Throughout my travelling “career” (for want of a better word) I have always thought that “be sensible” is by far the worst and most annoying travel advice out there. I love travelling to small leafy corners all of the world. Crawling through travel blogs and airline deals to plan my next adventure is my ideal Friday night. Travel is my life and I love it.
But it’s not all Mai Thai’s and sleep in’s. Travel on a budget is hard work, both physically and emotionally. Carrying around a backpack for 8 hours straight when trying to find a place to stay, getting hustled and bustled the whole time can leave the unexperienced nomad more than a little shell-shocked. In fact there is a lot out there that can scare a traveller into never stepping out of their front door again. Which is sad because there is so much to do and see out there, letting a little bit of fear stop you from experiencing all of that is heartbreaking.
I have seen riots, been too close to dangerous animals, bitten by bed bugs, leered at by strangers, had stomach bugs, washed my passport, been robbed and everything else in between. But with every “challenging” event comes a great story… or so I keep telling myself. Because I have also seen the sun rise over ancient ruins, climbed volcanoes, eaten deep-fried tarantula’s, danced to the full moon, skied in summer, swum with Nemo and a hundred other mind-blowing amazing experiences.
There is a plethora of blogs and books out there giving you travel advice on how to stay safe on your trip. Telling you that if you are sensible no harm will come to you. Just be sensible, you will be fine.
And it is at this point that I roll my eyes in annoyance. That is a load of horse dung.
Who doesn’t consider themselves a sensible traveller? I don’t head off on a vacation and think “well on this holiday I am going to take some unnecessary risks – wear my diamond earrings everywhere I go, especially when I walk down dark alleyways. Also I am going to go back to my taxi drivers house instead of staying in a hostel… though if I do stay in a hostel I won’t lock up anything as I am going to trust to chance and luck to keep my things safe.” NO ONE THINKS LIKE THAT! So I would assume that we all consider ourselves fairly sensible travellers! Right!?
If I am so sensible, how was I robbed? Caught in a riot? Jeered at by strange men on a darkened street? Because bad things happen to EVERYONE! Whether I am travelling through New Zealand, Croatia, Guatemala or Vietnam. Whether I am old, young, blonde, brunette, male or female. Whether I am at home or on vacation. If it happens everywhere to everyone then there is no reason to let it stop you getting out there and seeing the most of this big beautiful planet. Is there?
Being given the travel advice “be sensible” is like telling someone after a breakup to “just stop thinking about them”. Obvious and great advice… doesn’t work in reality. You could poll a 100 travellers and ask them what being sensible when travelling means to them. I bet you would get a list like the below:
- Keep your valuables hidden at all times.
- Never look lost or confused by holding a map out in front of you
- Don’t go anywhere with strangers
- Take cabs at night, don’t walk the streets on your own
- Stay in a group when you are out on the town
- Don’t get blind drunk
- Watch your drink for spiking
- If you are female sleep in female only dorms or get your own room
- Dress appropriately/conservatively (especially if you are female)
- Don’t travel at night
- Don’t hitchhike
- Tell people where you are going and have a check in system with someone at home
- Have a secret stash or reserve of money and documents
- Spend a little more to ensure you have safe accommodation/transport etc
All very sensible great pieces of travel advice. Ones that I consider every single step of my trip. However, I can look at that list of sensible rules and think of at least one time when I have broken every single one. Like all realistic and “sensible” travellers I review every situation and assess the risk and decide if it is one I am willing to take. And sometimes I get it wrong… and it sucks.
Now before you judge me as an unreasonable risk taker – run your eyes over that list again. How many have you broken? Have you ever met a group of travellers who you then went out on the town with… they were strangers ten minutes before right? Have you ever been delayed when in transit so ended up travelling through the night… or taken a night-bus for that matter? Have you ever forgotten to check in with mum/dad/friend for a few days in a row? Have you ever spent your secret stash of money when you couldn’t find an ATM… leaving you with no emergency funds? Have you ever walked around in a bikini or just boardies in a place that didn’t approve of that dress-code, like Bali, Mexico, Thailand, Vietnam and MANY others? Have you ever had one too many drinks and ended up a lot drunker than expected, dancing around having a great night which is a blank blur in your memory the next day? I bet you have! And I bet MOST of you were fine and dandy… because you looked at the situation and assessed the risk as being reasonable.
So, what is the travel advice that I would give to a fellow traveller? I am not going to tell you to be sensible as I assume that you are.
- Be realistic in your risk assessment. Treat every country, every place differently and make your assessments based on that. You will make a lot of your decisions based on experience so take the least risky option until you build up enough experiences to safely recognise a dangerous situation.
- Talk to other travellers… lots of other travellers. Try and ask questions behind the stories. I often find travellers want everyone to love a place they have loved so they may leave out a few gritty details. Keep asking questions and if you feel someone isn’t telling you the whole truth, find someone else and ask more questions. BUT don’t take one person’s opinion on a place as gospel – not everyone loves a place, and not everyone hates a place.
- Listen to your gut. Most times your gut is right on the money. Listen to it always, ignore friends and cute crushes who may and convince you otherwise, if your gut says no – then no it is!
- Have networks/solutions in place to help you if needed. Simple things like travel insurance or knowing the number for reverse-charge to call home. It won’t save you from bad things happening but will help you if you do need help.
- Be confident or fake it till you do. Often a little bit of confidence even in the worst situations can be a great help, it’s a hard thing to tap into when you are scared so practice a confident walk and rock that when the little hairs are standing up on the back of your neck.
My final piece of travel advice is, travel is different for girls and boys. Anyone who says it isn’t is being naive – to be clear, I am not saying that boys don’t have risks – just that they are different to what a girl will face.
Yesterday I was walking down a quiet suburban street on my way to a café at 11am, a car slowed down as it drove past me and honked while the passenger yelled something obscene at me. I ignored it of course, that’s what we are told to do after all – but until I got to the café I felt a little on edge and I walked a little faster. It isn’t a nice feeling and when those sorts of things happen to you around the corner from your home, let alone in a strange place where you are unsure of the laws and if they will protect you – it feels even worse.
Determine the risk level, and work out if you are comfortable with it. Don’t take a chance with your safety but also be realistic. A group of youths yelling things from a moving car at 11am isn’t really a threat to me… its unpleasant but my personal safety isn’t in danger. If all women turned around and went home after being jeered at we would never see the world, which is a very sad fact. I hope one day that I never have to worry about being leered and jeered at and that I don’t have to fear what those actions could lead to. Until that day I am going to keep evaluating risks so that I can continue to explore the world, discover new places and people. Jump off waterfalls, swim with turtles, dance with fire, eat raw fish, laugh with strangers and sleep in hammocks – because the alternative just isn’t very interesting to me. For me, getting to a ripe old wrinkly age and not having any stories to bore the nurses at the retirement home is a risk! I have evaluated that risk and realised, I am not willing to take it. I want a life full of adventure and experiences. It’s a very big world out there.