It never fails. Before you leave for a trip people will tell you horror stories. They usually involve getting robbed or getting ripped off by a corrupt police officer or something similar. The one thing they don’t include is any kind of actually helpful information which always makes me question the intention of the “helper”.
Let me give you an example of a warning. Right in my very neighborhood in Seattle a woman was kidnapped, taken to a man’s house, tied up and kept for at least 24 hours. There’s likely a number of other horrid sexual details that go with the story but I don’t recall enough to include them. I could well tell this to travelers that come to Seattle and it is horrible, right? Until you find out that the woman in question is a hooker. Now don’t get me wrong, she didn’t “have it coming” simply because of her occupation, that’s not why I am including the story. I’m including it because, for the majority of us, it’s easy enough to avoid this problem. The warning isn’t that my neighborhood or Seattle is horribly sketchy and one should never leave the house. The warning, when given with complete information, is that it’s dangerous to turn tricks on Aurora. “Got it, thanks. I’ll do my best to avoid that.”
And that’s why these vague warnings make me want to smack people. “Wait, you mean something bad happened to someone once upon a time in Nicaragua?” Sort of ludicrous when you really look at what you’re being told (and not told) isn’t it? Maybe the person telling me just thinks I’m so damn stupid that I don’t know that places can be dangerous?
The story I was told is that people were being kidnapped by cab drivers, driven around for hours and then robbed. Which is very slightly true and a lot false. Were all cabs dangerous, all over Nicaragua? I finally learned the true story from a hostel website and was given information to help me insure, as much as is possible, that I didn’t have the same experience. (and really, you helpers out there, if you are really trying to help shouldn’t YOU too give enough information to be helpful rather than simply being fear mongers?). There have been problems at two bus stations in Managua (a sketchy place as a whole) where, when you get off the bus and grab a cab into town, you’ll get jacked. They drive you to a cash machine, make you get cash and then dump you off. At this point no one has been physically hurt.
Fortunately the warning from the hostel was a quality warning as it came with specifics of both what was happening and what to do. The solution? Get off the bus before the station and catch a cab from where you got off. Easy peasey. Worst case scenario, if you make it to the bus station because you didn’t know where to get off before it (easy to do, especially if you don’t speak the language) simply get on another bus and get off at their first stop leaving the bus station. Sure, you’ll pay full price for that bus but at 20 or 40 Cordobas (less than $2) it’s more than worth it. And now to the real point of this post.
Some of my female friends suggested I write a blog post about traveling alone as a female. Well, I definitely have my suggestions but I also know that many women do it differently. It is, and always will be, your choice how you decide to travel but these are the things I do when traveling alone.
- On travel days (days on the bus or in a cab or on a boat or on a plane) I always wear my hiking boots. In fact any time that things could possibly get sketchy or when I want to look extra tough I wear my hiking boots. I always wear my boots when I have all my gear with me. Why? Because I walk differently in them, because even if I won’t ever need to I KNOW I can’t run in flip-flops. A huge part of safety is putting on your own personal mental protective armor and, for me, boots does it pretty well. Plus if you’re carrying all your crap it’s easier to have the light flip-flops in your pack and the boots on your feet rather than the other way around.
- You know all those sexy little outfits you want to bring with you? Take them out of your closet and put them in your luggage. Look how pretty they look there. Now get a grocery bag, pull them back out of your luggage and put them away in the bottom of your closet where you won’t be tempted by them. Unless the point of your trip is to hook up with random strangers you don’t need clothing that screams “I’m a slutty, American victim!” You will have more than your fair share of attention in countries like Nicaragua simply by being from the US no matter what you’re wearing. Trust me, if someone like me gets cat calls you will too and more than you have ever wanted. Put on some short shorts and a skimpy tank and you might well get more than just calls. If you’re hoping to meet some hot, foreign traveler then fine, bring one outfit but wear it very selectively. In the states women are trying to educate men that a provocative outfit doesn’t mean she wants some (or at least it doesn’t mean she wants some from you) but you don’t get to force that belief while traveling and really, your job is to protect yourself. Fight for women’s rights in another, less dangerous way.
- Wear long pants most of the time. This actually is as much about attracting attention as it is about keeping the evil bugs off of you. Yes, it’s ever so slightly warmer but it’s not the difference between sweating like a pig and not sweating like a pig. You will be sweating, even if you walk around naked.
- Carry a backpack with a sternum strap and keep it hooked when you’re walking about. This makes it just that much harder for someone to jack your bag. Purses are pretty easy to grab, backpacks a little harder and when you have a sternum strap they may take your bag but they’ll have to take you with it.
- Get some pants with lots of pockets (LOVE THESE!) and keep your expensive stuff there, in buttoned pockets. I don’t like having expensive stuff in a bag. If someone does manage to steal my bag from me they usually are getting nothing more than a book, some band aids and some water. And of course don’t take all the expensive stuff with you. Bring only what you need.
- Have two credit cards with pin numbers to get cash (don’t get cash from them except in an emergency) and two separate cash machine cards (different banks completely) with money in them. One credit card and one cash card comes with you, the other is hidden in your bag at the hotel. If you should manage to get yourself into trouble or lose your wallet you’ll have a backup. You wouldn’t want to misplace your credit card or cash card and have no other options.
- Get or make a money belt. I don’t mean a money pouch that is worn under your clothes. I mean an actual belt like this. Keep some American cash in it and any extra cash you have of the local currency. Should you lose everything it’s unlikely the thieves will steal your belt too (and if they do you likely have bigger problems) so this will make sure you have enough money for a room or travel to get to a place to get help. It also keeps you from carrying too much money in an obvious way.
Which brings me to my next point. These are all the “stupid” things I did that worked out just fine.
- I carried my money in my regular wallet in my back pocket, just like I do at home. Shock of all shocks, I was not pick pocketed. That said, I always walked around with a shirt tied around my waist which meant a pick pocket would have to get under the shirt and into my buttoned back pocket without me knowing. At that point they probably deserve my wallet don’t you think?
- I took an unmarked cab from the square in Grenada. I was not killed or robbed. Trust your instincts. Does it feel OK or does it feel sketchy? Don’t talk yourself into something because you don’t want to be paranoid. I firmly believe that a huge part of being a victim is thinking you’re going to be a victim. The bad guys are looking for easy victims and I truly believe they can smell fear just like an aggressive dog. There were places where I didn’t leave my hotel because I didn’t feel safe in the town. Don’t beat yourself up for being overly safe.
- I took out my camera and took pictures in crowded markets. These are places where the halls between stalls are barely big enough for one person and the entire market takes up many city blocks… it’s easy to get lost.
- I did go out at night. Alone. As a female. Trust yourself and really, with these great parties going on I never felt insecure… at least not in Grenada.
Finally, when you get back and while you’re there, tell the real story. Don’t write-up a story that makes everything sound perfectly lovely unless it was perfectly lovely. Why? Because your job as a traveler is to bring back reality. We get sold enough nonsense on the television and when it gets down to it people need to know that an adventure isn’t simply the perfectly happy things. Indeed what makes it an adventure and what we (science says) enjoy the most is overcoming things, be it our own fears or a trying situation. When you tell the truth you help break the myths about travel. You break the cycle of fear mongering that keeps people from leaving the US or the comfort of places that are too similar to the US to make a mental impact. This isolation leads to people taking for granted what they have and thinking that somehow no one is to thank for their fortunes but them. No, sorry, you are not the sole person who made your life the way it is. You are blessed. You don’t deserve what you have any more than that kid in Nicaragua who lives in a shack deserves to live there.
This is the reality of what much of Nicaragua looks like:
All of Nicaragua is covered in garbage. That’s the reality.
And this is what you do with it… burning garbage in the streets.