If you listen to co-workers or your uncle, you can not go to Colombia, Tanzania or Amsterdam and come back in one piece. People love to share horror stories and to them it’s not so important if they are fifth-hand, or actually accurate…!
Fear of the unknown
All those scare mongers make you feel like the minute you’ll get off the plane you will instantly be attacked by tropical snakes and spiders, be mugged and raped, will fall into deep ravines, get hit by buses with drunk drivers and will almost die of food poisoning, all at the same time. The fear of the unknown, all added up can become huge.
So should you stay home? No!
Should you be prepared and careful? Yes.
Read up on your destination’s specific safety issues and: don’t be stupid. Of course I am not recommending you go to war zones, but a lot of countries in the world are perfectly fine to travel in. Remember that regular people live there too, and like most people in the world they just want to live in peace and be helpful to others.
During my entire year in Indonesia, Australia, Chile, Bolivia and Peru the worst thing that happened was that our yoghurt was stolen from the hotel fridge in Lima. Probably not even by Peruvians but by fellow travelers. On the other hand we found full moneybelts from other careless travellers on three different occasions!
Ask yourself this:
1) Who is telling me the horror stories? Is it people who have actually been there, or are the stories about some cousin’s neighbor’s friend’s aunt’s co-worker? Lots of stories get blown out of proportion. Sometimes this urge to scare others even stems from jealousy about your courage for stepping out of your comfort zone (a jealousy that the scare mongers might not even be aware of themselves).
Also a story about a shooting in ‘scary’ Colombia with tourists involved gets way more attention than a shooting in your home country, and sticks in your mind longer.
2) How safe is my home country anyway? You can sit safely at home knitting a sweater and watching TV and suddenly an airplane can crash on your house or a fire can break out. There is rape, murder, violence, break-ins everywhere, the chances of getting involved in a traffic accident are probably higher in Europe than in South America, etc.
Here are some pointers on how to stay safe
- If you feel insecure in a new place… the first day you arrive, use a taxi to get to your hotel, store all your valuables there safely, and wander around town without any valuables on you until you feel more at ease. Look at what other people carry around and whether they use their phone or camera openly.
- Try to look like you know where you’re going and what you’re doing, don’t let yourself look like an easy target. Here’s how to walk with confidence. Study the map discreetly, for example in a shop or a quiet corner.
- Don’t walk around with your eyes glued to your phone.
- Other travellers can also be thieves, mind this when using dormitory rooms and laundry lines.
“No guts, no glory”
- Don’t flash your valuables. Do not put your wallet on the cafe table, do not sling your camera from one shoulder but hide it in a bag until you need it, in countries with a lot of poverty: do not wear any jewelry. When going into town or for a walk, bring only enough cash to get through the day (and some extra for emergencies).
- Knowing which tricks and scams exist is a huge help in preventing them from happening to you. Read up about pickpocketing tricks and about common scams.
- Stay sober, that way you’ll be more alert and smarter.
- Late at night in a bar, do not leave your drink unattended or it may be drugged.
- Use your intuition, listen to your gut feeling. If a person or a place gives you the creeps (for no explicable reason), go away from it/him/her. Fear is a useful tool. It also works the other way around, usually if you ‘feel good’ about a certain place or person, it will prove to be a nice place or person. Test your intuition at home, for example try to remember the first impression a new co-worker makes on you, and a few weeks later evaluate if your gut feeling was right.
If you are careful enough, nothing bad or good will ever happen to you
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. A shop owner, a lady with her baby, a uniformed railway employee, people like that are hardly going to rob you and run, are they? Out in public with a lot of people around, you can even ask the alpha male in a group of tough-looking guys for help. Macho guys are often only too keen on showing their friends they can help out ‘the little lady’ or ‘those naive travelers’. Also read this article by a fellow traveler: ‘My kind of strangers‘.
- Use tiny padlocks on your zippers, and a thin travel cable lock to attach your backpack to furniture. This should deter the opportunist, unprepared thieves.
- Get good travel insurance, mind the amounts that are refunded and the way repatriation in case of emergency is arranged.
- Do not transport goods for other people.
- Do not give your real passport to ‘police officers’ in the street. Show them a photocopy, or offer to walk with them to a police station if they don’t accept that. Don’t get into a car with them.
- Scared about starting out in South America? Try South East Asia first. This will teach you how to deal with culture shock, hot weather, how to avoid food poisoning, how to figure out different transport systems, how and where to find accommodation. After that trip you can ‘take it to the next level’.
- Do not be paranoid but enjoy the beauty of the country!
Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did do. So, throw off the bowlines; sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore Dream Discover. – Mark Twain
Safety for solo travelers
In my opinion traveling solo is just as safe, if not safer. Except maybe if you go hiking in the middle of nowhere. Traveling with a companion or in a group is not automatically safer. A lot comes down to not acting dumb, and staying alert. And some luck.
More alert solo
In fact I find it easier to stay alert when alone. Solo, you are much more aware of who is nearby (maybe even following you), what is happening around you, where your stuff is. If worst comes to worst you can seek out help, for example from a shop owner, or a lady and her baby in the street… Vice versa, other people are especially protective of solo females and will help you out. Just use your intuition on who to trust and stay out in public.
Distracted by travel mates
Couples and groups can also be robbed or attacked, I know multiple first-hand examples. People who travel with others tend to have a false sense of safety. They can be distracted by all the chatting, forget to pay attention to their valuables and their surroundings, and sometimes let themselves be talked into doing dumb, dangerous things by travel mates.
People want to be nice
As for the risks, a few rotten apples may have bad intentions but don’t forget that most people in the world simply want the same as you: to live a carefree life and be nice to other people. In a public bus in Malawi (Africa) the most likely thing to occur is a mother with her baby or a student will chat with you politely and wish you a pleasant holiday and you will leave the bus with a huge grin on your face.
Here you can read more about my take on solo travel.
Safety tips for solo travelers
Want to be prepared? The website https://solotravelerworld.com/ has some good and funny lists about safety for solo travelers. Mind you, most tips also count for people who travel in pairs or groups!
- 10 ways to look confident
- Solo female travel tips, for example: “Be rude if necessary.” 🙂
- Safety lessons from a cat, funny but valid!
- … more solo safety tips
“Nothing is so much to be feared as fear”