Intense National Geographic Series, ‘Locked Up Abroad,’ Documents Inept Travelers

muleLast week’s arrest of diaper-wearing cocaine smugglers at JFK proved more laughable than horrifying to those not directly involved. Drug busts are in the media so often, we rarely pay attention to them. They’re certainly not something I care about.

Yet, I’ve recently become obsessed with a National Geographic show called “Locked Up Abroad.” I don’t recall hearing about this harrowing documentary series when it first aired in 2007, but it caught my eye about a month ago, during a late-night Netflix bender. It’s now in its sixth season on the National Geographic Channel.

Each episode profiles one or two subjects, most of whom have been imprisoned in developing nations. While a few episodes detail hostage and other kidnapping situations (Warning: if you’re at all easily disturbed, please don’t watch … nightmares are almost guaranteed), most involve drug smuggling gone awry.

As a die-hard adventure traveler, I find “Locked Up Abroad” absorbing (that’s not an intentional diaper pun) because it’s a real-life dramatization of my worst fears. As a solo female wanderer, I can’t help but worry sometimes about kidnapping or becoming an inadvertent drug mule, no matter how self-aware I try to be. Many of the episodes on “Locked Up Abroad,” however, involve people with the intellect of dead hamsters, and it’s hard to feel much in the way of empathy, given their greed and gullibility.Still, it’s hard to resist a good prison story, especially when it involves South America or Bangladesh, and pasty, bespectacled English blokes or naive teenage girls from small-town Texas. The psychology behind why these people take such enormous risks, and how they manage to survive in inhospitable and downright inhumane conditions is fascinating.

Perhaps I’ve just watched “Midnight Express,” “Brokedown Palace,” and “Return to Paradise” one too many times, but I’ve often wondered how I’d fare in such a situation, and I hope I never have to find out. But documentaries like “Locked Up Abroad” are more than just sensationalism. They’re a window into our desperate, greedy, grubby little souls, as well as testimony to the will to survive.

For some reason, YouTube and National Geographic Channel video links are disabled or broken, so if you want to check out some footage, click here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Svadilfari]

Where To Sleep During A Long-Haul Road Trip: Putting A Price On Your Safety

campingAs you may have gathered from my last few posts, I spent the second half of July and first week of August living out of my car during a relocation from Seattle to Boulder. En route, I had a family vacation on the Klamath River in Northern California, and business trips to the Bay Area and North Carolina, which is why I was in limbo.

I’ve road-tripped and relocated across the West many times, and love the time alone with my thoughts and enjoying the scenery. Now that I’m in my early 40s, however, I’ve become more wary about where I choose to spend the night. I’m still on a tight budget, but this increasing awareness is a direct result of life experience, and my obsession with TV shows like “Forensic Files.”

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, someone who is truly fearful wouldn’t travel or drive cross-country alone. They certainly wouldn’t elect to drive Nevada’s notorious Highway 50, aka “The Loneliest Road in America,” but that’s what I did last week (anything to avoid the mind-numbing hell that is Highway 80). Allegedly, less than 200 drivers a day pass on this route, so one needs to plan accordingly.

Highway 50 is mostly high desert landscape, broken up by a handful of historic mining towns like the curiously appealing Austin. Located seven hours east of the Bay Area, this is where I chose to spend the first night of the final leg of my journey, in the rustic but comfortable Cozy Mountain Motel.

Although I was desperate to save money (my room was $60, and of the three motels in town, it had the best reviews … I also use the term “town” loosely), I didn’t feel safe camping alone in such a desolate region. It’s a shame, because the nearby primitive Bob Scott Campground, in the sagebrush and Piñon pines of the Toiyabe National Forest, is a beauty. Yet, due to its isolation and handful of sites, it wasn’t the place for an exhausted, solo female to spend the night.arches national parkThe next day, I had a grueling ten hours on the road before I hit Green River, Utah. Green River isn’t the most savory place, but it’s a popular jumping-off point to Moab/Lake Powell/Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks.

I was so wiped out when I arrived that I chose the first campground I saw: a KOA, which is the type of place I usually go to great lengths to avoid. At that point, all I cared about was a shower and rest, and because it was a glorious, hot desert night, I planned to sleep under the stars. Expediency meant more to me than dealing with setting up a tent in a less generic campground.

I walked into the office and asked the very friendly girl behind the counter for a tent site. Upon driving to the location, I discovered several things that didn’t thrill me. It abutted a vacant lot separated only by some sparse vegetation. Next to the lot was a rundown Motel 6. To my right were a few unoccupied, dusty campsites and open highway. Um, no thank you.
jason
I scouted the mostly empty campground (which was primarily RV, and not tent, sites) and chose a location between two motorhomes, which was backed by a chain-link fence. Then I returned to the office and explained that I didn’t feel safe in my assigned site, and could I please have X or X location?

No problem. The receptionist said she understood, and proceeded to tell me a horrifying story about a recent encounter her mother had had in the town park with a drug-addled freak. She didn’t even charge me the higher RV rate.

An hour later, I was sprawled happily on my sleeping bag, reading, when the receptionist and her employer, a crotchety old man, whizzed up in a golf cart. She looked uncomfortable as he sniped at me for being in an “unauthorized site” because I was in a car. I was ordered to come to the office to rectify the situation immediately. Sigh.

Back behind the counter, the poor receptionist apologized profusely, and I shrugged it off, saying I’d rather pay more to ensure my safety. A manager was needed to get into the system and charge me accordingly, and when he showed up at the office, she explained the situation. He was clearly more interested in returning to his happy hour, so I was permitted to remain in my present location, free of extra charge.

Needless to say, I remained unmolested during the night, and although I was embarrassed by the musical campsites, the entire experience reinforced that it’s best to listen to your gut. Always insist upon putting your safety first.

[Photo credits: tent, Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography; Arches NP, Flickr user Fikret Onal; Jason, Flickr user Stinkie Pinkie]

Five things (most) women should pack when traveling to a foreign country

women's pack listI’m not one to whine about the hardships faced by solo female travelers. Sure, some things are frustrating, but in general, I much prefer to travel alone, and the more challenging the destination, the better. I don’t go out of my way to attract trouble or visit sketchy places, but I’ve had my share of close calls and situations that set off alarm bells.

For the most part, however, I’ve been treated with generosity and kindness while traveling alone, and had my most rewarding travel experiences. That said, there’s a few things most women should bring on trips to foreign lands, solo or no. Guys, you got it easy.

1. Appropriate attire
More than just practicality, wearing the right clothes is important from both a cultural/religious respect and personal safety standpoint. Showing too much skin or your hair is definitely not cool in much of the Middle East or Muslim world, and skimpy attire or sunbathing topless is just plain disrespectful, not to mention dangerous, in many countries.

Remember that we’re incredibly liberal here in the U.S. (too much, in my opinion) when it comes to public dress code…or lack thereof. Don’t make yourself a target for crime or unwanted solicitation. You don’t have to go all Victorian, but use good judgement.

2. Tampons
It may come as a shock, but to most of the world–including much of Europe–tampons are a foreign concept or a luxury/exorbitantly expensive. If you’ve ever tried to find tampons in Latin America, you know what I mean. Whether the reasons are cultural, religious, or geographical doesn’t matter. If you’re not down with wearing the equivalent of a diaper, BYOT.

[Photo credit: Flickr user fisserman]

Solo Travel Tips For Womenwomen's pack list3. Prescriptions for UTI’s, yeast infections, morning-after pill, etc.
There’s no better teacher than life. Let’s just say that enduring 14 hours of rutted highway on a janky Mexican bus while suffering a raging bladder infection is not an experience I care to repeat. These days, I travel with a full-on portable pharmacy, but at the very least, bring these basic Rx’s.

As for the morning-after pill, better safe than sorry. Don’t assume you can get an Rx filled overseas, so bring the actual dosage in its original packaging, and scan and email yourself copies of all prescriptions. And speaking of the morning after…

4. Condoms
You never know when you might need them, and purchasing them from a vending machine in a bar in a developing nation (not that this happened to me) because they’re not available elsewhere is just asking for trouble. Don’t trust foreign condoms–they’re not subjected to the same FDA testing and safety standards as American brands manufactured domestically. And please: if you’re having a foreign (or any other) fling, no glove, no love.
women's pack list
5. Hard and email copies of important documents and contact information
Email yourself, family members, and a close friend your itinerary, contact numbers (if applicable), emergency contact numbers (including bank and credit card companies), and copies of your passport and medical (and travel, if applicable) insurance card. If you’re going somewhere prone to natural disasters, civil unrest, or general sketchiness, it’s not a bad idea to register with the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).

Oh, and one more thing you should always bring with you:Common sense.
Don’t be lulled into complacency: always walk with a sense of purpose, and keep your wits about you. Same goes for partying: the only one responsible for your personal safety is you, so go easy on the beer or local libation. If you’re going to hook up, better to go back to your accommodation, and make sure an employee sees the two of you together or openly text a friend of your whereabouts and who you’re with. And please, don’t be tempted to use or buy illegal drugs: besides the stiff penalties for getting caught (life in a Thai prison or death isn’t a good way to end a holiday), you may also find yourself the unwitting victim of a set-up. Just say no.

[Photo credits: pills, Flickr user michaelll; luau, Laurel Miller]

No guidebook required: the joys of ditching an itinerary

Itineraries and guidebooks can be both a blessing and a curse, when it comes to travel. If you’re the free-spirited, adventurous sort, it sucks to lug a book around, but it’s a good idea-especially if you’re a woman-so you don’t have to leave accommodations to chance should you arrive late at night in a strange town.

I once ended up sleeping in a spider-infested trailer, after spontaneously arriving in a downpour in a Tuscan hill town devoid of rooms for rent. After politely declining the hostal owner’s offer of sharing a bed, I paid ten euros for the trailer, and spent a long, twitchy night imagining things (including the owner) crawling up my legs. Now, I book ahead if I think I may end up stranded.

If you’re a little on the Type-A side, or traveling with someone, a planned itinerary can be helpful, if not relationship-saving. But what happens when you decide to just wing it? Journalist Catherine Price, a contributor to O, the Oprah magazine, recently found out, on a four-day impulse trip to Tokyo. Price decided to let strangers plan every detail of the trip for her, starting with taking the suggestion of a random woman in a San Francisco book store to visit Tokyo. The resulting trip enabled former micro-manager Price to “experience the joy of letting go.” Read more about her fascinating experience.

[Via CNN]
[Photo credit: Flickr user Jaymis]

Foreign “safety vernacular” for women

There is, as they say, a time and place for everything. And sometimes, ladies, that occurs when you’re traveling. I encourage anyone who travels to a foreign country to learn a few key phrases and learn a bit about the place, in order to avoid cultural faux pas. Even something as innocuous as patting a child on the head in Thailand is considered a grievous offense, because the head is considered the the highest (and thus most sacred) part of the body.

It’s also bad form to lose your temper in Asia and other parts of the world, because it goes against cultural mores. But what to do when your safety is threatened, or if you’re being relentlessly hit upon?

It’s for this reason that I’ve developed what I like to call “safety vernacular” in a variety of languages. While I speak Spanish, I only know the aforementioned key phrases in other tongues: “please,” “thank you,” “what’s your name,” “where’s the bathroom?” But I also know how to swear like a banshee, and employ the varying degrees of “Get lost” that range from polite to, “If you don’t get out of my face now, you’re going to lose your testicles.”Now, you’re probably asking, “Is that really necessary?” Yes, it is. And it just may save your life.

What you say, and how you say it — as well as how you physically react — depends upon where you’re traveling. Sometimes it’s best to just ignore your harasser and move on. You don’t want to make a bad situation worse by responding aggressively in a country where women simply don’t act that way/where it could further encourage or antagonize your would-be attacker or paramour. And please, follow your guidebook’s advice on appropriate dress — not only will it help you blend in (inasmuch as that’s possible); it’s also a matter of cultural respect. Leave the Daisy Dukes at home, and pack a bra. While it doesn’t help in the vernacular department, a great book for cultural advice is Behave Yourself! The essential guide to international etiquette, by Michael Powell.

From chikan to “Eve-teasing”

Let’s take Tokyo’s Metro. It’s infamous for acts of chikan, or frotteurism, and foreigners aren’t exempt. Please note this doesn’t mean all Japanese men are evil perverts, or that riding the subway in Japan means you’re going to get felt up. But put it this way: it’s become such an issue that some railway companies in Japan designate women-only cars during peak hours.

Anyway. Japan is a country where it’s imperative not to “lose face.” Screaming at a frotteur and smacking him across the face, while perhaps the appropriate response, isn’t going to fly. Instead, find a guidebook that will tell you how best to deal with the situation, as well as provide you with a handy phrase to thwart it. “Eve-teasing” is a similar form of public harassment prevalent in India, as are open, leering stares. The best way to handle it is to ignore the stares, seek the company of other (local) women on public transit, or to call out your harasser in a crowd — public humiliation is very effective in India.

On how phrasebooks can help

It is for these situations that I swear by Lonely Planet Phrasebooks. They’re published in just about every language a traveler would require: Swahili to Southeast Asian hill tribe dialects; Basque to Mongolian. Not only do these little books offer cultural tidbits, but they’re packed with appropriate emergency phrases ranging from “Help!” “I’ve been raped,” and “How do I find the ____ embassy?” to sections on “Dating and Romance,” “Cultural Differences,” and “Specific Needs” travel. The various authors also have a great sense of (albeit dark) humor.

For example: the Spanish Phrasebook (Spain/Basque) offers these two gems: Por favor, deje de molestarme (Please stop hassling me), and Estoy aqui con mi esposo (I’m here with my husband). There are also phrases for “Do you have a condom?” and, “I might be in a wheelchair, but I’m not stupid!” See, very handy. The Portuguese Phrasebook also contains, in the “Making Love/Afterwards” section, “Would you like a cigarette?” and, “I think you should leave now.”

And some real-world examples…

But we’re talking safety here, and not the kind a condom can protect you from (although do take some with you; you really don’t want to be purchasing them in developing nations with less-regulated testing standards). In Italy and Latin America, the local women have no problem telling annoying men where to get off, and you should follow suit. I always make a point of saying I have a husband (it’s somewhat more effective than “boyfriend,” and I learned my lesson the one time I said I was a lesbian to a pesky Italian in a bar. “Aah!” he cried with delight, “Leccamento il fico! (“licking the fig”).”)

Anyhoo. I’ve found that said pesky Italians are best met with a loud, “Vaffanculo, stronzo (“Fu*k off, di*khead!)!” Once, in a dodgy situation in Mexico, I screamed, “Largate! O patear las bolas!” According to the Mexican friend who taught me all the bad (and safety) words I know en espanol, if said forcefully, this slang translates as, “Fu*k off! Or I’ll kick you in the balls!” Whatever; it worked. So did the use of “Get lost!” in Arabic to two sketchy boys who stalked me while I was lost in a Marrakesh souk.

So there you have it. Don’t go looking for trouble, but don’t invite trouble by looking (and acting) like a victim. A little pre-trip research, and keeping your wits about you on the road will go a long way toward ensuring you come home with nothing more than great memories and all of your valuables.