“Random attacks cause concern in Chicago.”
“New mob attack reported.”
“Mobs of teens thought responsible for four assaults.”
“7 arrested in mob action.”
These are all headlines that have graced the pages of Chicago newspapers in the last month and, after 10 years of living in the city they normally wouldn’t merit a second glance (sad, I know). But these headlines caught my attention more than usual because they weren’t referring to traditionally crime-ridden neighborhoods like Englewood or Garfield Park. Nope, they were referring to a series of attacks by groups of teens in what most people consider one of the safer areas of Chicago, as well as one of the prime tourist destinations – River North and the Magnificent Mile.
Which made me wonder, where are we really ever safe?
I travel solo fairly often and it isn’t uncommon for people to ask me about how safe I feel while traveling. It seems there is something about going overseas that just seems a little scary, especially when traveling alone. When I first headed to Europe in 2001, I never left the hotel without my money and passport stashed securely in a hidden pouch looped around my neck. I was diligent about not taking out my money in plain sight and was extremely careful in everything I did – possibly to the point of paranoia.
On that first trip to Europe, I acted completely differently than I did on any previous trip within the United States, whether to Chicago (before I lived here), New York or Los Angeles. There was something about traveling to the Big Apple or Hollywood that just felt safe, even if I probably stood out as a tourist almost as much as I would anywhere in Europe.
The notion of some place being “safer” than another can be misleading. A lot of people asked about how safe I would be when I visited Egypt in 2008, while no one was really concerned about my trip to Spain a few years earlier. Yet less than a year after I visited Spain, terrorist bombs killed nearly 200 people in a Madrid train station that I frequented during my trip.
Anything can happen at any time and any place.
- I have never been robbed while traveling. But I had my wallet and Blackberry stolen right out of my purse at my workplace last spring – while I was standing just five feet away with my back turned.
- I don’t personally know anyone who has been mugged while traveling, but I have a friend who was held up at gunpoint just a block from her home in the early evening in what most people would regard as a “safe” neighborhood in Chicago.
- I’ve left my wallet in a taxi twice here in Chicago. Not only were neither returned to me, but on both occasions, someone used my check card within an hour of me leaving the cab. On the other hand, I left my backpack on a bus en route to the Budapest airport 2 years ago and not only did someone return it to the airport lost & found, but everything was intact, including my iPod, cash and credit cards.
Now, I am not saying Chicago is horribly unsafe. It’s not. But I am questioning the fallacy that somehow we are necessarily “safer” at home than when traveling. If anything, I think it can be easy to become complacent at home and let our guard down. My wallet and Blackberry were stolen when I left my purse unattended for no more than 2-3 minutes while at a work event. That’s something I would never do while traveling.
Michael Hodson of Go, See, Write said it well:
“I don’t have statistics, but I bet that you aren’t much more likely to be a victim of crime in most of the places I will go to on this trip as I would be in New York City or Miami or Washington D.C. In fact, statistics might even show the opposite, I very well might be statistically safer in 95% of my trip that I would be if I instead had moved to Manhattan, but I do know that – you feel a hell of a lot safer at home.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take safety into consideration while traveling. It can be a fine balance, especially if you are new to traveling outside of your home country. You don’t want to completely let go and fall victim to “Vacation Brain” but you also don’t want to be so overly paranoid about safety that it overshadows the rest of your trip.
I think it is always worthwhile to be familiar with any State Department warnings and the current political climate in your destination. Reading up on common scams is valuable as well – Lonely Planet guides can be helpful for this, but also check out How to Stay Safe and Avoid Common Scams in Europe on The Savvy Backpacker – it is wonderfully thorough.
Above all, whenever you are out and about – at home or abroad – be aware of your surroundings and trust your instincts. If something feels wrong, it probably is.
For some great safety tips for traveling (some of which apply equally as well when you’re at home), check out:
Addressing Solo Travel Objection #1: Ten Safety Solutions – Solo Traveler
Solo Travel Safety: 10 Ways to Blend in When You Can’t – Solo Traveler
10 Lines That Say You’re Getting Hustled – Travels with a Nine Year Old
Like Jane Austen But Not: The Single Gal’s Guide to Traveling Asia – Travels with a Nine Year Old
Traveling Safely – Hole in the Donut
What do you think? Are you more diligent about safety at home or when you travel? What are some of your best travel safety tips?
Photo: Bert Kaufmann