Tonga was a dream destination for me. The idea of being able to swim with humpback whales blew my mind and I was more than happy to discover those postcard-perfect islands surrounded by clear aqua waters and fringed with soft, white sand. It took me a year to plan and save up for it. But it only took about two hours after landing for those idyllic thoughts to be crushed. Tonga, my 47thcountry, was supposed to be a dream trip but it quickly turned into a nightmare after I was sexually assaulted just hours after arriving.
If you’ve been following me for a while, you will know that I’m no stranger to travel. I’ve spent the past seven years exploring as much as possible. I’ve come a long way from being the clueless 22-year-old who had never been on a plane. I’ve stayed with local, non-English speaking families in Vietnam and bartered my way through Egypt. I’ve driven motorbikes around the temples of Bagan and scuba dived with bull sharks in Fiji. I may not be the most extreme or adventurous traveller out there, but I’ve done and seen enough to think that I’m somewhat intrepid, or at least that I’m not a fool.
As someone who previously worked for a victim’s organization, I tend to be overcautious when it comes to safety. Though, despite my efforts, I’m no stranger to uncomfortable encounters on the road. My pub night in Northern Ireland still remains one of my scariest moments, and the harassment I experienced in Bali was enough to make me never want to return. I often look at some other solo female travellers, who I consider far more daring than myself, with envy; jealous of their assuredness. But, while I’m always up for an adventure, there is no question that my comfort and safety will always come first.
However, while safety is my number one priority, I find that the more I travel, the more I try to engage with locals and participate in their daily life. Silly things like take the local bus rather than a taxi, eat at local restaurants rather than touristy ones, and shop at local markets rather than malls. This concept of blending with the local culture is nothing new, and something nearly every traveller advocates for. In fact, I’d even say that this is a huge part of the tourist vs traveller debate that seems to constantly be coming up in online threads, groups, and even among travellers in person.
While I’ll be quick to say that these local experiences have led to some of my best travel moments and memories, I’ll also admit that I sometimes feel pressure both as a regular traveller and as a travel writer, to make sure I take that route more often than not. Especially when the locals themselves encourage me and tell me it’s safe. Sometimes this route can be more frustrating, more time consuming, and trickier but it’s never led me astray. Until now.
When I arrived in Tonga, I was picked up from the airport by the owner of the place I was staying: a cool Tongan guy who has spent much of his life travelling and spent a few years living in the UK. In the twenty-minute drive, he shared tips and advice about Tonga. We went over the basics: How everything is closed on Sunday so we’ll need to shop for food the day before, and how the tap water isn’t safe to drink. Then we got into getting around: how to hail the local bus and how much it costs, average prices we should be paying for taxis, and how to get out to the nearby islands. Then another travel method came up: hitchhiking. He told us how it’s common to hitch a ride into town, and that you don’t even have to necessarily stick your thumb out. He said that locals in trucks frequently pick up tourists and locals alike and drive them into town, no pay required. It’s just part of being in the community. After all, the capital of Tonga, Nuku’alofa, only has a population of about 25,000 people.
As I come from Canada, a country where I would never dream of hitchhiking, my first question was: is it safe? The answer was yes, even kids do it. He reiterated how common it was and told us that we would probably get picked up when people see us on the way into town; a twenty-minute walk from the neighbourhood we were staying in. He encouraged us to take the opportunity if it was offered. To experience the local way of life.
An hour later, after dropping our bags, Chantae and I headed to town in search of lunch. It was a holiday Monday, so no buses were running, and it rained off and on. About ten minutes into our walk a white truck pulled over with a big empty truck bed. Exactly the kind of truck that we were told would often pick up people walking.
An older man in his 50’s learned out and asked if we wanted a ride to town. Thinking that this is exactly what was meant to happen, we accepted and went to jump in the back.
“Come here, in the front,” he said. “Out of the rain”.
And so we did.
The plan was for us to be dropped in town by a café for lunch but that didn’t happen. Instead, we were taken around the city on some sort of impromptu tour. At first, it was fine; we figured he was just a local trying to show us the sites. But, when he started asking about our relationship status, I knew we were in trouble.
Despite saying, we both had boyfriends, he only upped the ante. He told me I was beautiful and how much he liked Palangi-the local term for foreigners. At least once, he put his hand my on thigh, awkwardly patting it. Repeatedly we asked to get out, but he paid us no mind. He drove us down a long stretch of abandoned road to see the beach and we started to worry. Friendly locals were one thing, but the fact that he didn’t want to let us out was quickly becoming a big problem.
Thankfully, he turned around and headed back to town but at that point, our already uncomfortable situation escalated.
As he drove he reached one hand down to his lap, which was covered by a towel he had moved off the seat when we got in. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed his hand moving. At first, I assumed he was scratching himself, but then he didn’t take his hand away and the movements became more rapid.
He was masturbating.
With us in the car beside him.
Thankfully, at this point, we were back in town and demanded he let us out. We were lucky because he (finally) did, but, the damage was done. Our excitement at being in Tonga evaporated as we fled to the safety of a small restaurant upset, disgusted, and disturbed.
When we made it back to the hostel (walking and checking over our shoulders the entire time) we quickly shared what happened. There was no question that our hosts felt bad, but at the same time, there was almost a bit of judgment from the female owner who quickly declared that she would never get in the car with a single man. While she took her frustration out on her boyfriend for not clarifying that we should only get in with women or families, there was no doubt that her reaction could be considered victim blaming.
In the end, we did go to the police station and report him. We had his name and, oddly enough his phone number as he started the trip telling us he was a guide. The police took it all down but we knew nothing would be done. Our only hope was that, should it happen again, they will already have a complaint on file.
I won’t go as far to say that this ruined our Tonga trip, but it definitely put a damper on it. Thankfully, our whale swims were just as amazing as we hoped and that’s what we came for, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t leave Tonga with a somewhat negative impression given our experience. Negative enough to convince me that I probably won’t go back.
So why share? Well, first off I try to be as honest as possible in my experiences: the good and the bad. But also to add to the discussion. Many so-called ‘travellers’ look down upon those who take the easy way out and stick to the typical tourist things. I’d even argue that there is a lot of shaming when it comes to travellers taking the easy way and therefore a sort of pressure to take the local/trickier routes. I know I’ve experienced it. It was part of the reason why I agreed to get in the truck when everything I’ve ever learned warned me about the dangers of hitchhiking and getting into a car with a stranger.
So, is the local way necessarily the right way? A lot of people will say yes if you want to consider yourself to be a proper traveller. But, what if I pose that same question a different way given my experience: Did putting myself in a situation where I got getting sexually assaulted for trying to blend in make me a better traveller?
I sure don’t think so.
I regret my decision to try to hitchhike. It’s not something I’m comfortable at home, so really, I probably shouldn’t have tried it abroad. Especially not in a county where women’s rights are basically non-existent. I wish I had behaved liked a typical tourist and taken a taxi. It probably would have made my Tongan experience more memorable and I would have felt much safer. I don’t think there is any shame in that.
Experiencing a new culture or country from a local perspective can be an amazing thing and yes, will often result in a more immersive and perhaps gratifying travel experience. But, at the end of the day, travel isn’t a contest and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do it. Your personal safety and comfort should come first.
Edit: Since publishing this article I’ve had a couple of people tell me that it wasn’t assault because I wasn’t ‘attacked’. In Canada, sexual assault is defined as an assault of a sexual nature that violates the sexual integrity of the victim. The Supreme Court of Canada holds that the act of sexual assault does not depend solely on contact with any specific part of the human anatomy but rather the act of a sexual nature that violates the sexual integrity of the victim.