Sunday, January 19, 2014

Safety as a Solo Woman Traveller

Copan, Honduras, October 2013.

It sounds like by travelling you've had the best of both worlds: a life filled with adventure and a familiar place to go back to. I checked out Verge and your article on the value of volunteers to NGOs abroad: the interview questions were engaging and the article was an interesting read. I've thought of volunteering myself and had many of these questions, too.

I'm going to go on my first trip abroad since high school: I'll be traveling to Sri Lanka for six weeks in February and March. I'm excited. I'm terrified. I'm likely under-prepared. I think often of how wonderful it would be if we saw each other regularly still and all the questions I'd have for you, my travel-savvy friend. 

Since I'm a first time (read: solo, female) traveller (read also: to Asia), I'm anxious about so many things, some rational and some totally irrational. Would you be interested in counseling me on a few lingering, somewhat abstract questions? I would be so grateful. 


Hi Sonja,

I'd be happy to answer your questions, with a disclaimer, of course; although I have a fair amount of experience in developing countries, the amount of time that I’ve spent in Asia has been limited and I’ve never been to Sri Lanka.

How much do you budget before you leave? To be perfectly honest, I’m completely shit at budgeting, specifically when it comes to travel. I have a terrible tendency to book a trip without much thought as to how much it’s going to cost me. (The trip that I took to Central America in November is actually the first time that I had a budget. I knew that I only wanted to spend $600 over a three-week period, which worked out to roughly $30/day. Credit cards (which I pay off immediately) usually take care of the rest.

I’m of the persuasion that money comes and money goes. I would rather have a good time and fully experience something rather than hold back and regret it later.

After so many trips, how "light" do you travel? I’ve always been a really light packer. My bag is usually about two-thirds full and that’s it. Not having to carry much “stuff” is the most liberating part of travel.

If I’m in doubt about whether or not I need to bring it, I err on the side of not bringing it. I also think it’s totally worthwhile to invest in packing gear that saves you space. (For example, my facecloth-sized microfiber towel, mini toiletries, etc.) And if you don’t have something, borrow it. I also don’t really buy anything when I travel.

Chloé won the "packing light" challenge in Central America--but someone had to carry the Scrabble board. (Photo credit: Canice Leung.)

What are a few things that you do (or choose not to do) to feel secure as a solo woman overseas? I’ve never been “solo,” really. I’ve travelled alone, but it never lasts for more than 24 hours because I always make friends fairly quickly. I do, however, make a point to not draw attention to myself and to dress fairly conservatively when I’m alone. And I carry a safety whistle. (Seriously. I'm not entirely sure what blowing a whistle would realistically do, but it's a nice security blanket.)

It also helps to read blog posts about destinations before you depart. I'm sure that if you Google "Sri Lanka" and "solo women travel bloggers," you'll turn up tons of posts that you'll find reassuring.

My "solo" trip to Cambodia in 2012. (I made friends before I was even done crossing the border.) 

Malaria meds, yes or no? They’re really hard on your liver, so it depends on the length of time that I’m overseas and where I’m going. If I don’t take them, I make sure to wear "longs" at night, use a mosquito net when it’s available and wear insect repellent. (You should do those things anyway.)

I shell out for Malarone. It’s more expensive, but it’s worth it. If you do decide to get anti-malarials, I would recommend asking around to see if anyone you know has any leftover from their travels. (It has a long shelf life and doctors tend to over-prescribe, so you might be able to rustle some up tabs and save yourself some money.)

I also take the time to research the malaria risk in each location myself; CDC's malaria map is good for this.

Money belt? Never owned or worn one. However, my camera was stolen in Peru. The purse I travel with has zippers on it that are nearly pickpocket-proof and I always walk with my bag in front of me, with my hand on it.

I never take out more than $300 currency at a time. I’d rather pay the bank transfer fees than be carrying around excessive cash. And this may sound strange, but I don’t trust hostel lockers (I know far too many people who have had things stolen from them in the middle of the night) so I also usually sleep with my arms around my purse.

Demonstrating my purse carrying strategy while navigating through a crowd in Santiago Sacatepéquez, Guatemala, during All Saints' Day Festivities. (Photo credit: Chloé Fedio.) 
I've emailed a group that accepts volunteers for help with conservation projects in Sri Lanka (mangrove reforestation, etc.). They have let me know that they received my email but I haven't heard back from their coordinator. Should I contact them again? Visit the office in person when I get there? Would it even be worth their time for me to volunteer for a few weeks?

That’s the hardest question to answer. Definitely contact them again—chances are they have limited resources (including personnel) so it may simply take them plenty of time to get back to prospective volunteers. You could theoretically just show up, but it’s better if an organization has time to plan for your arrival.

I personally think that it’s difficult to make substantial contributions on short-term volunteer placements—however, that’s not to say that you wouldn’t be make a contribution at all. And it’s all about expectations—if you’re going in with an understanding that you may get more out of volunteering than the organization is going to get out of having you there, that’s a good starting place. I would say that it’s worth your time for you to volunteer for a couple of weeks. (And obviously, as I’m sure you know, there are some short-term volunteer opportunities that you should stay far away from, like working at an orphanage. But conservation is another thing altogether.)

If you’re looking for alternate organization, Verge has a program search guide that’s a good starting point.

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