I've often been terrified before traveling to foreign countries outside of the "safety" of Europe.
I planned a trip to Ecuador and worried for weeks before going. Someone told me about a woman he'd met in Brazil who'd been harassed in Ecuador. I read about pickpockets and thieves and how careful women had to be at night.
The same thing happened before going to Egypt. All I could think of was the massacre I'd remembered that had taken place there 15 years ago. As if the next one were planned for the very time, place and day I'd be at, say, the Valley of the Kings or the Pyramids at Giza 15 years later.
And people around me freaked out when I said I was going to Mexico last fall. They'd read too much about kidnappings and drug-related killings. As had I. Although in that case, I wasn't very concerned. Can't explain why.
But while staying with a family in Guadalajara, Mexico, taking the city bus to Spanish classes and sightseeing around the downtown, I have to say, I didn't see one person carted off by a drug cartel member or shoved into a car and driven off for a ransom call.
Life seemed pretty normal despite the horror stories in the paper. Which are mostly about the border states, in any case, not all of Mexico.
This kind of thinking is understandable (I've GOT to say that, don't I, since I engage in it sometimes) but also not particularly rational.I live in Washington, D.C. I watched the smoke from the 9/11 plane that crashed into the Pentagon rise into the sky as I made my way home that day. Terrorists had attacked within two miles of where I worked and within five miles of where I live.
Do I think Washington is now an unsafe place for people to visit? Absolutely not.
Yet when I read stories and tales of woe in Ecuador and Egypt, I assumed those were dangerous places all the time.
That's why I liked this story on solo female travel in Latin America. The writer says it's, "...very easy to
get paranoid about visiting certain countries and cities but this is
totally unwarranted." Some of these places in South America are safer and nicer than parts of Europe and North American, she points out.
I can vouch for that, if only anecdotally. The one and only place I was ever mugged was in a Boston train station in one of the nicest downtown neighborhoods. It was during my college days.
And I'm worried about going to South America? Should I be worried about going to Boston now that I was mugged? (For the record, I've been back to Boston many, many times since then with no problem at all. Surprise, surprise.)
There's a "pernicious mythology" that a solo female traveler is prone to all sorts of drama and trouble on the road, the writer continues. "Many people instantly exaggerate the perils and dwell on a single
woman's vulnerability. Often this doom-ridden response is just an
excuse for their own timidity of spirit."
Often I read safety tips for women that involve dressing modestly, not flashing expensive jewelry, being careful walking around at night. Well, guess what? These are good general safety tips for any place you're not familiar with. Just as it's important to learn the cultural cues regarding eye contact and hand motions and other signals you might not want to send mistakenly in foreign cultures.
But it doesn't mean you shouldn't go places.
I met an American family in Buenos Aires that had been ripped off by a two-person band of thieves. The wife was left with the bags while the husband and child went someplace to get snacks.
These guys must have been watching the family for a little while because when one guy walked up to her and distracted her with a question as he pointed to a map, and then left, she discovered the backpack she'd taken her eye off, the one with all the valuables, was gone. They knew just what to take.
No fuss, no muss, no guns, knives, pushing or shoving. Just clever thieves working a vulnerable family member. Yet no one tells families not to visit foreign countries. Somehow people think there's more safety in numbers. Maybe. Sometimes.
I just don't buy fear for safety as an excuse to write off a whole country (other than perhaps countries at war or where the U.S. State Department warns people to stay away).
Not if you've done your research and know what you're getting into. You can't rely on your friend's friend's story, or tales from, say, an aunt's coworker's husband, telling you a country is unsafe because they had a problem.
I understand the fears. I've got them myself regarding certain places.
But then I remember my two British friends who were afraid of visiting New York City. That's because everything they saw on the news involved policemen carrying guns and lots of people of color that they weren't used to seeing on the streets where they lived.
It made me want to laugh but it also made me crazy. Not visit New York out of fear for your safety? To me, it's patently ridiculous.
The same way, I suspect, an Egyptian or an Ecuadorian would feel about us calling their big cities dangerous. Yes, there are inherent dangers to city life and you have to practice street smarts in all of them. But write off a whole place? It's only you who loses.
Photos: Ellen Perlman
Pyramids at Giza, Egypt.
My Guadalajara family.