Of all the places and ways I traveled, I never thought safety would be at the top of my "worry" list, but that's firmly where it is today. I plan my accommodations, daytime activities and clothing to avoid being a target.
Why are women vulnerable targets for theft or random acts of violence when they travel?
The three reasons women can be easy targets; lack of awareness of your surroundings, timid body language and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here's what I learned traveling alone around the world for two years that transformed me from a naïve novice into a gutsy traveler.
Use your city smarts. You must know where you are and what's going on around you at all times. Be aware that bad things do happen and plan ahead. Know when the sun rises and sets. A bustling neighborhood that is safe during daylight hours may quickly transform into a dicey place with deserted streets after dark. Plan to be back to your lodging or in a safe, busy neighborhood by dark. If you are alone, don't walk down empty streets or drive in bad neighborhoods at night. The best safety insurance is to have people around you.
Trust your instincts. They are well-honed from living in the USA. If you feel something is off, wrong or strange -- get out, move on, flee, scream. Do whatever is appropriate and do it quickly.
Clothing that is fashionable and appropriate in the USA may project a provocative image in another culture. It can be difficult to know what is considered offensive or suggestive in segregated societies, such as in Orthodox Muslim areas. At times you may feel uncomfortable or vulnerable. You may not know if the local men view you as a sex symbol representing the immoral Western world. Take your cues from the local women. Watch them. If they don't make eye contact with men, follow their example. Blend in. Dress appropriately. When in doubt, leave the revealing clothing at home.
At home, when you go out for an evening, carry a long sweater or jacket to cover up if you have to fill up with gas late at night.
Body language: keep your head up, swing your arms and act confidently. Adopt a no-nonsense attitude. Walk with purpose and you'll be less of a target for hustlers who prey on disoriented or timid tourists.
If you are being followed in the street and you feel threatened, duck into a shop and firmly tell the clerk: "I am a foreigner and someone is following me. I am frightened and need help." If need be, have the clerk call a cab or police officer for you.
Try to sit or stand next to other women or family groups in restaurants, on trains or buses, and in other public places. It is unlikely that you will be approached or harassed if you're in the company of other people.
Consider wearing a wedding ring if you don't already and travel overseas. It will help you avoid unwanted attention.
There is power in vocal embarrassment. I have found that many men are shamed by a verbal, loud woman admonishing them in public. Practice screaming before you leave home. Also, shame them by shaking your finger in their faces. Even if the crowd doesn't understand your words, they will understand your indignation and gestures.
Ask for help or company if you feel uncomfortable.
It is common for a would-be thief to use razor blades to cut purse straps, take the purse and then get away in a thick sea of bodies. Wear a money belt or buy a purse with a reinforced strap to avoid this happening.
Anticipate potential problems. For example, if a group of men or young boys approaches you on the sidewalk on your side of the street, cross to the other side to give them space and you peace of mind.
Carry enough money in your shoe or money pouch to get you out of a tight spot. Be willing to spend this money on a cab in order to get you to a safe place or back to your lodging. Do not take unnecessary risks.
Most of the people who offer you food or drink are just being kind. However, the rare exception exists -- drugging occasionally happens. Try not to leave your drink unattended in bars and exercise good judgment when accepting food or drink from people. Rophynol, the date rape drug, is odorless, tasteless and colorless. It is a tranquilizer that can be slipped into your drink by a man who would like to have sex with a woman who is heavily sedated. If you are at a party, don't accept a glass of punch unless you trust the host. Don't think this won't happen to you. Some women don't even know they have been raped until it's too late.
If in doubt, take a self-defense course.
Follow Marybeth Bond on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GutsyTraveler