“Isn’t that dangerous?”
I get this question, in some form or another, frequently. The dangers of travel make great headlines. Two stories I saw in the news this month reminded me of this. The first was a story about a British couple biking around the world who died in a traffic accident. The second was about an American couple who were found safe.
I started my solo traveling career early, really goddamn early. My mom married a man who moved to Alaska, and I’d find my 6-year-old self on planes, shuttled back and forth between Alaska and California, a few times a year. The times were different then, and it wasn’t such a big deal to put a kid on a plane alone for a journey. I sat next to new people who chatted with me, kind strangers who probably put up with a bunch of silly kid questions and who took on the role of temporary entertainment and caretakers.
This experience no doubt had a huge influence on my ability to travel solo. Although I’ve frequently traveled with companions, I have never been afraid to leap into the unknown and travel alone. My first “big” solo trip was to Italy back in the mid-1990s. I packed up a backpack and flew over to visit a friend who was teaching English in Prato. I hung out with her for a few days, and then ventured out on my own for a month, trekking around Italy and staying in hostels and little inns.
Italy taught me a lesson about traveling alone. The lesson is that there is a fine line between being open to meeting strangers–embracing the culture and the possibilities with an open heart and mind–and being closed off and paranoid. I think about this concept every time I travel, and I am always, always asking myself “Where is the fine line?” How much trust do I place in a stranger? At what point do I allow my discomfort and fear to prevent me from doing something? When is it foolhardy and when is it okay?
In Rimini, I met an Italian military officer on the beach. He chatted me up in very good English, and did not come across as creepy or pushy. After a couple hours of talk, he invited me to a pub that evening to meet his friends. A chance to party with the locals! Who could pass it up? I accepted the invitation without a qualm. He picked me up later at the little inn where I was staying, and drove us to the pub.
The pub was deserted. Dead as a doornail. We sipped beers, and he suggested we hit another place that would be more fun. At this point, the guy had my full trust. We hopped in his car, and he drove. And drove. And drove.
Rimini is a small town, and my ace in the hole was that anywhere he took me, I could easily leave and walk or cab it back to my inn, no problem. Except that now we were far outside the town, driving through the darkness in a rural area. No cabs. No walking. I was trapped. I demanded to know where he was going. Where is this pub? I asked, getting a little shrieky. Where are you taking me? Why are we driving so far? He responded, calmly, “Just around the next corner.”
The “next corner” was a dirt round that dead-ended in an orchard, where he promptly jumped me.
I will say this: This was one of the most terrifying moments of my life.
“I am miles from civilization, it is dark, this guy is a lot stronger than me, and I am about to be raped. And possibly murdered, and dumped in an orchard. And no one who loves me will EVER know what happened to me” is the exact thought that went through my mind.
How I got out of this situation, unscathed, is less important that the lesson I learned here. (Basically, I pulled an Oscar-worthy performance invoking his Catholic heritage and his mother. Very effective.) It doesn’t really matter: I was extremely lucky no matter how you slice it. Some travelers are not this lucky. Some people find themselves in perilous situations they can’t fake their way out of. And women and solo travelers face unique dangers.
You cannot travel without risk. The unknown poses risk. It is how you view it, how you face it, how you acknowledge it. These are the only things that matter.
There are ways to minimize risk. Knowing the geography. Understanding a bit about the culture and the people around you. Understanding how the people in that location view people like you (your gender, your skin color, your nationality). Or you could take one of those packaged, homogenized tours, where everything is sanitized for Americans. These, in my humble opinion, suck…and you should just stay home and have a lovely time at Disneyland if this is your preferred option.
I believe I’m a cautious-but-open traveler. I understand that this may not always protect me–either from my own folly or from ill-willed people.
When I travel alone, I am more cautious. I tend to do less at night. I am more hesitant to walk around alone, but I try to find ways to do the things I want, without allowing fear–rational or not–to prevent me from seeing or doing something I want to do. I am not the person who takes a cab out to the Egyptian pyramids, and then takes pictures from the car because I’m too afraid to get out of the car (yes, I know someone who did this). I walked through a ghetto (accidentally–bad, bad not-to-scale map!) once on Curacao and was stopped by two old men who asked me, “What’s a little white girl like you doing walking through this neighborhood?” I told them my destination and why I was walking. They immediately flagged a little collectivo bus, put me on it, and paid my fare to my destination. And I can unequivocally state that most of the people you encounter while traveling are more like these men than the dangerous ones.
Awareness of your surroundings is a big part of this. An Australian friend and I met up Rio, and went out for a walk. Less than a block from our hotel in a busy tourist area, we realized we were being followed by three men who had formed a loose circle around us, each about 5-10 yards away. We stopped at a rack of postcards on the sidewalk, and discussed our options. We both immediately agreed–we are walking straight back to the hotel. They followed us almost to the doors, which had actual doormen. We informed the doormen that we’d been followed, and they nodded and just said “Yes, lots of pickpockets in Rio.” Thanks, guys. But, yeah, two short, foreign chicks probably looked like easy marks for them. Later that day, another guy staying at our hotel got pickpocketed. Unfortunately for the pickpocket, the mark was an Aussie football player. He chased down the pickpocket, retrieved his wallet, and dealt with the thief in a very Aussie fashion (i.e., beat him to a bloody pulp).
So, if you think I learned my lesson, and traveled safely forever and ever after…yeah, you’re mistaken.
Flash forward several years, and I’m traveling with another friend. Just up front, to be clear, this woman is no longer my friend.
To be continued…