This week a friend of mine had her iPhone stolen in Antigua. It’s ignited another round of discussions in our traveling circles about theft on the road, how to avoid it and the various gear and gadgets marketed to minimize the likelihood of being burgled on the road.
I would like to say two things about this:
When we were kids we spent a couple of winters rolling around Central America. My Dad’s philosophy included a commitment to blending in and keeping a low profile as much as a family of gringos could.
“If you look like you’ve got less than the locals, then no one has a reason to take your stuff,” was his conclusion.
It’s one I’ve come to share over the years.
Traveling with fancy “traveling” clothes, an obvious “gadget bag” and a shiny new backpack is the surest way to paint a target on your back before you even leave the airport. There are lots of reasons that an iPhone might be a great piece of gear to take along on an extended journey, especially if you’re working as you go, but if you don’t need it… don’t take it. Buy the $10 cell phone when you hit the ground and swap out the SIM card in each country. Take clothes that are clean and respectable looking, but not new with the tags from REI still dangling off the back. The fancy gear yells MONEY loud and clear, to locals and opportunistic other travelers alike. A brand new backpack screams, “It’s my first rodeo!!” like little else, marking you as someone who is neither hip to the road groove, or experienced enough to smell a con.
Most everyone you’ll meet on the road is a good person, a friend in the making. But the very few and far between who are out to prey on travelers have a keen eye and know exactly who they’re looking for. The surest way to “not be that guy” is to follow my Dad’s advice, travel with a low profile.
And, if you absolutely MUST buy a new bag, drag that thing behind your bike for half of a mile before you pack it.
Have you had anything stolen on the road? What steps do you take to prevent it?
“I saw a cyclist riding through my town last week, so I invited him over to my house for the night. I took care of him, but they won’t.”
“I stopped and gave some cyclists Gatorade on a hot day, but they wouldn’t even consider doing something like that.”
I hear stuff like this all the time – isn’t it dangerous to bike around the world with all those bad people out there? All those people who would never help a cyclist or go out of their way to avoid hitting them – they’re everywhere.
What I want to know is this: who are they? Who are those people? They certainly aren’t the people we’ve met.
In our 45 months of full-time bicycle touring as a family, we never encountered them. Instead, we met countless people who invited us to their homes, shared a meal with us, filled our panniers with oranges, and hauled stuff halfway around the world for us. The people we met were of the kind, generous variety of human rather than the ones we see on the nightly news.
Traveling on bicycle made us vulnerable – to both the good and the bad. People could have taken advantage of our vulnerability to rob us or run us off the road – there wasn’t a gosh darn thing we could do if someone wanted to do that. But our experience showed that our vulnerability on the bikes made people want to help us, to take care of us, to reach out and make our journey just a little bit better.
The people we encountered stopped on the side of the road to hand over Coke and chocolate in the middle of a long stretch of nothing. They pulled out a bag of fresh pineapple after we had gone too many days without fresh fruit. They leaned out their car window and shouted, “Would you like to spend the night in my house tonight?”
People handed us the keys to their houses, spent hours helping us solve one problem or another, and sent us emails to cheer us up when we were down. They sent packages of goodies through the mail and brought other packages to us when they went on vacation. They hid Gatorade alongside the road, and rescued us from pouring rain.
In short, the people we met were just ordinary people who were willing to lend a helping hand when they saw the need. The people we met were just like you and me. And still – after 45 months and 27,000 miles – we haven’t met them.
Why are we all so afraid of them anyway?
Nancy Sathre-Vogel is a long-time schoolteacher and world wandering mother of twins. She and her husband taught in international schools in various countries for 12 years, and then – together with their sons – they spent four years traveling on bicycles, including a 17,000-mile jaunt from Alaska to Argentina. She blogs at familyonbikes.org
Hitching a ride was, is and always will be evoking images of young, reckless, crazy travel. It is for adventurers, because you do not know who will pick you up and when you will arrive at your destination. And it is indeed for adventurous drivers too: our imagination is so full of hideous stories based on this phenomenon that, before you would pick up that random guy standing at the crossroad, you would definitely think twice.
Luckily, this kind of popular culture has not invaded the Asian media as much as the Western ,and seeing a foreigner at the side of the road generally does not ignite serial killer’s thoughts: on the contrary, it is quite easy to be picked up and helped out.
You may think that only someone with a very low civic sense or a very desperate need for money would be thinking of hitching in Asia. Sorry friends, but you are dead wrong: there are many people, surprisingly foreigners and local Asians alike, thumbing at the side of those roads.
Furthermore, in countries with a big exponential growth such as China, where transportation and fuel prices have doubled or tripled since the last decade, buying bus and train tickets to get around can be killer for low budgets. Hitching is on the contrary a great way to travel the extra mile, trying to have a more authentic experience observing what actually happens inside of those Asian cars you do not have to pay for. Sounds strange, isn’t it? Well, it is not, in reality: you just have to try.
The same opinion is shared by a young French guy I met recently; he arrived to China fromT urkey thumbing along the Caucasus andCentral Asiafor four months. He claims that he not only got lifts, but also met people and got to visit their homes, was invited for dinner or sleeping over, and overall he had a fantastic, genuine vagabonding time.
Westerners are not the only ones: the biggest number of hitchers I recently met is constituted by Chinese students in their early 20s to 30s. They complained that transportation costs inChinabecame unbearable, thus they are forced to hitchhike if they want to get out and travel their huge country during the summer holidays. Others just strike off toTibeton a pushbike!
To test if the great tales of hundreds of kilometers travelled at no cost was part of the Asians’ travel folklore, or if it was actually true, I had to personally give it a go myself. The equation worked out fairly well in favor of the road folklore: I was able to hitchhike and get lifts by several people. However, as I had to reach a particular destination in time to catch a train connection, I also had to resort to some private minivans I had to pay – sometimes less than the ongoing rate. Truck drivers seem to be the best bet to move long distances, although many of them – at least the Chinese – require you to make a money offer. Have clearly in mind how much you should pay for a bus or a train, and work your way around this fare, of course bargaining it down.
Sometimes you may be even lucky and get to hitch out of the ordinary, as it happened to me in Tibetan Kham, where me and a group of friends could flag down a local police car driven by two young officers who gladly took us for a 3 and more hours ride to the next town… where we got stranded for the night at the side of the road because the next chunk of highway had been submerged by a nearby river’s high waters! So keep clearly in mind that if you want security and reaching a place on a particular time, you should not attempt hitchhiking, especially in countries with roads as bad as the Asian. Of course, all of these unexpected problems would make the best travel stories, later… but do not say I did not advise you on the potential risk of natural catastrophe. For other risks, well, I do not think the Asian drivers would be one.
As independent travelers we discuss the best light weight gear or how to save pennies. But what about something that weights nothing and can’t be bought: common sense.
Like, pavement is more slippery when wet.
Rolling down the highway earlier today, I recalled a lesson my Grandfather taught my mother. “Drive five miles slower when it’s raining.” The charcoal sky began to pour and within moments even my windshield wipers–on high–did no good. Vehicles on all sides dropped from 70 to 40mph, and I decided to pull over and wait it out at a gas station. I got a cup of coffee and read another chapter of my book. Down pour turned to hail, then back to rain, and eventually subsided. A ways down the highway a wreaker truck was busy pulling several crumpled cars from a muddy meridian. I was thankful not to be one of them.
Yes, accidents do happen that aren’t always avoidable. But following your GPS when it tells you to drive into the Pacific Ocean is avoidable. Three tourists in Australia actually did that back in March. It was no accident. I’d say more like lack of common sense.
Of course this doesn’t just apply to driving and isn’t a new concept. Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet about it in the 1770’s. But it still seems people have a hard time using, “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way”, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary.
Vagabonding almost requires common sense. The more you apply, the richer the experience can be.
There was an interesting discussion on a cycling forum I visit from time to time. A man responded to a blog post I had written about cycling to the ends of the world with my children. “I just don’t see how subjecting kids to this odyssey of self-discovery or whatever it was could possibly benefit them in the long run,” he wrote. “That’s just irresponsible.”
He went on to say, “I always viewed [your journey] as risking almost certain disaster every day, for a prolonged period of time. A really unacceptable level of risk.”
It’s funny – I never considered that we were facing “almost certain disaster.” Certainly not every day and certainly not for prolonged periods of time. I felt our journey was entirely an acceptable level of risk.
Not only did I feel our journey from Alaska to Argentina was not particularly dangerous or risky, I felt it was an awesome way for my children to live their childhood years. I felt the benefits they would gain from a cycling/traveling lifestyle outweighed whatever negatives they would lose.
For every choice we make in life, we opt out of something else. Sometimes those decisions are easy; sometimes they are hard. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of those choices. In the end, we have to make a decision. We have to choose for one and against another. That’s just the way it is.
We could have chosen to stay in Idaho and the boys would have played on soccer teams and swam on swim teams. They would have eaten lunch in the school cafeteria and ridden the bus to school and raced outside to play tether ball at recess. They would have had sleepovers and played video games with friends. They would have been part of chess club and boy scouts.
Those things aren’t bad. (more…)
When we’re away from home, it’s tempting to cut loose and forget our inhibitions. A recent piece in The Guardian UK points out the dangers in partying: Vang Vieng, Laos: the world’s most unlikely party town.
The article explores how the small Lao town has blown up into a hotspot on the Southeast Asia backpacker trail. While revenues and amenities have increased, safety measures have not. The reporter warns of injuries sustained by backpackers who failed to take the proper care.
“Tubing” is a popular pastime in Vang Vieng. This involves riding down the river in an inflatable tube. Along the river are a strip of bars and pubs to cater to thirsty travelers. A quote from the piece is sobering:
Frequent tragedies occur as a result of mixing alcohol with tubing, and other river stunts. Vang Vieng’s tiny hospital recorded 27 tourist deaths in 2011 due to drowning or diving head first into rocks, including that of a 23-year-old Dorset man, Benjamin Light. A senior doctor at the hospital, Dr Chit, says the overall figure is higher because “many fatalities are taken straight to Vientiane”.
The Lao government seems hesitant to confront the issue. The writer mentions that many of the bars are owned by powerful interests who have a strong stake in keeping the tourist dollars flowing. Any bad press could put a damper on that. At the same time, backpackers seem unaware of the potential risks in drinking and tubing.
How do you stay safe while partying abroad? Please share your tips and stories in the comments.
Just three weeks before I’d planned to leave for Guatemala, the first country on my itinerary for my first long-term trip, a friend forwarded an email from her Guatemalan friend regarding my upcoming travels:
“My advice is that if she has her heart set on going to Guate, do the volunteering thing and keep travel limited to Lake Atitlan and Antigua … If her heart can be persuaded to go to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, I would highly recommend that … Guatemala is in a sort of state of war where human life is very poorly regarded and that is why if you get mugged it is VERY dangerous …”
She also referenced a recent New York Times story explaining that the Peace Corps recently decided not to send new volunteers to Guatemala as it is assessing safety.
Ok, I knew Guatemala was a developing country and that there would be dangers, and I’d been armed and ready to explain to my family and friends that I’d be ok. I’d read tons of forums about safety in Guatemala. I’d read numerous blogs about female solo travel. I knew all the places to avoid, all the things to do and things not to do.
But the Peace Corps backing away and a Guatemalan resident recommending against coming? This was enough to give me major pause.
I spent the entire weekend researching other options. I narrowed it down based on volunteer opportunities I’d found in Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay. I was all set to completely change my flight and my entire plan.
And then I talked to more people: A 23-year-old woman who recently arrived at the volunteer organization in Xela, Guatemala, where I’d be going, said she had the same concerns as me – especially after hearing the news about the Peace Corps – but once she got there, she felt safe overall. I heard from another female volunteer coordinator who confirmed that Xela has a large foreign community and that the majority of volunteers are single female travelers. She said, “You should definitely take precautions and use common sense at all times, however there is no need to be afraid or alarmed all the time.”
I also talked to my friend who lived in Guatemala for a year, who could connect me with many contacts if needed. And I talked to my uncle, who has done missionary work there for many years, who said as long as I’m with others, I will be ok.
It’s tough to know who to listen to, but I decided to stick with my original plan.
Dealing with the safety concerns brought up by others has been one of the most unexpected aspects of my trip planning so far, and has certainly spun me in circles several times. But what it comes down to is that there’s no guarantee of safety anywhere, and as long as I take all the precautions and remain aware of my surroundings, I’ll be doing the best I can to avoid problems.
Here are some of the things I try to remind myself as well as others when they question my safety:
Here are some articles I found helpful in my research about Guatemala safety and female solo travel safety:
As someone living a mere ferry ride from the coast of Japan, I’ve been hearing a lot of debate among ESL teachers as to whether they should leave the area or not. Italy has offered a free flight home to their citizens living in the area, and other countries have issued warnings to leave at one’s own discretion.
It takes a certain amount of planning and effort to find and secure a job overseas, move your things there, and get settled. Some people would think it mad to leave when there is no direct threat looming. However those closer to the disaster may think differently. Ultimately, however, whatever you decide is the best choice for you.
Are you an English teacher living in Japan and thinking of leaving? Or have you left your job in a different foreign country due to a local disaster or crisis? Tell us your story.
I regularly fly through Houston’s IAH airport when I’m returning from travel to Central and South America, and lately, I’ve been running into brochures for the Global Entry Trusted Traveler Program. Enrolling allows members to speed past those horribly long immigration lines, and check in at a kiosk instead, currently available at 20 airports in the United States and Puerto Rico.
So far, because I’m not into giving the government more information than is absolutely necessary at any given time, I haven’t signed up. You enroll online, which seems easy enough, and pay a $100 application fee. Then, you must schedule an interview at one of the Global Entry Enrollment Centers. If the interviewer determines that you’re eligible to enter the program, they’ll take your photo and fingerprint scans. All done!
There are a slew of reasons why a person may not be eligible, so don’t waste your money and apply if you meet any of the descriptions. Additionally, if you already belong to other trusted traveler programs such as NEXUS or SENTRI, you don’t need to pay the application fee.
Are you a member? If so, has the program been beneficial for you? If you’re not a member, what’s the barrier to entry for you: cost, privacy, or other?
As you may have noticed, Rolf is currently in the midst of traveling around the world with only what he can carry in his pockets. He’s got a toothbrush, a change of underpants, and an iPod Touch to do his blog posting from, as well as some presumably bulging cargo pants pockets. I did see one blog post on his round-the-world-as-a-lightweight diary, pointing out that replicating the experience for women would be majorly worth a go.
There are a couple of things that women have to deal with when traveling that men don’t, which make it somewhat harder — but not impossible! — to cram everything into your pockets. Clothing-wise, women can wear the same clothes as men — depending on which countries you go to, nobody will chuck you out for wearing a long-sleeved shirt and cargo pants instead of a flouncy sundress. You may have to dress up for a formal state dinner, but, well, maybe consider buying something from a thrift shop in your dinner location? Or borrowing? Or consider doing the whole thing in an easy-to-wash dress over your cargo pants — check out Alex Martin’s Little Brown Dress project for how that might be possible.
So what do women need to worry about that men don’t? Primarily, in terms of stuff to carry: periods. Yep, we have these irritating times of the month (most of us) that make us carry supplies. There’s a couple of low-impact-packing solutions to this one: get a menstrual cup, which can be washed and reused every period, squishes down to a small size, and can even be boiled for sanitation (if you get a silicone one). Consider the Diva or the Mooncup. Alternate solutions to reusable menstrual supplies: some IUDs, particularly hormonal ones, will reduce or get rid of your period entirely. You can also use birth control pills to manipulate your period, although then you have to carry birth control pills too.
Personal safety can be more of an issue for women than men as well. For things that fit in pockets, a rape whistle is pretty handy, lightweight, and can be very surprising and deterring in a pinch. A Wedge It doorstop can be used on the inside of your hotel/hostel/bedroom door to stop anyone from opening it while you sleep…or used as a bottle opener, a fancy necklace, or for it’s original purpose: to keep doors open. In a pinch, you can also wedge anything solid under a door: like your toothbrush.
What else do you think women might want that men don’t need? How would you adapt it for the lowest amount of packing you could possibly do?