The perils of solo travel, or, how to sexually harass someone without even trying

Here at Gadling we’ve talked a lot about the perils of solo travel, from how it can break up relationships to creating feelings of loneliness. On a recent trip to Antwerp I discovered a danger to solo travel I never thought of–people look upon you with suspicion.

I was dining alone in a popular Antwerp restaurant. The waiter had seated me so that I faced another table less than ten feet away. A middle-aged woman and her college-aged daughter sat there. The daughter was directly in front of me facing to my left, so if I looked straight ahead I was looking at her profile.

I didn’t give it any thought as I ordered. Sometime during my appetizer I noticed the daughter kept turning to look at me. At first it was just every few minutes, but by the time I got my main course she was giving me annoyed glances every thirty seconds or so.

Obviously she thought I was staring at her. I tried to look elsewhere. She kept looking over so often, though, that anytime I happened to look straight ahead, she’d “catch” me. I began to feel a bit guilty, like when I’m walking home at night and there’s a woman walking in the street ahead of me. I hate when that happens because I know I’m making the woman uncomfortable. What do you do? Speed up and pass her? Slow down? Both look suspicious and are only going to make her more nervous.

But we weren’t alone in a darkened street; we were in a busy restaurant and she was sitting right in front of me. What could I do, squash my face into my plate of venison?

She started whispering to her mother in French. They’d been talking normally before, but now their conversation changed into a angry, conspiratorial whisper.

At this point my guilt changed into annoyance. I mean, where else was I supposed to look? In fact, for the past half hour I’d been deliberately trying to avoid looking forward. That probably made me look even creepier because now both mother and daughter kept swiveling their heads to check on me.

The bill came and I paid. More whispering. Just as I stood up, both turned on me with snarly little faces, mother and daughter the same snarly little faces.

“Peeg,” snarled mother.

“Peeg,” snarled daughter.

I ignored them and walked off. I would have explained it was all a misunderstanding if they had looked open to that approach. My second reaction was to say, “Sorry to rain on your parade, kid, but my wife is twice your age and STILL better looking than you.” That wouldn’t have gone over too well either. Instead I said nothing, got my coat, and headed out into the night.

So guys, if you’re traveling alone be sure to bring a book to dinner, otherwise you may be mistaken for a male chauvinist “peeg”.

Photo courtesy Alex Castro and the London Anti-Street harassment Campaign.

“Taken” (the movie) and travel safety

Upon the suggestion of a family friend, my parents treated me to a $1 movie to see “Taken,” the new movie with Liam Neeson. My dad had told me his friend thought it would be relevant to my travels abroad, but after reading the synopsis, I kind of scoffed at the idea that the movie could have anything to do with me! After watching the movie, however, I can now see how it could in fact have to do with me, any solo female traveler, and travel safety in general.

The film’s plot is based on a real existing crime in Europe. In this case, an Albanian mafia group in Paris solicits information from female tourists, kidnaps them, gets them hooked on drugs, and then uses them in shady sex trade deals. Although this would appear to be a ridiculously convoluted storyline, the ease with which the mafia identifies and eventually captures these innocent girls is pretty easy to imagine. In the film, a man simply asks to share a cab into the city and then invites the girls to a party later that night. Suddenly, they’re taken.
Luckily, in the film, the father happens to be on the phone when his daughter is captured and also just happens to be a former spy. He single-handedly rescues his daughter from these dangerous and scary mafiosos. (Making matters worse, when he seeks the help from a former French spy, he discovers the mafia group is actually paying the government to keep its despicable operation running).

Unfortunately, not every girl can be so lucky. It was both funny and scary when, after the movie, my parents said to me, “Well, at least you know there’s no way we’ll be able to save you.” And it’s true. If I did find myself in that situation I would pretty much be at the mercy of the cruelty of my captors, which is not a very pleasant thought.

Females absolutely have to keep their wits about them more than men do — both at home and abroad. The first time I traveled to Colombia I was honestly scared of getting kidnapped. I was particularly wary of taking night buses. Fortunately, Colombia is a far safer place than people believe it to be, but it doesn’t mean that you can travel everywhere and anywhere to your heart’s content.

It’s a shady, shady world out there, so if you’re female and traveling alone, use really clear judgment:

  • NEVER get drunk or go to a party where you don’t know anyone (even if you’re going with another female travel companion).
  • Never hitchhike alone.
  • Always take a certified cab if you don’t feel safe walking back to your hotel at night.
  • Always do whatever is within your power/control to be safe even if it means staying in at night, taking a day bus, or not going somewhere altogether.