The idea of traveling alone through India, Italy and Indonesia and other exotic locales is heady and romantic, and has been made even more so by the hugely successful book Eat, Pray, Love.
Recently, there have been a number of gang rapes reported in India of both Indian women and tourists. On Monday, June 3rd, a 30-year-old American woman was allegedly gang-raped in northern India after she was picked up by three men in a truck while hitchhiking back to her guesthouse in the resort town of Manali.
That could have been me. A few years ago, I got a lift with strangers from Manali to Dharamsala.
On my 31st Birthday, I left my job in Tokyo and backpacked around India, South and East Asia, and Africa for two years. Luckily for me, the Singh brothers, who gave my friend Adam and I a ride on the dusty vertigo inducing Himalayan road from Manali to Dharamsala, were as lovely as could be.
It's great that women are encouraged by Eat, Pray, Love and the Travel Channel to get out of their comfort zone and see the world. Bon Voyage! But, some are expecting the romanticized book/movie/TV version of their travel destination, and are wholly unprepared for the reality when they arrive. Being adventurous and blindly throwing caution to the wind are not the same thing. You actually need to think critically and employ caution to sustain adventure. I have seen lots of advice for women traveling alone, but none that I found applied to my experience on the road.
Having lived and worked in Asia, I was more seasoned (and less afraid to offend) than many who had never travelled overseas truly alone -- untethered from the safety net of study abroad programs, ex-pat packages, Embassy details or even friends. It can get ugly when all you have to rely on are your wits and someone you just met, and there is no Ashram/Spa to retreat to for a 100 miles.
I was lucky. I never got badly hurt, sick or was robbed or raped. I met a more than a few women with broken spirits and bruised faces, that had to cut their trips short and go home because terrible things happened to them. The risks I took ran the gamut from smart and calculated to stupid and lucky to occasionally unknown to me until after the fact.
For example: visiting remote lawless areas inhabited by young men with AK-47s casually slung over their shoulders'; camping out in the Serengeti and waking up to hot animal breath on the other side of my cheap cloth tent; drinking too much Mekong whiskey with self proclaimed mercenaries and other shady characters on Khaosan Road in Bangkok, or being blissfully unaware I was drinking Chai made with water gathered by the Ghats on the Ganges river in Varanasi.
I don't think solo travel is more dangerous now than it was a few years ago -- we are just hearing more about it because of the internet, and public outrage in India. Due to the spotlight of insta-international media and advocacy from women's groups, rape is now getting attention. That hurts tourism and the money that comes with it, so police are feeling pressure to at least look like they are doing something about violence against women.
The world is slowly becoming a safer place for women (we hope), but we're far from there yet. So if you are hitting the road, here are some things I know saved me from life altering or ending situations while traveling alone:
1. Don't be afraid to walk on by. It is OK to ignore, walk away from and not engage in conversation/explanation/argument. If you are called rude for not stopping/talking/buying, know this is a tactic many tourists fall for. 2. Just say no. Do not let anyone push you into committing to anything. It is OK decline invitations from hawkers, tour guides, strangers who invite you to their house, or car; or other backpackers who want to share a room, a joint or get you to go somewhere with them. You can always change your mind later. 3. Never be so far away and alone with someone you don't know that no one could hear you scream/yell. Don't be afraid to scream, shout and draw attention if you need to escape. Shaming/Embarrassing someone can be a powerful defensive tool. 4. Look at the situation you are about to enter critically. Does it seem safe? What is your gut telling you? Are you agreeing because you don't want to offend or seem uncool? This is your life. Protect it!
Example: I was invited to crew on nicely equipped sailboat going from Zanzibar to Wales with three good looking, well bred party boys. When they started stockpiling the boat with liquor and drugs and joking about sex acts with me, I bailed. I knew something terrible could happen to me out there and no one would know.
5. Dress inconspicuously - no flashy clothes or bags. You don't want to look wealthy or sexy unless you are staying at an International five star hotel with good security. 6. Dress according to the modesty code of the region, but don't play dress up in the local attire. I don't care what you wear in the US/UK/Israel/Denmark, or that it is your right to dress as you like anywhere in the world. That message has not yet been received in some corners of the globe. If you want to be safe and not attract unwanted attention follow the modesty code of the area whether it is having your arms, legs or, shoulders covered or donning a hijab. Also, unless you are living in the country and know the customs well, or are invited to a formal event - do not wear the local garb (like wearing a sari in India). If you are just traveling through, dressing like a local does not mask inexperience, it highlights it. The minute you talk with a local they will know you are playing dress up with their traditional garb which can be insulting, and if you are wearing the clothes incorrectly, it could be offensive to local customs. 7. Wear cheap and easily removable jewelry in case you get robbed. You don't want to loose a finger or get punched in the face over a ring, even if it was your great grandmother's. Leave it at home. 8. Email home frequently and let them know your whereabouts. If you are going into the jungle or on a trek, let someone at home know the name and contact info of the tour company or person you are going with, how long the trip is, and when you expect to be in touch next. 9. Don't get into involved debates with other nationalities about your home country's geopolitics. Rookie mistake. You, especially Americans and Brits, are going hear about your country's abhorrent military and colonial history. Side step it and move on. Unless you have a PhD in this particular region's history, the more you talk, the more you will; a.) Piss people off; b.) Sound like an idiot because you had no idea your county did terrible things to theirs; c.) Feel terrible and apologetic and be an easy target for scoundrels. 10. Don't idolize "the culture" you are visiting, but treat it with respect. No one culture, ideology or nationality or tribe has all the answers. Buddhists fight. Not all Hindus are enlightened. Maasai warriors want cellphones. Kids who live 20 miles by yak to the nearest village listen to Ozzy. You are not in a museum. Do not tell people that you wish their culture wouldn't change. Your country is not the only one that deserves indoor plumbing and electricity. 11. People are people all over the world. Some saintly, some sociopathic and many in between. I have seen this over and over again. Treating people as a monolithic "culture" handicaps you because you can't see past the stereotype.
Most importantly, you dehumanize the person by treating them like a cultural object (no matter how "culturally sensitive" you fancy yourself). While there are certain threads throughout cultures, Americans, Japanese, Kenyans, Italians all come different regions, religions, tribes, and most importantly are individuals. Treat them that way. 12. If someone sexually harasses you, get away from them fast. 13. If you have a serious problem or are very sick, go to an International hotel chain or an older woman. They are both generally safe, and you can pay off the hotel credit card bill later. 14. Be judicious and courteous with your photo taking. Many people do not want their photo taken for personal or religious reasons. Respect that. You are not here to document your trip for friends back home. Keep some precious moments as memories. Stop snapping and live it. 15. Keep your money and/or keys pinned inside your bra. 16. Walk with confidence and purpose. 17. If you are out alone make sure you stay in public areas and can get back to your hotel/guesthouse/hostel before nightfall. 18. Bring a ring that looks like a basic wedding band. If you feel threatened, say you have to go to meet your husband. Cheesy and way not feminist, but it works. 19. Do not get into a car with strangers unless it is an absolute last resort. 20. Don't bring a lot of crap. A few basic outfits that can be washed in a sink, layers, bug spray, sunscreen, shampoo OR conditioner, moisturizer (doubles as styling gel), and a first-aid kit. It is surprising how little you need.
Example: I was the sole Gaijin in an all-Japanese company. When business associates of other national origins were overzealous about trying to conform to Japanese customs or fawning over how sophisticated Japanese culture is (They had clearly never seen Japanese salarymen on the Yamanote Line at 1am) my colleagues found it hilarious and we occasionally used it to our advantage.
My heart breaks for the woman allegedly ganged raped in Manali. Instead of having great memories of her trip to India, she is living a nightmare. According to a U.S. State Department travel advisory for India "Women should observe stringent security precautions, including avoiding use of public transport after dark without the company of known and trustworthy companions." Thanks State Department, this can be said of almost anywhere in world.
For those of you inspired by Travel TV, or Eat, Pray, Love, remember, that was a book (at least partially) underwritten by a publisher, carefully crafted and edited, and TV is entertainment.
Throwing caution to the wind and blindly following your heart, a guru, or a guy you meet in a beach bar does not generally work out in real life like it does in the movies. You only have one life. You need to keep yourself safe for the next adventure, whether it is half way around the world, or in your own backyard.