I’ve dreamt of travelling for as long as I can remember. Sixteen months ago, I decided it was time to pull myself out of my rut and see as much of the world as I could on a budget. I was determined to do it solo. Albeit, I’ve always been paranoid when travelling alone, and that’s before adding foreign places and cultures into the mix. If ever in a secluded place at night, I would walk with my car keys wedged in my clenched fist, scanning my surroundings incessantly. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t fearful, but I knew it wasn’t enough to stand in the way of my goals. That’s when I made the decision to shove my fears into the backseat and impulsively book the return flights of my 3 ½ month Europe trip. I knew there’d be plenty of time to panic about my decision later. ‘Have you really thought this through?’ I was asked. No, I hadn’t. I accepted the fact that there was no way to emotionally prepare myself for what was to come and how it would change me. When I was in a mild panic at the airport before embarking on my adventure, I had to remind myself not to get overwhelmed about everything that could happen, and just focus on the now, which was boarding the plane. Then it was navigating my way through Bangkok airport at the stopover, and then going through customs in London, and then finding my way to my accommodation.
I read a lot of tips on travel websites and blogs that were all very useful, but often focused on tangible things to pack as opposed to the mental equipment you may need to handle certain situations. I’m no Gandhi, but I’m going to impart all the wisdom I gained whilst away, most of which I learned from what not to do. I hope my advice is useful to you on your future endeavours abroad!
- Trust your instincts. There will be times when you’ll receive unwanted attention and may feel uncomfortable standing up for yourself in fear that you’ll come across as rude or misguided. This became a recurring issue of mine, for I didn’t want to assume that just because a man was being friendly, he had ulterior motives. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten my instincts were right and I wished I’d spoken up sooner. For instance, when I was in Malaga one evening, I rode a Ferris wheel and was accompanied by a staff member in my carriage. It was just the two of us. When we reached the top, it stopped for about five minutes, which hadn’t happened during any of the other cycles. It was obvious that he and the operator had an arrangement to stop the ride if he was ever with a woman. It wasn’t until after he touched my leg, kissed my cheek and asked to see me the next day that I mentioned a fake boyfriend. In hindsight, I could have avoided the situation if I’d been upfront and told him I’d rather ride alone.
- Know where to go, when. In places where the culture is vastly different from yours, contacting your embassy may be better than going directly to the police. When I was with a group of girls in Budapest, we used a bathroom that we assumed was connected to a train station. But as we later discovered, we’d accidentally trespassed (lesson learnt: if you’re not 100% sure, ask someone). While we were waiting for the last two to finish up, a security officer came and starting shouting at us. He didn’t speak English but it was clear that he was demanding we leave. We pointed to the toilets to show that we were just waiting for the others, which is when he yanked us by the arms and pushed us down the hallway. As I turned back towards him and gestured at the cubicles, he pushed me to the ground. Another friend stepped in and he slapped her across the face which bruised her eye and broke her sunglasses. Whilst none of us were severely hurt, we felt we needed to report it. The police were quick to hold us responsible and we ended up dropping the complaint and walking away. In hindsight, it would have been better to contact the Australian embassy for the best course of action. Bear in mind though, your nearest embassy may be in another country.
- You can’t stop for everyone. As someone who always felt obliged to chat with sales reps in shopping aisles, this was a huge lesson for me. In major tourist cities and attractions, there will be many people who will try and sell you something on the street. At the end of the day, they’re doing their job, but so are you. Your job is to make the most of your trip. It’s important not to feel guilty when you avoid someone. It’s as simple as SDW: smile, decline, walk. The main people to watch out for, though, are scammers. Assessing a scam before you fall victim to it is crucial. Some people will tag team; as one talks to you, the other pick-pockets. Some will forcefully tie a bracelet to your wrist as a ‘gift’ and then demand money for it. Everybody handles situations differently, but the general rule of thumb is to disengage when skeptical. Granted, you may be avoiding people who had the purest intentions, but rest assured that anyone who pulls you up at random on the street probably isn’t after a chinwag.
- Download the Google Translate app. I can’t tell you how handy this would have been for me. Half the languages can be translated sans internet and common phrases can be downloaded. This is particularly useful if you have special dietary requirements like myself or need directions. You can also take photos of signs and have them translated instantly.
- Be night-savvy. If I was cocooned in bullet-proof bubble wrap knowing that nobody could harm me, I’d contemplate nocturnality. There’s no doubt that evenings evoke romance and serenity, but we have to be cautious as female foreigners by themselves. The key is to plan ahead. If you know that it’ll be dark on your way home from the bar and public transport isn’t convenient, plan for a taxi or Uber to take you home. The fee sometimes stings, but your safety is invaluable. Alternatively, find people to walk with. I was always equipped with a downloadable map when walking at night – accessible through app stores and very cheap, if not free.
- Know your emergency numbers. Whilst I (thankfully) never needed to dial help overseas, it’s always best to be prepared. If you go to Wikipedia, you’ll see that 112 is the most internationally used emergency number. Even in Australia, dialling 112 or 911 will redirect the caller to 000. I’m not sure how many countries recognise 000, so it’s a good idea to know the emergency number of each country you’re travelling to. Even without a sim, most countries allow free emergency calls, but if yours is an exception then a sim card may be best for you.
- Just go! If there’s one piece of advice I would give to anyone considering travelling, it would be to just make the leap. Granted, the ability to travel is circumstantial, but for those of you whose only barrier is yourself, there’s no better time than now. If needed, book well in advance to plan, save, notify work, and most importantly – psych yourself up for the time of your life!
Oh, and use that camera. You’ll thank yourself later.
We take photos as a return ticket
to a moment otherwise gone. – Katie Thurmes