I’d been drifting in and out of sleep for the past eight hours. The bus gave a sudden lurch. I looked out the window, but all I could see was my own reflection and a few stars twinkling in the pitch black night. I was on a 10 hour bus ride traveling from Kannur to Bangalore. The bus stopped and I couldn’t tell if we were still on the narrow, winding mountain roads or if we’d finally reached safer terrain. My neck hurt from trying to sleep on the stiff, five-foot long mattress, but I felt lucky to be on a sleeper bus. My last bus ride was a 13 hour drive without bunks, so being horizontal felt luxurious.
The bus still wasn’t moving. What was going on? I pulled the curtain aside to assess the situation. That was my first mistake.
I had the last ‘bed’ in the bus. A row of seats stretched the width of the bus just inches from my feet. The minute I made eye contact with the man sitting closest to my feet, I could see the light bulb go on. “Oh,” he seemed to think, “there is a white woman in here!” You see, we are a rare find in that part of the country and Bollywood has created a rather promiscuous reputation for us.
For the next two hours this stranger tickled and grabbed my feet. I told him to stop. I kicked him. I yelled at him. Nothing worked. I curled into a ball near the top of my bed and thought about the news stories I’d heard. The ones about the bad things that happened to women in India. I worried about what would happen if things escalated. I realized I had no way to fight back.
Fortunately, nothing happened. But this was not the only time I felt unsafe as a solo woman traveler. I’ve been groped and followed by men in more countries than I can count. I’m not about to say it’s right or even acceptable, but in a lot of countries it comes with the territory. I have a loud voice, the scariest of don’t-you-dare stares, and amazing travel karma, so nothing serious has ever happened to me. Still, as a solo female traveler I am constantly aware of the risk. So for all you solo female travelers out there, here is a list of safety tips to keep in mind on your next trip.
1. Ask the locals for advice
On my first day in Ethiopia, I asked my volunteer coordinator if it was safe to go into the city alone. I was worried I would offend him; that he would think I was stereotyping his culture. Of course he wasn’t offended. In fact, he gave me a list of tips for staying safe in Addis Ababa (don’t go into bars alone or men will assume you are a prostitute and don’t walk around alone at dark because, as a white woman, you are going to get robbed). I followed his advice and while I lived in Ethiopia for two months, I never felt threatened.
Wherever you go, talk to someone who lives there. Fellow travelers can give you great insight about a place, but no one knows a city like the locals do. It is preferable to talk to women as they can speak to your specific worries, but any local safety advice should be heeded.
2. Get your bearings
When you first arrive in a place, take some time to get to know the neighborhoods. During daylight, of course. Find some landmarks around your hotel so you can easily find your way back. Pick a few touristy spots (but not the over-crowded, pick-pocket heavy ones) around town to make “safe-spaces”. Hotels and restaurants are best. This way, if you feel threatened at any point you can make your way to a safe zone and stay as long as you need. It’s a good idea to keep a number for a cab in your bag. Then, if you get stuck in a safe zone across town from your hotel, you won’t have to head into the night; you can call a cab to pick you up. Which brings be to tip #3…
3. Safety is more important than money
As a budget traveler, I understand the hesitation when it comes to paying for cab fare. Even when it is $3 (yes, one time I yelled at a cab driver for charging me the atrocious sum of $3). However, most of my uncomfortable run-ins happened when I was walking back to my hotel at night. Even when nothing happened, I found myself wishing I had chosen to get a cab. If I took a cab, I didn’t have to feel that knot in my belly and keep checking over my shoulder. I am not a paranoid person (in fact, I’ve been a little loose with my safety at times), but I firmly believe that paying a taxi driver to take you home is always worth it. You cut your risk way down and any price is a worthy price if it keeps you safe.
4. Move with purpose
When you are walking, move with purpose. Day or night, lost or not, walk like you know where you are going. If you are sincerely lost, just walk until you see a hotel, cafe, or restaurant. Then you can step in and get your bearings or call a cab. You are way more likely to get robbed, bothered, or approached if you look lost or confused. So put the map away, walk like you mean it, and figure out where the heck you are later.
5. Expect the worst
Not all the time. Not from everyone. Not everywhere you go. But yes, sometimes you have to expect the worst. If you’re walking alone at night (see tip 3 and don’t do this) or someone has approached you and is asking for something suspicious, be a little paranoid. Sure, 90% of the time nothing is going to happen. But you can avoid that 10% if you keep your guard up. I love to trust people and have probably trusted more people than I should have, but I am grateful every day that I did not follow the group of men that asked me to go to the bars with them in Ghana. Maybe it would’ve been an amazing experience, but what if it wasn’t? I was alone and I wasn’t going to risk it. I hate that it’s something we have to worry about, but there are lots of corners of this world that aren’t safe for young women to be on their own. If you are like me and refuse to let your gender dictate where you travel, then you need to be willing to be a little meaner, a little tougher, and a little more paranoid.
6. Trust your gut
Sometimes there is no reason for me to be nervous. A perfectly nice stranger asks me a perfectly innocent question in the light of day and according to all the checklists this is a safe situation. And yet something in my gut tells me to get away. I feel like I’m being ridiculous. My stubborn, over-confident side puffs out its chest and tells me to calm down. I’ve been tempted to ignore the bad feeling and let my stubborn side win, but I made a promise to myself when I first started solo traveling that I would always trust my gut.
I don’t mean never take risks. I’ve been bungee jumping, I’ve ridden motorcycles through the mountains, I’ve eaten unidentifiable foods, and I’ve gotten totally lost in the middle of nowhere. I quickly learned to distinguish between fear and survival instincts. I recommend you do too. So yes, take risks. Have an experience. But never at the cost of your safety.
7. Always be prepared
For the first time in my life, I’m actually listening to this advice. Maybe I needed to get old enough to realize I wasn’t invincible, or maybe I needed to hear enough awful stories to realize the value of protection, but I’m finally taking the last and most important step to keep myself safe as a solo female traveler: I am prepared. This winter I plan to enroll in self-defense classes before I head to Central America. I also got a Little Viper pepper spray bracelet, which I’m pretty much obsessed with.
I considered getting one of those pepper-spray-in-disguise things that looks like lipstick or a key chain, but I decided to go with the Little Viper bracelet. I know how easily lipstick gets lost in my purse and it seems like it defeats the purpose if I have to search through my purse in an emergency. I can’t imagine an attacker responding well to me holding my hand up and saying, “excuse me, could you hold on for a moment? I need to find something in the bottom of my purse so I can defend myself against your attack.” The Little Viper bracelet is there when I need it and makes me feel so much safer when I am out and about. Sure, it’s not my most attractive accessory, but it is pretty discreet and well worth the sense of security it provides. I got it just to make my dad happy, but now I’ve fallen in love with it. It’s a must-have for any solo woman traveler, but any safety-conscious person will geek out over it too.
Stay safe out there
I can be a bit idealistic and sometimes I act like the world is made out of sunshine and rainbows. Newsflash: it isn’t. As much as I believe in the good in everyone and all that hippy peace and love crap you are used to hearing from me, bad things happen in this world. It’s fact. Speaking of fact, 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Of course there are systemic things that need to change so women don’t have to live in fear, but until that happens it is important to be smart and protect yourself. So ladies, wherever your are and wherever you go, remember: safety first.