According to many people out there, the world is a really scary place. And it’s so scary for women that we would just be better served to stay at home, let alone travel anywhere on our own. And actually, according to this article, a lot of places are really scary for Americans too – including Georgia and Kazakhstan, two of the friendliest and most welcoming countries I have ever visited. Sigh.
So I got to thinking – in all my travels, which include 43 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, what were my scariest experiences? When was I the most concerned for my physical well-being? When was I close to tears because I was so scared of what might happen – or even worse, because of what did happen?
I tried to put a list together of these scary experiences but the fear mongerers out there might be surprised to learn that I couldn’t come up with much.
Was it because I just haven’t traveled to scary places?
No, I’ve been to Egypt and Turkey and people seem to think those are horribly scary for women. I spent a month in Moscow, which according to one article has one of the most dangerous public transit systems in the world for women (Paris, London and New York make the list too). And I traveled solo through Georgia, Russia and Kazakhstan without issue despite those allegedly being among the worst countries for Americans to visit (although anti-Americanism has certainly increased in Russia since I was there).
Indeed, my scariest experiences (which again, are really not all that scary) didn’t even happen in any of these so-called dangerous places.
Riding in a marshrutka down a crazy winding road in Georgia
This was the marshrutka ride that almost killed me in the Republic of Georgia. I spent several hours straight holding my breath and praying for safety as our driver whipped around hairpin turns in the mountains and wove in and out of traffic once we were on lower ground. I have never been so terrified that I would die in a fiery crash as I was during that ride from Svaneti to Tbilisi.
My ferry ride from Ukraine to Georgia
I am not a huge fan of open water so the fact that we got stuck for two and a half extra days in the middle of the Black Sea due to weather was scary enough. But then one night my roommate, a German hitchhiker about my age who had seemed nice enough, got crazy drunk and came back to the cabin while I was sleeping and started chanting in German and writing on the walls. He didn’t seem to notice me at all and I laid completely still to keep it that way, but I was scared nonetheless. Oddly, it crossed my mind that he was so drunk he might fall overboard and I could be blamed for his death and I think that scared me more than the possibility of him actually harming me.
Hiking in the rain in the Himalayas
I was on a group photo trek in Nepal and on one of our last days, we had to trek the whole morning in a pouring rain. It had been raining nonstop for more than 24 hours and the trail conditions were horrible. I felt like I would slip and fall with every single step I took and I had visions in my head of seriously hurting myself and having to be airlifted back to Lukla or Kathmandu. It didn’t help that it was the tail end of a two week trek and I was emotionally exhausted in the first place, but I was in tears less than an hour into the day’s hike and when I finally reached our hotel in Namche Bazaar, I collapsed in my room and bawled for about three hours.
There are a few other times when I have been a bit nervous – getting scammed in Cairo, my experience crossing the border from Turkey to Georgia and being accosted by three female gypsies as my mom and I walked through the Roman Forum in the middle of the afternoon. But I can’t think of any other times in all my years of traveling that I have been seriously scared for my physical safety.
I will admit that it probably helps that I live in Chicago and am used to keeping my guard slightly up anyway. I dress appropriately for the places I am visiting and I try to blend in, not drawing attention to myself as a tourist. I stay aware of my surroundings and I trust my instincts when interacting with people. I don’t wander the streets by myself late at night and I rarely drink much alcohol when I travel solo. I try to learn at least a few words of the local language and I carry a phrasebook in case I get in trouble. While I have never worn a fake wedding ring, I have made up some imaginary boyfriends allegedly traveling with me. Overall, I try to act confident at all times, even when I am not.
The fact of the matter is that it is really no more dangerous for me to travel solo as a female than it is to walk down the streets of Chicago. Indeed, I have often felt safer overseas and I personally know more women who have been attacked or robbed within blocks of their homes in various cities in the United States than I do who have been victims of violence anywhere abroad. And my closest encounter with potential violence? Just a couple months ago in my own building when a neighbor (a male) was attacked by three youths who hit him over the head with a gun and stole his laptop as he walked into the lobby of our building – just one minute after I did.
So yes, bad stuff does happen. It can happen even when you take every precaution and it can happen anywhere and anytime. But that doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of people you will encounter when you travel are inherently good.
Don’t let the fear of what could happen stop you from seeing the world. Do your research, talk to people who have been where you want to go, understand the real risks of any particular destination and take whatever precautions make you feel comfortable. And then hop on a plane and go!
What has been your scariest travel experience?