Wednesday, May 4, 2011

It Sounds Like Someplace I'd Like to Go

Before I began my female solo backpacking travels, I tried to look up some tips on what to expect.  (It's a scary world for a young lady traveling alone in a strange place!). I wanted to find some previous female travelers who had traveled alone and who had some good advice.  My search was widely unsuccessful.  Perhaps females are less likely to travel alone, but I hope to see more embracing this in the future -- it really helps you grow and it's just an awesome experience.  Of the 14 (soon to be 15) countries I visited this trip, only two of them were with other people.  And I managed to stay safe the entire time besides a near-robbery in Amsterdam.  So I would like to offer the tips I've collected these past 8 months. 

1.  Stay in mixed dorms.
Say what?  Yes, I really do mean this one.  Why?  I have several reasons!  Firstly, girls tend to travel in groups, whereas boys tend to travel alone.  If you stay in a mixed dorm, you'll have a higher chance of making a single-serving friend who will accompany you for a while.  And to be wholly honest, nothing bad happens between fellow travelers.  It's some sort of mutual dependence and acknowledgment of loneliness and fear, and it's a beautiful relationship, I assure you.

2.  Don't sleep on trains.
This also seems like an odd tip, as it is quite efficient to travel and sleep at the same time; it leaves you more time in a city to "see the sights".  But this really can be dangerous!  You can sleep through your stop.  Or you could awaken to find your bag stolen.  Least likely, but most frighteningly, you could be harmed in any number of ways.  Just don't risk it.  Besides, hostels are fantastic.

3.  Be careful with alcohol.
This seems like a simple rule, but I also really want to encourage you to enjoy the nightlife of a city (cities are so different between the day and the night -- you really need to experience both!).  So simply seek a balance.  If you find yourself entirely alone, limit your alcohol intake to one or two.  If you are with a single-serving friend, however, you can let loose a little bit.  Understand that this takes a bit of mutual trust and it can be scary to put your faith in others, but I enjoyed Berlin and Bratislava so much simply because I was able to let loose and dance with some amazing guys I had met in each city.  I trusted them 100%, and in both cases everything was perfectly fine.  That all being said, I caution you to nonetheless know your limits and stick to them.  Mutual trust and understanding or not, no traveler wants to drag you back to your hostel if you're getting sick or you're unconscious.  It ruins the night for everyone.

4.  Don't put all your money in your wallet.
Some people feel it's a good idea to carry only one wallet to which you will cling with your dear life.  I, however, feel the opposite.  I carry a small burlap sac and in there I place the majority of my cash.  It sits in the bottom of my big backpack.  In my handbag I only carry a wallet with a few bills (usually what I have planned to spend that day).  Why?  If someone took either bag, I would be upset.  However, this way, I have enough in case of either bag being stolen. 

5. Look tough.
I know this can be difficult if you don't look tough naturally.  I am lucky to be relatively tall (except in the Netherlands!) and relatively... stocky...  I manage to look relatively threatening if need be.  If you are short, thin and blonde, this may be difficult.   But try your best, especially if you feel threatened.  Put on your "walking face", set a quick and assured pace and make everyone believe you have been traveling solo since birth. 

6.  Learn English.
Admittedly, since I am writing in English, I can assume this one is already mastered.  But I really do believe that mastering English is more important than learning pieces of the language in each country through which you might pass.  It's really tough to learn 15 (or more) languages, and you likely won't succeed.  So instead, learn what you can for some countries, (I've found French, German and Spanish to be the three most helpful) and then embrace the use of English in the rest.  It really is the traveler's language right now.  If you happen to have the gift for learning languages, try to pick up 'please', 'thanks', and 'hello' in every place you visit; you'll make the world a little brighter. 

7.  Write it down.
7(a): get a journal and use it daily.  Contrary to popular belief, you actually will forget a lot of this experience.
7(b): write down your addresses, train station names, hostel names... anything to which you may need directions should be written down.  This way, you can show it to people instead of trying to pronounce it with an assuredly horrific accent.

8. Don't take cabs.
I adored Central-Eastern Europe.  But my greeting to Budapest was terrible: a 48 cab ride that lasted less than 5 minutes.  (This was exceptional.  After wandering for a few hours I realized I wasn't going to find my hostel.  I tried to question the man's abuse, but he refused to cede, and I walked away knowing full-well this would cost me a meal or two down the road).  Financially they are a poor choice, and sometimes they give you a terrible prejudice of the city.  Just don't take a cab. 

9.  Embrace the corners.
Need to snap a picture?  Step into a corner.  Need to look at the map?  Back into a corner.  Need to tie your shoe?  Lean into the corner.  Waiting for someone?  Worried about theft?  Feeling tired?  It's impolite to take up the whole sidewalk, and it's safer to have your back against a wall than out in the open, especially if your attention is focused elsewhere. 

10.  Be able to run.
Here we arrive at the worst-case scenarios.  In Amsterdam, I had to chase a thief through the whole of Centraal Station to rescue my wallet, computer power cord and camera.  I am not a big runner, but having frequented the Parc Monceau just prior to that trip, my fitness level was able to hold out just longer than his.  Chasing thieves, running away from creepy people, or even trying to get a train before it pulls away... you will be glad for even the slightest hint of training beforehand.

Happy adventuring, ladies!  I hope to see more of you out and about on the road when I head up to the United Kingdom!


kylie said...

Great suggestions, bella! Especially for single women travelers. We did a free series of 100 tourist tips and it would have been great to add yours. :)

Kelsey said...

I appreciated reading this since, as you mentioned, there doesn't really seem to be an online essence of solo female travellers lingering about, and some of these things I've found to be true in my travels also. It's something I find myself often wrestling about. Should I take the chance to travel somewhere and miss out on the chance of a lifetime? Maybe it's from watching too many movies, or biographies on forced prostitution and the like, but sometimes I psych myself out a little too much I think!

Erica said...

Thanks ladies.
Kelsey : I really recommend the experience! Movies can definitely make the world seem horrible (I watched Taken right before I got on the plane to Paris... bad idea haha), and yeah, the world can be horrible at times, but there is so much beauty, too!

emiglia said...

Please excuse the creepy stalking (found your blog via Facebook), but I had to comment and say that I loved this entry, especially the bit about separating your money. I know too many people who have misplaced the money belt they thought was foolproof. The same thing goes for having multiple copies of your passport in different places.

Thanks for a little distraction in between bursts of mémoire work...

- Emily