As backpacking women traveling alone, the issue of how to avoid crime abroad is a real one. We want to travel safely, have fantastic experiences, and not be hassled along the way
Most times, that's exactly how it will happen. Crime abroad is no more frequent - and often less so - than crime at home. In fact, outside large overpopulated cities, crime is rare indeed.
In a year of travel across Africa, I was a 'crime' victim twice: once when my pocket was picked and my glasses stolen (I bought them back at the market) and another when $30 disappeared from my backpack. Yet I was on my own, and theoretically vulnerable.
Getting mugged isn't as common as you think
It's relatively uncommon for women backpackers - or for any backpackers, for that matter - to be mugged, but there are plenty of dangerous places and they should be avoided.
Unfortunately though, however rare, muggings and violent crime do happen, and can have disastrous consequences. Remember Charles Sobhraj? A French citizen of Vietnamese and Indian origin, he and his Canadian girlfriend cut a swathe of crime across Asia in the 1970s, killing at least a dozen backpackers and stealing their papers and belongings. They did it by drugging their victims with fake medicine before killing them and hiding their bodies.
In many huge, poor cities, tourists are often targeted when they arrive at the airport or bus station. Just in case, make sure you get a name and a licence plate number if you happen to be staying in a hotel and they send someone to meet you.
I try to take reasonable precautions to avoid crime abroad, but muggings are rarely fatal, and much potential trouble can be averted. I have been known to carry a small container of mace in particularly difficult places, but I've never had to use it.
TIP: Don't ever accept any medicine or drugs from strangers. If you're ill, go to a pharmacy. You never know if something has been tampered with or is counterfeit!
Theft is a common crime, and far more frequent than mugging. Most theft occurs in hostels or hotels, so make sure you take sensible hotel room safety precautions.
Theft isn't limited to your room, however. An acquaintance was robbed right in front of me on a Barcelona subway not long ago. She had a bag with her, and a man jostled her and lifted her wallet. She was engrossed in conversation and none of us noticed until it was too late.
I also learned this lesson the hard way. In Beijing someone managed to open my day pack(while it was firmly on my back) and steal my wallet and brand-new three-week old passport (the embassy told me it was worth $20,000 on the black market!) I wasn't even alone - yet neither of us noticed.
TIP: In daytime, carry your travel money belt instead of a pack: you'll be less of a target.
The more expensive your gear looks, the more appealing to thieves, so try not to look as though you've got something worth stealing. Leave the bling behind. Unfortunately, in many poor countries, simply being a foreigner means you're rich.
The obvious way to avoid crime abroad is to stay out of harm's way whenever you can: don't get into cars with people you don't know, don't walk alone in unsafe neighborhoods, don't trek into the countryside by yourself, and don't go out alone at night. This may sound a bit drastic, but better safe than sorry. And please note the word alone - this isn't about sequestering yourself, but about using common sense when you travel.
Recently, in Costa Rica, a fit ex-boxer was mugged on a beach as he walked alone at midnight. Which goes to show - anyone can be vulnerable. Note - he was walking alone.
Women traveling solo know they may face particular challenges and that there's safety in numbers, but the vast majority of women on the road travel perfectly safely. It just helps to be forewarned.