“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
― Marie Curie
A few years ago I was driving through the middle of nowhere Midwest and decided to stop at a tiny town off the interstate for some dinner (Big Macs duh). I went in to order and when I came back, to my surprise, my car wouldn't start. I was far away from anywhere or anyone I knew and, well, started to panic. I opened the hood of the car thinking that maybe the act of it would bring me some sort of knowledge that I previously did not have - but of course this just compounded my anxiety.
A man called out behind me from what can only be described as a monster truck "hey, need help?" I could barely squeak out a yes as he got out of his car and I caught a glimpse of his confederate flag tattoo and offensive bumper stickers. I assessed the situation and decided I probably wasn't going to die on a Sunday afternoon in a McDonald’s parking lot so I let him take a look at my car and, again to my surprise, he ended up being the sweetest man I had come in to contact with for weeks. He was on his way to a family barbecue but took over an hour to call his wife to bring him his tools, drove me to the only store open in town to buy a new battery, put it in my car, and then wouldn't even give me his name or let me buy him a Big Mac for a thank you.
When my car wouldn’t start I had two options: trust a stranger or live the rest of my life in a McDonald’s parking lot - and while I like Big Macs a lot that just wasn't happening. I had to assess the situation and take the steps to mitigate the danger.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. I've been saved by complete strangers on several occasions. While all these incidents had happy endings - and I'd like to believe people are generally good - there is still always that nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I shouldn't be trusting a stranger as a single woman traveling alone.
Safety is a real concern traveling alone. There is safety (at least in our minds) in number and being alone in a new place can be disorienting. A lot of people you meet are in fact good but that doesn't mean you can blindly trust everyone you meet. We must find a middle ground: a healthy fear that keeps us from real danger but doesn’t stop us from taking some risks and having an adventure.
Let's look at the facts.
The nightly news and popular media have conditioned women to believe that they are at risk if they walk alone at night, jog alone in the morning, wear a certain outfit, respond and/or not respond to a man in a certain way, go to a “bad” part of town, engage the wrong person in a conversation, drive at night, pull over on the side of the road etc etc I could go on but you get it.
While terrible things do happen to people in those situations – it is the exception, not the norm.
A woman is much more likely to be a victim of violence (assault or rape) by their partner than any stranger (less than 1/3 of rapes are committed by strangers). Rapes occur outdoors in only 3.6% of cases, alcohol is generally involved, 71% of the time by someone you know, and 66% of the time occurs in a home.
So we are actually more likely to be a victim of violence in our everyday activities than alone on the road.
The reality is that driving is the most dangerous part of travel. The highest incidence (by far) of death or injury to travelers is due to auto accidents. After that, tourists generally encounter crimes of opportunity – theft etc,
But I'm afraid.
Fear is a natural emotion. It makes sense to be afraid of something when you don’t know what to expect/haven’t experienced it before. But you can’t let the fear stop you. Real courage is acknowledging fear and continuing. Easier said than done though right?
Here are some things that can help to face fears:
· Gradual exposure – Identify your fears and then gradually expose yourself to them. If the idea of going on a week long off the grid hike is scary – start with a solo hike on a busy trail for a couple of hours. Work your way up to the thing you are afraid of. Practice is key – the more you expose yourself to the source of your fear the less of a hold it will have on you.
· Acknowledge and accept – There’s always a point at the beginning of a trip where my mind is working overtime with fear. Did I remember to turn off the oven, did I pack my phone charger, what if the Airbnb is sketchy, what if what if what if. I have learned to acknowledge my fears and then accept that I can’t do anything more. I feel the fear and let it pass. This is a practice of mindfulness. Imagine you are watching cars drive by on a street. You acknowledge they are there and let them pass. Do this with your fear – acknowledge it and let the thoughts pass.
· Think positively – A generally positive attitude is key. Assume things will go well. Assume it will all work out. Look to the past and remember the times when your fears were unfounded and assume they will be again.
But what if I am in real danger?
It’s important to cultivate your situational awareness, whether you are alone or in a group - traveling or not. Situational awareness is the awareness we have of our surroundings and the forward-thinking necessary to understand what could happen and how you will respond. Again, I see this as a type of mindfulness – but with an action plan.
As a teacher you have to have a certain degree of situational awareness. I was an interviewer for a teaching program once and a core competency was literally titled “with-it-ness” and was based around the interviewee’s ability to have the elusive eyes in the back of their head teacher skill.
Thankfully there are ways to cultivate your with-it-ness.
- Look in your peripheral vision. Self-explanatory. Look beyond what it right in front of you if you don’t want to be surprised by what might be there.
- Scan your surroundings. Look for suspicious people and objects. Also make sure you know where the exits are in an unfamiliar place and any barriers that could help or hinder you if you needed to make a quick exit.
- Don’t turn your back. My first year teaching I turned to write on the board on the first day of school and immediately a student yelled, “never turn your back, that’s how you get shanked!” While (I think) she was trying to make a joke – the sentiment has always stayed with me. If you are eating alone - face the door, if you are on a bus - put your back to the window etc.
- Be a hard target. You’ll remember that most crimes against travelers are crimes of opportunity – meaning you look like you’re an easy target. Mitigate this by always having a confident attitude, posture, look like you know where you’re going (even if you don’t), and dress a little more badass than you normally do (but appropriately for wherever you are)
Ultimately – just be aware that you need to be aware. Don’t live your life like someone is constantly out to get you – just take the steps to make sure you aren’t an easy target.
How do I trust myself?
Trust your gut. Gut instincts are the sixth sense that we experience when our brain draws on past experiences and external cues to make a snap decision unconsciously. Neurotransmitters actually fire in the gut which gives you the feeling of dread or butterflies etc that signals the brain to something that is amiss.
Another way to describe a gut instinct is intuition – and women are hardwired for it. Female brains have stronger intuition naturally because of ability to read facial expressions and pick up on subtleties of emotion more accurately than men. While men and women both have this capacity – science says that women really do have a more natural intuition. (why the CIA says women make better spies)
So if you feel a visceral reaction to a situation – it may be your intuition or gut speaking. Don’t worry if you are just being paranoid – you probably aren’t out anything if you are. If something just doesn’t feel right – don’t do it. You are alone anyways so you have no one to impress.
13 Easy Safety Tips
Whew, that was a lot of information. If you feel overwhelmed, here is a breakdown of 13 easy things you can do to feel safer when you are traveling (or just living) alone:
1. Adventure in the light
I always plan my days so that I am back at my hotel/Airbnb by dark or right after. While this means an early return in the winter, it makes me feel safe to know that I am secure after dark. It also gives you time to relax, plan the next day, and get up with the sunrise.
2. Spend extra where necessary
If a hotel or Airbnb looks like it might be sketchy, just assume that it is and go for the more expensive option. In the grand scheme of things the extra money here and there for peace of mind is worth it.
3. Plan plan plan!
If feels good to know what you’re doing, when, and how. Read more here.
4. Be careful with drinking
Most violence happens when drinking is involved and it also makes you an easier target. So either abstain, have just one drink with your lunch/dinner, or wait to have that wine until you are safely alone at night.
5. Bring a whistle, doorstop, and pepper spray
I don’t have a doorstop yet but I plan on getting one for my next jaunt this weekend. Put it under the door from the inside to get some extra peace of mind. I’ve been in some airbnbs that don’t lock well and I know this would just add another layer of security. You can even get cheap doorstops with an alarm that will sound if they are triggered. A whistle is just practical to bring attention to yourself if you need it, and pepper spray more than anything just makes me feel more confident.
6. Stay connected
Let people know where you are! Share your itineraries, get on social media, text people back for goodness sakes so they don’t worry!
7. Be confident
...and if you aren’t pretend to be. Get your RBF out and walk with a purpose. Fake it till ya make it.
8. Be aware
Our awareness is actually better when alone without distractions, but make sure you are cognizant of your surroundings
9. Assess and make decisions
Sometimes you have to let a guy in a monster truck help you get out of a McDonald’s parking lot. Use your judgement. Assess the situation and make decisions. You can’t avoid everything.
10. Copies of documents
Scan/take pictures of important documents and credit cards in case you get separated from them (but make sure they are uploaded to some sort of cloud/your email). Also – write down some important phone numbers! If you lose your phone/it breaks you probably won’t remember them.
11. Share location
Let someone know when you should be somewhere if you think you will be off grid. I use the share my location feature on my iphone with at least one person when I’m traveling. If you know you won’t have service let them know that too.
12. Prep your car/rental
Make sure you have your insurance/roadside assistance information and supplies in case of an emergency (snacks, water, blanket etc)
13. Phone charger and extra battery
Your phone might die quicker while traveling due to use, roaming etc so always have a charger or extra battery on hand
Safety is something we can’t help but pay attention to. Just remember, you’re probably just as safe (or even more) traveling as you are living your life each day. It’s okay to be afraid, but don’t let it stop you from living your adventure. The risk is worth the reward.
Check back next week for Part 3 :)