Travel Safe

31 October 2013

Before I left Australia I was told again and again to be safe. The look on my mum’s face when I waved goodbye at Tullamarine was not far from the expression she wore in a dream I once had—a dream in which I was being executed. It wasn’t just my parents either. My friends were almost pleading with me to be safe. It was like they were requesting I stay alive for their sake; like a friend asking you not to date someone you like because they like them too.

Before I left, I started to think about these things statistically. Girls are much more likely to be sexually assaulted than boys. I think boys are more likely to be robbed than girls, but these people were worried about the problems that couldn’t be fixed by cancelling my credit cards and replacing my wallet. I don’t think my friends and family were being sexist but, as I thought more and more about it, I doubt I would have been warned as adamantly if I was a man.

I know safety is important, but I can advocate several perks of being the lone, female traveller. Murderers, rapists, kidnappers and robbers exist, but they are a minority. Some people might hurt you, but most people won’t. Not only do the good people not hurt lone girls, they will go out of their way to help one.

During my travels, one airport employee let me skip the 40-metre line and took me through VIP security because apparently I looked just like her daughter. Another time, a male hostel employee arranged a private room for me, free of charge, after he saw me crying—granted this was probably done less out of sympathy and more to avoid the inevitable complaints of people sleeping in a room with me. Also, when couch-surfing, many women will only stay with other women—if you’re a legitimately kind and friendly man, too bad.

When people warn girls to be safe, they warn us to be safe from men. And it’s not just exclusive to rape: sorry boys, but when I envisage a kidnapper or murderer, I see a man. While travelling in America, all but one of the people I avoided for being potentially dangerous were men.

That being said, I made good friends with several older men while I was away. I went camping overnight in a national park in California with one of them. I can’t remember whose suggestion it was to go, but I knew I was safe with him. I also knew what I would think if I read a news article about a woman being raped and murdered after voluntarily following a much older man she had just met into the woods. I tried as hard as I could to push the thoughts to the back of my mind and be a friendly and engaged hiking partner. When the man dropped me home at the end of our weekend he pointed to the door of my accommodation. “Look, I got you home safe and I didn’t do anything weird!” he said. It’s not nice to feel vulnerable and scared, but it has to be tough being made to feel threatening, dangerous or creepy.

I arrived at a bus station late one night and a man offered me a lift to the airport in his taxi. He was an older man. His face was scarred from past acne. His hair, white and receding, was in sharp contrast to his eyebrows that were spindly and black. I could imagine him playing checkers with a grandson or holding wrinkled hands with a small old lady. I could also, just as easily, envisage him raping someone.

I’ve heard horrible stories of lone women in taxis, both overseas and in Melbourne. For a few moments my mind did some special effects, fading in and out of contrasting scenarios: the man sitting opposite a small boy as they play chess, the man smiles encouragingly and the child seriously considers his move, then the smile would be a sneer and the man’s hand would be on the boys knee and the child’s frown wouldn’t be one of concentration. I saw this man and an old lady walking together, an image that makes me feel calm and trusting, and then my mind notices that the woman is being clutched to his side and her blank expression isn’t one of contentment, but longing and absence. But there are even fewer female taxi drivers in Mexico than there are in western countries. Standing alone at the bus terminal in the middle of the night waiting was more risky than accepting his ride. I thought happy thoughts and got in the guy’s cab.

Roads through central Mexico are windy. Not elegant and graceful arcs, but ‘S’ shapes with frequent hairpin bends. This particular route to Tuxlo cut through a field with very tall grass, at least twice as tall as the car. Looking through the front windscreen, I could only see the next 50 -100 metres of road. Then it would bend and I would only see sheets of grass. It was ahead of us and thick on either side—it was like driving through a maze.

Any field is ominous at night, but this grass looked like it would be uninviting in the daylight too. It was dark, but I could sense it wasn’t apple-green or scattered with flowers. It looked more greyish, moss-green and dry. It wasn’t swaying daintily, but stood stiff. I envisaged, if you were to walk through it, the thick blades would feel dry and plastic-y and they would scratch you.

I thought of the cornfields in The Lovely Bones and of those in In Cold Blood. I imagined the bushes described in So Much Water, So Close to Home and Dead Man Walking. I thought of the Lantana plants in Lantana. Stories of rape and murder seem to be intrinsically linked to their wild settings.

Each time we took one of the sharp turns I took a breath in, like I might before plucking an eyebrow hair, preparing myself for the unknown that was around the corner. Each time, the unknown was just more road and grass and then eventually it was an airport.

There is a difference between staying safe and working yourself up over nothing, and I was doing the latter. I knew this at the time. Sitting in the back of the man’s car I asked myself: would I be less scared if the driver was a woman?


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