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Dangerous Destinations and Women: Myth or Reality?

Author's trip to Panama.
Despite dire warnings, my trip to Panama by motorcycle was trouble-free.

With the very best of intentions--before I set out on a grand adventure--my friends, family and colleagues usually say to me… you could die… you might get tossed in jail… you’ll get into an accident. I can always see it in their eyes and feel it in their farewell hugs. I know what they’re really thinking is, “I’ll never see you again.”

My journeys are generally not terribly risky. I am not bungee jumping (a “sport” I have yet to try). I may be driving from New Jersey to Alaska, trekking around the Pacific Rim countries for a year, making my way around India for a month, or riding my motorcycle from Seattle to Panama.

While these were all solo trips, I would argue that none of them were particularly dangerous in and of themselves. “Really?” you might ask. Yes. To begin with, I was well prepared for each trip by researching my destination(s) and understanding exactly what I was getting into. Time spent probing up front had the added benefit of building my confidence when I subsequently discovered that taking these trips was not much more hazardous than staying in my own backyard. (OK, perhaps there was a little more danger in the motorcycle trip).

This brings me to how exactly one defines a dangerous trip and what this means for women. There are those journeys that are inherently more perilous because of the region; those that are perceived to be and therefore labeled as dangerous by loved-ones and, perhaps, our own government; and those that involve riskier activities.

There Are Dangerous Places

Yes, there are dangerous places in the world. I won’t deny that. War zones come to mind, as do destinations where severe political unrest threatens to destabilize the region and infrastructure. Sometimes a situation can change so quickly that one might be put at risk without any foreknowledge of impending issues.

Having said that, I have a friend, Betty, who travels to Afghanistan and Columbia yearly for volunteer work (she’s in her 80’s by the way). She always returns with her limbs (and sense of adventure) intact.

I recognize that this is an extreme example and am certainly not advocating travel to a region heavily occupied by the U.S. military, where no one is immune to the relatively frequent attacks of terrorist groups. But when I am asked (which is often) about which destinations are “safe” or “dangerous” for women travelers, I refuse to answer because what may be safe for one woman may be a far stretch for another. Circumstances, ethnicity, travel experience, and confidence should all factor in to one’s decision. And ultimately, only the individual can know the right answer.

For me (or anyone) to judge what is right/wrong or safe/dangerous for another is completely inappropriate. After all, if Betty can continue to hop on that flight to Kabul to nurse abandoned orphans, I think the rest of us can pretty much do anything, don’t you think?

Perceived Danger

There are destinations that we are merely led to believe are dangerous. Take Bali. After the bombings in Denpasar in 2002, the area was put on the U.S. Department of State’s Travel Warning list, urging Americans to avoid the region. Interestingly enough, the U.S. government recommended we all travel to New York City after the September 11th attacks. In both cases, we were fed information in order to change our perceptions of both destinations: Bali is dangerous and New York City is not.

While government-issued travel warnings should not be completely dismissed, it is important to conduct your own due diligence amongst the travel community to determine how serious a warning may be and how safe your destination really is.

Forums and blogs are regularly updated with personalized information and opinions that address current topics from individuals living in these “dangerous” places. More often than not, simple precautions can be followed in order to thwart the most common issues: petty thievery, unwanted advances from men, and being ripped off by unscrupulous retailers, taxi drivers, or money changers.

Living Dangerously

It may not be your destination that adds the element of adventure but your choice of activities (e.g. bungee jumping), mode of transportation (a bus careening through the Nepalese mountains), or perhaps what you eat. In Vietnam, I was once honorifically served some fish organ which remains unknown to me. Holding down my gag reflex was difficult but made for a memorable meal!

Adventure writer Kira Salak was the first person to paddle 600 miles down Mali’s Niger River to Timbuktu. She was also the first woman to traverse Papua New Guinea. Kira chose destinations that are not exactly considered “safe” and she also added in some very unusual elements (kayaking and bushwhacking, respectively), but has lived to tell that and many other stories.

You, too, might like to live a little on the edge. But that edge is going to be different for everyone. As a college student, my edge was taking a semester off from school and driving around the U.S. for three months. Now I’m trekking mountains in Bhutan.

Our challenges change over time and, hopefully, we become more, not less, adventurous.  During one of my recent women’s travel workshops, a 75-year-old participant, Sue, shared with me her desire to stretch her travel wings. After exploring the Pacific Northwest and getting used to hostelling, she is looking forward to her first trip abroad. Where will her desire for travel overseas lead? The British Isles? Vietnam? South Korea? To her these destinations will be a chance to live large.

We do not all have to be Bettys or Kiras. We can simply follow our passions, as Sue is soon to discover, no matter how small or grand.

This Woman’s World

There is a perception that danger awaits the woman traveler. We may appear to be meek and, therefore, easy prey. However, we actually have attributes that help us overcome these potential weaknesses.

I have interviewed more than 100 women for my books. A few of these intrepid females found themselves in uncomfortable positions with men—being pressed for a sexual encounter, for example. The consensus was that they “sensed” an issue before it happened but did not quite know how to extract themselves from the situation. In other words, they all knew something was amiss but did not have the confidence or forethought to remove themselves from the situation. (I might add that none of these women had been raped—the situation was just drawn out far longer than was comfortable for them.)

The overwhelming majority of women I interviewed tended to listen to their instincts, approached their travels cautiously, and never got into any trouble to begin with.

But whatever your adventure entails, it is nevertheless prudent to build up your level of confidence by taking a self-defense course and making practice runs (such as an overnight trip) before you take on a bigger journey.

You do not need to go climb Yosemite—just step out of your comfort zone, enjoy the tiniest bit of danger and you will feel that adrenaline rush. We all have it in us.

For additional information before your next journey, check these websites: 

U.S. Department of State Travel Warnings

travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_1764.html 

U.S. Department of State Travel Alerts

travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/pa/pa_1766.html 

Canadian Government Travel Reports and Warnings

www.voyage.gc.ca/countries_pays/menu-eng.asp 

Australian Government Travel Advisories

www.smartraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/Advice/ 

UK Travel Advice by Country

www.fco.gov.uk/en/travelling-and-living-overseas/travel-advice-by-country/  

Just as important as learning about your government’s travel advisories is learning from people who are traveling and/or living in the areas in which you plan to visit. Check out these forums where you can ask specific questions about your situation and, often, receive answers immediately. 

Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Travel Forum

www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/index.jspa 

Fodor’s Talk

www.fodors.com/community/ 

Rick Steves’ Grafitti Wall for Women

www.ricksteves.com/graffiti/graffiti4.html 

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