Staying Safe While Traveling Solo
Safety while traveling is often at the forefront of people’s minds. I believe that, generally speaking, it is pretty safe. I mean shit happens all the time but the trick is learning how to mitigate the possibility of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Obsessing over the inherent dangers of travel is a waste of time and energy. Never the less staying safe gives us a much better appreciation for the places we go and people we meet. The all-inclusive cruise doesn’t pose too many safety concerns. It’s more dangerous to marine life. Other than not drinking yourself into a coma or eating your-self sick, cruises are a safe bet. There is of course the family vacation. One or two adults and 2.3 kids drive to Disneyland over a ten day school holiday poses little risk. Except for being on the road with ten million other families or getting sick on the Tilt-A-Whirl, what can go wrong? That’s another post.
An 18 year old on a gap year, a thirty something back packer, an adventure cyclist or a mountaineer all have at least a few things in common. One thing they may share whether they know it or not, is they want a transformative experience and to make it home alive and mostly unscathed.
I travel a lot. And I love telling stories. Sometimes people’s eyes gloss over when I talk more about how quiet it is cycling across the Australian outback instead of the fabulous food I ate in Europe. Most folks cannot wrap their heads around why anyone would spend so much time, camping in the sand or the remote Cardon (huge cactus cousin of the Saguaro) forests of Baja Sur.
But this is what I do. And I want to inspire others.
A common question often comes up. And a friend recently put it succinctly, “How are you NOT afraid to do that?” I used to shrug it off. But it’s a valid question, one worth addressing. It might sound trite to say, “I am a little scared but I just do it anyway.” And this is true. However, there is more to it than that. It is somewhat subjective. “Feeling” safe and “being” safe are two totally different things. In outdoor education we weigh the hazards vs. risk. Hazards are objective. The things we cannot control such as rock fall, lightening, and the pitch of a slope. Risk is how one perceives the hazard. We can even manipulate the “risk” in how we present a given activity. It might be the same part of my neurology that allowed me to become a street musician. That’s a little scary too.
I am reminded of something a friend said many years ago. We hitchhiked around the country playing music on the streets. He said, “You have to learn to make yourself comfortable in the most uncomfortable of situations. You have to look confident that what you are doing is important and that you belong in that place at that time without question. That was easy. I grew up really awkward and socially retarded. I learned to compensate. Being a street musician was fun and lucrative. But in the beginning I had to ask myself, “What if I suck?” The answer was that people will ignore me. Or throw money out of pity. But I didn’t suck and I don’t suck now! In fact, I’m really good at it. I can make a bucket load of money in a few hours at the right time and in the right place. It takes some strategy and can be hard work. I had to learn to entertain not just play music “at people”. Engaging with your audience is the key to entertaining and making money. Because human behavior and attitude can be somewhat predictable, I learned to “read” my audience through keen observation and thus have more positive interactions.
The same is true when traveling. Engage with others, greet strangers, and let them know you “see” them. I believe people want to be seen and acknowledged. Westerners stand out in the rest of the world. No matter where we go or how we try to disguise ourselves, LOCALS KNOW. So you may as well behave as an honored guest in someone else’s home.
Travel gives us one of the most profound experiences life has to offer. For some folks that all-inclusive cruise is as adventurous as it gets. That’s fine. For them! I’d be bored out of my mind. For me, the travel IS the destination. Often just figuring out how to get from point “A” to “B” is the challenge, especially where you don’t speak the language.
I love the Spanish speaking world because my ability to speak Spanish is excellent. I once stayed with a family in a small village near the rural region of Petén Itza in northern Guatemala to attend a language school. It’s an area covered in dense jungle. Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll likely hit a Mayan pyramid or ancient stone structure. In fact, “Itza” is the name of the Mayan language in that area. The language school I attended taught both Spanish and “Itza”. I arrived on my bicycle having pedaled down through Yucatan and across Belize on my own.
Staying with the family connected us. I heard their stories, their struggles and joys. I learned the history of the place. (see blogpost) http://freewheelingfem.blogspot.com/2016/02/language-school-and-other-lessons.html?m=1
In fact, not that long ago, there was a civil war in Guatemala and one could NOT simply travel to remote parts of the country. It’s helpful to understand the history and economics of a place in order to gauge the relative security. The industrialized nations of the world have created economic crises all over the developing world. There is much resentment toward the West. People are often desperate enough to rob maim or commit murder. That’s a sad state of affairs and staying safe becomes paramount. The locals are often in just as much danger or sometimes even more. The migrant crisis in Central America is a good example. Honduras and El Salvador are ruled by violent gangs, drug lords and thugs. Governments are powerless and corrupt. The people of Honduras and El Salvador are terrified. I was warned against travel through these countries. I met other cyclists who went anyway and others that took busses from Guatemala straight to Costa Rica. It would have been a crap shoot for me. As a solo woman on a bike, I wasn’t leaving it to chance. That part of my ride ended in Guatemala City. I’m just not that invested sometimes in how many miles I can crank out. The level of anxiety I would have felt traveling through those countries just wasn’t worth it.
The civil war in Guatemala ended in 1996 and the country side is again peaceful. However, the current local government was totally corrupt. This is what makes it sketchy for travelers. The adage, “A hungry man is an angry man” is very true. And desperate people take extreme measures such as committing crimes in order to survive. Tourists often bear the brunt.
This small community in Guatemala however, found another way. The folks in this village created their own way out of the financial disaster caused by the thieving mayor and town council. There were several language schools that provided economic opportunities. There was even a co-operative of local indigenous women that made soap and shampoos that they sold to the big hotels across the lake. By attending a language school I was contributing to the local economy. The residents of the area understand how important it is for students to be and feel safe because their economy depends on it. They don’t take kindly to tourists being robbed or roughed up. So, they keep alert. They know who we are and keep an eye out. I had heard about a popular tourist destination in the Western Highlands. Some creep was harassing, robbing and even assaulting tourists. The local police were not addressing the issue. The locals who depended on visitors became fed-up. They eventually caught the guy and simply killed him. When police are unresponsive, vigilante justice is the order of the day I’m not saying I condone such things but at the end of the day a community’s livelihood may depend on it.
|Sign in the market in Antigua. Basically telling thieves that shop owners don't wait for the police to arrive.|
I had time to explore the village during the day but I did not go out after dark. There was nowhere to go anyway, it was a small village and I spent the evenings with my host family practicing my Spanish. I was able to stay relatively safe.
Traveling in this manner forces us to push past pre-conceived prejudice, breaks down walls and opens the door for building global community.
I wasn’t brave enough to camp in the remote Guatemalan or southern Mexican jungle alone however. Crazy shit happens all the time. The day before I crossed into Guatemala from Belize an American woman was found murdered near the river. The story we got was that she was on a yoga retreat in the jungle, had taken the morning off and went to the river alone. When she did not show up by dinner, they went looking. I’m not naïve and this was very unnerving. I stayed at the campground on the opposite side of the river that night with some other bicycle travelers. There were armed, private security guards walking the grounds all night. It makes it sound like this happens all the time and the “Developing world” is very dangerous. That people should never travel and death is lurking around every corner. It’s just not true. These days Americans are more likely to be shot to death in incidents of random gun violence on our own soil.
When I mention that I like to travel to Mexico, the first thing I hear from friends (who often have never been there) is about the “drug cartels”. The truth is killing tourists is bad for business. And unless you’re buying illicit drugs on the street or anywhere for that matter, there’s little likelihood of tangling with a cartel.
I camped alone all through Baja, Mexico. And during an entire 17 months in Australia and New Zealand, I paid for accommodation maybe 6 or 7 times. I love camping! And Australia has the best wild and bush camping I’ve ever encountered. I felt very safe. There just are not many people around. They don’t have the gun violence like we do. There was one mass shooting in Port Arthur, Australia in 1996. The government launched an immediate gun buy back and amnesty program. They took thousands of guns off the street and tightened up their gun laws. They do have their share of wackos for sure. When talking with locals and telling them what I was doing, I was often asked if I’d seen the film, “Wolf Creek”. I guess it’s about a serial killer. To be fair, there was an issue in the news about a real serial killer that was trying to get released from prison early. He had murdered several people and kept their bodies in fifty gallon drums out in the middle of nowhere. I heard other stories about hitchhikers gone missing too. But I wouldn’t be dissuaded. I believe in the basic goodness of human nature.
Not even the wildlife in Australia is not what it’s made out to be. Sure, 23 of the world’s 25 most venomous snakes; salt water crocs lurking in rivers, billabongs and ponds, deadly spiders etc. Feral dogs in India and South America pose more of a threat as much as anything. A basic understanding of animal behavior is useful. See previous blog post, “That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes US Stronger.”
Travel has changed much in the years since the internet has become so prominent. It is easy to connect with other travelers, hear their opinions, get perspectives and read reviews of hostels, hotels, beaches and even whole towns or neighborhoods. Cell phones have made things a bit safer. For example, I had to take a taxi late one evening from Dharamshala in northern India back to my farm stay. About a forty five minute drive. I didn’t actually have any phone service but my driver did not know that. I pretended to make a call to where I was going. Then I set my ringer. It rang and I pretended to answer. I gave a description of the car and driver. Next time I’ll pretend to photograph the license plate too. As much as we hear about corruption in some parts of the world, the disappearance or murder of tourists is bad for business. I heard a story or two about locals taking on thugs and socio-paths for fucking with tourists when the police would not respond. Some of the details were grizzly. All in all, travel is safe and I recommend it.
Tips for staying safe.
Travel with others if possible. I don’t most of the time. But that’s me.
Be aware of your surroundings
Know the address and location of your accommodation.
Let the staff know where you’re going. Sometimes they don’t really care but all the same.
The large outdoor markets are a big draw for tourists. They’re also popular with thieves and other dishonest folk. Leave your passport, credit cards and wads of cash in your room. Carry small denominations of bills and coins. Carry a copy of your passport.
Stay in busier areas of the market.
Stay alert for an increase in the normal chaos. Shady people may create a diversion to capture your attention while they’re helping themselves to your wallet.
Haggle with sellers. Not too much however. Bargaining is a big part of the culture in many parts of the world. Not to do so can be seen as an affront. But remember, you are mostly quibbling over pennies or a buck or two. However much of a low budget traveler you are, to the locals, you still have riches beyond measure just by the mere fact that you are there at all. Be generous, it builds good Karma.
Many years ago when traveling in western Sichuan Province in China, I came across a large market. They were mostly Tibetans but there was one gentleman from an eastern city selling handmade, wrought iron door handles. A friend back home was building an unusual home so I wanted to buy him a set. They were already incredibly inexpensive but I knew not to accept his first price. That would be offensive. We communicated by writing numbers on a piece of paper. We went back and forth several times. When he finally accepted my offer with a dramatic nod of his head, I suddenly heard applause. I turned around to see twenty or so Tibetans looking on. They must have found my gumption admirable. I also received some pats on the back as I walked away with my little paper wrapped bundle. In the end, we bargained over about seventy five cents. But that didn’t matter. What’s important is the relationship of the buyer to the seller. It is very important that both parties are satisfied with the sale.
Once, when I was in Delhi, I found myself haggling with a kid over the price of a rickshaw ride. When we arrived at my destination, I realized how hard that kid worked. I had been a boorish schmuck! I paid him twice what we agreed upon and bought him a plate of food from a nearby vendor. It was still under two dollars. He was very gracious about it and his face lit up with his good fortune.
Don’t be a boorish schmuck! Don’t draw negative attention to yourself.
Be polite, be kind, and be open. As novel and anonymous as all the chaos seems, these are still other human beings trying to make it home to feed their families.
Learn a few words or phrases. “Please, Thank you, hello and where is the bathroom” are all useful phrases no matter where you are.
If someone beckons from an alley or store front, be cautious.
Be Alert. Carry yourself like you know where you are going, keep your eyes and head up. Scan the area. Of course you don’t want to appear paranoid.
Dress modestly (could apply to the menfolk as well). For better or for worse if you can’t dress like the locals, try to mimic what they reveal and what they don’t. Especially when traveling in more traditional countries. Decorum is always good policy and is respectful regardless of your feminist tendencies. Besides, who wants that kind of attention? I don’t!
As an older woman traveling I experienced things differently than a 25 year old might. Age demands respect in many cultures. I am often called, “Aunty” or in India was called, “Mother”. That was weird but nevertheless, age has its merits. I was often treated with deference. That was kind of cool really. Younger folks wanted to give up a seat on a crowded bus for me. Sometimes I took it. Sometimes in the bigger more modern cities, I would be ignored. This at times could be reassuring. The adage “Out of sight, out of mind” could come in handy. But I suppose one might argue that it makes me an easy target, because I might be mistaken for a pushover.
If you must go to bars: Find others in your hostel to come with you. The more the merrier. Keep track of each other. Try not to get falling down drunk.
If you must attend a rave on the beach or Full Moon Mushroom party DON’T drink the “Kool aid”. Really, unless you make it yourself, know whoever made it or you open the beer or wine bottle yourself. Careful of what you smoke.
Don’t leave your drink unattended.
Keep your ear to the ground. That means talking to and listening to others who have been where you want to go.
Be back on time. Some hostels lock the door at a certain time and you CANNOT get in. It sucks but that is how they keep their guests safe.
Pay attention to Department of State warnings and advisories. I don’t always follow what they say. I’d never go anywhere if I did. I read up anyway before I leave just to have a sense of what I’m getting myself into.
Follow your intuition: IF A SITUATION FEELS WEIRD OR UNSAFE IT PROBABLY IS!!! I quit my solo ride from Lima to Bogota because once I reached Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca I just could not shake the feeling of unease. I had cycled up the coast from Lima and met wonderful people. But in every little town I went through the locals told me that the last town or the next town was incredibly dangerous and full of murderers and bandits. I never experienced any trouble at all. I even left my phone on my unlocked bike a few times when entering crowded markets.
This leads to my last point. Sometimes you do need to trust that the universe will guide you. Despite your misgivings, fear, and anxiety just go! Maybe I’m naïve or just lucky to never had had serious problems. And perhaps someday my luck will run out. But until then, I will do all I can to keep traveling. I will meet remarkable people and weirdos alike. I’ll see and experience landscapes unlike any other. I’ll get to eat bizarre and curious food. I will travel through liminal space, transform and arrive at a new reality and consciousness.