What To Do When Things Go Wrong

I wrote a piece a while ago about the risks of travel.  My point, mainly, was this:  Travel means taking risks, and travelers, in turn, should be prepared for things to go wrong.  Why?  Because, on the other hand, it is just so awesome when things go really, really right.

There is nothing you can do to guarantee your safety.  Should you get blackout drunk by yourself, and stumble alone down a dark street?  Best to not do that, whether abroad or home.  Should you loudly advertise where you are staying, wave a lot of money around, and talk about how new you are to town?  I wouldn’t do that either.  Successful traveling, like successful living, does require common sense.

But if you don’t venture a bit while exploring your new surroundings (i.e. getting in a cab by yourself, engaging with a stranger at a local pub, walking slightly off the beaten path of tourism), then you’re going to miss out on a lot of the wonders that make travel, travel.  And life, life.

Because of this, you will, at some point, probably find yourself in some kind of sticky situation.  Maybe it’s not as dramatic or life changing as mine.  Maybe it is.  Who knows.  But instead of telling you how to avoid that situation, I’d rather give you my advice on what to do to help yourself out of it.  Maybe, just maybe, a potentially bad situation won’t necessarily turn into a terrible one.

(If you’re looking for tips on solo safety while traveling, you can find a bunch of advice here.)

I fully acknowledge that every situation is different, and that these guidelines will by no means lead you to safety all the time.  I am just telling you what helped me–or, also, what I wish i would have known–when I found myself in one of those “oh my god is this really happening?” travel (and life) moments.

know your cultural norms.  Sure, this is just good basic travel advice, but even after two weeks in Jordan and classes designed to introduce me to the culture, I still didn’t fully understand that smiling, chatting, and making eye contact with my taxi driver was not the best idea.  I was so eager to participate in a new culture, so instilled with good midwestern values where you smile at everyone, and so worried about being impolite that I didn’t heed the advice I had been hearing about how to act as a (very) young, single woman. Until this point, it hadn’t mattered so much.  But when I found myself alone with a rapist…well, it couldn’t have helped the situation.  If there is ever a time to be impolite, it is when you feel uncomfortable.  Lesson learned.

know your surroundings.  Meaning, have some kind of mental map of the city you are visiting.  Had I known the layout of Amman as well as I did after living there a few more months, I would have realized much earlier that the cab driver was heading south, not north as he should have been, and that he didn’t plan to take me home at all.  I did realize this–but way too late to really be able to do much more than yell at him for a few seconds before things really got ugly.  Look at a map.  Know your landmarks.  Always be aware of where you’re going.  And then, if something happens and you realize you’re not going where you had hoped, make a fuss.  Yell.  Call someone on that cell phone you should always have on you.  (Which brings me to number three…)

have a working cell phone.  I know, I know.  Part of the draw of travel is to disconnect, to not worry about text messages and emails and Facebook and phone calls.  I get it.  I used to think that too.  Until there came a time when a cell phone probably helped save my life when I managed to get out one panicked phone call to one well connected person (before having it grabbed from my hand and being punched in the face).  And then, after all was said and done, I was demanding enough to have my phone returned to me. I got another call out, which helped police locate me, instead of wandering an empty street surrounded by desert alone.  Seriously.  Get a crappy travel cell phone.  Get a SIM card.  Program emergency only numbers if you want (i.e. the tourist police or the embassy of your home country).  Have a phone, keep it on you.

take a deep breath.  And then there may come a time (hopefully not) when a bad situation is just inevitable.  You’ll know when that time comes.  It’s the time when you feel really alone, and realize that no one in the world can help you out of this situation except yourself.  Here’s my biggest advice.  Right after the initial thought of “Is this really happening?”–take a deep breath.  Try to calm down and think clearly.  It’s not easy.  But what I really credit for saving my life on that terrible day is, in fact, me.  I’ll never forget that deep breath I took, and the split second I managed to convince myself that, no, this was not how it was going to end.  Not even close.  And then somehow made that cab driver understand that I was human, and that he needed to stop.  Luck was on my side that day, but my wits were also with me too.

have a support network who can remain calm when you probably won’t be.  So something bad has happened, and after it’s all over, you’re probably (rightly) freaking out a bit.  Even if you managed to get yourself out of the situation, the adrenaline will wear off, and–like me–you might turn into a sobbing mess.  This is when that cell phone comes in handy again.  Contact someone who will be able to remain calm, and help you take the necessary steps, like calling the police, reporting a crime, getting home safely, or receiving medical attention.  You may think that you could do this all on your own, but chances are good you’ll be quite shaken, and not thinking extremely clearly.  Despite knowing that reporting a crime is always the best thing to do, if it had been up to me after that taxi cab drove away, I would have gone home and curled up in a ball, instead of spending the next 12 hours in a doctor’s office, police station, and finally a hospital, thanks to the direction of the help that I had.  This is when it’s great to have a local contact on the ground, but if you don’t know anyone in the place you are visiting, the embassy will always be able to help.  You can register with the US Embassy here, to be better prepared in the case of an emergency.

But surely I’m not the only one who can speak on the subject, and I definitely do not have all the answers.  Any one else out there ever been in trouble while traveling??  What did you do to get yourself out of it? Or what do you wish you would have known?  Share it in the comments section below; Let’s get a conversation going!

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About the author: Kat Lonsdorf

Originally from Verona, Wisconsin, Kat has a degree in Diplomacy and World Affairs from Occidental College, with a focus in Journalism. She started learning Japanese at the age of six, lived in Okinawa, Japan in high school, and spent a year living in Amman, Jordan in college where she attended the University of Jordan, studied Arabic, and traveled throughout the Middle East. She currently lives in Los Angeles, and is a producer, blogger, and on-camera host for projectexplorer.org, a non-profit that creates online educational travel series for kids and families. Follow her on Twitter @lilkat_bigworld

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