A friend told me about a bad travel experience he’d had whilst on expedition in Kyrgyzstan. He was mugged on his return from the mountains. He had handed over his wallet without hesitation and walked away unscathed. I can only image what it is like to be mugged. Not only would being face-to-face with the thief be scary, but being a victim of a crime such as this taints the memory of an otherwise fantastic trip. As well as the hassle of dealing with the repercussions of losing personal items. I sympathised with him, but then I asked if he’d allow me to guess how it had happened.
“You were in a town you weren’t familiar with.” I began, “It was late at night and you’d been out drinking. You’d spent all your money in a bar and had none left to get a taxi, so you were walking back to where you were staying.”
“Yes!” he said nearly falling off his chair, “that’s exactly what happened, how did you guess?”
And this is what men could learn from solo female travellers. Most women wouldn’t have putting themselves in such a high-risk situation. Men, on the other hand, can put themselves at risk from not thinking about their personal safety.
I know what you’re going to say, women at risk of sexual assault, this isn’t something men need to worry about. Well, first of all, you do. Men do suffer sexual assault, although there is a much lower reported incidence. It is also important to acknowledge there are many other types of serious crime people can be a victim of, serious assaults causing grievous bodily harm being one. I don’t wish to compare crimes but I can only image that all forms of physical attack must be traumatic.
Taking a statistically view, in the 2015/16 FCO report, the FCO assisted in 291 cases of rape and sexual assault (no statistics on gender are given, but I feel it is a fair assumption that the almost all the victims would have been women). This is compared with 23,857 assistance cases the FCO dealt with in total over that year. This figure does not include lost and stolen passports which amounted to a further 20,070 incidents.
Being a victim of a serious crime is extremely unlikely when travelling, and which always needs to be kept in perspective. If someone does becomes a victim of a crime when travelling it is much more likely to be from petty crime. Although victims are physically unharmed in these cases, it can be upsetting, and is definitely inconvenient.
“being a victim of pretty crime…..can be upsetting, and is definitely inconvenient.”
Although there is a low likelihood of being a victim of any sort of crime whilst travelling, taking steps to decrease the risk is wise. When abroad we can be seen as wealthier than the local population and an easier target. It is also worth remembering that sorting out any problems may be more difficult when we’re are abroad. Time constraints of travel itineraries, language barriers, unfamiliar procedures and, occasionally, corrupt authorities can make an already stressful situation even more stressful.
There are many simple things people can do to protect themselves against crime and stay safe when travelling. Women, and in particular solo female travellers, often put a lot of thought into their personal safety when they travel, and in this article I draw what I’ve learnt from them on how to improve personal safety. I hope that both men and women will find the tips equally useful. This is not an exhaustive list, and has a focus on what men could learn from solo female travellers, as well as some things that are specific to men (like beards, but more on beards in a minute…)
1. Avoid drink, drunks (& most definitely, drugs)
Alcohol increase bravado, makes people do irrational things (most of us have experienced trying to reason with a drunk), become over-friendly and generally lowers inhibitions. Criminals know this. If you’re drunk it makes you vulnerable, it dulls the senses and makes you less perceptive to situations.
In some cultures (think Russian and ex-soviet for one) drinking is interwoven into society. Extracting yourself from a social situation involving drink can be tricky. It is much easier as a woman as we are expected to drink less (or not at all) but as a man it can be difficult.
It’s usually best not to start drinking to begin with. Being firm by saying that you don’t drink is a good tactic. Don’t worry about offending, you’re foreign, they already think you’re weird. If you have had ‘one’ for the road, that looks like it’s going to be two, three or four, then be strict with yourself about a limit. Try interspersing alcoholic drinks with water (or soft drinks), covertly or not.
“….you’re foreign, they already think you’re weird.”
If I said I never had a drink when travelling I’d definitely be lying. However, before going out I would have thought about a few things. I would know how I was getting back to my accommodation and have asked for advice on the best way to do this. As a woman, people will generally give advice which errs on the side of caution which can be a good thing. When I’m out I’ll moderate the amount I drink or choose to stick to soft drinks. I’ll keep an eye on the time and who’s hanging about. If I don’t like anyone I’ll give them the cold shoulder, which generally means they lose interest and disappear.
Using illegal drugs whilst travelling is foolish. Not only do you have the problems related to altering your state of mind, making you vulnerable but also have the added problem of interacting with unsavory people as well as breaking the law. Being found in the possession of illegal drugs can have much higher penalties overseas than in the UK. In Peru alone, 15 British nationals are currently in jail for drug offences, and in 2015/16 the FCO reported 589 arrests for drug offences, some of which would have resulted in life sentences.
Being aware of local laws and customs before you go so that you understand what is legal, what is not, what is tolerated and what is not, should always be part of your research before travelling. The FCO travel advice summarises local laws and customs for each country and is essential reading before you go.
2. The Sixth Sense
People talk about trusting your ‘sixth sense’, intuition. Women are often attributed with being more attuned to their sixth sense than men. The sixth sense makes it seem like this is a feeling and there are no other reasons behind it. Instead of thinking about it purely as intuition it is more useful to think about the ‘sixth sense’ as something a person unconsciously picks up on when there is something amiss. Personally, I don’t like leaving it to the chance that my unconscious will notice a potentially problematic situation, instead I prefer to be more analytical.
One thing I always consciously acknowledge if I’m in an unknown place, or situation, is who else is about. I ask myself the question, are there women and children about? If there are then you’re probably OK (with the exception of walking into a Red Light district of course, but this is usually pretty obvious).
“are there women and children about?”
Instead of not going out after dark, which some people do as a matter of course safety measure when travelling, I consider who else is about at that time. In some cultures, places come to life after dark. It can be the time people do their shopping and go out to eat. Putting this into practice, I’ve walked down, dark, unlit streets, alone because there have been women and children playing in the street, indicating to me that it is safe to be there. By the same admission, I’ve walked down a road in the middle of the day in Peru and suddenly realised that there were only men in the street. This seemed strange as I couldn’t think of a reason for this. I made a quick exit, finding out later that I had been in bad part of town and I’d been wise get out of there.
Regardless of your gender, by using this safety rule, whereby behaviours of local people indicate whether or not it is safe, can help keep you safe.
3. What to wear?
Yes, guys, you need to think about how you dress too. I know you thought it was only a woman’s problem. Dressing conservatively and matching the type of clothing other men wear, especially with regarding the fit and how much skin is on show is important to blend in. Doing this makes you less conspicuous and look less like a clueless tourist, which all means less hassle and more respect.
Dressing suitably means that you will look like you are familiar with the country and understand the culture. It is a shortcut to looking well travelled and ultimately less vulnerable. More respect has other advantages apart safety. It can result in getting better prices in the local market, being able to build rapport quicker and can lead to more genuine interactions with local people.
“Dressing suitably … can lead to more genuine interactions with local people.”
One January, I got last minute work leading a bespoke expedition in Morocco. I flew out to Marrakesh from the snowy Alps with only my winter clothes. Marrakesh is actually quite cool at that time of year, plus the city was having particularly cold spell. Locals were walking around in their winter coats, whilst tourists stood out like sore thumbs in their shorts and T-shirts, as their exposed skin turning a delicate shade of blue. In many cultures men don’t expose their legs, Morocco being one of them, let alone in mid-winter. Wearing my winter clothes in Marrakesh, I was able to walk through the medina undisturbed and had a fantastic few days in the city.
Right Guys, let’s talk beards. I know you’ve spent months cultivating it and it’s your pride and joy. However, in some parts of the world, people haven’t heard about hipsters, hard to believe I know! Take one example, the western idea that all Muslims have beards. Actually, in some places, beards are associated with Islamic fundamentalism.
The misguided idea that you will fit in more with a beard could end up getting you questioned (or worse) by the authorities. Travellers wanting to avoid unwanted attention from the authorities may chose to adopt a clean shaven look. This is particularly relevant when travelling countries on high alert of Islamic terrorism such as Turkey or Uzbekistan. The same applies if travelling as groups of men. Travelling as a group made up entirely of men can be seen as threatening or suspicions. A simple solution is to invite some women along. A travel experience can then be transformed from one of constantly being stopped and questioned, to unhindered travel and an altogether more enjoyable trip.
“….in some parts of the world, people haven’t heard of hipsters”
Other top tips include looking impoverished, not having flashy electronics on display and wearing neutral colours. Small changes to appearance, such as these, can all help you go unnoticed. Going shopping in the local market to buy a few items of clothing can be entertaining and enable you to blend in more.
The key is to tune into any country you are travelling to before you go. I follow local influencers on social media and try to tap into the local news to get a better picture of what’s going on. Through social media it is also possible to make observations of people’s appearance and how they dress.
4. Are those offers of help helpful or unhelpful?
Some of my best travel experiences have been because I trusted people and took up their offers of hospitality. However, I am selective about when I do this. I recognise that at some times and places during my travels I am more vulnerable.
When I first arrive in a country is one such time when I am more vulnerable because I haven’t fully tuned into a country and there can be people about that prey on this. At these times I protect myself by making more conservative decisions. I allow myself the time to tune in to the place, before I begin to trust people. It is the same with border towns, ports and near airports. Here a few more bad apples seem to hang out than in other places. Petty criminals can also hide in crowds, meaning that markets or busy bus stations can be where theft occurs. Being careful with valuables and belongings in these places is wise.
The rule I follow is that 99.9% of people in the world are good people with genuine intentions of curiosity and help. It’s the 0.1% that you have to watch out for. I am wary of any person who has approached me to offer help. This is because people that approach you are more likely to be in the bad apple category, as they are picking you. Instead, if you need help, whether it’s directions or a recommendation of where to stay, I choose a person to ask, rather than take advice from someone who approaches you. It’s therefore extremely unlikely that I’ll pick someone who falls in the 0.1%. It’s a subtle difference but useful to identify which category a person falls into before taking up their offer.
“99.9% of people in the world are good people”
The above rule becomes a problem when hitchhiking, as the driver is picking you. To apply the rule, instead of standing at the side of the road, go somewhere where you can approach drivers. If you can ask a driver where they are heading, then you are applying the rule. There are some other things to consider regarding hitching. Is hitchhiking common place where you are? If there is a culture of hitching then you won’t be standing out. Also, try to apply the women and children rule. Are you going to be getting into a vehicle with women and children, a solo man or a group of men? It may be higher risk to get a ride with a group of men rather than the former two.
5. Be confident (or fake it)
If a sticky situation arises it’s important to look confident and not distracted. You look less vulnerable if you appear confident and focused. If the situation persists you should stay calm and think clearly about how to make quick exit. If it’s a problem with the authorities, never show that you’re in a rush (even if you are). Men are often better at coming across as confident, which is an advantage if it isn’t borne out of being oblivious to the situation.
What can be a problem for men is getting help if they need it. More people will come to a woman’s aid, especially a lone woman, than a man. Another problem can be that men sometimes feel less able to ask for assistance, or ask much later, after a situation has snowballed. If you’re in trouble, then let other people know, ask for help or shout out. Many criminals rely on either going unnoticed or people being too scared or ashamed to draw anyone else’s attention to the situation. Shouting out generally scares them off. Any loud, startling noise can be enough to make a petty criminal rapidly disappeared whilst not creating a confrontational situation.
We need to recognise that people some situations put themselves in leave them vulnerable to crime, whether that person is a man or a woman. Taking some of the simple steps above and increased awareness can help improve personal safety. If you’re in doubt about what to do, try asking yourself what would a woman do if she was that situation? What advice would you give your partner, sister, mother? And then make sure you take your own advice.
Happy travels everyone.
Some useful travel safe items
What do you do to keep yourself safe when you travel? Join the discussion on my facebook page