Let’s face it: bad shit happens. It can happen whether you’re in your hometown, or 3,000 miles away in a foreign country.
Before I went abroad for the first time, my dad’s reaction was priceless.
“Mae, I don’t feel comfortable with you going to Rome. Steve had his watch and wallet stolen on a street corner!”
“Dad, worse could happen to me walking across Millersville’s campus by myself.”
This is my typical response when people tell me that traveling is dangerous–horrible things happen in my own country all the time. Bombings, shootings, planes flown into buildings, other random acts of violence, etc.
And to be completely honest, walking around by myself at 3am in Rome that summer was less scary to me than walking around in Philadelphia alone at most times of the day. I may have been silly and naïve for doing it, but I survived.
The two most common occurrences I’ve encountered with regards to bad shit happening are sexual harassment and having things stolen.
Sexual harassment happens every single day in every single part of the world. No one is immune to it and sometimes it’s hard to even prevent it from happening.
When traveling, sexual harassment can be particularly alarming. You’re in a foreign country, unsure of the laws (or if the police are corrupt), unsure what your reaction should be, and likely unfamiliar with the language.
I’ve experienced this in a variety of places, but nowhere as horribly as I did in Rome. (And before you start jumping on me, my experiences haven’t tainted my love for Italy–it still remains the first place that ever truly stole my heart.)
The first incident I can recall was walking through Termini. I was minding my own business, checking out the shops in the station, making my way to my metro line. Without any warning, suddenly my left boob was in someone’s hand. And before I could even muster the courage to say “vaffanculo“, the man was on his way. I stood in the middle of the corridor, eyes wide, mouth agape, wondering what the hell just happened. And what was I to do? So I just sucked it up and walked on.
The second time was much worse, and by the time I finally made it home that night, I cried and cried, and wanted to catch the next plane home because I’d never felt so violated (and still haven’t, to this day). I was with friends one night and it was late, and I was ready to get home, but metros closed down at 9pm, legit cabs were on strike, and the only bus heading from Termini (where I was) to the Vatican (where my apartment was) was bus 64. My Italian roommates told me when I first arrived, “Do not take bus 64! It’s full of thieves.” But I felt I had no other option–it was about a 50-minute walk, and it was around midnight (maybe later?), and I was exhausted.
I walked to the platform to wait for the bus, and immediately felt uncomfortable, but I ignored my intuition (big mistake). When I finally got on the bus, there were only a few others so I thought it might be okay. I snagged a seat next the window and put my purse on my lap to allow the seat next to me to be open. A few minutes later, a guy probably not much older than I was got on and sat right next to me (ignoring the fact that there were about 10 open seats not next to anyone). He started to speak to me in Italian, asking me what I was doing in Rome. I tried to politely answer in my limited Italian. Then he got a bottle of wine out of a bag and asked me if I’d like to go home and drink it with him, to which I replied, “no grazie.” His reaction to my response was to then rub the bottle of wine on my bare thigh (I was wearing a skirt), as I tried to inch closer and closer to the window. At this point, the bus had filled up and I didn’t really have an escape route. So all I could do was push him away and say, “no grazie” repeatedly.
Long story short, this went on for the duration of the ride–him rubbing my thigh with a wine bottle, then touching my side-ass (you know, like side-boob), rinse, repeat. At one point, I remember a woman standing in front of me watching this, as I gave her a terror-filled look, and she looked on sympathetically. I skipped my stop for fear of him following me home, and thought I’d go to the last stop and hoof it to my apartment from there (assuming he’d get off before me). But then we got to the last stop, and he still hadn’t gotten off the bus. At the last stop, he did, and immediately got back on and sat right next to me again. Great.
Thankfully, he finally decided to be a gentleman(?) and leave me alone. The next day, my 4’11” Italian roommate, Maria, tried to console a 5’8″ me, by holding me and telling me it’d be okay. She and my other Italian roommates taught me a few things I could say to get people to leave me alone should I find myself in a similar situation.
So what did I learn from these situations?
First–always, always, always trust your intuition. I feel things pretty deeply sometimes, and against my better judgement, I sometimes ignore those feelings. Then awful things happen. Second–don’t try to be polite. Don’t smile. Don’t make eye contact. And if someone is harassing you, don’t politely tell them “no thanks.” Be firm. And if you have to, say something rude to them in their own language. Third–get out of a bad situation as quickly as possible.
Seven years later, I think back to that bus ride and what I wish I’d done. Tell him to fuck off, cause a scene, risk flashing people to crawl over seats to get away from him. Instead, I allowed it to happen and went home and cried about it. I will say that I’m incredibly grateful to the strong women I met that summer in Rome, who showed me that it was okay to have a voice and that I didn’t have to just sit there and take someone treating me that way.
Having Things Stolen
I think my ex-boyfriend had a sign “steal from me!” written on his back (and rear window). His car was broken into more times than I can count. In Austin.. one of the safest cities in the country. In fact, our former Mayor, Will Wynn, once said something to the effect of “Austin’s a safe city, so long as you’re good with your exes and your drug dealer.” My point being–things can be stolen even in the safest of places.
I have been lucky in that I’ve never had anything super valuable or necessary stolen (knock on wood). I had my iPhone stolen last summer in Paris, which royally sucked, especially as I’m always so careful about stuff. Michael of Go, See, Write fame was telling me in Toronto a few weeks ago that he had his phone, laptop, and iPod stolen in Costa Rica a few months back. And Kay of The Kay Days shared a story of her passport being stolen out of her backpack, and then chasing the guy down and stealing it right back from him.
The best way to prevent things being stolen?
First–be hyper-vigilant about it. Don’t carry things in your pockets, even if it’s just for a second so you can walk down a flight of stairs (my mistake). Also, separate your valuables–stash money and cards in separate pockets in your bags, leave some in a safe place back at your accommodation, etc. Second–always lock your things up when you leave your room, even if it’s just for a second. If you’re in a hostel, put them in a locker, or lock your bag to something in the room. If you’re in a hotel, put your things in a safe, or, as I sometimes do, lock them up in a suitcase. Third–as a man on the metro in Rome once told me, “mind your bag.” If you’re on public transportation or in a busy area, always make sure your bag is in front of you so you can keep an eye on it. If you’re walking on the street, make sure your bag isn’t on the side that faces the road, because it can be easily snatched off by someone on a bike.
Being scared of bad things happening shouldn’t keep you from traveling. You can try to minimize the bad by being aware of your surroundings and taking precautions. Always trust your intuition, and if you’re feeling uncomfortable, leave the situation immediately.