Thursday, January 09, 2014

Seven Tips for Solo Travelers


In 2008, I was in New Delhi with my mother after filming an episode for The Peregrine Dame when it was only a webseries. After a week of harassment from shopkeepers wanting me to come in and buy, touts from street vendors, and relentless begging from panhandlers and orphans, I did what I’d never done before. I completely checked out. I started ignoring everyone and everything on the street when I walked anywhere. I plastered a fixed, sort-of pleasant but determined expression on my face, made eye contact with no one, and plowed through the crowds acknowledging nothing.

The evening my mother was to fly home, leaving me in India for another five days, she noticed a man following us.

TRAVEL SAFELY NOT FEARFULLY

Animals smell fear. Though rather than smelling a scent as we think of it, they detect chemical signals they’ve inhaled from other animals. There is scientific evidence that humans have the ability to do the same. We’ve heard the clichés about fear being palpable, about people being able to “sense” it, and through chemosignals this is possible. So when you travel, be aware, be vigilant as you should always be whether at home or abroad. But don’t be afraid. Predators – including human ones – can smell it on you and, sensing weakness, you become attractive prey.

DON’T BE AFRAID BUT DON’T CHECK OUT

That night in New Delhi, my mother alone noticed what I should have as well. I let my aggravation and impatience get the best of me in new surroundings and I tuned out my environment. Had I been on my own, I would have led the nondescript, middle-aged, harmless-looking man straight to my hotel and not noticed a thing. As it was, after tailing us a couple of blocks and across a street, we stopped, turned, and stared him down so long that after he realized his feigned window-shopping wasn’t going to cover him he left. We weren’t bothered again.

DON’T BE DISTRACTED

Stay off the damned phone. Or iPod, iPhone, map, gadget, doodad, or gizmo. Whatever it is put it away in public. Once in a while I catch myself walking down a street in my own neighborhood in Los Angeles staring at my phone. I immediately stuff the thing in my bag. If it’s something you wouldn’t do at home – and you shouldn’t – don’t do it when you travel. It doesn’t matter if that’s where the map is. Stop for a few minutes, get a coffee, and study the map away from the sidewalk. Mentally checking out is bad enough; being distracted is worse because once you’re completely absorbed there’s no hiding that fact from anyone wanting to make you a target. 

TELL PEOPLE WHERE YOU’RE GOING

I wouldn’t run down the street shouting it, but I always make sure to tell hotel staff what my plans are for the day. I like to stay in small places with minimal staff and I make the acquaintance of nearly everyone at the desk. Often these people ask in the course of friendly conversation, but if they don’t I volunteer the information. It leaves a trail of breadcrumbs in case of emergency; a general direction in case someone needs to search for me. If I’m filming I have a set schedule. When I travel for personal enjoyment I don’t plan much so I tell them my intentions. If I’m truly on vacation for a while, this includes the guy at the café where I get my morning coffee once he recognizes my face – I’m a creature of pattern. It may not prevent me from getting into trouble, but it will facilitate authorities finding me if I do.

CHECK WITH YOUR BANK FOR LIABILITY REGARDING DEBIT CARD FRAUD

After an exhausting day of filming in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2012 I left my ATM card in a cash machine one night and failed to end my transaction. A few minutes later, someone came along and withdrew $200 for themselves from my account and took my card.

Depending on the country I use credit and debit cards. My bank and credit card companies always know where I’ll be traveling ahead of time so the cards work. The good news in Puerto Rico was that I was in a place my bank covered in case of fraud or theft.

The last five destinations I filmed in the first season of TPD were in Latin America. In two of those, Mexico and Brazil, my bank wouldn’t take responsibility because of the high rates of card fraud coming from those countries. I had to agree in advance to accept liability for my card to even work in those destinations. Prior to Puerto Rico, I’d been filming in Brazil. If I’d lost that card a few days earlier, I’d have been out $200 with no recourse. Policies vary by institution, so when you let yours know you’ll be traveling check to see where the liability falls in case of theft or fraud.

REGISTER WITH THE STATE DEPARTMENT

We may argue in circles about the merits of letting the U.S. government track you more than it already does especially when it comes to travel. After all, sometimes travel is that soul-searching getaway from everything about your identity and your culture. An opportunity to try and become objective and critical, to open up your mind and erase preconceived notions, to wash off all of the influential demagoguery and try to be a human on the planet Earth, not just an American above all else. At least that’s what I strive for when I move around the globe.

Which is why this may seem counterintuitive: if you’re a U.S. citizen, register with the U.S. State Department when you travel. They already have an electronic chip in your passport, so you’re really done in anyway. But depending on the region, I let them have my detailed itinerary via the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. Registering with STEP allows local U.S. embassies and consulates to assist me more easily and quickly if I lose my passport, or more importantly to find and evacuate me from a volatile situation when the shit hits the fan.

THIS ONE’S FOR ALL THE LADIES

The Peregrine Dame’s catch phrase is “Proving that traveling solo doesn’t have to be so scary.” And I mean to show members of both sexes that there’s nothing to fear by being alone far from home. On the contrary, you may experience much, much more by being on your own.

But the truth is I’m female. Therefore my experiences will be different from a male’s in many cultures  whether I like it or not and I’ve spoken to many women who let that one factor inhibit them. That one message they were somehow taught that I never was: the world is scarier for women than men. And in some regions, some countries, it can certainly be more oppressive, I’m not making light of those situations.

I’m simply telling you to be bold. Not reckless, bold. I’ve met countless women traveling alone while I was, from all parts of the world – although, tellingly, I’m always the only one from the States. I’ve had wonderful conversations with women who’ve seen me sitting alone at a bar or table and shyly asked if they could join me because they were also by themselves. They’ve shared a couple of hours of their lives with me and told me about their countries from their hearts and points of view. I’m always touched by the way they reach out and they remind me that I also have to reach in a new place to get the most out of it.

And as for men, sure, they approach me. They’ll approach you too. By now you’ve probably learned how to tell one politely but firmly to take a hike. For me this has worked in every country in which I’ve ever been. Unless I feel like accepting his invitation. Just remember, in Italy, “I’ll show you around later … if you like,” – which they always say with an I-don’t-really-care shrug – means “I’ll do my best to make out with you anywhere I can.” As long as you’re clear on that, you’re fine.

If all else fails, the internet will point you to peer groups that probably speak your language in far-off cities. So don’t let that one last drop of apprehension prevent you from doing what you want to do. You won’t be alone for long once you’re out there.






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