When Bad Shit Happens on your Travels

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.

listen kid, bad things happen

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

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.

doctor who wtf

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.

voldemort angry

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.

the more you know

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.

30 thoughts on “When Bad Shit Happens on your Travels

    • Exactly! Unfortunately, bad things happen everywhere in the world every single day. We just feel like we’re perhaps a bit more immune to it on our home turf.

  1. I once had a man outside the Napoli Terminal grab me by the hair and turn my face toward him. There’s no real way that telling him to vaffanculo would have helped me, and I removed his hand and walked on without a word.

    Worse things than even these can happen while travelling, and that’s just part of living in the world. I liked this article, and I’m happy that these are the only bad incidents that you have to tell stories from. Stay safe!

  2. I can’t imagine having these things happen to you. You offer good advice for future. I think until you’re a parent, and especially a father, it’s hard to be in his shoes to understand his hesitation. It’s tough for parents to let go. I’m father of a boy and I get that. If I ever have a daughter I can’t imagine how I’ll feel when she leaves home for say three months in Europe. And that fear comes from someone who will be pushing her out the door to travel.
    Lance recently posted..Discovering Indianapolis CultureMy Profile

    • Yeah, Lance, I’ll never be in your shoes or truly understand those feelings as a parent. I’m sure it’s frightening to think about your children being so far away and on their own, but I think it not only makes children stronger, but gives parents a newfound respect for their kids being able to handle things on their own. :)

  3. WHOA.

    I feel for you on your bus trip in Italy. Being in an unknown place and having that happen is scary. Worse off, it’s like, what happens if I do pop this guy in the face. Then what happens to me, the tourist.

    But the second or third time around, I would have had my foot so far up that dude’s nards, he would’ve wished he was a girl. Or at the very least, given him a good ol’ American f – off.
    nicole recently posted..We’re Nuts About These Travel AppsMy Profile

    • I know! I think about it a lot now, and how I’d handle it now in my late-20s versus when I was in my early-20s. I just didn’t have the guts I have today (most of which came from travel and from that experience!).

  4. Nice post, and I liked your Millersville analogy (did you go there? I found your blog awhile ago and enjoyed it but didnt’ realize you were a native PA resident…I live in Lancaster myself). I got hardcore mugged last summer in Belfast and while it was a scary (and expensive) ordeal I’d go back there in a heartbeat. A plus was actually getting to chat with some of the Belfast police officers about life over there.

    On another common note, I’m in the only person I know who ever got mugged abroad and I know several who’ve had it happen in Philly, it’s all relative.
    Pat recently posted..Hostelling in the USA (more specifically, in Pennsylvania)My Profile

    • Thanks! And yes–I went to Millersville. I grew up in York, went to school at MU and then moved to Texas. How long have you lived in Lancaster? (I’m actually heading back there next week for a visit!)

      And I’m sorry to hear about your experience in Belfast, but glad to hear it didn’t taint your entire experience there. What was stolen?

      Also, Philly is frightening. As much as I love it, I’ve seen the crime increase and the city just sort of go to hell over the past 10 years or so, and it scares me. I don’t know if part of it is that I live in Austin now, which feels incredibly safe, or if it’s actually really gotten that bad, but I don’t care to spend as much time there as I once did.

      • I’ve been in Lancaster four years come August. I initially hated it when I first moved down here but it grew on me. I’m actually working on a post right now about all the hiking (both in York and Lanc counties) along the Susquehanna, which is one of my favorite parts of the area.

        I was mugged about five minutes after leaving a post office where I had just exchanged $300 (or 400, I don’t remember) US dollars into pounds. I then had the brilliant idea to take a short cut down an alley while being engrossed on my phone the entire time…not my smartest move and it sucked that the money got taken but in the grand scheme of things, it could’ve been much worse (and they didn’t take my IPhone which I was holding, which still dumbfounds me). It was scary but I like to think it gave me some street cred.

        I actually really like Philly, but agree that you really have to watch where you are at what time when you’re there. I sadly think I have just as much a chance having something happening here in Lancaster, or in Scranton (where I grew up/went to college) and where does actually scare me is Harrisburg. The spike in crime up here (and coincidentally booming drug trade) is sad.
        Pat recently posted..Hostelling in the USA (more specifically, in Pennsylvania)My Profile

        • Why did you hate Lancaster initially? I think for that area of Pennsylvania it’s actually a pretty decent city.

          Sorry to hear about your mugging in Belfast–but at least they didn’t get more than that! And yeah, when my phone was stolen in Paris, my camera was out too and they didn’t even bother with that (which is about 4x as expensive as the phone!).

          Don’t get me wrong–I adore Philadelphia. It’s one of my favorite cities ever.. but it has gotten bad the past few years. And it’s sad what’s happening in Harrisburg as well. The economy has not been kind to that area.

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  6. I just discovered your blog. Nice! I’m traveling on a one year trip around the world starting in June. Your bus incident is pretty crummy. I will have to agree that Italy really has been my worst experience with sexual harassment as well. I visited my boyfriend in Milan a few years ago and had a few encounters, one was pretty repulsive and I won’t repeat it here. But come on Italian men, learn a little respect! It sucks because you want to be nice to everyone but you can’t. Otherwise it’s an invitation. I even had policemen leering at me and making comments even with my boyfriend next to me. Crazy!

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