I’ve travelled solo to many fascinating places: India, Jordan, Abu Dhabi and even Tunisia. Three times in my life I’ve been in real danger. Once I had to crawl out a bathroom window and run down a back alley to my hotel, the second time someone held a knife to my throat while he tried to pull me into a dark side street, and the third was during a terrorist attack.
Before you proceed, I invite you to take a moment to guess where these potentially fatal experiences happened.
- Bathroom Window: Firenze, Italy
- Knife to Throat: Saint Louis, Missouri, USA
- Terrorist Attack: Downtown Manhattan, USA
Most people find these answers surprising. However, if your company has booked you, a solo female traveller, on a business trip to Riyadh, you should find them comforting. Granted places like Pakistan and Iraq have dangerous reputations for a reason. But unless you’re with the CIA, the military, or an NGO, you’re probably not going to be booked on a business trip in a highly dangerous place. Why?
Fact #1: Safety is often tied to economic development.
Don’t believe me? Then I refer you to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “There is a clear link between violent crime and development: crime hampers poor human and economic development; this, in turn, fosters crime.”
Many western women have an inherent fear of travelling in the Middle East. This is because they don’t separate rational facts from fiction. Yes, Islam has beliefs about the role of women in society that differ from those of many westerners. However, those beliefs often protect female travellers. I went to Abu Dhabi by myself during Ramadan and the worst thing that happened was I couldn’t get a glass of wine in the lobby of the Etihad Towers. Would I travel through the Brazilian countryside alone? Not if I could help it.
Provided that you’re not travelling to Mogadishu or Guyana, being safe is primarily determined by your own behaviour.
Fact #2: Lack of assurance attracts predators.
This is an extreme example, but much research has been conducted on how serial killers chose victims. To quote the US Crime Museum, “Killers thrive on the fear their victims display.” This is how I got myself into Potentially Fatal Experience #1. In Florence I was young, very naïve and scared to be travelling alone. In fact, I was more scared of being alone than I was of a tall, dark, good-looking Italian man. Remember that ladies.
If you don’t feel confident, do your homework. Knowledge is the antidote to naïveté. Don’t fake confidence, learn and prepare yourself so your assurance is rooted in common sense safety precautions.
What are the two best ways to assure your personal safety?
- Research where you’re going. Use the Internet, and network with local women to find out acceptable places to go and things to avoid doing. For example, don’t walk around with wet hair in parts of the Middle East. It’s almost as bad as walking around topless.
- Plan your trip with safety in mind. Make sure your hotel has adequate security (Maiden Voyage vets a number of hotels if you don’t have a local woman to ask), hire a reputable local driver and pack appropriate clothes. Obey local customs of dress even if you don’t agree with them.
My favourite place for country research is provided by the Australian Government: smartraveller.gov.au
Fact #3: There is a difference between a safe haven, and a place that is familiar.
Just because it’s unfamiliar doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. My Potentially Fatal Experiences #2 and #3 both happened when I was less than ten kilometres from home. Remember: predators prey on naïveté. Pickpockets, sexual offenders, even terrorists tend to frequent highly touristy areas. Look at the recent shooting in Tunisia: it didn’t happen in a local shopping mall, it happened in a museum filled with foreigners. I’m not saying to avoid that weekend add-on to Bali- just keep your eyes open and follow these simple rules:
- Network with local business people to choose a safe hotel. Those high profile attacks in Jordan and India didn’t happen at hotels frequented by locals, they happened at the Intercontinental and the Taj Palace.
- Keep your belongings in your hotel’s safe. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, then leave it at home.
- Don’t tell strangers where you’re staying. Your hotel is your haven, and if necessary the final stop on your escape route.
- Stay focused. Be aware of your surroundings, but not paranoid.
Remember: fear is your worst enemy. Education, preparation and networks of local business women are your friends. Smart=Safe.
Mary Clare Bland has travelled for over 20 years, both for business and leisure. She has been to over 60 countries and stayed in hotels ranging from the fanciest luxury palaces in Dubai down to a sleeping bag (no tent) in the Australian Outback. She holds a Fourth Degree Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do, and periodically teaches women’s self-defence classes. She lives in Madrid where she teaches yoga, blogs and designs websites and social media strategies for SME’s.
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