Ditch your fears

MANY people allow fear to stand in the way of travelling solo. Some get worked up over the little things, such as dining alone. Others lie awake at night, picturing back-to-back muggings, kidnappings, drink-spiking and bag-snatching. Good times!

Then we have the type who will find the negative in anything and anywhere. Foodie tour of Italy? “I know someone who got robbed there.” New York? “Hello, 9/11!” Bargain trip to Bali? “What if someone forces me to become a drug mule and I end up in an Indonesian prison for the rest of my life?”

You get the gist.

It’s normal to feel anxious about travelling alone but it’s a problem when your worries reach terror territory. You could be sabotaging your own dream by using irrational scenarios as an excuse to stay home where life is easy and familiar.

But not even our own country is good enough for some. Many years ago, when I told a friend I planned to drive around Australia, she was horrified. “Haven’t you heard of the backpacker murders?” she shrieked from her double-deadlocked home in Sydney.

Depending on where you live and where you want to go, there may be more crime in your own neighbourhood than in your holiday destination. Get a grip. Then, do some research.

Yes, bad things happen overseas and it’s important to be alert (but not alarmed). Talk to people who have been there, done that. Read solo travel books and websites until the tips become second nature. Check the advice on smartraveller.gov.au and register your itinerary.

When you take the plunge and get there, it also pays to ask the locals about safety, but don’t rely on one person. I’m writing this column from Harlem in New York, where I received two very different pieces of advice. A younger woman warned me against making eye contact with anyone on the street, but the manager of Harlem Renaissance House B&B recommended the opposite.

“Always make eye contact, smile, and I guarantee everyone will say hello,” said Rick – and he was right.

A few countries cause the most apprehension, especially for women travelling solo. In India, recent reports of rapes of female tourists have scared many away. Blogger Alexandra Petri says she was “blissfully unaware” of the violence against women that was being reported while she was there.

“How did I spend three months in this country and not know about this? Was I just exceptionally lucky that nothing happened to me?” she asked herself.

“Despite how heartbreakingly poor India is, I left loving the culture, the colours and the people. I would still go back as a solo traveller, but I would most likely be much more careful and ‘on edge’ than normal.”

Apart from covering up in loose clothing and avoiding dark streets at night, Alexandra wore a wedding ring.

“I found it to be a lifesaver in many conversations, and I would often pretend to have my husband waiting for me somewhere.”

Photographer Cameron Cope has travelled solo several times to South America – another place that many people perceive as dangerous – but he says this is an outdated misconception.

“Until the 1990s, a stream of headlines featuring civil wars, dictators, drug cartels, kidnappings and slum violence poured out of the continent, yet most of that news is now decades old,” Cameron said.

“Overwhelmingly, the old bad news narrative has been replaced by a renaissance of democracy, surging economies and improving living conditions.

“The biggest risk to travellers in South America is never wanting to leave.”

In cities such as Bogota, Santiago, La Paz and Rio de Janeiro, he was constantly warned by locals to be careful with his camera. “For a while, I interpreted this as an indication of the real threat that lurked around the next curb, but over time I’ve learnt that people are just trying to look out for you, they don’t want anything bad to happen.”

Some travellers seem to follow a “trust no one” philosophy as a way to protect themselves abroad, but Cameron finds the reverse attitude is more effective.

“I honestly believe that you are safest when you trust people. Of course, I don’t mean blind trust – you have to use your best judgment and follow your instincts – but it’s a good idea to open up to people and make friends, even temporary ones,” he says.

“I think the more anonymous you are, the more likely you’ll become a target. Who wants to rip off someone who’s got five local mates to back them up?”

The truth is, risk exists everywhere in the world.

“If you were to choose your holiday destinations based on the threat of violent crime, you’d have to strike the US off your list,” Cameron says. “But who’s doing that?”

For the record, the only time I’ve been a victim of (attempted) crime was during a 10-day solo stay in Buenos Aires last year. Feeling blase about my invincible superhero powers, I have to admit I acted like a dumb tourist, wheeling my suitcase along the street, iPhone on full display.

A young man approached me and offered to be my bodyguard in this “bad” area. As it was 11am on a sunny Sunday in the trendy Palermo district, I politely declined his services and kept walking, but he followed me to my hostel and I couldn’t shake him.

“Now you pay me for my protection,” he demanded in Spanish.

“No. I didn’t agree. And anyway, I have no cash,” I replied, which was true.

“Then give me your phone.”

Suddenly, he tried to pull the iPhone out of my front pocket, but it wouldn’t budge. After a minor wrestle, he gave up and ran away. Thank Levi’s for tight skinny jeans!

First published in Escape 2014 August.

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