My sister is going on the same study-abroad program that i did, 10 years ago. i know a lot has changed – she won’t have to walk 12 blocks to use a computer, she’ll have a cell phone and an iPod. The world is more connected than it was when I was there, and she won’t have to endure the stimulation deprivation that I did when I could not sleep my first night and had no electronics, no radio, no phone, and no guts to venture out at 4am. But a lot is probably still the same about traveling in your 20’s, especially as a woman, and as an American.
Here are some pointers from my own experience, which is largely based on being a German language student in a German speaking country that doesn’t look fondly on Americans:
- Pay attention to what’s going on around you. Absolutely, without a doubt, the biggest safety tip ever. I’ve managed to get out of pickpocket and abduction situations because I pay attention to who and what is around me. I was nearly the victim of an elaborate 4-person robbery scheme in a public place in Germany, but since I had noticed that 4 men in the area seemed to be communicating with each other from across the village square, I was able to act quickly and get away when one approached me. Another time a man followed me on a train from Rothenberg to Vienna. If I hadn’t noticed him in the train station I may have taken a seat and gone to sleep on the overnight train ride. Instead I spent the ride changing train cars and finally finding a Canadian woman and her teen daughter to sit with. The man approached me again in the Vienna train station as I was waiting for a bus connection to my apartment, and invited me to his apartment. When I said no and walked away he followed me and offered me a ride to my apartment. I said no again, and found an internet cafe that was open (middle of the night and in a small train station), and spent my last few dollars buying a few minutes on the computer so that he would leave me alone. He finally gave up.
- Don’t be an obnoxious loud American. – not only do you irritate everyone around you, but you become a target. Additionally, the louder you are, the less attention you can pay to your surroundings. There is a reason why all Canadian backpackers have a Canadian flag stitched to their packs – so people don’t mistake them for Americans. I know this because I asked that nice Canadian teenager who I sat with on the train (above). She sheepishly told me. Harsh but true.
- Always seek out services you need. I don’t generally trust someone coming to me to offer something. This is really specific to women traveling alone, and I know I miss out on some cool experiences, but don’t get into an unregulated/unregistered taxi, don’t buy bus tickets from people on the street. This can be overlooked a bit if you’re traveling in a group or with a very large, intimidating looking man like my mountain man. I hissed at him many times on our honeymoon to not let approaching strangers engage him in conversation or sell him something. He thought my approach is cold and rude. for me it was about survival. In places where people are more community oriented, more open and conversational like Turkey, where everyone talks to everyone, people will approach you to help you find your way on the street or lift a heavy bag, it does come across as rude. But if you’re on your own you just can’t risk it. Don’t worry if a bunch of strangers halfway across the world from your home thing you’re rude by not responding or walking past them. Say “no thank you” as politely as you can without engaging the person, and walk away.
- Don’t stop in the middle of the sidewalk/street/whatever to look at a map. It’s a dead-giveaway that you’re foreign, lost, confused, vulnerable (this one is also most important to women traveling alone). I used to sneak into a bathroom stall, study a map, and then go on my way. If you need to check a map again, find another bathroom, ask a store clerk for help, or make sure you’re out of sight of people. Pulling out a map draws attention to you.
- Always have a book with you on train rides, bus rides, etc (although now it’s probably a cell phone, not a book that will help you blend in!). It makes you blend in a little, keeps people from pestering you, and will occupy you and offer some much needed “home” comfort (i.e. English!) when you need it. Or better, read in German! I used to buy junk books and tear them apart as i read them so i wasn’t schlepping around extra weight. Don’t let a book consume your attention so much though that you aren’t aware of what’s going on around you.
- Always always always keep your passport on your body. Keep it in one of those dorky under-the-clothes money belt/passport holders.
- Never, ever give up your passport to anyone, even if they identify themselves as police or military. If there isn’t a gun to your head, you’re in control, and your passport is the absolute most important thing that you have with you. It’s the single item that, even with nothing else, can get you home/into another country. If your safety depends on it, give up money, cameras, computers, credit cards – anything but your passport. And then if you’re in a situation demanding your life or your passport, give up your passport. It’s SO worthwhile to have your passport number memorized. If your passport is taken from you, try to get to an embassy. knowing your passport number will expedite the process of getting you help. When I stayed in hostels I even slept with that stupid dorky money belt on.
- Don’t use the dorky under-the-clothes money belt/passport holder as your wallet. Keep large amounts of money in it, but keep a small amount of money for incidentals in your front pocket or breast pocket (or, my personal favorite, your bra). You’ll notice someone reaching into your front pocket (or bra) more readily than your back pocket. If you need to get money out of the dorky thing, go into a bathroom stall and get it out, put it in your pocket, and cover back up.
- If you’re in a situation that threatens your stuff and your safety, abandon your stuff, get away, and go back later to see if anything survived. If you have your passport on you, you will be OK.
- If someone is trying to take you away– run, make noise, do anything you can to draw attention to yourself and/or get away from the person. If there isn’t a gun to your head you have a better chance getting away than going with.
- Always have a pack of tissues and hand sanitizer with you. In many places you can use a toilet for free, but have to buy TP or soap to wash your hands with. Save your coins and bring your own.
- Baby wipes=shower. Don’t pay for showers in hostels every day. If you do a washcloth bath in the sink you’ll get in trouble. Use baby wipes. It’s good enough for a few days at a time.
- Always wear sun block.
- For sleeping in hostels – a lot of places will charge extra for sheets! (you thought that would come with the bed, right? ha!) So here’s a simple fix – buy a large flat sheet before you go, fold it in half, and sew it up around the bottom and about 3/4 of the way up the side to made a little “sleeping bag”. You can sleep in it by itself if it’s warm, or toss one of the hostel blankets over your sleep sack. Also, carry an empty pillowcase with you. You can either put it over the hostel’s pillow if it seems a little grungy, or stuff your jacket/sweatshirt in it to make a pillow if you don’t have one. You can also use these sleeping on trains.
- Before you get on the train for a country with another currency, change a small amount of money (even just $10) to use as soon as you get there.
- Leave room in your suitcase when you go, it will fill up! When you’re coming back, tightly roll all your clothes to save space. If you are bringing home breakables, wrap them in your clothes and pack them in the middle of your suitcase.
- Bring comfortable, worn-in shoes and blister tape.
- For girls: have a shawl or something to cover your shoulders, and a skirt that goes below your knees, and nice looking close-toed shoes if you plan to go into any religious buildings.
- Keep brochures, ticket stubs, coasters, whatever will remind you of what you’ve done. Even the negative experiences – some of my most dearly remembered experiences are ones that were “bad” like when I was dragged off a bus for not having a valid pass (apparently the monthly bus pass I bought was good TO the date on the card, not THROUGH the date on the card.) I still have my fine card that I received from the transit police, and it’s one of my best souvenirs.
- You’ll be treated differently based on how you appear to others. when you’re someplace where people dress well (like Rome) you’ll look and feel dumpy if you don’t try to wear something decent. Blending even a tiny bit, and making yourself look different than most of the Hawaiian print/matching track suit/cargo pants and logo to-shirt American tourists will get you far.
- When you are in a store and don’t know the word for something, say in the language (for me it was usually German) “I'm looking for the thing that…” and explain it. I had to do this trying to find a funnel once in Vienna. it was hilarious trying to explain that I needed the thing that when you pour something into it, it makes the thing smaller…
- Learn a tiny bit of the language for each place you’re going, even if it’s just “excuse me, do you speak English?” and in many countries/villages, I found “excuse me, do you speak German” (this is specific to my experience, since I spoke German fairly well, but whatever foreign language you know a little can be replaced here…) to be much more accepted. Then when people say yes, say “I'm so sorry, my German is not that good, but can you help me…” Trying to use any language other than English to communicate is often appreciated. At the same time, many people are excited to practice their English with an English-speaker, but as a general rule I try not to work under the assumption that everyone should be able to speak my language.
- Learn the vernacular as much as you can, and try to speak the way the locals speak. For instance, in Vienna although everyone understands Hochdeutsch, they don’t speak it. Never say “guten Morgen” or “guten Tag” when you’re greeting someone – always say “Gruess Gott”, the Austrian greeting, meaning “God’s greetings”.
- Take pictures of everything. I came home with over 25 tolls of 36-exposure film (yeah, FILM) because I wanted to capture everything. Blog or write about everything, especially about the day-to-day things in your life while you’re away. Write about grocery shopping, the bus system, your apartment, How people walk around, how and what you cook, how and where you wash your clothes – all these things will make your trip memories so real! I even took a picture of the weird toilet in my apartment because it didn’t have a “bowl” but was a shelf with a hole in it.
- Don’t eat every meal at a restaurant. Try food carts, grocery stores, walk-up food windows, etc. You’ll save money and vary your culinary and cultural experience while you’re there. Don’t land somewhere and find the nearest McDonald's, either. Seriously people, if you wanted American fast food/coffee/food, save yourself some money and stay in America. Counter point: it can be really interesting to experience the different tastes of a culture through the culinary adaptations that a place like McDonald's makes to fit in. When i was in Rome the food at McDonald's was actually FOOD. It tasted good. But in general you will find far better food and better experiences at a local food cart than an American chain. Plus, walking around speaking English and eating McDonalds just perpetuates American tourist stereotypes and makes you a target.
- Try not to dress loudly. If everyone wears scarves, buy a scarf. If no one wears ball caps, don’t wear yours. If you have a brand new suitcase/backpack for a trip it may be worth beating it up a little bit before you go somewhere – especially again as a woman traveling alone. It just makes you stand out less, and you appear to be a more experienced traveler and a less easy target.
- When you’re in the grocery store and you see something weird, try it. when you see crazy local candy try it. if you can’t decide what to buy, ask an older woman shopping in the store to help you. she’ll know what’s best!
Have fun and email your sister a lot!