What’s your worst travel experience? Lost luggage…crappy hotel room…missed flights…Montezuma’s revenge? I once spent a night on a roll-away in a hotel meeting room in Hong Kong l because there were no rooms at the inn. Got so sick on Malaysian food that I lost five pounds in one day. Tagged along on a fishing trip to Alaska where nearly everything went wrong. But you know what? It all made for great stories, insight into my flexibility and my traveling companion’s ability to go with the flow. What’s your worst travel story and what did you learn from it?
The opening pages of The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida describes an American tourist checking into a hotel in Morocco. She lays her backpack at her feet, fills out the registration form and chats with the desk clerk for a moment, then she leans down to pick up her backpack. It’s gone.
Unfortunately, there are bad guys (and gals) the world over. The Eifel Tower a and Times Square are plagued with pickpockets. Street urchins in Mexico and San Diego act as foils to get your attention so their partner can snatch your purse. Pedicab drivers in the Philippines drive unsuspecting tourists down a deserted street and demand money.
Fortunately, incidents like this are not the norm in most countries. I’ve traveled for three decades in Asia, the Pacific, Europe, South America and Africa and have never been a victim. You don’t need to be paranoid, just vigilant, no matter where you are. Here are some pointers to keep you, your cash and your stuff safe:
- Blend in. Dress like a local. Find out the cultural norms and expectations and dress accordingly – even if that means long pants, covered shoulders or a headscarf.
- Maps. Keep your map tucked in your bag, not hanging out of your pocket. Step to the side to discreetly consult it.
- Cameras. If you take a camera, keep it close to your body at all times. Cell phone cameras are ubiquitous, so snapping pics will not necessarily brand you as a tourist anymore. Again, discretion rules.
- Phones. Do not lay your cell phone on the table at a restaurant (easy for a passer-by to snatch) or turn it over to someone else to take your photo. Selfie, anyone?
- Cash. Figure out the currency as soon as you start handling it so you understand what you’re being charged. And handle cash inconspicuously – don’t lay it all out on the table to sort it or examine the pretty pictures on the bills.
- Purses. Carry a small purse with a cross-body strap. Do not hang it on the back of your chair or put it on the floor.
- Backpacks. Make sure all the zippers are closed. If it’s not on your back, put it between your feet.
- Suitcases. Keep your suitcase in sight at all times. If your luggage goes into the trunk of a cab or the back of a van, watch it go in and jump out soon as the vehicle stops so you can retrieve your suitcase.
- Hotels. Know where the exits are. Use the peephole if someone knocks and don’t open the door if you’re unsure of the person on the other side. Call the front desk to confirm if the person says he is a repairman. Leave the TV or radio on when you are out of the room. Don’t use the doorknob hanger at all. “Do Not Disturb” says you’re sleeping and “Make Up The Room” says you’re out. A room thief can use either piece of information to their advantage.
- Small talk. Talking to people you meet on trains, boats and in restaurants can be delightful and a great way to get to know the country you’re visiting. Just use your head and don’t divulge too much personal information. Keep in mind if you’re in a public place, anybody could be eavesdropping.
Got any safety tips of your own to add?
Two things keep women from traveling solo. Fear for their safety and fear they won’t have a good time alone. Take a gutsy-pill and a deep breath and you’ll thank yourself for the rest of your life. Above all remember, danger does not lurk behind every corner. But some really good pasta might.
Imagine you’re a petty thief who preys on tourists and you’re looking for your next victim. Who catches your eye?
Middle-Aged Woman Number One. She has a map in her hand, is wearing shorts and sandals, has a camera on one shoulder and a bulging tote on the other.
Middle-Aged Woman Number Two. She’s wearing slacks and a plain shirt, no jewelry and her purse rides bandoleer-style across her chest. She’s standing tall, walking briskly and appears to know where she’s going.
It’s obvious that the first woman is a tourist. The second? Maybe she’s a visitor, however, that stride will make a thief turn away from her and head toward easier prey. Here are some tips on how to travel like the second woman and take yourself out of a thief’s line-of-sight.
Pare Down and Pack Up
Women are notorious for packing more than they need into multiple suitcases. Believe me, nobody cares if you wear the same pair of slacks several days in a row. I do and believe me, I am no frump. Traveling solo means traveling smart and the pointers in What’s in Your Suitcase can turn you into a savvy traveler.
Walk Like a Flight Attendant
Flight attendants have a “look” that has nothing to do with appearance. Their self-assured demeanor is underscored by a subtle friendliness and a “you wouldn’t dare mess with me” attitude. Practice the flight attendant walk – shoulders back, straight spine, composed but alert gaze, purposeful steps – and you’ll give off strong, competent vibes that will deter assailants looking for an easy mark.
Ditch the Giant Tote Bag
You do not need a tote bag the size of a VW bug when you’re tooling the ruins of Pompeii or the souk in Istanbul. You need a mini-purse that will hold cash, passport, cell phone, glasses, one credit card, a tiny hairbrush and some lipstick or gloss. Wow, don’t you feel lighter already?
Before you go, buy a small, lightweight bag with a strap you can wear across your body.
Lots of possibilities on line at Baggallini, PacSafe, Magellans or check your local REI or AAA travel gear sections.
Table for One
Sitting alone in a restaurant for breakfast and lunch isn’t nearly as intimidating as having dinner by yourself. Some women solve the problem with a big lunch and have a snack for dinner in their room. Others take a book. Seasoned solo travelers just do it. What’s the worst thing that can happen if you dine alone? People will stare? Doubtful. You’ll get a lousy table and worse service? Probably not. Somebody will flirt with you. Maybe. (Hey, wouldn’t that be fun?)
Talking to Strangers
If you mind your mother’s advice (and for that matter, the mantra of security personnel the world over), you won’t talk to strangers. This will deprive you of some of the most memorable experiences of your life. The elderly couple sharing your compartment on the train is unlikely to mug you. The old man in the market might prove to be delightful. Just use your head and you’ll be rewarded with a glimpse of the world and its people that no guidebook, museum tour or city stroll will ever reveal.
If you do find yourself in a sticky situation – an overly aggressive would-be suitor or nasty street vendor, for instance – enlist the help of a local woman. Preferably an elderly one. There’s an international language of gestures and expressions that women share, and all you need to do is hurry to a mama-san, ask for help and point at the pest. She’ll give the guy what-for and he’ll leave with his ego dragging.
I am a sucker for self-exploration quizzes, and when one promising to define my adventure-travel personality came into my email from Mac Adventure Tours, I couldn’t resist .
I came out as an Intrepid Explorer. No surprise there. According to Mac’s “You love nothing better than getting off the beaten track, expanding your horizons, learning about new cultures, and seeing some of the world’s most unique landscapes for yourself. You always come home with great stories and no memory left in your camera.” The site went on to recommend Mac’s self-guided walking and cycling adventures in Iceland, Patagonia, Machu Picchu and Sweden. I like it.
Take the quiz yourself and let me know how you fare.
A Family Bonds on White Water Rafting Adventure
It’s day two of a six-day white water adventure on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon, often referred to as The River of No Return (how comforting is that), and as usual, I am powerless to stop my son Rigel from adding another heart-pounding feat to his stash of adventures.
This time my husband Bob has joined the fray, and the two most important men in my life are about to catapult through Class IV rapids in a flimsy looking rubber raft nicknamed “Daring Duck.” Rigel slides into the front of the double kayak, Bob into the back, and smiling like a couple of Jackass pranksters, they lurch onto the river.
I’m ahead a 12-foot-long paddle boat with five other rafters. We hit the rapids and desperately try to obey our guide’s commands. “All forward! Left back! Paddle hard!” as we crash into the crest of a wave, hurl into the trough, and get drenched with icy water.
When my boat is through the rapids, I look back and see Rigel and Bob digging into Mother Nature’s cauldron, orange paddle tips flashing more or less in sync. They fly around a Volkswagen-sized boulder, bounce through the chop and rocket downstream smiling ear-to-ear and yelling “whoo-hoo.”
I have watched this delicate stepfather-stepson dance for over two decades as the two most important men in my life move emotional puzzle pieces around. Sometimes they fit, sometimes they miss. Today, they glued a cornerstone together.
When you sign up for six-days of close-quarters adventure, you cross your fingers your companions will be likeable, your guides (in whose hands you are placing your life, after all) will be skilled, the food will be hearty and cocktail hour will an integral part of the schedule. When you invite your 20-something-year old son along, you hope there’ll be enough action that he won’t wish he’d gone to Cancun.
Picking a river isn’t so hard.The Middle Fork of the Salmon packs technical rapids and winds along for over 100 miles, isolated in the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Pull-outs include hot springs, mysterious caves, ethereal waterfalls and ancient pictographs.
We signed on with ROW Adventures and started our six-day trip in Stanley, Idaho, with fellow rafters that included a mother and her adult son, an assorted family with teenagers and two other couples. The guides delivered safety orientation that covered life vests, helmets, how to paddle, where to sit, what to do if you go overboard. Overboard?
If you ride in a six-passenger paddle boat, helmets and life vests are required, going overboard is possible and getting drenched is guaranteed. A guide with tiller in hand perches at the back of the boat, yells paddle commands and rafters row like crazy in what can best be described as a roller coast ride without the safety bar. Mellower 18-foot oar boats float the river with a guide at the helm and because of their bulk and stability, are good choice for the timid.
There’s no gradual introduction to white water on this river and the first fifteen miles of the Middle Fork pack a 45-foot-per-mile gradient and rapids with names like Ramshorn and Chutes. I know the canyons laughing “Howdy, Greenhorns.”
At day’s end we glide into camp where our tents are pitched and guides are setting out wine and appetizers. Our four female and four male guides are a multi-talented crew in charge of safety and comfort, education and enlightenment, food and games. Tonight’s dinner, fried Idaho trout, fresh vegetables and strawberry shortcake, is the first of several extravagant meals.
Next morning at 7 a.m., a guide is outside our tent with a wake-up call and a thermos of coffee. Breakfast is on the griddle and all we have to do is dismantle our tent, pack our dry sacks, eat and go.
Standing under a cascade of toasty water at Sunflower Flat Hot Springs, Rigel says “You gotta try a duckie, Mom.” My son’s motto is “No Fear” while mine is “Some Fear,” and in an uncommon mother-son dynamic, I never want to wimp out on him. So after a hot springs soak, I know he’s right and I’m ready for a duckie. Piece of cake. Wet cake.
The next day, the guides pull on shore and lead us on a short hike to a bridge that stands 40-feet above the river. Rigel is the second person to jump. Bob is right behind him.
“Come on, Mom,” Rigel says.
“Nah, I’ll just watch.” I am not afraid of heights, in insist. I am afraid of stepping off heights and freefalling into the River of No Return.
He smiles, nods his head like he knew I’d say that and clambers back onto the bridge for another leap. By the time he climbs out of the water and back onto the bridge, I am standing on the edge, waiting for him.
Our roles have flip-flopped. I am afraid, out of my element. My son is confident, guiding and encouraging me. I grip the front of my vest and step into thin air.
As days melt together, the river canyon morphs from lush fir and spruce covered mountains to buff-colored hills studded with ponderosa pines and sagebrush. If we aren’t paddling like maniacs, we are drifting like water-born leaves, until the stealthy family sneaks up and pummels us with blasts from giant water pistols. Screams echo through the canyons and revenge is plotted.
The last day, we hike to an ancient pictograph site where Native Tukudeka left graffiti, now faint with age but bold in meaning, and an ancient amphitheater where water spews from overhead as if coming straight from heaven. One of the guides pulls out a flute and serenades us with melodies that conjure peace pipes and vision quests. We are deep in the River of No Return Wilderness, so very, very far from home.
If you go: ROW Adventures, 800-451-6034, www.ROWadventures.com. Five and six-day trips run from May-September.