Eat, Pray, Love and Be Cautious: Travel Tips from Roadworthy Women

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This is a guest post from Bruce Northam, in response to the opening of the much-anticipated film Eat Pray Love tomorrow, Aug. 13.

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The book Eat Pray Love issued no travel warnings; nor does the movie. However, somebody needs to remind women traveling alone that Halloween-night-style caution is always necessary.

I’m the only guy I know who read Eat Pray Love, Liz Gilbert’s wildly successful travelogue-cum-romance novel that’s been made into a movie starring Julia Roberts, portraying the lovesick and soul-searching editor who met her second husband in Bali. As an author and veteran travel writer—120 countries explored and chronicled—my immediate instinct was to write a male version/parody entitled Roam Drink Screw. My literary agent pitched that idea unsuccessfully and, a year later, an Irish comedian scored with his self-discovery lampoon of Gilbert’s new bible for solo women travel entitled Drink, Play, F@#k.

eat pray love

I forgot about the Eat Pray Love phenomenon until I heard about 23-year-old Aubrey Sacco (a close friend of my cousin) from Greeley, Colorado, who has been missing since April when she didn’t return from a solo trek in Nepal’s Himalayas. Sacco’s disappearance struck me like a lightning bolt and renewed my urge to warn women about some of the realities of eating, praying and loving alone in foreign lands.

Eat Pray Love is an entertaining read about a visit to three countries by an overburdened New Yorker who, I sense, prior to penning her travelogue, was the sort of vacationer who’d rarely strapped on a backpack, instead opting for forays more suited to luggage with wheels. What concerned me from the get-go is that becoming the new queen of women’s travel writing is a huge responsibility because, although we live in a world full of mostly decent people, the evil ones have a knack for targeting women roaming alone.

On behalf of my books, The Frugal Globetrotter, In Search of Adventure, and Globetrotter Dogma, I’ve “lectured” extensively about world travel on the campus circuit. Discussing travel topics like malaria, inoculations, robbery, rape, and kidnapping is serious business. My books celebrate the joy of traveling and forewarn about the dangers.

I always tip my cap to my two favorite hardcore female travel writers: Carla King, who has ridden motorcycles solo across Asia (China/India), Europe and America—several times, and Lisa Alpine, who in the midst of visiting 112 countries, hitched rides in canoes solo through the tributaries of the Amazon.

These are the sort of empowered solo travel experts I’d want advising my daughter about the realities of globetrotting. Their personal tips to women traveling solo conclude this shout-out.

When Gilbert’s cinema-ready narrative came out, my hunch was that it was going to inspire many women to pitch their troubles over the back fence and venture out to distant lands to reinvent their souls, and I’m all for that. However, women and men, unfortunately, still need to endure different rules while on the road. That said, many of the warnings attached to girls and boys trick-or-treating on Halloween follow us throughout our lives. Although not a guide, Eat Pray Love, once canonized, might have supplied prologue and epilogue warnings about the realities of roving alone—and when not to do it.

Eat Pray Love on the big screen could motivate an army of women into possibly unsafe situations. I don’t know if Aubrey Sacco read Eat Pray Love, but she’s still missing while her father, brother, the FBI and Nepalese authorities scour a remote region of northern Nepal. Her father has offered a reward to whomever finds her. Our hearts go out to her family.

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15 TIPS FOR WOMEN TRAVELING SOLO

CARLA KING’S TIPS:

*Use your intuition and never talk yourself out of acting on your feelings about it by convincing yourself to “work through your fear” because you’re just being paranoid. We are animals by nature and those hackles that rise up along the back of your neck are telling you something real.

*Slow down! When you’re in a hurry you’re distracted, you’re not attentive to your surroundings, and your intuition and instincts don’t have time to kick in. You are also likely to get careless, leaving things behind or misplacing items.

*People often ask me if I’m “packin’.” The answer is no, because I might rely on a weapon instead of my intuition. Buy a cable lock with a motion sensor to secure your belongings. I like the Targus Defcon with retractable cable and audio alarm because you can also hang it on your hotel room door or attach it to the zipper on your tent. The alarm will sound if it’s moved, and it’s really loud!

*For God’s sake, dress normally and not like a tourist just off the cruise ship. It’s not difficult to attire yourself neatly and respectfully with today’s wrinkle-free, quick-dry clothing. Learn and respect local customs. In some countries they could care less if you walk around topless, but showing your knees is verboten.

*Ask. People love helping others. They just don’t have enough opportunity to do it. Enlist the help of a shopkeeper, restaurateur, or the nearest old lady if a man is bugging you. They’ll give him hell, and that’ll be that.

LISA ALPINE’S TIPS:

*Before you go, learn at least some basic words in the native language. This will endear you to the locals—even if your communications are garbled and childlike—and can help you work your way out of a jam.

*Hire a local guide who isn’t just a tourist hound but someone who can show you the insider places and who people know and respect.

*Scan your passport, airline tickets, traveler’s checks, and other essential documents, and email them to yourself along with bank account and credit card account numbers. Also include international 800# contact information for all of the above and the local embassy contacts.

*Don’t pull out large wads of cash when shopping or paying for hotels or meals. And don’t reveal where your valuables are stashed on your body. Calculate what you will need for spending that day and only have that amount readily accessible.

*Be respectful, and hence, get respect by following cultural mores while traveling. Learn the appropriate cultural behavior for females in the regions you are traveling in. Cover your arms and hair. Don’t look men directly in the eyes. Speak in a soft voice. Use the local greeting ritual. Also learn what NOT to do.

BRUCE NORTHAM’S TIPS:

*Cops and bartenders know their terrain better than the local chamber of commerce – and they work nights. Cordially interview them when you roll into town. Inquire about the best meal deals, zones of peril, inviting accommodations, safe strolling, camping, worthwhile attractions, and colorful hangouts.

*One of your biggest allies on the road is the person who owns or manages the place where you’re staying. They’re likely not going anywhere anytime soon and should be consulted about valuables storage, shopping referrals and where not to go. As lodgers in an entertainment business where word travels fast, the last thing they want is mistreated guests.

*Most suggestions I pose for women traveling solo double for men. Whether it be hiking or bar-hopping, it makes sense to band with a group that’s already traveling together, at least until you understand the lay of the land.

*The first thing you pack is yourself. Then comes luggage—the less you lug, the less you’re a target for thieves.

*Buy clothing with secret pockets—check out SCOTTEVEST and EXOFFICIO. Or, have hidden pockets sewn into the interiors of your clothing (which can be very inexpensive to do in many countries).

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*Bruce Northam is a writer, travel panelist and the host of American Detour. Thanks for sharing your valuable tips, Bruce!

COMMENTS
  • August 12, 2010
    K

    As a woman who has traveled alone in the past, these are very good tips. My alone traveling was more of the road trip/plane trip within the US type, so I didn’t have to worry about learning foreign customs. The safety tips and tips about protecting your valuables however, apply no matter where you are. I hope all the women that are inspired by this book/movie do not take travel tips like these too lightly. All my solo trips were taken when I was a single gal…now that I’m engaged, my fiance wouldn’t let me do that in a million years. Not that I would want to anyways when I’f found my soul mate…I’ve got somebody to travel with now! 🙂

  • August 12, 2010

    Thank you for these tips!

    I always recommend that wallets are carried in front pockets instead of back, it’s a lot easier for a pick pocket to get at a back pocket unnoticed. If I am carrying a purse, I carry it tucked up high, zipped closed and my hand on it so I am aware of it at all times. I am always aware of people around me and keep my head up observing my surroundings.

  • August 12, 2010

    I love this. I had very similar thoughts when I saw the previews for this movie. I hope women will educate themselves if they do decide to travel alone. Thanks so much for all the tips!

  • August 12, 2010
    Kristin

    Bruce, since the book was released, it has always bothered me that it spawned a new group of female travelers, those who glorified the process and thought: “I’ll just book an open-ended plane ticket and see where the road takes me!” That’s a great philosophy, but only if one is adequately prepared and has covered all bases. I hope all solo women travelers will read your tips and take them to heart!

  • August 12, 2010

    Bruce, these are great tips and, Kristin, I am so glad you included this post. One of the problems with Eat, Pray, Love is it is not realistic AT ALL. We’ve been traveling for a year and unless you have a much larger budget than ours (and we have a pretty decent budget), you can’t live in nice apartments and eat out every night. You can’t take off to an exclusive ashram either.

    I always see people give warnings to solo female travelers but I think many of these warnings work well for a couple. We have met more couples who have been robbed (and one awful story happened at knifepoint) than single women. I don’t know if it’s because these couples let their guard down but traveling always, always requires caution. Most people wouldn’t think of leaving their door unlocked at home yet they leave their luggage unlocked when abroad.

    My piece of advice is to use your common sense and be careful about using alcohol or illegal substances. The more you drink, the more likely someone is to steal from you or otherwise take advantage of you.

  • August 12, 2010

    I may not see the movie, or read the book, yet have to agree with the suggestions. I found intuition works the best, plus Not put myself in unsafe situations. So far, no trouble solo traveling. Actually Mike worries more than I do when I’m alone. Maybe that will get him over his fear of flying. 😉

  • August 12, 2010

    Wonderful advice! Thanks for caring for your readers to post this.

  • August 12, 2010
    Alyce

    Terrific advice. Thanks for including it, Kristin.

    @Akila- a friend who worked in an embassy mentioned that couples are good targets for robbers because 2 people = 2x the money and because the man is less likely to be aggressive when his instinct is to protect the woman

  • August 12, 2010

    Of course I think it’s important to act/think smart while traveling, but I also think it’s a shame if you let fear stop you from experiencing some amazing things while on the road. Bad things can happen in your own home!

  • August 12, 2010

    As a female solo traveler (solo female traveler?) who has crossed most of Australia, Eastern & Southern Africa and the Middle East on her own, I’d say the only really valuable advice here that applies more to women than to men, is Carla King’s first tip. Trust your gut-feelings/intuition and don’t be afraid to say no and get out of situations/places that make you feel uncomfortable. You don’t have to be nice all the time, and you don’t have to please everybody. And it applies not only when traveling!

  • August 13, 2010

    Great advice! I’m glad you included this post in your blog.

  • February 17, 2011
    Ava

    I am sensing a kind of Hemingwayesque chauvinism between the lines, a statement of travel and adventure being the sole right of men.

    Going missing in the Himalayas does not depend on your sex. Sexual violence and the myth that women are always weaker and therefore easy targets are things women should always keep in mind when travelling alone but men travelling alone should not get too comfortable and fool themselves for being more safe. Especially since the “great male adventurers” of the world often share the experiences of having unprotected sex in the HIV infected areas of the world, questionable relationships in Thailand and getting hammered and disoriented in foreign cities after dark.

    I’ve travelled excessively and I’ve seen some interesting situations.

  • May 26, 2011

    My personal advice is: take an extra compact bag with you, something like this:
    http://shop.ilbisonte.com/uk/travel-bag-vagabonda-glossy-red_L0791XXTXXUXXT021X.html
    (check the picture 04)
    It has saved my life many many times. 🙂

    And if you want to know anything about Italy, just ask me.

    Ciao

    Barbara

  • November 1, 2015
    Kai

    Informative tips specially for woman travelling to nepal 🙂 Thank You

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