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Traveling alone, some unusual tips on staying safe

I have been traveling alone in Central America for almost 2 months now, spending most of my time in Guatemala. Before arriving here, I had read all of the government website advisories and horrible stories. I was quite scared to fly here. In the first few weeks of my trip, I did everything I was supposed to, like stay out of the big cities, avoid chicken buses, and avoid traveling alone at night.

Well, after a few weeks I have now been in Guatemala City three times, often wander around by myself and riding the chicken bus is one of my favorite things to do. Where else can you see someone try to sell a bottle of pills that is believed to cure everything from acne to STDs and then watch as two clowns hop on the bus and spend the next 10 minutes making fun of the gringo!

I do not advocate any of these things necessarily (as chicken buses are known for highway crashes and armed robberies, etc), but I wanted to share WHY I have felt safe doing some of these things that I was originally quite uncomfortable with. It is simple really. It comes down to 4 things.

I made friends. I stayed in one spot. I speak a little Spanish. I carry a small pack. I bite the bullet and spend a little extra money where needed.

The single thing that has keep me the safest and feeling the safest is that I have made many friends here. Friends who grew up here, and friends who are studying or working in Guatemala. When things go wrong, I have someone I can call. But more importantly they help me know where to go, and where to avoid. My gut instinct has led me to these people, but I have also met a lot of them by going to events where I am most likely to meet them (for example I am a poet so I go to local poetry readings), Spanish schools ran by ex-pats, etc. When ever I meet someone who has lived here for a while, and who speaks English, I take the opportunity to ask for recommendations. Now, I donĀ“t mean asking the guy who runs the hotel where he recommends to eat (because he is just as likely to recommend the joint his brother runs and cares little about your safety) but I mean when I am lying on the massage table of a Texan massage therapist who has called Guatemala home for 10 years, I ask him which bars he recommends, and where it is saf(er) to walk around and where I should avoid. For the most part I have been greeted by many wonderful people who genuinely want me to enjoy their country. They are proud of their country and are embarrassed when I am having a shitty time at the hands of people who are trying to rip me off.

Making casual friends who are just staying at the same hostel as me for the night has also gone beyond casual friendship out here. When I checked into Selgra Negra a few days ago, I was only there long enough to meet two people who worked at the hotel and one girl who was renting the cabin next to mine. I spoke with all three of them for maybe 10 minutes each, but those three people spent the next two days bringing me food and water and knocking on my door to see if I was okay after I got a bout of food poisoning or whatever it was.

Never underestimate the power of casual friendships on the road. People you meet for 2 minutes can be the same people who will loan you 20 bucks when the freaking ATM machine does not work at a border crossing and you are getting sweaty and nervous that you are going to be stuck there if you can not come up with the stupid entrance fee requirement needed to get you across the Honduras border. Other travelers are awesome in these sticky moments because they have been there. Of course this also means that I needed to be the kind of person, or rather, the kind of traveler that others wanted to help. I was friendly. I asked lots of questions. I smiled a lot and was curious about everyone I met. I might not have made as many friends if I had the attitude of traveling through a country to party and get drunk.

Traveling alone as a single woman was something I was hesitant to do because I thought it would put me at greater risk of robbery. But I think it has given me many advantages because I am constantly meeting men, usually my fathers age, that genuinely want to help me out. I didn{t expect this, but it has been one of the most rewarding parts of traveling alone. I have met many men in their 50s and 60s who want to help me find a good lock for my door, who want to give me their email address in case something shitty happens, who want to walk me home in the rain in the dark after my bus shows up in a new town two hours later than it was supposed to. There aren't many of us girls traveling alone in Central America for some reason. And I find that by being one, it draws protective people to me. I like and appreciate this greatly.

The other thing that has been really helpful is that I tend to stay in one city for a while, sometimes even a week. This has many advantages. The first few days I can take it easy, and try to get myself home by dark. But after a few days I have much more knowledge about where I can actually walk around at night by myself and not typically encounter crappy things. I have also adopted a rather odd system of going out at night. Which involves testing my limits. The first night I might just wander down the road and see what that looks and feels like at night. If it feels good, and I can remember how to get home by myself then the next time I might wander a little further. And when all else fails, and I end up in some sketchy neighborhood because I got myself lost, I know the number of a taxi I can call that I already have programed into my pay as you go cell phone. Love my cell phone. Also, I know the address of my hotel or hostel by heart. Staying in one city for a while also means that I get to know the locals better and have the luxury of changing hostels if the first one just does not feel right. Once in Monterico I switched hotels three times. This was less about safety and more about desiring to meet cool, interesting people. Hotel number three was the magic place. The other two were just isolated and crammed full of vacationing couples.

Taking two weeks of Spanish was one of the best things I have done on this trip. I might not be able to communicate to the waitress that I want my half eaten, expensive curry chicken wrapped up to take home with me (I thought I was going to cry when they threw it away) in Spanish, but I can tell a Spanish nurse what is wrong with my body and when it started. My Spanish is not perfect, and I probably sound like Tarzan speaking Spanglish, but when it really really matters, I can communicate what is wrong and what I need. My Spanish has helped me out more than I ever imagined it could.

People are often shocked when they see my backpack. I carry a 35 liter bag, that expands to 45 liters if needed. I haven't ever needed to expand it. Before I packed it I took a look at onebag.com for suggestions of what to bring with me. I never once wished I had more stuff. If anything, I considered mailing my jacket home. I love my small bag because its small enough that I can always keep it near me so that I can keep an eye on it. I can keep it on my lap in a taxi or toss it overhead on a chicken bus. Its also so light that if I needed to, I can run with it. And I like to think that if someone had to choose between robbing my small bag (that looks similar to luggage a local might be carrying) and the over stuffed massive backpacker bag that I see so many travelers carrying, they'd rifle through the one that looks like it could actually house something worth stealing, like a camera or a laptop.

The final point is about money and I know that this is a sensitive subject for a lot of people, but....when having to chose between spending $1 on a 5 hour chicken bus between two of the most violent cities in Honduras and 30 dollars on a first class, air conditioned, secure bus I decide that my safety is worth 100s times more than any money I will ever save on the former. I get the hostel to send over a taxi to the bus station to pick me up, and I lock those taxi doors. Sure, this is all considerably more expensive than public transportation, but I am just not taking any risks in Honduras. The money I would have saved on public transportation won't mean shit if my chicken bus gets robbed. So I spend the extra 30 or 40 bus on a few luxury buses and taxis and don't sweat the extra money. This is how I prefer to travel.

Of course, I also did all of the other things that many other travelers (and yes, even the government advisories) suggest, such as not wearing any jewelry or my camera around my neck, only carrying a sum of money on me that I am willing to loose, have different money sources in my money belt in case my debit card gets lost or stolen (such as travelers cheques and a credit card), asking the hotel staff to mark off on my map the areas I should avoid, requesting a hotel room that can not be accessed by the street, carried the cell phone number of a reputable taxi driver that my hotel suggested - and most importantly, I stayed sober unless I was with friends who were planning on sharing a taxi home with me.

My way of being safe might not work for others, but it has worked for me, for the last two months now.

And then there is intuition....but more on this later.

Posted by SeekingSpanish 20:27

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I love your story! People are really good inside but don't trust too much!

Safety is the most important than money! Always make sure your safe rather than the amount of money you can save.


by rjane

All very good advice. I am in my 50s. Well-meaning people worry about my traveling on my own, but I tell them I am more likely to die of heart disease sitting around at home!

by Clio12

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