As with life, decisions are unavoidable when travelling. Baguette or bagel? Hostel or hotel? Plane or train? And probably the most difficult “should I trust this person?”.
80% of the time, the answer to the last question is no. Yes, there are exceptions and trust can be built; but a dose of pessimism is crucial when you are roaming the world.
Does this mean you have to close yourself off to others when travelling?
No way! I have made plenty of friends and met a ton of interesting people during my travels. I have always gone with my gut feeling. Luckily, even in the face of poor decisions (ahem, I have accepted rides from strangers on aeroplanes more than once) it has guided me well.
But how can you keep danger just far enough away that it doesn’t hurt you?
Don’t be too forthcoming with your life story or travel plans. I once found myself questioned by an eager local man in a central Istanbul park. His prying questions about where I was from, where I was staying and where I was going next felt extremely invasive and I quickly recognised this man was potential danger. After giving the guy a fake name and back story, I moved from the park quickly (the fountain I had been admiring suddenly didn’t feel so peaceful). There is no way of knowing for sure whether this guy was sinister or not. He could have just been a friendly guy, or an ethnographer studying tourists. Have I lost any sleep wondering whether I was wrong about this guy? Absolutely not – safety always comes first.
Learn to tell the difference between cultural norms and real, ‘run for your life’ danger. I arrived in Turkey for the first time after dark and soon after I settled into my hotel (a rare luxury at the time) I ventured out for something to eat. I heard the shopkeepers calls as soon as I left the hotel. “Hey blondie” “Where you from?” “Who you with?”. It caught me off guard and as a solo female traveller I found the attention unsettling. It wasn’t until daylight rolled around that I realised that the beckoning was not sinister but just the norm in the area. Of course, I stood out more than most as a young blonde on my own, so I was selective of where I went at times. But realising that the shopkeepers were simply vying for business (and not about to harm me) allowed me to relax and keep my eyes open for real dangers.
Pay attention to where you are. On a recent trip to Thailand, despite my protests, I found myself on the back of a Tuk Tuk with a friend who had put his faith in the guy wearing a ‘Tourist Police’ polo shirt (Spoiler alert, the ‘Tourist Police’ aren’t real). I quickly realised that he was taking advantage of our lack of familiarity with Bangkok. Thankfully I had paid close attention to the map so was able to call him out early on. I hate to think where in back alley Bangkok we would have found ourselves coerced into buying fake fur and framed portraits otherwise.
If you feel vulnerable, don’t show it. To follow on from my experience above. Sitting in the back of a Tuk Tuk left us at the mercy of the Tuk Tuk driver. I knew however that if we showed any weakness, this would only give the driver more power. Politely, I offered to pay the fare and then demanded that the Tuk Tuk driver pull over and let us out. It didn’t work immediately and my concerns multiplied every time the stubborn driver turned a corner – but I refused to let him know that. Eventually I guess he tired of the fiery tourist in the back seat and let us out (not before taking a detour down some grubby and best not visited by tourists Bangkok back streets first). The key takeaway is to keep yourself grounded and do not waver. I certainly do not suggest that you answer back or retaliate, but sometimes a little false confidence is the best option.
Public places are your friend. Yes, the risk of pick pocketing probably increases in crowded spaces but losing cash is preferable to meeting undesirables in a dodgy back alley. I like to test my safety with the scream test (I ask myself, if I screamed as loud as I could, how many people would hear me and what is the likelihood that someone will come to my rescue?) If the answer is zero, then I usually hightail myself right out of there. Remember, places like hotels and reputable businesses are good places to duck into if you are feeling unsafe.
Ask for help. Tourism professionals deal with travellers and answer questions everyday. If you aren’t sure if a place is safe to visit alone – ask your hotel/hostel or tour guide. Even the silliest questions are worth asking. Imagine how silly you would feel if you got yourself into danger because you didn’t ask? There are plenty of people willing to help, but be selective of whom you ask.