BY: ELISA WIRKALA
The sounds and sights of the world passing by through the dingy bus windows were lost on me. My eyes were shut tight, body limp in the faded grey seat of the bus meandering through mountain villages.
After an all-night ride from rural Belize, I was exhausted by the time I boarded the final bus in Guatemala City, and lay across two empty seats for some much needed sleep. Gently shaken awake sometime later, I slid over to make room for a hunched old lady, a toothless smile spreading across her weathered face. Rocked by the swaying of the bus, I succumbed again to deep slumber.
Hours later, fear tugged at the edges of my subconsciousness. Something moved in my lap, slowly making its way up my inner thighs as my body lay immobilized by exhaustion. I dragged my blank mind into a semblance of wakefulness, trying to reason with Sleep until I was finally permitted to crack one heavy eyelid.
A large calloused arm lay across my lap, a big hand snug between my legs and working its way higher….
Ladies (and gents), there’s no denying that travel has its dangers. And while traveling as a female can sometimes offer more protection and care from locals, it can also mean significant danger.
Though having a positive and bright outlook is paramount to a successful and happy journey, you’d be foolish to believe that goodwill and positive vibes alone will get you through unscathed. Sharp wits and good sense will go a long way to ensuring your safety on the road, and after a while become second nature.
After 15 years of travel, I’ve had my fair share of harrowing moments: Muggings, sexual assault, attempted kidnapping, break-ins and pick-pockets… Harrowing at times, yet there’s always been a lesson learned. And with each voyage, I’ve learned to be a safer and wiser traveler.
Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way to keep safe and sound, and get home unscathed.
- Make friends! Don’t rush through and be too afraid to mingle with locals. Making friends and connecting with the people whose countries you’re traveling is not only what makes a trip great, but it’s also a mechanism of keeping you safer. If you take the time to make friends along the route, you’ll always have friendly faces to turn back to if things don’t go as planned. Gonna ride across Mexico? Connect with the Facebook ADV Mexico page, and get great insights into safety and route finding. Need a place to crash? Check out Couchsurfing and find some local women or families to host you for a few nights.
- Bolts, locks and bars. Before checking into a hotel for the night, ask to see the room. Check the windows and doors to make sure the locks are all in order, especially if the room is on the first floor. In many countries, bars on lower windows is the norm, ensuring no nighttime visitors make their way in. Ask to see multiple rooms, and choose the one that feels safest. Some women even travel with door stoppers, for those times when options are limited.
- Camping Out. A must in many countries, or if you’re on a serious budget. When choosing a campground, avoid the most desolate of places. If possible, pitch your tent next to a family, or near the caretaker’s lodge. Don’t be shy; ask people around you to keep an eye out for anything out of the norm. Whatever you do, don’t place your tent in a remote and dark corner, unless you know it’s a safe area. In places that aren’t safe or in non-designated camp spots, it’s much better to hide your bike and tent as best you can to avoid unwanted visitors.
- Lady Bits. In a group, you’re less likely to be hassled. But as a solo traveler, try to be discrete. Wear plain clothes or an old jacket over your nicer gear, and pay attention to how local women dress. If you’re not seeing women in tank tops and booty shorts, consider keeping your own shoulders and legs covered, too.
- $20 Dollars in My Pocket. Take it from Macklemore (and my dad, as this was his sage advice from years of travel), and carry $20 in your pocket when you go out exploring new lands. The last thing you want is to be robbed by a desperate thief and have nothing to fork over, which can lead to anger and more dangerous situations. Better safe than sorry, and everyone likes a crispy $20.
- EPERB’s, the new GPS Parental Leash. The first time I carried a SPOT Device (an emergency GPS tracker), I felt a little like my parents were holding my hand. They were the ones to buy it for me, after all. But after some time getting used to it, I quickly saw the value of carrying an EPERB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon). The SPOT Device has a tracking feature, which is not only fun for your family and friends to watch your progress, it might just save your life, too. And if you can’t find a friend to buddy up and ride some of the more isolated stretches of the world’s roads with you, definitely invest in one of these babies.
- Party Time. I can’t tell you how many travelers I know and stories I’ve heard of people drinking or doing drugs and finding themselves in BIG trouble. No need to be a teetotaler, but if you’re traveling alone- and especially if you’re a solo female- stick to one drink. Or better yet, order a vodka tonic, hold the vodka.
- The Female Factor. Aunty Flow’s coming to visit, and you’re in rural Guatemala. Good luck finding tampons. When heading into the less developed world, bring what you need in terms of healthcare (meds for things like malaria or traveler’s diarrhea) and female care. I always felt ridiculous carrying around a four month supply of tampons, but some places put a real literal meaning to the phrase, ‘on the rag’. These days, I travel with a much smaller and less conspicuous Diva Cup.
- The 75 Cent Insurance Policy. Franger, Raincoat, Rubber. You get the idea. We’re talking about condoms, baby! Bring ‘em with you. I wish that were enough said, but I’m afraid not… A girl friend once berated me for hitchhiking and not bringing a condom along. I was indignant. “What do I need one for?!”, I cried naively. “If someone tries to rape you, at least you can ask them to use it!” she retorted. Her response startled me, but she was right. I had been naive, and as much as I don’t like to think about it, women are forced into sex all the time. Who knows if a rapist would use one in the moment or not, but I’ve carried one in my first aid kit ever since. Better safe than sorry, and if Mr. Right comes knocking in Timbuktu and the local 7-Eleven is closed, at least you’ll be prepared for that, too.
- Be Open, Be Smart. So a guy at a cafe is inviting you to stay at his place, for free! He has a spare room and everything- What luck! Or is it? Use your common sense and your gut. There are plenty of people out there willing to host and take care of you. But is he one of them? If you have an inkling of a bad feeling, make an excuse and find somewhere else. If you decide to take him up on his offer, discreetly send a message to a friend so someone knows exactly where you’ll be, and with whom. If a guy gets fresh and things get weird, never feel obliged to stay.
I bolted upright, striking the arm away like a serpent and gasping with the realization of what was happening. The old lady long gone, I hadn’t woken to this new stranger sitting next to me, blocking me in with his large frame and bag. Fear took hold; I lunged forward, hurtling myself over the seats and men in front of me and across the bus aisle to where my friend lay, still snug in the two seats she’d claimed for herself. We were the only two women, the only foreigners. All conversation ceased as each man on the packed bus waited for what would come next.
I burst into quiet tears. After recounting what had happened, my friend waited several seconds. “Can you let me out?” she said quietly. I moved my legs aside enough to let her squeeze through, and she stood in the aisle next to the seat the Big Man had been sitting in. He’d scooted over to my seat, placing his bag on the vacated chair. She grabbed the Big Man’s bag, slamming it into his lap and sitting down. The tension on the bus was electric… She looked up at him with piercing eyes and whispered, in the Ecuadorian Spanish her mother had taught her, “You mother fucker. I know what you did, and I am going to kill you. When we get off this bus, I am going to hunt you down and kill you. God knows what you did, and you will burn in hell”. Rejoining me at our seats, the bus rumbled through the corn fields, miles away from civilization. The Big Man got up and quickly made his way to the front of the bus, asking the driver to pull over.
As the bus pulled away in a cloud of dust swirling around the Big Man, I sat, disgusted and angry, swearing I’d be more careful in the future. I noted my mistake: When possible, stick together… When not possible, keep alert and with sharp wits.
Have a few more safety tips? Share your thoughts in the comment section, below!
Photo credits: Justin Herx