A key to safe travel is to make smart choices and use your common sense, especially when traveling alone. Don’t be paranoid, but be aware that bad things do happen, and protect yourself.
An important safety tip is to trust your instincts. They are well-honed from living in the USA. If you feel something is off, wrong, strange – get out, move on, flee, scream, whatever is appropriate. Do it quickly.
Body language: keep your head up, swing your arms and act confident. Adopt a no nonsense attitude. Walk with purpose and you’ll be less of a target for hustlers who prey on disoriented or timid tourists.
Most of the people who offer you food or drink are just being kind. However, the rare exception exists – drugging occasionally happens. Try not to leave your drink unattended in bars, and exercise good judgment when accepting food or drink from people. Rohypnol, the date rape drug, is odorless, tasteless and colorless. It is a tranquilizer that can be slipped into your drink by a man who would like to have sex with a woman who is heavily sedated. If you are at a party, don’t accept a glass of punch unless you trust the host. Don’t think this won’t happen to you. Some women don’t even know they have been raped until it’s too late.
If you are being followed in the street and you feel threatened, duck into a shop and firmly tell the clerk: “I am a foreigner and someone is following me. I am frightened and need help.” If need be, have the clerk call a cab or police officer for you.
Try to sit or stand next to other women or family groups in restaurants, on trains or buses, and in other public places. It is unlikely that you will be approached or harassed if you’re in the company of other people.
A great safe travel tip for women is to consider wearing a wedding ring, if you don’t already.
There is power in vocal embarrassment. I have found that many men are shamed by a verbal, loud woman admonishing them in public. Practice screaming before you leave home! Also shame them by shaking your finger in their faces. Even if the crowd doesn’t understand your words, they will understand your indignation and gestures. Most sleazy men do not want public attention.
Ask for help or company if you feel uncomfortable.
It is common for a would-be thief to use razor blades to cut purse straps, take the purse, and then get away in a thick sea of bodies. Wear a money belt to avoid this happening.
It can be difficult to know what is considered offensive or suggestive in segregated societies, such as in Orthodox Muslim areas. At times, women travelers may feel uncomfortable or vulnerable. You may not know if the local men view you as a sex symbol representing the immoral Western World. Take your cues from the local women. Watch them. If they don’t make eye-to-eye contact with men, follow their example. Blend in. Dress appropriately.
Clothing that is fashionable and appropriate in the USA may project a provocative image in another culture. When you travel, leave the revealing clothing at home.
Another safety tip: anticipate potential problems. For example, if a group of men or young boys approaches you on the sidewalk on your side of the street, cross to the other side to give them space and you peace of mind.
Be sure to know when the sun rises and sets. A bustling market can quickly empty out and be transformed into dark deserted streets. Plan to be back to your lodging or in a safe, busy neighborhood by dark.
Carry enough money in your shoe or money pouch to get you out of a tight spot. Be willing to spend this money on a cab in order to get you to a safe place or back to your lodging. Do not take unnecessary risks.
If in doubt, take a self defense course.
I’m not a paranoid traveler, but I do travel alone often, and I take a lot of precautions. To travel safely and without fear, we need to be savvy. I learned these tips from a woman who recently took a self-defense class. The instructor who taught her class interviewed a group of rapists in prison and learned what they look for when scoping out a woman. Here are some interesting facts and safety tips for women:
- The #1 thing men look for in a potential victim is hairstyle. They are most likely to go after a woman with a ponytail, bun, braid or other hairstyle that can easily be grabbed. They are also likely to go after a woman with long hair. Women with short hair are not common targets.
- They also look for women on their cell phone, searching through their purse or doing other activities while walking because they are off guard and can be easily overpowered.
- The time of day men are most likely to attack and rape a woman is in the early morning, between 5 and 8:30 a.m.
- The number one place women are abducted from/attacked at is grocery store parking lots. Number two is office parking lots/garages and number three is public restrooms. These men are looking to grab a woman and quickly move her to a second, secluded location where they don’t have to worry about getting caught.
- Only 2% of the rapists interviewed said they carried weapons because rape carries a 3-5 year sentence but rape with a weapon is 15-20 years.
Therefore, if you put up any kind of a fight at all, they get discouraged because it only takes a minute or two for them to realize that going after you isn’t worth it because it will be time-consuming. These men said they will not pick on women who have umbrellas, or other similar objects in their hands that can be used from a distance. Keys are not a deterrent because you have to get really close to the attacker to use them as a weapon. So, good safety advice is to convince these guys you’re not worth it.
Several defense mechanisms
- If someone is following you on the street or in a garage or with you in an elevator or stairwell and if you feel they are suspicious, look them in the face and ask them a question, like what time is it, or make general small talk: “I can’t believe it is so cold out here, we’re in for a bad winter.” Now you’ve seen their face and could identify them in a lineup, so you lose appeal as a target.
- If someone is coming toward you, hold out your hands in front of you and yell “Stop” or “Stay back!” Most of the rapists said they’d leave a woman alone if she yelled or showed that she would not be afraid to fight back. Again, they are looking for an EASY target. If you carry pepper spray (the instructor was a huge advocate of it and carries it with him wherever he goes,) yelling “I HAVE PEPPER SPRAY” and holding it out will be a deterrent.
- If someone grabs you, you can’t beat them with strength but you can by outsmarting them. If they grab your wrist, pull your wrist back so your hand is in waving position (palm facing forward) and twist it toward yourself and pull your arm away. It is hard to hold onto wrist bones that are moving in that way. They stumble toward you and you stumble back, so you can use that momentum to backhand them with your knuckles in the forehead, nose or teeth. If you are grabbed around the waist from behind, pinch the attacker either under the arm between the elbow and armpit or in the upper inner thigh HARD. Try pinching yourself in those places as hard as you can stand it; it hurts.
- After the initial hit, always go for the groin. It is extremely painful if you slap a guy’s testicles (do not be afraid, your life may be at stake!). You might think that you’ll make the potential rapist really mad and make him want to hurt you more, but the rapists who were interviewed reported that they want a woman who will not cause a lot of trouble. Start causing trouble, and he’ll take off.
- If he puts his hands up to grab you, grab his first two fingers and bend them back as far as possible with as much pressure pushing down on them as possible. I saw the instructor do this to another man, without using much pressure, and he ended up on his knees and both knuckles cracked audibly. It works!
Of course the safety advice we always hear about traveling still applies. Always be aware of your surroundings, take someone with you if you can and if you see any odd behavior, don’t dismiss it, go with your instincts. You may feel a little silly at the time, but you’d feel much worse if the guy really was trouble.
About the Author: Marybeth Bond, the Gutsy Traveler, National Geographic author of 11 travel books, featured guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show and founder of the Online Travel Magazine www.GutsyTraveler.com She has been featured over 1,000 times on TV, radio and print. She is a Contributor to CNN, CNN Airport Network and CNN.com Speaker, spokesperson, author, travel expert, Marybeth, the Gutsy Traveler walks the talk. She's an adventurer; biked two months across the USA, traveler to over 90 countries, media travel expert for CBS News, CNN, ABC, NBC, NPR and National Geographic.