Feeling Safe Series: How You Walk Through the World

You’re walking down a street in Barcelona – in the dream, you blend in, you’re part of the parade, you’re at ease.  But how do you join the scenery and not look like what you most likely are, a tourist or at least a visitor?

In an earlier post, we talked about feeling safe and confident. Security boosts your confidence and helps you do all that you hope to do in a strange city.  There are also practical tips that fellow travelers can offer that do boost your safety.  Part of being and feeling safe is not sending out the signals that you are out of place, unsure of yourself, distracted or inattentive.

Barcelona comes to mind because The Rambles is the most recent place where I didn’t feel safe and I wanted to go back to the hotel. I was sure the area was prone to pickpockets and I felt like a target. Luckily, I had been warned (and by savvy travelers who never overreact!)  I had taken precautions and I was fine but I didn’t like the feeling! You can do simple things to take care.  I asked some friends who travel often to share their best ideas.

How You Look

Posture. How do you walk through the world?  Looking both in control and aware makes you a less obvious target.  My good friend, Beth, has terrific posture. She says, “whenever I am in a situation where I feel vulnerable, I straighten my spine, throw back my shoulders, and channel my inner force field.”  Confidence, strength and focus make a difference.

Blending in.  Look around when you arrive in a city. How do people dress? How do they carry their belongings?  Are there ways you can easily change your appearance to blend in?

What You Carry.  If you can, no maps, no backpacks. You might stop for coffee and get your bearings with your map at a table but not in front of your face on the street.  I have come to love using the map app on my phone but I don’t walk along staring at my phone. Look up and around you. Get the route and put the phone away.

Attentiveness.  You don’t want to stroll the streets staring at the phone. Don’t you dare wear earbuds.

What You Do

Ask for help smartly.  Lisa Ball of Lisa Ball Travel Design in Kansas City is beyond savvy.  She says, “Know who to ask for help. If you’re lost in a city, go inside a reputable hotel. Hotels always have maps and usually a nice person who will give directions.”

Remember the little things. Look for small things you can do. In Paris, so many residents use metro passes and I find the smaller station’s ticket machines sometimes out of order.  I buy more than a single ticket and kept an extra or two. Keep a little easily accessible cash in your pocket for the small things. Carry a card or brochure from your hotel in case your pronunciation is as bad as mine.

Care for your financial security.  Another friend, Cliff, once asked why I was stressed about packing.  “All you need, really,” he said, “is your passport and credit card.” To some degree, he’s right.  Here are things I do to secure those:

  • Take your debit card and at least two credit cards. Check them for damage. Really. You may forget that your debit card has a little crack until it gets remarkably worse…in Istanbul. Call your card companies and make sure they know your travel dates and destinations so you won’t be surprised by fraud alerts.
  • Don’t carry all your cards and cash with you. I leave a card and cash locked in my suitcase or in the room safe when I am out and about.
  • Copy or photograph the front and back of your cards and stash them somewhere separate just in case you need to cancel a card.
  • Recently, I signed up for Venmo. If something goes wrong, a quick way for friends or family to send you cash would be good.
  • Also, scan and email a copy of your passport to yourself as well as tucking a print copy in your luggage.

Have quick and easy access to your travel information.  I still go old school and print outIMG_0241 my spreadsheet (yes, it is true) with my confirmation numbers, prepayments, train and plane information.  I also email this to myself so I can retrieve it digitally.

Travel light.  A woman in heels with too many bags doesn’t just look like a target, she is. If you are traveling alone, travel light and smart.  Once settled in, I never carry a normal purse when I’m alone. Use a small bag under your jacket or good cross-body back that you can slide to the front.

My friend, Susan, travels solo in a different way for her work. She does a lot of driving between small towns in the U.S., often leaving her hotel before dawn.  This advice is just wise whether you are in the next state or across the globe:

  1. I wear my work uniform–a white lab coat–when I walk around. I know most people don’t have this prop, but it gives me an air of someone of importance.
  2. I ALWAYS have my keys in hand (hotel room, car) when I exit the hotel or vehicle.
  3. I keep a large tote in my car so that I can consolidate the items I am carrying in and out of hotels (my purse, food, drink, etc.) so I’m not fumbling with a lot of separate bags.
  4. I park as close to the entrance as I can. I often am working at 4 am and I’m supposed to park in the outer parking areas, but I don’t. I always park very close and then move my car after daylight.

There is great advice online from women who travel including choosing your room, safety inside hotels, and taking transportation. Just being aware and doing some reading can give you both greater safety and greater confidence.

What I Learned

  • Make it personal.  We are all different so what causes you stress? Make a list of your top three and then construct clear plans to address your list.
  • If you feel insecure and are flustered, stop.  Find a restaurant, hotel, or good shop, and stop and recollect. You are more vulnerable when you are off balance.
  • Pick your home base with care.  I know that on my list is having zone of space in a city where I do feel at ease, can take a late walk, feel like I can travel without armor.  I will pay more for a small single in a hotel or inn with good staff in a great neighborhood for this — and make up the cost in some picnic dinners and less shopping.

 

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Travel Training Wheels: Getting Started

It was 2000. A new millennium. We’d survived Y2K – it was time for grand gestures.

By now I’d traveled alone for work – to Europe, to Africa and to Kansas City. (Don’t scoff – at that time, there was no ladies’ room after you passed through security in KC…not an easy destination.)

Traveling for business is different. You may be alone but …you are cloaked in purpose.  “Traveling alone?”  “No…I’m here on business.”  Some people are good at combining business and personal travel, but not me. I’ve always been doggedly on point.  I find it hard to immerse myself in a new place as a traveler when my regular business life begins again at 9 a.m.

So back to 2000, here we were in the new millennium. I’d worked through my post grad school bucket list and stopped short. What was a secret wish or dream?  In the end, it was a destination spa. Somehow, early in my childhood, I’d seen a 1940’s movie about women in a spa – the steam rooms, the pool, the exercise machines, the camaraderie, cucumber slices everywhere and I just had to know what that was like.

I started where I always start – books. Lots and lots of books on picking a spa, treatments, 100_0283resort vs. destination, beach vs. desert locales, spa cuisine.  It hit me that a great destination spa was like summer camp for adults. They even had a packing list for grown-up guests that included sunscreen, a hat and field glasses! (Should I stitch name tags into my yoga pants?)

Even today, I can remember exactly how I felt when I rolled my over-packed bag to the top of the escalator in the Tucson airport and saw the Miraval rep at the bottom of that escalator with my name on a card waiting to whisk me away in the van, the van with the bottled water, the premium tote bag, and the personalized activity folder.

For a first solo trip, a spa or retreat center or camp is ideal. A cast of thousands (ok, maybe 35) were there sincerely hoping I had a good time;  other women there had traveled alone too and were open to good conversation at the solo table at dinner.  After a day or so, a number of us gathered for drinks most nights. The spa offered more classes and activities than I could ever take in. There was so much to learn and try and this supportive but anonymous setting was the perfect place to attempt something new (but not for me the ropes course. Ever.)

The best part though was that quiet time, meditation, and long walks alone were not just acceptable they were recommended. Women taking personal solo retreats was practically a theme

A spa trip was a very easy entry into traveling on my own.  It did give me a glimpse of the absolute freedom of stepping off a plane into a new experience without the baggage any one else’s expectations, my home identity or responsibility for another’s experience. The benefit of that trip began at arrival and lasted a lifetime.

What I Learned

1. Start with a trip that has a lot of help built in.

2. Choose a trip with purpose – total relaxation, learning, accomplishing something.

3. Try progressing through new experiences – an organized experience like a yoga retreat, then a single city adventure, a resort, or if it’s your style, get your travel legs in an easy destination and then train hop across the map!

4. Leave your baggage behind.

And most importantly, start where it makes sense for you. The most freeing thing about a trip on your own is that it belongs entirely to you – your tastes, your list, your speed, and your mode of transportation.  Sleep late or hit the early morning market. Travel by train or walk a new city.  Spend everyday in a different museum and nights in the theatre or hike your stress away. It’s yours.

 

the compound interest of love

Friends – you must read this. Anyone who loves to travel will love the journey one kind act made and the tremendous results of that trip!

pull up a chair

the arithmetic of love cannot be plotted, nor graphed. nor queued in a line. it explodes, scattershot. sometimes it leaks — drip, drip, drip. sometimes, like a mountain rivulet running hard against rock, it carves its own escape route.

at its most glorious, love multiplies with compound interest.

the email began: “Praying it forward haha.” it went on to explain:

Praying it forward haha – I gave a copy of the book to Lisa because I admire her so much as a Mother, friend, caregiver, person.  After meeting her for lunch and giving her the book she shared that she was looking for work she could do at home – we were looking for someone to do our social media and not so surprisingly she had recently received a degree in that!  Of course we hired her.  She prayed it forward by giving 10 of her friends the book and…

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Feeling Safe – a short series

When women talk about traveling alone, safety almost always comes up, but are we really talking about physical danger? For me, it is less about the real probability of harm and more about  feeling safe.  It’s always smart to consider the practical things we can all do to be and feel secure when we travel.

Preparing to post this blog, I asked friends about their strategies for travelling alone – for work, vacation, close to home and far afield.  Over the next weeks, I’ll share short blogs with practical advice and stories from my brilliant friends.  Let’s start with why feeling safe can change your travels.

When I feel safe, I try new things – I walk alone at night or take the subway to an out of the way stop or come back late from a day trip. When I feel safe, I push the boundaries and experience more.

Once on a trip to France, I was given the email and phone number of a recent graduate doing an internship in Paris. One of the unexpected benefits of dinner with this savvy short-term native was the conversation we had about women and safety in Paris.  She was a great adviser for where to feel safe and where to be careful. I was surprised – in my city, the farther from the city center, the safer I felt. In Paris, she told me it was the opposite. She would feel no concern walking through the area I was staying after dark and into the wee hours.  Her own train stop, far out in the suburbs, however she felt could be a little dicey…after midnight at least!

That conversation allowed me to enjoy what became a favorite pastime on the trip – each night, before turning in, I wandered through the dark streets behind Notre Dame, emerging on the square in front of the cathedral. That spring, it was full of dancers, artists, fire twirlers (really) and tourists like me. I would have felt, without a travel companion, that I couldn’t do that so late if I hadn’t had good advice from someone I trusted.

So, I have found that I need some basic reassurance to make me brave.  Here are my six favorite tips.

  1. I try to dress like the natives, standing out as little as possible from the women I see on the sidewalk. No white sneakers, usually no white for that matter, usually darker colors – it’s fun and I don’t feel as obvious. I have, of course, never managed to look French.
  2. Travel with cash and card in a safe pocket. If I’m not entirely sure of myself, I’ll leave the bag, the camera and all my “stuff” in my room, tuck money and a credit card in my pocket and take off.
  3. Using public transportation, keep a back up ticket.  If  you are not using a pass that gives you several days of bus or subway travel, you may be buying tickets at the station. In Paris, I noticed that in small stations, the ticket machines were very occasionally (not often) out of order. Most locals seemed to have a monthly pass so they weren’t worried but I was. I started keeping one spare ticket in my pocket just in case.
  4. Walk with others. Sometimes you may end up on a street you aren’t sure of or you’reS just out a little later than you planned.  Look for a group of women or couples and tag along. I’ve gone a block or two out of my way just to stay near a group when I felt uncertain.
  5. Go with the flow.  If you are lost – and I am lost at least once a day – stop and look around before you start making guesses.  In many cities, before you get too off track, you can stand on a corner or in the middle of a square and watch the foot traffic for a minute. What’s happening – where is everyone going? Usually, the majority of folks are travelling toward major streets, subway stations, train stations or entertainment areas.  If you stop, look and then follow the crowd, you may not get home but you will get somewhere recognizable and busy.
  6. Wait, where am I staying? Pronunciation isn’t always my strong suit and every cab driver isn’t a good interpreter. For the first couple of days in a new place, I stick a hotel matchbook in my pocket.  When I’m in a jam, I can show it to a cab driver, policeman, or subway attendant and point.

There’s a memorable story that made me pretty committed about this matchbook plan.  It was about a traveler in a group in Italy who showed up quite late to dinner, furious that she’d had trouble getting back to the hotel. The name of the hotel was long…the word she chose to remember was the one that, in Italian, was a word for “hotel.” Albergo.  She did not recall the important and defining part of the name that would tell her cabbie which one.

What I Learned

Trust your gut.  Travelling through a city or town, pay attention, real attention, to who is around you and how the scenery is changing. You will yourself be the best judge of what’s right.  You have much more intuition that you many realize.

Don’t take advice like mine, Aunt Sarah’s or what’s in the guide book from 1994 too much to heart.  Neighborhoods change, the economy improves or declines, feelings toward Americans wax and wane. Find a woman your age at the hotel or in a shop – one who doesn’t have anything to prove with hotel PR – and ask her advice. If it doesn’t feel right, ask another woman and compare responses.

Most importantly, don’t let fear keep you from something that is a main scene in your own big travel dream – like seeing the moon rise over the canals or the great view of the buildings of Parliament at night.  If nothing else, grab a cab at your hotel and arrange for a night drive or book a dinner cruise just to create a comfortable way to be where you want to be. Don’t miss anything.

Travel Mercies

We have the possibility of being free agents of fate,

the random representatives of hope in the world.

Travelling alone, I often rely on the kindness of strangers. They are the problem-solvers, the direction-givers, the staff who go out of their way.  I was reminded recently that when you are alone traveling through the world, you yourself have rare opportunities to turn the tables and pay real attention to those strangers around you.

Not long ago, on a plane to Kansas City, the young man sharing the row with me, slipped me a note and asked me to read it when I got off the plane.  (OK, this could be good or really bad. I haven’t been handed a note since 6th grade and that one was not at all encouraging.)

The note was very simple, written on a page of paper he’d borrowed from me in the air.  He said, “Thank you for the conversation. I needed that more than you can know.  I wish you and your family a happy holiday.”

I was no angel of the airways here. Actually, the reason I chose the seat doesn’t speak well of me.  It was going to be a fairly full flight on Southwest and I had some important reading to do en route.  As I went down the aisle, I spotted this really big, imposing young guy in the window seat of an otherwise empty row.  I’m thinking – this guy is NFL-size, really big, scary big.  So, with me on the aisle –  traveling with the laptop, the notes and the folders, I look like a fidgety, uptight nightmare of a seat mate – no one, unless forced, would choose the middle seat between us. (I was right.)

After takeoff, we talked a little and he told me that he was moving from his home in Kansas to another city, one he’d just visited. It was a required move for his employment.He was worried and had never lived away from his home and his family. I work with a church in that city and had heard some surprisingly encouraging things about it, even given its economic woes.  We talked  the climate of the area, the bright spots, the turn-arounds going on.  The conversation was light – no advice or deep thoughts but it was a good connection and it passed the time.

The spiritual practice I was reminded of is attentiveness. When we travel with our family and friends, we turn to each other. Sharing the experience is a big benefit of traveling together.  When we are alone, we are present in a different way. We have the possibility of being free agents of fate, the random representatives of hope in the world.

It brings to mind the quote from Macrina Wiederkehr, “Remind yourself often, ‘I am pure capacity for God; I can be more.’ ”

 

 

Solo Travel: Estimated Time of Arrival

 

In the weeks before, you lean forward into that moment when the trip begins. The moment when you will put one new shoe over the border and step into the adventure, when everything goes Technicolor around you, and you become The Traveler.

When is the exact moment when you cut the invisible cord and truly, irrevocably depart?

My dear friend drops me at the airport door as he has done many times. He dispenses blessings like a priest giving last rites and sends me on my way. Once through security, the detector arch like a door, I’m on the other side, in this new space. There is nothing but Me and a very compact roll-on bag that contains only what this anonymous “Me” will need to trek through the world without footprints.

One thing I like about travelling on my own is that I own my time. I know I will land at my connecting airport earlier than is really necessary. With airline club day pass in hand, I savor the hours with my maps and iPad.  I buy the last glass of wine on this shore…with bubbles. The journey has begun.

Air France knows what they are doing. There is something wonderful about the line to board the plane. How is it so civilized? I chat with a spare and chic older couple as we wait. We are blank slates to each other. We share stories and they ask who am I. (I’m not sure yet.) As we file in, we realize we are seat mates. We settle in and the flight attendant brings us an aperitif. (yes, an aperitif. In coach. Merci.) The entertainment system on the seat back has not just movies and TV but audio presentations of entire operas. I pick La Boheme just because. Oh, Air France. I’m happy for this cozy respite.

A weak sun greets us as we land in the early morning. We fly through customs. There is no waiting for luggage with my wheeled closet. I sail into… a mass of unhappy people trying to understand how to take the train into the center of Paris. North American credit cards don’t read in the ticket kiosks and the change machine is not working. And the ticket kiosk take cash but only exact change. One pauvre l’homme mans a solitary window for two hundred people.

Is this like child birth, the sweaty, grubby, peevish part of a trip that you always forget upon arriving home? Finally I’m on the RER train, surrounded not by urbane French citoyens but equally sweaty Canadian and British tourists who look too large and open-faced for their surroundings.

I did not give up on this RER train. One of its major stops is beside my hotel. The idea was genius two months ago in a world where my credit card and currency were at home. I prevail.  Once a ticket was in hand, it could not be more convenient. And cheap.

I roll my not-now-so-compact seeming bag out of the train.  My bag, my maps, my crumpled jacket and I ascend the mossy steps out of the station.

I am now The Traveller.  The mid-morning sun has burned off uncertainty as I rise out of the depths into the very heart of Paris.  Notre Dame is over my shoulder. Around me the British and Canadian counterparts have scattered through our previous stops and it’s…just…French… in my ears.

What I Learned

  • It’s great to get your local currency from the ATM at the airport, particularly if you have checked on the international fees.
  • With credit and debit cards at simple machines like train and metro ticket dispensers, however, unless you have a chip or in some cases a chip and pin credit card, you can be in trouble . (Stores, restaurants, or a staffed window at the train station, no problem.)
  • Safety flash – if you travel down the escalator into a sea of frustrated tourists, turn around.  Once I realized that we all needed cash AND the correct change, it was over.  No store or coffee shop facing this mob was going to pony up.  Backtracking, I bought coffee back near the customs area. Twice.  Change in hand, I dove back in and pretended to be from Barcelona.
  • Be nice, be helpful or be quiet as you stand in the boarding line. While solo travel brings anonymity, the plan is different. You may be spending eight hours in the company of the person next to you. They may have good chocolate or at least give you shared time on the armrest.

 

Listen

When good Americans die, they go to Paris.  Oscar Wilde

I’m standing on a quiet street in Paris. The square in front of Notre Dame is deserted. Early is different in some European cities than in Tennessee but 7:00 a.m on a Sunday is universally, undeniably early.

As I turn toward the bridge, I wonder if I’m going to be walking all the way to Rue Cler. Magically, out of the mist, a taxi emerges. Since it’s just three of us – the cab, my Rick Steves roller bag and me –  the situation is clear. I hop in.

Here is the truth. I am not a good listener. All my better qualities of determination, force of will, and focus create a flip-side deficit of patience and listening. When I travel on my own, there is an opportunity to try harder, start over and learn.

On my own, I need more – more clues, more information and more nuance. When someone who doesn’t share your native tongue says, “sure, it’s nice”…you have to listen with your intuition. Nice could mean “nice if you like tripe”, “nice if you like tourists, you’re sure to see someone you know” or “nice but if my brother-in-law didn’t own it, I’d tell you the truth.”

The taxi that Sunday morning was a surprise. There was a master plan. I flew into Paris, stayed in the Hotel Dieu, the ancient hospital adjacent to Notre Dame, and was up early. The spreadsheet said to start the day by going straight to the hotel where I would stay on my return to Paris, drop the luggage, and take off for Mont St Michel with nothing but a shoulder bag, 2 croissants, and a sense of adventure.

At the beginning of this plan, the hotel was supposed to call a cab for me. No big deal. Except that a jet lagged, laser-focused American couldn’t get the French college student to make the call. “It’s not going to come” he says. “No one will come. Just go outside”. (Read that again with a French accent, imagine he’s still looking at his iPhone, and you’re me.) You fill in the rest.

This is not a critical story but it was a flash point for me on the first day of my trip. The kid was exactly right. There was no traffic, but the one cab out and about found me.

This moment made me think for the rest of that trip  – what does it mean to hear to what someone is trying to tell me?  Generally, I find most people I run into when I travel do try sincerely to help. I find this a singular marvel. My job is to take a breath, look carefully and listen intently. It’s my job to at least start from a place of belief and gratitude that doesn’t lead with my own plan.

That may be at the heart of becoming a citizen of the world.