Before I left for South America, the number one response I got when I told people my travel plans was “Wow, you’re so brave!” Although a good part of this is because I’m a young female travelling alone (an issue I will discuss in a later post), there were a number of other concerns my friends and family had that I’d like to share with you. Here, in no particular order, are what I consider to be the major topics of travel paranoia, my experiences with them, and any advice I have to offer. You should know that I don’t see myself as a particularly brave person, and I don’t think it takes bravery to travel. What is helpful is a healthy sense of caution, a pinch of common sense, a tough stomach and a relaxed attitude toward your health and hygiene.
1. Theft and Mugging
This is probably the number one fear people have when travelling. There is a valid reason for this: people do get mugged and petty crime is unfortunately fairly common, particularly in poorer countries. Almost every backpacker I’ve met in South America knows someone who has been robbed or has been robbed themselves. Most of this theft has taken place in big cities, during major events or on nights where alcohol or drugs have been involved. From all the stories I’ve heard, here are a few suggestions to increase the safety of your belongings and of your self.
- Arrive during daylight hours
Cities are riskier at night. You don’t know the streets and may accidentally wander into a bad neighbourhood. Darkness can shield someone in an alley with bad intentions and streets often have less bystanders than during the day. Sometimes even a casual group of drunk partygoers can be a threat. Do yourself a favour and arrive in daylight, especially if you’re travelling alone.
- Try to blend in
As I’ve mentioned before, backpacking is not the time for expensive or flashy jewelry, designer labels or fashionable clothes. On a night out with friends you can get away with looking a little more put together, but I’ve generally found that if you look like you have money, the odds of being mugged increase. Unfortunately, sometimes the colour of your skin or your hair is enough to bring trouble, no matter how casually you dress. The best advice I have is to be aware of your surroundings and try to only walk alone through neighbourhoods you know well. As my dad says, it’s better to be safe than sorry!
- Make use of hostel lockers
There’s no need to carry your passport, all your local currency, your cards, your phone and your camera around with you, especially on a night out. Just bring the essentials and lock the rest up at your hostel. If you do feel the need to carry a lot out with you, split it up. Have some cash in your purse or backpack, some in your shoe, maybe some in your bra, jacket pocket or down your pants in a money belt. I know people who have even had decoy wallets with just a little cash they can easily hand over. Definitely avoid putting your bag on the floor or the chair next to you while you’re distracted by someone or something else. If you don’t make it easy for a thief to take everything off you, chances are they won’t.
- Stay calm
Most people don’t want to hurt you or steal from you. Be cautious but open-minded; there’s no reason to panic whenever anyone talks to you on the street. Most of the time they’re just curious about you (or they’re trying to sell you something). To know a city, you should know its people. Go ahead and chat, that’s part of the experience!
2. Food and Water
Next to petty crime, this is probably the second biggest fear people have when they think about backpacking in non-Western countries. I take this concern rather less seriously than my physical safety. I like trying new foods and I generally have a pretty tough stomach. I buy bottled water in most countries at first, but if I meet other travellers who have been drinking tap water and suffered no ill side effects, I often do the same. I also ask the people working at hostels if the street food or tap water are safe and follow whatever advice they give. I never use bottled water to brush my teeth. Sometimes I may have an upset stomach for an evening, looser or less regular bowel movements, but most of the time I feel completely fine. Use your judgment – if street food looks, smells and tastes good, it probably is!
3. Health and Cleanliness
Getting sick abroad sucks, especially if you’re only travelling for a finite amount of time. I like to travel with a small first-aid kit. I bring a lot of band-aids and Polysporin because I often wind up with small scrapes and cuts. For drugs, I’ll pack Advil, Tylenol and Ginger Gravol for headaches, fevers and nausea respectively. Whatever you choose to bring in your first-aid kit will depend on you and whatever you find most effective for your body. No matter what you bring, it’s nice to know you have some products you can trust, particularly when all you want to do is curl up in bed.
Remember that hostel living means being exposed to a lot of different people all the time, which can increase your chances of catching someone else’s cold. Some hostels may have poorer sanitation than you’re used to, bed bugs and dirty linens. Play the worst case scenario game and think about what you would want if anything bad did happen to you. This kind of preparation can give you some comfort and peace of mind. Otherwise, unless you’re trekking in the jungle, you’ll be able to buy pretty much anything you need in most cities.
The other major transmitter of illness in South America is the mosquito. The primary source of panic at the moment is the Zika virus, although I haven’t met anyone on this trip who has or knows someone who has been infected. Mosquitos can also transmit dengue fever and other diseases. In my experience, bug spray has been less than effective. Even if you bathe in it, chances are you’ll get at least one bite from that one valiant, determined bug. If you’re really nervous about your health, the only recommendation I have is to avoid areas with a known infection. The Canadian government (and others I’m sure) publishes this kind of information online. If there are places you don’t want to miss, just do your best to avoid bites and try not to panic if you do get bitten (a friend of mine was recently in the rainforest and was bitten 25 times on just one foot. She’s a little itchy but otherwise fine). Consider packing an antihistamine so that if you do get bitten, you don’t feel the urge to scratch your skin off.
Everyone also freaks out about altitude sickness here. I’ve found that when walking up a hill in a high altitude area I’m definitely winded more easily, but I haven’t suffered from headaches, nausea and the like. I’ve only met four people who really suffered in the altitude. They took some pills, chewed coca leaves (yes, actual leaves. You take the stems out, make a ball of them in your mouth, combine them with this reactant and chew until your throat is numb) and felt better pretty quickly.
This one always makes me laugh. Travelling alone pretty much guarantees that you’re never lonely. One person can easily latch onto any size of group, there’s never too many of you to tag along and you have your pick of travel companions. I think there have only been two days in the past two months that I’ve felt some kind of loneliness, usually right after saying goodbye to someone I had a real connection with. In those moods it can be hard to get up and make yourself meet someone new. I try not to force it, to let myself be alone and write if I don’t feel like socializing, or to go out and explore a city. Otherwise, I meet people in dorm rooms, on buses or trains, at the bar, over breakfast, on walking tours…pretty much everything I do is an opportunity to make new friends.
Travel friends are also the greatest resource you have – they can recommend fun things they’ve done, cool cities they’ve visited or you could even follow them somewhere you never expected. When I came to South America, I knew I was flying into Santiago and flying out of Bogota. Everything I’ve done in between has been on someone else’s suggestion. Don’t worry about not having a plan, some of the best things happen when you’re flying by the seat of your pants with a gaggle of wonderful humans.
It’s true that there’s a lot that can go wrong when you travel. There are also a lot of things that can hurt or inconvenience you. But many of the same things can happen at home. If you’re crippled by fear you’ll miss out on a lot of opportunities to see the world and experience all the incredible sights and people around you. It isn’t bravery, it’s an insatiable curiosity about the world and need to experience as much of it as possible. Don’t be scared of living; remember, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!