Staying Safe While Traveling

Photo by Serge van Neck on Unsplash

Safety is the biggest “issue” with nomading, especially for women, the LGBTQ+ community and POC. And by “issue” I mean that it’s the topic that everyone in your life will worry about. I’m not saying that safety isn’t #1 or that there won’t be issues, but this is something I will address now and, repeatedly along my adventures.

Not long ago, after work something a little unsettling happened, which is what prompted me to write this. I was leaving work and going to the dumpster in the parking lot to throw away a lot of trash. I work in healthcare so getting rid of trash in a timely manner is important. Items could be infected with Covid or several other bloodborne pathogens. I went to the dumpster as usual, but this time there was a homeless man on top of it screaming. Leaping up and down on top of the massive dumpster, a litany of obscenities flowed freely. My nervous system jumped to high alert. I threw all the trash into my car, bounded inside, and locked the door. I drove away and called the police to make a report. But I still had to go back to work in order to lock up. When I pulled back around and parked illegally out of his line of site, he was still raging and screaming. I was shaking and scared. This man appeared to be on drugs or/and mentally unhinged. I waited, watching, and after a while he lay on the ground. I ran back inside my office to lock it up and by the time I left, he was gone. The dumpster lid was broken, and there were massive holes torn in the two recycling bins. Imagine what he could have done to a human body with that rage.

Still shaking, I drove home. In the shower I thought about the times I’ve been faced with violence from strangers.

Feeling unsafe, as a woman, is the norm. I took a wonderful Alison Armstrong class called “Understanding Women” in which each woman brought their significant other. The teacher asked us all, “how many women here have felt unsafe, like your life was truly in danger in the past month?” Everyone raised their hands. She said, “men, please look around the room.” They did. Then the teacher said, “how many women have felt unsafe in the past week?” Everyone raised their hands. The men looked around. “How many have felt unsafe in the last 24 hours?” Everyone raised their hands. The men looked around. “How many felt unsafe this morning?” Everyone raised their hands. The men looked around and my boyfriend at the time turned to me and asked, “is this true?” I assured him it was. He was shocked. As a female both bio and identified, this is the world we live in. We are always on guard because we have to be. It’s not right or wrong, good or bad, it’s just a fact. We have to be hypervigilant and hyper aware all the time.

I’ve been in a lot of scary situations. I grew up in a house of domestic violence (perpetrated solely on me) and I was married to a violent abuser for twenty years. As an abuse survivor, when I’m faced with life-threatening situations I usually go into survival mode and process later.

In the tiny town I live in, as in most towns across the planet, there are many homeless people. Many of them are drug users and some are violent. When I owned a brick and mortar health clinic on the main street, they robbed my clinic multiple times. My patients, staff, and I were all threatened on many occasions. Several times, homeless people hid in my establishment and refused to leave. It got so bad that the police suggested I carry a gun. But in each of these situations and many others, I didn’t confront anyone directly. I went somewhere safe and called the police.

The times I was close to being physically hurt by a stranger were the times I stood up for myself, or for someone else.

The scariest moment I’ve faced from a stranger happened when I was living the Haight/Ashbury in San Francisco in the 90’s.

It was nighttime. I was with my husband and five close friends. We stopped at a liquor store and were all standing around outside smoking (back when I smoked). I had just completed a very thorough self defense training. An enormous man approached and verbally harassed me. My (now ex) husband and the five friends were about a foot away. I puffed out my chest and said, “I’m not afraid of you.” And the gigantic man leaned down, directly in my face and whispered, “well you should be. I can make you disappear right now and your friends…” he waved toward them (they all ignored the interaction and none came to my aid) will never see you again or have any idea what happened to you.” I stood with my mouth gaping open as he paused for a moment to watch his threat sink in before turning on his heels and walking away.

I count that scary man as doing me a huge favor now. He taught me that I can’t count on anyone else to have my back, especially another “big, strong” man. I’m not saying that no one will ever stand up for me (or you) but it’s not something I can (or should) count on. I also should have learned that I need to keep my big mouth SHUT!

Except, I didn’t. Twenty years later, in 2018, I was in Venice, Italy and a homeless man was harassing a group of my female friends. They kept ignoring him and he grew increasingly aggressive, raising his voice and moving closer. Wanting to help, without being asked to, I said, “basta, basta.” This means “stop” in Italian and is what an Italian friend told me to yell in such situations. But the man got very close to me and screamed obscenities in my face. Putrid breath and spittle leapt forth in a frothy spray. He became increasingly agitated and angry, large fists clenched tightly at his sides. It absolutely terrified me. But my group of friends, whom I had so chivalrously tried to defend, did not come to my defense. Not a single one of them. Au contraire. They all backed away and turned their backs to the altercation, as if they didn’t know me.

After the man stalked away, I stood trembling with adrenaline and fear. One woman in our group approached me and said, “you don’t need to stick up for me, I can stick up for myself.” But she didn’t stick up for herself or any of us, no one came to my defense. No one thanked me for trying to help, and no one even asked if I was okay. People don’t want to get involved, even if it is the right thing to do. Maybe they’re afraid to. Maybe they believe my bravado. Maybe it’s because there’s a serious lack of empathy in the American culture right now. Another hard but important lesson learned.

I’m not writing any of this to illicit a “poor me” response. I take full responsibility for my bad choices!

Finally, there was the Spring of 2019 in Leipzig, Germany. I was walking back to my airbnb from an appointment and it was a two-hour walk. I love walking for hours each day when I travel. It was a national holiday, so the streets were packed. I had my phone in my hand, looking at the directions/google map periodically. At some point, I noticed a large, distinct looking man following me. I spent close to an hour trying to evade him. I stopped walking and let him pass me, but he always ended up behind me again. I ducked into restaurants for up to twenty minutes at a time, but he waited just out of sight until I exited and continued to follow me. Finally, I ducked into a fast-food restaurant, waiting for another fifteen minutes until he finally walked by. Then I ran out and ducked down a side street as fast as I could. I zigzagged left and right, down streets until I found myself completely alone, which wasn’t good either. It was hot, and I was tired and scared. I kept walking, still zigzagging away from the main street where he’d been following me and toward my airbnb. Several blocks later, I spotted a police officer. I told him what happened, and he said if the man wasn’t visible there was nothing he could do. I asked for an escort back to my airbnb but the cop refused. I asked for him to please call me a cab as I didn’t speak German. He refused. I stood beside him and changed my appearance as much as I could. I had on a brightly colored top so I threw a sweater over it, even though I was already sweating. I had on a skirt and leggings, so I stepped out of the skirt. I wasn’t wearing a hat, so I dug one out of my daypack and threw it over my head. Then I went on my way, trying to be as observant as I could and walking/running all the way back to safety.

The take away: Most importantly, walk away from dangerous situations if you can. If you can’t, call the police if possible. Ignore crazy people and get away from them quickly. Try to deescalate all possible violent situations and call the police. If someone else is being verbally abused near you, you can call the authorities or keep an eye open for violence and ask someone else to help them. If you’re being followed, do your best to escape into an establishment or a crowd or change your appearance. Try not to stick out. This doesn’t mean you can be you. It means don’t flash your expensive smart phone or smart watch, wear expensive looking jewelry, carry an expensive camera around your neck, etc. Wear a single earbud in one ear and listen to GPS directions instead of holding your smart phone in front of you like a “rob me” beacon.

Now if I saw someone else who needed help, would I just turn my back on them? No, I would not. It’s not in my nature. I only hope that doesn’t get me in trouble someday! How other people can just ignore someone in need, someone who is hurt or hurting, I will never understand. Nor do I want to, because I don’t want to be that kind of person, but in their defense — I have to believe they thought I could handle the situations on my own. Perhaps I should have cried out, “help me, please.” Sometimes I wonder if that would have changed anything.

Caveat: I believe it’s important to talk about my experiences so that others know you can’t always count on someone else. I’m not saying that any of these people or even the cop (who didn’t come to my defense) are bad people. The “friends” made their choices based on their experiences and even now, I don’t blame or “hate” them. Would I want to travel the world with them, definitely not, but I need to look at each of these incidents as a learning experience so I can make better decisions in the future. The cop just taught me I can’t always count on the police for help. But I interviewed a woman for my podcast a few weeks ago who asked a police officer for help in another country and they helped her. She was being followed, and they escorted her back to her airbnb, so it never hurts to ask.

Please, remain aware, learn from my experiences and others you hear about. Be vigilant and observant, but do not live in fear.

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