All around New Zealand, locals and travellers are feeling a deep sense of loss over the murder of Grace Millane. When this twenty-one year old British backpacker was reported missing, we all collectively said a prayer that she would be found. When police detectives announced the investigation would be treated as a homicide, our hearts dropped. And when it was announced that her body was found in the Waitakere Ranges, every heart in the country broke.
Of the millions of travellers who flock to New Zealand each year, Grace was the one to become a murder statistic. The injustice felt is enormous.
As an expat, it has left me sad and confused because suddenly innocent old New Zealand is being portrayed as an unsafe country to travel to. We cannot ignore the alarming rates of domestic violence here, but never have I felt unsafe in this country. It has made me wonder: should I be more cautious?
In Hawaii I befriended the most gorgeous Austrian girl of the same age. She had been travelling for five years, both working abroad and backpacking for months on end. After travelling with her for several days and forming a close friendship, I asked her what her scariest travel experience had been. Travelling comes with its fair share of risks: different laws, infectious diseases, and crime rates; I figured she must have encountered something during the past five years. I sat, curious but nervous over what I might hear.
What she said made my skin crawl.
It was just last year actually. I was working at Octoberfest in Germany. I must have got my drink spiked because suddenly I started feeling really dizzy and that’s the last thing I remember. I woke up the next day, alone, on the ground of a trailer park, covered in blood and bruises.
Her lips turned to a frown. Can you believe it happened while I was working? Working! I wasn’t even drunk.
My new friend had been raped.
I asked her how she was able to keep travelling.
Well, I guess because I have no recollection of it. Sure, it’s awful that it happened to me, but I’m not going to let it ruin my life and how I want to live.
I admired her strength.
Hearing this story from my friend as well as the news of Grace’s death made me think about my own safety while travelling.
I only have one disturbing experience, something I’d pushed out of my mind since it happened.
I was in beautiful Paris, sitting alongside the Seine River. Wanting to explore this new area of the city, I left my hostel and walked down to the river where, to my delight, I came across a festival on the bank. Both sides of the river were covered with colourful pop up tents, sun lounges, and bars selling glasses of refreshing Aperol Spritz. On this warm summer’s day there was nothing better. Joyful music played as couples all around me danced, revelling in the vibrant atmosphere. After ordering a cocktail, I sat down on one of the sun lounges under an umbrella. I was waiting for a gorgeous French boy to arrive who I had met two nights earlier. We were going on a date, but he was still finishing up at work, so I had a bit over an hour to kill before he arrived.
I hadn’t sat down for long before an older man came over to me.
“Do you mind taking my picture?” he asked in a thick American accent.
I looked up and saw a grey haired man, easily older than sixty, smiling at me.
My first instinct was to say no: I was alone and he was a stranger. Wait, what did he want? A photograph? That didn’t seem unreasonable.
“Uh sure” I replied, a hesitant smile appearing on my lips.
I stood up, awkwardly placing my drink beside my chair, and took his phone from him. He got into position by the river, smiling. After taking several pictures, I handed his phone back.
“Did you want one, too?” He asked.
What a clever way to meet someone.
“I’m okay, thank you” I said, turning back to my chair.
“So, where are you from?”
I turned around to face him again. “Uh, Australia” I replied nervously.
‘Ah Australia! Beautiful country. I’m from New York but I live in France now. I have my own company here making perfume. You should come work for me, you would be great!”.
Um. What? He didn’t know a thing about me yet apparently I would be a good fit?
I said this, but he ignored my remark, and continued to tell me about how glamorous my life would be if I came and worked for him. It was a lot to take in.
“Should we discuss it over a drink?” He pressed.
I started to feel scared and instinctively looked down at my phone to check the time. Hurry up and get here.
Noticing this, he asked if I was meeting a friend.
“Yes, yes. He will be here soon” I stuttered.
“Uh, like, half an hour”. I instantly regretted not saying sooner.
“Perfect, that’s enough time to get a drink. You can pick where we go, anywhere you want” He insisted.
I felt guilty. Maybe he just wants some company? I internally scolded myself for being so judgmental.
“Um, yeah, okay.”
His eyes lit up: he had persuaded me.
I looked toward the bar closest to us: it was busy and I could see people occupying almost all of the outdoor seating. I turned and looked the other way. A collection of bars sat down the other end of the bank, about four hundred metres from where we were. It felt strange walking that distance with an older man. My mind whirled. What is going on? What should I do? How do I get out of this situation? I felt my stomach churn.
“Actually no, sorry, I’m going to go meet my friend now”.
He made a disappointed face at me, trying to evoke a sense of guilt that would change my mind. I saw through him and sat back in my chair. Eventually, he seemed to begrudgingly accept I wouldn’t be going with him, and he said goodbye before turning to leave.
I felt shaken. Immediately I rang my friend and asked him how far away he was. He told me to leave the river and come meet him at the underground. I walked away, uneasy.
Soon I was safe again, but I always wondered what might have happened to me if I had gone with that man. Would I have been raped? Murdered? Kidnapped and trafficked? Or did he simply crave a friendly conversation? Something about the way he tried to manipulate me, acting as though I had control over where we went for a drink, told me this was a dangerous situation. Was asking young, attractive women to take his photograph his way of luring them into conversation with him, to then lure them into something more?
I am eternally grateful that I will never know the answers to these questions.
My heart goes out to Grace, my Austrian friend, and all the other travellers who have fallen victim to predatory men. The burning question: when will it stop?
Rest In Peace Grace. X