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Traveling Safely As a Lone Female
August 26, 2009, 6:22 pm
Filed under: Costa Rica, Travel Tip

This is a post on how to travel alone safely in developing countries (or any country, for that matter).

There are the obvious things, such as not wandering down deserted alleyways, walking alone on the streets at night, and walking down the street in broad daylight flashing expensive jewelry, your huge professional camera, playing a video on your brand new iPod where everyone can see it, (basically showing off whatever fancy designer brand/technology you own) etc. I would hope that those who wish to brave traveling to a developing country would know this before going there, or they will definitely have some problems.

However, there are some things that travelers are not aware of before entering a country, or there are some things that they are out of their control. For example. there is an incredibly high crime rate in Costa Rica, and I had to be aware of this coming here. People are mugged in broad daylight, with friends, on buses… if you are even walking down the street alone with valuables on your back (in a backpack), people could slash your backpack and take them without you even noticing- so there are certain precautions that need to be taken to make sure that you (and your valuables) stay safe. I would definitely recommend reading up on the country you are going to (even if it’s wiki travel) just to get a general idea of what you should be looking out for before you go there.

First off, blending in with the culture is a huge plus. This means clothing. In Bangladesh, it is most common for women to wear a salwar kameez; if I was walking down the street in a tube top and jeans, there would definitely be trouble (not only is it disrespectful, but it also SCREAMS oblivious tourist). Obviously even if I was wearing a salwar kameez I would still be considered a tourist, because I am white-skinned. But the fact that I AM wearing a salwar kameez implies that I respect their culture and know it enough to wear their clothing, and in that sense, I am smart enough to not carry around super expensive things in my bag that are worth stealing (even if I am).
However, if in Costa Rica I went around in my salwar kameez I would be considered a tourist- honestly, I don’t think there is an India population here (if there is it is probably incredibly small- and pardon me if I am ignorant and am not aware of this, I arrived three days ago). So I need to blend in with the culture around me, which means wearing jeans, skirts, small t shirts- this is common for girls my age to wear these things in Costa Rica. So far I have not been hassled (though people DO greet me in English, which makes me wonder why I still somehow stand out as a foreigner).

The most important part about traveling safely is how comfortable YOU feel. If you’re in an incredibly cheap hostel and you feel really uncomfortable, or if suddenly it’s night time and you don’t want to walk home- then spend a little extra money. Take a cab home. Get a hostel that’s a bit more expensive. It is MUCH better to feel comfortable and safe than to not, trust me. I have been in a few situations where I’ve felt very uncomfortable- there was a time when I took a rickshaw home by myself at 1 AM in Bangalore (Yes. This was a very stupid idea. I regret it), or when I was in a marshrukta (a van that people travel in) at night by myself with two guys in Yerevan, Armenia, or the time when I stayed alone in a very cheap hostel in PaharGanj, Delhi where the windows were taped up by cardboard, and then I thought someone was trying to get into my room at midnight… most fortunately, nothing bad happened to me. Something bad COULD have happened to me. All three of those times, I felt incredibly uncomfortable and nervous. I never want to put myself in those situations again, and you don’t want to put yourself in those situations.

So like I said, if there is a little voice in your head that is saying ‘this is not smart, this is not a good idea,’ then LISTEN to that voice. It is not a good idea.
Right now, I am in Costa Rica, and I am very nervous about the pick pocketing. I have to walk 15 blocks to school from my homestay house every day, and while my homestay family assures me I won’t have any problem walking alone (during the day), I still feel uncomfortable. Therefore, I carry pepper spray with me (I have my backpack on my back with my valuables, and I conceal the pepper spray under the rain coat I carry on my arm). Do I feel silly carrying pepper spray with me? Yes. When I start to feel more comfortable with the country, will I ease up on the pepper spray? Maybe. The fact of the matter is, right NOW I am completely new to this country and I don’t feel comfortable traveling 15 blocks alone during the day with valuables in my bag that could be stolen. It makes me feel much better carrying pepper spray- I feel more confident, and there isn’t a little voice in my head going ‘this is not a good idea, what are you thinking?’ Would other travelers who have stayed in Costa Rica think me carrying pepper spray in my hand while walking is a bit over the top? Probably. They may even laugh at the idea. I don’t care. It makes me feel comfortable and it gives me power in any situation that might pop up. So I carry it.

Basically, it is all about how comfortable you feel. If you don’t feel comfortable in a dingy hostel with a door that has a questionable lock, then upgrade to a more secure one. If you don’t want to take a bus alone at night, then change your plans so you take one during the day. If you don’t want to walk alone, then take a cab. You may feel frustrated and inconvenienced at times, but- nothing is more important than how safe you feel.

It’s also important to understand how cultures interact with one another. For example, in India, many men will approach you on the street and ask about you, where you are from, and what you are doing in India. However, in Indian society, strangers will NEVER approach a woman they don’t know and just start talking to them. So you have to ask yourself- what is it this Indian man wants from me? Maybe he’s harmless and he just wants to practice his English. Maybe he wants you to eventually come to his shop and buy his goods. Maybe he wants to hit on you. Maybe he wants to get you alone so he can take advantage of you. Maybe he wants to offer you drugs so that he can take advantage of you. There are a whole range of possibilities, but the fact of the matter is, these men COULD take advantage of you.
I’m not saying that every person you meet will be bad, or that they’re trying to take advantage of you- I’ve met many amazing locals in every country I’ve been in- but it all depends on the context you meet them in. If you’re walking down a crowded street in PaharGanj, Delhi, and some man comes up to you asking about your name and where you’re from- that’s a red flag for me. I ALWAYS completely ignore these men (to even say ‘hello’ to them indicates that they can now follow you for 20 minutes asking you questions that you’re forced to answer). If you’re walking down the streets in Costa Rica and some man on the street watches you walk by and just says “Hola, Como te llamas?’ I ignore these men.
Examples where I have NOT ignored people I’ve met: Meeting with someone in Varanasi who our institution was paying to coordinate our trip there. He has become a very good friend of mine. Meeting my Tibetan family, who I homestayed with in Dharamsala (that was set up by an agency). They are like a second family to me. Meeting a local Nepali in the Bangladesh Embassy, who I started talking to and invited me out to lunch. I never saw him again, but he was incredibly nice, and it’s a very nice memory. No harm there. Like I said before, it really has to do with your radar- whether you feel comfortable in the situation and with the person you’re talking to. People are a little more tricky, because they can be deceiving, and you don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you can be taken advantage of later. But with that being said, don’t be afraid to make friends, because that’s the best part about traveling- meeting amazing new people.

Some tips for Costa Rica I’ve gotten (for those traveling there)- if you carry a black backpack, people think you’re carrying expensive items like a laptop. It’s better to get something that looks really cheap, or a handbag, if you’re carrying expensive items, because robbers won’t think that you’re carrying something expensive in there. If you’re carrying a backpack, most people have one sling around their arm, and carry the backpack in their front, so robbers won’t slash their bag and steal their things. If you’re traveling alone, always take a taxi at night instead of walking.
If you’re NOT carrying expensive items, but rather, important documents or a notebook with field notes in it- you can buy transparent bags; these show robbers that there’s nothing of value in what you’re carrying, so they don’t try to take your bag.

I hope that was enlightening and helpful! Happy and safe travels!

Much love,
Brittany


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