By Kimberly Kosta
I headed down to the lobby of the Hotel Unico in Bangkok wearing a bikini which I’d covered with a sarong, excited to be finally making use of their pool out back in the sticky Thai weather. It was February and I perpetually felt like I was wrapped in a hot, wet comforter when outside. The pool was modest but had one of those trees with the sweet-smelling tropical flowers that plop into the water as if to find relief from the heat like me. My dad would be joining me in a few minutes for some relaxation in the sun.
Suddenly a man (a large man) blocks my path and has his hand thrust out to shake mine. He is very forward and very friendly, and being taken by surprise in the safety of the hotel, I’m unprepared. So I indulge him by saying hi back and engaging in friendly chit-chat. It’s okay for a minute, but then I realize he’s not going to let me leave. I don’t remember the actual conversation itself except he started telling me I was pretty and sexy and yadda yadda (STILL BLOCKING MY WAY) and yadda yadda (WON’T ACCEPT MY TRYING TO END THE COVERSATION) and I’m starting to back up and he closes the distance I’ve just instinctively put between us, ignoring my now curt answers and nervous glances around the room (where is my Dad?) and yadda yadda. Many of you know how this goes.
Being courteous can be dangerous.
Fortunately, my dad showed up right as I was starting to calculate what it was I’d need to say to politely get out of there, because unfortunately, I can’t flip the bitch switch very well. What starts as polite must end polite at all costs. I don’t know why. They say during times of alarm a person has a few choices in fear responses: flight, fight, or freeze. I’m a combo of flight and freeze, opting for fight at random times and only if anger was triggered enough. This hardly happens if I’m caught unawares, though.
My Dad extricated me from the “conversation” and we moved on. The man didn’t follow.
Normally I’m more prepared. When I exit the hotel, I put myself on guard. I’m still polite but much more reserved. I’m READY TO BE RUDE. It’s not my natural default, you see. There’s less eye contact and less smiling. I walk with purpose. I sling my purse around my torso so drive-by thieves on scooters can’t steal it from me staying clear of the street. I leave the phone behind so I can pay attention to where I am, what’s going on and who’s around me. Lots of phones get snatched out of hands, too. It’s impossible to pay attention to both your phone and the people who are being very stealthy and wanting to steal it or your stuff.
As my dad and I went on our tour of the market he was being, shall we say, very Canadian. He was so friendly and so chatty with all the vendors, wanting to make a good impression and be the perfect diplomat. I never smiled until a transaction was ending and I’d actually made a purchase. I was never outwardly rude or impolite, but I didn’t engage anyone unnecessarily. I’d travelled there alone once and had a great time. I attribute some of that success to being a little more guarded in my body language.
At lunch we discussed it, but even after the incident in the lobby he didn’t quite understand what it was like to be vulnerable 24-7. He never has to think about it. In contrast, it’s all I think about. He was worried I wasn’t being polite enough, and I was worried he was being too polite. So I explained to him what it’s like to be seen as the “vulnerable sex.” Everybody wants to take advantage of whatever edge they can get, and being seen as weak and less intelligent gives the wrong kind of people instant confidence they can take what they want from you. How I’m regarded depends a lot on where I am. I might be taken as naive, taken as a bubble-head, taken as an easy-sale, taken as, well, easy. I tried to explain that it would be simple for someone to overpower me, to drug me, to exploit me. I don’t think it totally translated to my dad that being stand-offish was that helpful BUT IT IS.
In the West, in general, we have a certain level of safety we can expect as women. Not perfect, but we know our boundaries. Abroad we have to think of those boundaries differently. Travelling, and especially travelling alone, has been one of the most rewarding experiences in the world for me. I would never tell someone not to leave their home country because of fear. Travelling tests everyone. But I’ve learned some things from being out there as a woman that I’d like to share:
– Never look lost.
– NEVER put your bag down. I did that once. It didn’t end well. And I now figure I was being watched and followed because I looked like a lost tourist (I was) and I was also very tired.
– Be reserved in your demeanor. Be polite with wait staff but don’t be too bubbly with anyone else.
– Assert yourself when appropriate. Taxi drivers are a perfect example. If I insist on meter fare before I even get into the cab, I’m setting the tone that I have confidence to speak up for myself and I’ve generally had good experiences as a result.
– Separate your ID, cards and money. I mean, duh.
– Get comfortable saying “No”.
– Familiarize yourself with the country/area your visiting ahead of time to know what to expect (customs, expected garb, and basic dos and don’ts are a given) but even knowing simple things like taxi fares from Point A to Point B are good to know. Once you feel your confidence drop from being taken advantage of, it can show and you always want to look like you’re in control.
– A really well-travelled friend of mine once told me to know where the McDonald’s is/are (or some other popular franchise restaurant if there’s one around). There, you can find water, bathrooms, a phone, and information. It’s also well-lit, and they don’t care if you loiter while you sort yourself out.
– TRUST YOUR GUTS. I’m absolutely positive my husband and I were being stalked by a pair of thieves on a subway to the Seoul airport once, and although the conversation started really friendly with one of them, things didn’t add up. And it just felt wrong. We managed to awkwardly ditch him at the airport, but my alarm bells were going off.
– As a woman, you don’t owe anyone the time of day or a sweet smile. It’s hard if that’s your natural disposition, but people see it as a big ‘ol welcome mat into ripping you off/possibly assaulting you. I still struggle with this one.
– Check out other articles on safety for basics.
– By all means have a good time and enjoy the fascinating world we live in, but just accept that at some point a theft will happen, a taxi driver will rip you off, and someone will come on to you. You get heartier about the bad times as they happen to you, and you realize that you can overcome them. But as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!