An excerpt from my journal, Thursday — May 24th, 2012:
My favorite color used to be indigo. Maybe I am being dramatic. But now when I see a male wearing an indigo colored shirt cruising by me on a motorcycle, I tense up, my palms begin to sweat momentarily and the beat of my heart starts to mimic a techno song.
Next week is graduation for the 12th graders at my school and I had a traditional kebaya made at the tailor for the occasion. Earlier this afternoon I went to pick it up. It’s a bike ride that I’ve done plenty of times alone before, far enough, hilly enough, and indeed peaceful enough, with a nice stretch of nothing but forest for a solid kilometer or so — no houses, no people, just pure land, stunning views and pristine air to restore my lungs after conquering the hills. I always look forward to biking out there for these distinct qualities.
Today was different and that area has instilled a fear in me that I am hoping will dissipate with time.
As I was biking, I spotted a man on the side of the road. His faded indigo shirt caught my eye. He was hunching over his crappy motorcycle, fidgeting with his cell phone. I thought nothing of him and kept going. I was happy, with many accomplishments to be proud of that had seasoned my day with flavor. I was jamming along to an upbeat playlist. A few meters down, I was startled when the guy in the faded indigo shirt reappeared, slowly pulling up next to me. As the labyrinth of my inner ear community was having its own dance party, I could read his lips ‘apa sampayan ngapain? ke mana? blah blah blah’ (what are you doing, where are you going?). I reminded myself that as a young female traveling alone, I have no obligation to answer to weirdo strangers. Sure his curiosity of my whereabouts was harmless, but I could feel him growing more aggressive, I had no idea who he was, I was alone along this quiet stretch, so I ignored his questions, told him to leave me alone and made hand motions for him go away. I can’t be nice to everyone. It all happened very quickly, I thought little of it, not knowing really what to think, as he rode away. I continued peddling, where I found that he had pulled over a few meters away. He was motioning for me to stop and pullover too. Ignoring his request, I continued riding, passing where he’d stopped, when he unexpectedly ran out into the middle road, audaciously reaching out, attempting to grab me off of my bicycle. Catching my balance from swerving, I peddled as fast as possible, frantically shifting the gears to elongate my stride with each rotation. I don’t know what was going faster, my heartbeat or my feet. Looking back, I could see him getting back on his motorcycle. Knowing he could catch up with me if he wanted to harm me, I needed to reach people. Only a few meters more. Only a few meters more. Nearly rupturing my gears I continued peddling away as fast as possible, dodging hungry potholes, not slowing down or stopping until I found a toko (little shop) with people. Before I neared the toko, he sped by me once more, giving me evil eyes, and made another loop back attempting to taunt me. Calm down, calm down. I wanted to cry but I was so startled. I was unsure if I’d be stupid to cry at something like this, not understanding this platter of emotions that had become, so I held it in, trying to control my breath. I stopped at the toko where two orang tua (older people) were leisurely enjoying their afternoon, sitting on plastic crates, sipping kopi. I apologized that I had so abruptly stopped there, and between catching my breath, and allowing for the sweat to funnel out. I explained to them what had happened. They smiled, laughed and replied that the guy was obviously crushing on me where my mind read out something like this ‘WTF! This isn’t funny! I didn’t know the guy. I don’t care what culture we’re in, he has no right to taunt me like that when I am visibly scared and denying whatever he’s trying to convey’
The toko owners, pulled up a plastic crate for me to sit on, where I calmed myself down for a few minutes and called a close friend to talk it out.
After picking up my kebaya, I felt a little bit reluctant about biking back through that area but I knew I had no choice. I could have called someone to ride their motorcycle along with me to ensure my safety but I didn’t… not wanting to be a burden and honestly to feed my own ego, telling myself I needed to be tough, I was still tough. I needed to suck it up, and just go. As I rode home, I was more vigilant very paranoid, looking back every few meters. Suddenly, a male with an indigo shirt pulled up directly in front of me. Panicking for a split second, not knowing what to do, he quickly glanced back at me, offering a wide smile, a friendly ‘hello Miss Elle!’ and sped off. It was one of my students. Caught completely off-guard again, my heart had begun racing once more.
I felt at ease once I reentered the overpopulation zone that litters East Java. Usually this is the type of area I’m trying to retreat from.
I hate it. When I’m on my bike, I feel safe (for the most part), liberated, honest to my body’s capabilities and myself, not to mention completely independent. It’s my primary outlet for relieving stress here. The bike becomes an extension of me, taking me places I’d never explore by foot. I also like to think that riding in my community and the surrounding area is safe enough, but alas, my bule status makes me an automatic target and creepo men looking to cause trouble are everywhere and I am not as strong or fearless as I’d like to believe. Though this man may not have had ill intentions and genuinely wanted to talk to me, I have the right to refuse. Peace Corps volunteer or not, my personal safety comes first and I refuse to smile and be friendly to people who appear threatening even though they may be harmless.
Integration doesn’t ensure safety. I’m not trying to have someone accompany me EVERYWHERE nor am I trying to stay at home all the time. I want to feel safe and independent, but how?
I am not the only one that this type of thing has happened to. To all PCVs out there, especially females PCVs, we surely put up with a lot of shit, stay tough and be careful. In the mean time, I’d like PC to provide some self-defense classes.