe what the man looked like and where this happened?” He asked me, and to my surprise, I can recount everything in full detail.
Feeling bad for me, the bartender pours me a beer on the house. I sit staring at the beer, feeling lucky that I had seen the man hiding. I think about what could have happened if I hadn’t noticed him, but I don’t let my mind wander down that route for very long.
Once my phone was charged up and I had thanked the bartender for helping me, I took an uber back to my hostel.
It was two blocks away.