There’s a common belief that people don’t change. But, I have come to the conclusion that we do. Usually incrementally, as we adapt to what life throws at us. Sometimes the adjustment is incredibly fast, like when something sudden or traumatic happens.
This week, I was reminded of how I underwent major mental shifts when it comes to trusting strangers in my two-and-a-half years that I lived in China. With a meagre Chinese vocabulary, and little English spoken in the provincial city where I was resident, I was obliged to place my faith in a range of people with whom I could not communicate. These occasions included very scary situations, like when I needed doctors treating my sick children in state hospitals to work miracles – to more ordinary rituals, such as having a haircut that wouldn’t deliver too many unsightly surprises.
I thought that my days of relying on the universe for protection, and hoping that most humans are basically good at heart and therefore I am in safe hands, were behind me. Yesterday, I realised they are not. I seem to have developed a habit.
There I was, again blindly trusting complete strangers with my destiny in two separate incidents in one day. First I needed help getting across Barcelona, and allowed myself to be led by the nose from train to train to the airport; later my plane back to Scotland was delayed to such an extent it was going to be a major challenge to get home in the early hours of the morning.
My little adventures got my adrenalin pumping. I was keenly aware it could all have gone horribly wrong.
Particularly the later incident, when I found myself agreeing to take a lift from a man who overheard me mentioning that I had missed the last train, just before midnight, from the centre of Edinburgh. He immediately offered and I found it hard to say ‘no’, even though my inner alarm bells were ringing hard.
After all, I have had it drummed into me not to get into cars with strangers. And, I have my own horrible personal experience to remind me it is such a bad idea to accept lifts from men I don’t know.
Flashback to my first year at Rhodes University. Freshers’ Week. Someone phones me to invite me to the beach; however, a person I don’t recognise shows up to fetch me.
It’s not the young man I thought it would be. I am too polite to say that I don’t want to go, even though my 18-year-old gut is telling me something is wrong.
This guy was older than the other students. Maybe 10 years older.
With hindsight I doubt he was a student. In fact, to this day I’m convinced I had a lucky escape from a serious psycho. If I told you exactly what he did on the beach, I’m sure you’ll agree.
I will spare you most of the details. All you perhaps need to know is that he took his clothes off and started readying himself for some nasty business. He told me of his plans to get me into the sea. It didn’t sound like he thought I would be drying off in the sun later.
I was terrified. I couldn’t stop the tears from slipping down my face, which he enjoyed tremendously as he tried tugging me deeper into the water and I kept pulling back. He was getting a kick out of seeing my fear.
Then, there was a bolt of what I can only describe as divine intervention. A lucky opportunity. A mature couple arrived in the distance on this deserted beach for a stroll. This guy wasn’t expecting to see anyone so he hadn’t factored this into his planning.
I made a run for it. And I moved along near the pair of walkers until they reached the hotel where this guy had parked his car.
I can’t explain why I didn’t tell these people I was in trouble. Or why I didn’t rush through the lobby demanding to see the manager with a view to being rescued.
Instead, I made a dash for the toilet, where I sobbed on the shoulders of a domestic worker who was cleaning up in there. I told her to remember me and the car he was driving.
Then, I pulled myself together and emerged from the bathroom to take him on. I put on my tough armour.
I told him there was a witness. If anything happened to me, there was a woman in the bathroom who had all the information on me – and on his car, I told him. He would be found, eventually, I said. Then I ordered him to take me back to university.
The drive home, in his expensive two-door red convertible, must have taken at least two hours, though perhaps it just felt like an incredibly long time. I never saw him or his car again on campus, or in the town, even though it was a small university community.
I also never told anyone in authority about the incident, or my parents for that matter. Perhaps because I couldn’t get my head around how I would explain my stupidity and the graphic nature of aspects of what had happened. And, it would be his word against mine. Who would believe me?
Getting back to the man who gave me a lift home this week. I wasn’t a complete putz. I made a quick risk calculation. He was in a suit with a briefcase and had clearly done a day run to London. He would know, as well as I would, he’d be easy to track down later if necessary in this high-surveillance society.
He wasn’t knocking back any beers on the plane or being over-familiar with anyone. The only thing he had done that was odd was to spontaneously offer to give me a lift while eavesdropping from the seat in front of me. And, as I am no longer a spring chicken and wasn’t looking or smelling my best after heaving a 20kg backpack across Europe for the best part of the day, I couldn’t imagine he had ulterior motives.
Having made a study of serial killers in my years as a crime reporter, I figured he was a little too old to fit the classic profile. It would be just as risky getting in a taxi without a booking, and probably riskier, than taking my chances with this man at midnight, I thought.
As it turns out, he was fine: polite and careful not to appear too friendly in case I misconstrued his good deed. I got the whole history of his entrepreneurial endeavours (he seems to employ hundreds of people) and he pointed out his mansion on the hill before dropping me off a short walk from my front door. I looked on the internet later and his story checked out.
I got home safely. Still, I have made a ‘mental note to self’ to take my car to the airport next time, rather than relying on public transport and the kindness of strangers.
Note: Speaking of evil deeds, I’ve just posted a feature I wrote on cyber-crime on my website. Often the people we think we know – our colleagues, service providers and others – are spying on us. It is scary how much information people can gather about your business without you knowing it. If you’re interested in that piece, published in Equinox magazine, you can find it in the Recently Published Elsewhere section. Or see this PDF download of Going Phishing.