Travelling Solo, By the Girl With the Most Dangerous Job in the World

Travelling solo brings many rewards. When I’m abroad and alone I’m more likely to meet new friends, be treated like a queen (‘oh thank you, yes you can carry my case for me…’) and collect amusing tales for the future grandkids.

Having said that, going it alone has its downside too. I’ve felt awkward, lonely and downright petrified.

In a recent survey conducted by Maiden Voyage, 31% of business traveller females have suffered sexual harassment while travelling and 67% felt vulnerable walking around in a new city and on public transport.

One person who is perhaps immune to this fear, but ever aware of the risks is my mate Lizzie. A senior aid worker for a well known British charity (she’s too modest to be named), Lizzie travels frequently to challenging environments in and around central Africa. Her clients include uneducated AK47 toting teenagers and disgruntled locals.central african republic photoPhoto by hdptcar

I asked her for tips on travelling as a solo female, and compiled them along with a few more from fellow Expaters, while adding my own personal experiences into the mix.

1. Do your research.

Find out about the place you’re headed, including its local customs (see my post here on networking sites).

Newly landed and lost in conservative Syria I used direct eye contact with a stranger and asked for directions. He wasn’t keen to help. When I looked to his shoulder and directed my questions through his wife, they drew up a map and invited me over for tea.

Lizzie also recommends calling the embassy beforehand so you know the cost of a visa, and to try to get this in writing. Then, if you’re asked to pay bribes you have official documents to prove that it’s illegal. Also, carry photocopies of your key documents. Some customs officials have been known to confiscate passports until you pay them to make photocopies.passport photo

2. Ditch the holiday head.

Many of us leave our homegrown common sense at the airport. Maybe it’s because we’re in chilled out holiday mode, maybe it’s because we haven’t yet made friends to guide us.

Nevertheless, basic safety rules apply – don’t accept drinks from strangers (in case they are spiked), don’t get in a taxi or car without seatbelts (did you know road traffic accidents are the number one killer of aid workers?) and try not to travel alone at night when you can’t see where you’re heading. Use a recommended driver or taxi company and get your cash out before you get out. Never, ever go somewhere new, isolated or offbeat without telling someone you trust where you are headed first.

Also, be aware of an age-old scam – petty criminals working in a gang. One fellow Expater, Clara, was distracted by a ‘lost tourist’ in Berlin, while his mates got on with some serious pickpocketing.pickpocket photoPhoto by GrooverFW

3. Business travellers

As well as removing your name badge, ditch any branded material that might give the game away. One Expater buddy in the oil industry wouldn’t even carry a company branded pen. ‘The logo screamed ‘I’m new in town, earning lots. Come and rob me!” he claimed.

4. Save the Facebook bragging

Be cautious on social media. You might like to share the view from your amazing apartment online, but 75% of convicted burglars use social media to plan their crime. Turn the location feature off and share that post when you’re safely home.mobile phone woman photo

5. Two phones.

I’ll use pen and paper to record my emergency contacts. If I’m going offbeat I’ll also keep two understated mobiles with two local SIMs. That way I get the best network coverage and a backup in case one is stolen.

I’ll always keep the more expensive phone more hidden or at the hotel. When one guy went to rob me, he looked thoroughly disgusted. ‘Ehhhhh! What’s a nice girl like you doing with a piece of sh*t like that? You can keep your rubbish!’

mobile phone woman photoPhoto by garryknight

6. Lose the bag.

In rough areas I’ll leave my bag and wallet at home. A deep pocket will do. If I need to take my computer I’ll forego the laptop bag and wrap it up fish and chips style in newspaper and a plastic bag. Same applies for jewellery – less is definitely more in some neighbourhoods.

carrier bag photo

Who needs Vuitton when you’ve got plastic? Photo by LornaJane.net

7. Split money.

I’ll carry a few $20 notes separately in differents pockets (more or less depending on the destination) for emergency taxis, phone calls, bribes. I’ll try to carry some local currency, but within the legal limits. (This website is handy but always check with the embassy).

8. Get in, lock up.

After a night out it’s not the time for long farewells, but to get in the car, lock the doors and get going. If I had a driver I would ensure I was delivered right to my door.

As for hotels, Lizzie flatly refuses to stay in rooms without good locks on the doors. In worst case scenarios, she opts for a cheap plastic doorstop tucked under the inside of the door as a temporary measure. Door Jammer devices might not offer 100% protection, but could gain you a few extra minutes in the case of a break-in.burglar photoPhoto by Mark Turnauckas

9. Call codes.

When flat hunting on my own in… how shall I put it… ‘up and coming neighbourhoods’ I would call a friend beforehand, explain my location and agree to call them back at a designated time. I did this with my brother once, calling to say I was OK, but that the apartment wasn’t. When I got to the flat in question I realised it was actually a brothel, so gave the viewing a miss. Some business traveller buddies use a code for airport collections as an added safety measure too.

10. Dress local.

As mentioned in my other post, I’ve found out (the hard way) that it’s best to err on the side of conservatism.

For muslim majority countries, while you may disagree with the principle of wearing a headscarf, as Lizzie underlines it’s really in your interest to adhere to the norm: ‘As a blonde white woman I’m generally not expected to wear a headscarf but I’ll look out of the window on my journey and judge how many women I see in the street without one. If I see very few or none at all, like in rural Ethiopia or Chad, I’ll do myself a massive favour by putting one on’.  

hijab fashion photo

Anti unwanted attention device. Photo by Paul Keller

11. Hotel hunting.

Sometimes it’s worth paying a little more for the reassurance of added security that you might not need if you’re in a group. Are the doors fitted with good double locks? Is there a 24 hour reception? What’s your route into town like? Can you order decent room service if it’s late and you can’t make it out? If you’re feeling vulnerable and your room number is announced out loud in reception, if your room has an adjoining door, or is located on the ground floor, then request a new room. In my eyes, the female friendly label on a hotel is a marketing ploy, and you’re best bet is to go for all round excellence (I’m sure men appreciate well lit corridors, a good concierge etc too). Having said that, Four Seasons Riyadh at Kingdom Centre has a women’s only floor which seems like a good idea for expats who might feel vulnerable in this conservative country.

dodgy hotel photo

Probably not the most family friendly hotel. Photo by shankar s.

12. Stay calm.

It’s perhaps a natural instinct to panic when in danger but keeping calm, or at least pretending to be calm, can really help. As Lizzie notes, finding a human link is often the best way forward. Through her hostage training and experience on the ground she’s learnt the importance of connecting with people on a human level. ‘We’d discuss the fact that we both had families which we loved and that we both wanted a functioning hospital to save lives’ she tells me.

13. Run.

Another Expater friend of mine, Brenda, was violently mugged but blew kisses back at her aggressors. They were stunned for a second or two, which gave her time to run. Thankfully this unusual approach is not one I’ve ever had to test out myself and I cannot endorse it. More importantly, she was smart enough to leave the flashy jewelry at home, and smarter still to hand over all her possessions instantly, without any quibbling. ‘What’s the point of a watch if your wrist is too bruised to wear one anyway?’ she notes.

attack photoPhoto by Cornelius Kibelka

 

And my number one piece of advice? Trust your instincts.

If you live your life in paranoia you might as well stay locked in your basement, but if you have a gut feeling something isn’t right, it most likely isn’t.

Maybe there are indeed even more dangerous jobs than Lizzie’s. Journalism in Syria conjures up images, police work in drug ridden parts of Mexico too.

I’m not suggesting that you follow the above advice and then hop, skip and jump into a Boko Harem sunset. Indeed I haven’t even got started on health risks and natural disasters.  Clearly the advice depends very much on where you’re headed and your own personal circumstances. Just be smart and take care.

 

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