Next stop…Bangladesh? Knowing The Sincere From The Sketchy As A Solo Female Traveler

The train to the Rome airport is hot and sweaty. It smells of scents you don’t even want to know. The cobalt blue seats stick to legs just as the gum on the trash can next to me clings to the metal casing. As I wait for the train to depart, I am pleased to have a cabin all to myself. The train is far from full. Then, a foreign man pops his head in and asks in broken English, “Is free?”. I smile and nod, indicating that he can sit in one of the five open seats. Suddenly he multiplies into 5 people, bringing with him his entire clan. The even sweatier men pile in, smelling of lack of shower and deodorant. Good thing this is just a 30-minute ride.

As I prop my legs up on my suitcase for there is no room, wondering why these men felt the need to cram into my compartment when several were available, the man seated across from me asks, “Are you Italian or tourist?”. I respond “neither”, not knowing what I am technically, and he begins a conversation. As little exchanges take place, he whips out his business card, inviting me to come to Bangladesh and join his brothers seated around me, ogling at me I can see out of the corner of my eye.

I know that this ride is only 30 minutes so if these men have other intentions, they don’t have long to harm me in some way. It is also broad daylight, making me feel less uneasy. At the same time, I consider their conversation and manners a cultural misunderstanding. The talker of the pack tells me people in Bangladesh are more emotional than Americans, sharing and living together, side by side. I begin to understand why he decided to pile into my compartment. At the same time, they speak in their native tongue, laughing occasionally and no doubt discussing what I say and how I look, incredibly uncomfortable. These men had to have known it would be intimidating to pile into a train compartment, trapping a single woman in the corner. That, or it didn’t cross their minds.

The biggest challenge for me as a solo female traveler is discerning who is being genuine with me and who has other intentions. Daily in Italy a man tries to talk to me, wanting to engage in some sort of exchange. When I first came to Italy alone at 18 years old, I thought these men to be harmless, but I quickly heard horror stories to the contrary. Despite how far women have come in today’s world, I still can’t shake that uneasiness as a woman traveling alone around foreign men. I never know if someone just genuinely wants to have a pleasant conversation or is trying for a date later. I once had a great conversation with an Italian man, harmless and innocent, and then hit a brick wall when he asked me to go to Sardinia with him on a whim.

The ultimate solo female traveler, carrying the weight of discerning creeps from the credible on her head

There are obviously indicators to tell of a person’s quality of character. Solo female travelers should always trust their instincts. They are usually dead on, especially after first meeting a person. I’m not saying all men are out to get you, but as a woman, you partially do have to go in with that mindset. If you are naïve, thinking that Italian man whisking you off to Sardinia sounds like a dream after meeting you for five minutes, you could wind up in a dangerous situation. Even men have to be leery of being taken advantage of, perhaps not as physically as women do, but in some shape or form. Then again, it frustrates me that women still can’t do many things due to safety that men can while traveling.

As I battle this war, my character to not trust anyone easily, I wonder if I am handicapping my experience here in Italy.  Perhaps I should take that man and his gaggle of brothers on the train as just nice people, inviting me to Bangladesh whenever I want.

How do you know if someone is being genuine as a solo female traveler?

Comments

  1. says

    This is a great story and so indicative of what so many women face as they travel. My first experience going abroad at 15 began with being haggled by a man in the airport and then groped by 4 men at once on the bus from the airport to the city. You’re right– it’s hard to know who to trust. I “made friends” with an Italian who later put something, who knows what, in my drink. But the good news is that there are plenty of genuinely good people out there to meet as you travel. The hard part is discerning their intentions. Best of luck!

  2. says

    OMG, you have to read the post I wrote–it’s about something very similar. How you HAVE to listen to your intuition, especially as a female. Great post!

  3. says

    Agreed that instincts are usually true. But I think being aware, instead of not trusting anyone at first is a more enjoyable experience. If you want to get something unique out of travel, I think you need to take risks (obviously not to Sardinia) but to be open with everyone you meet. Innocent before proven guilty, to some extent.
    But if you don’t put your faith in others, then you’ll never be happily surprised by a genuine act of kindness, trust or friendship.

  4. says

    I think this situation would be threatening to a single male as well. These men obviously had an agenda and the first question was a red flag to me. Being cautious and critical won’t handicap your experience. Don’t hesitate to ask questions in these situations. The more information at your disposal, the better your response. Be careful out there! Italian trains (as I’m sure you know) have an infamous reputation.

  5. Laura says

    Great post and a position I often find myself in, being the kind of person that likes to see the best in people. It’s a very fine line and something I really don’t think guy travellers will ever properly understand. They get unsettling and worrisome situations but we do stand to lose a lot more than they do.

    I still try to see the best in people but this is an age old problem. One thing that always sticks in my mind is a particularly horrific story – a good friend of mine is the product of a holiday rape. She’s in her 30s now but it still affects her and her mother. Desperately sad and, although something good eventually came out of a bad situation, it’s a stark reminder that no matter how savvy and strong you think you are, a knowledge of physical strength is something very few women will have the security of.

    I’ve done kickboxing training specifically for travelling solo so I am stronger and have a better idea of a shock tactic to get out of a bad situation – enough that I can run from anyway anyway. I’d like to think that I can still look for the best in people and give them a chance, but still have the nous to understand the difference between the two situations.

  6. says

    So very true. The downside of traveling solo is that you can never truly let your guard down, no matter how much you may want to. Your instincts are absolutely your best safety tool.

  7. says

    Oh Suzy! While I want to have faith in humanity I don’t blame you for being guarded.

    When I was in Tokyo they had a separate train for women only (from 8-5) due to the groping issues that occurred en masse.

    Just be careful. I’ll be sending good thoughts your way.

  8. says

    I’m not a solo female traveler, so I can only speak from a male’s perceptive. I think it comes down to instinct, of course when you are in an unfamiliar place unaccustomed to the cultural norms it can be a challenge.

    Being an inexperienced traveler myself I think experience is probably a factor.

    The same advantages that a solo male has could also be our disadvantage. Being that we aren’t as diligent, as a female. Generally speaking, we could be more of a target.

  9. says

    Hahaha, I love your caption for the sculpture photo. You’re right–it’s incredible hard sometimes to discern whether someone has good or bad intentions. I was in Istanbul in February with another young woman; I suppose we looked very lost, so a nice older man standing nearby offered to help us find our way. He seemed very genuine and helpful, pointing everything out on the map…though once we knew where we were going, he told us he owned a shop down the street and that we had to come by and look at it since he helped us. Of course we could have said no, and we did at first, but he basically pushed us and guilt tripped us right into his place of business. He was harmless, but it was a good wakeup call to me that many people you encounter have alterior motives. The best we can do is always be aware of our surroundings and look like we know what we’re doing!

  10. says

    Erica – they have one of those in Mexico City, too. A definite blessing!

    Great post Suzy, and so so true. I’m getting pretty good at trusting my instincts these days but I still get it wrong occasionally – one day I’ll write a blog post on the horrendous Mexico / Guatemala border crossing with its cast of three exceptionally sleazy dudes.

  11. says

    As a rule of thumb, I never trust anybody! It may sound harsh but it comes from growing up in Latin America. Women learn from a very early age that men (almost) always have a hidden agenda!

    My humble advice is, however much you want to believe in their honest intentions, never ever accept any kind of invitations from a stranger. Especially in Latin countries. I know what I’m talking about :)

    PS: It’s not that I dislike men (I’m married to a most wonderful man) but I speak from experience :)

  12. says

    I think that at the end of the day, travelers can only rely on their instincts as the deciding factor of who to trust and who not to trust. There are simply too many, almost limitless in fact, cultural differences out there in relation to how people interact with each other and there’s no way for us to understand how to interpret them all correctly.

    When I was in Bangladesh, for example, I always found it strange how a group of four people would walk onto a bus and squeeze together into the two seats next to me instead of sitting in any of the empty seats in other aisles. It turned out that it never even crossed their minds as they are so used to crowded places that their sense of comfort is so different than what mine was. But it was quite uncomfortable for me at first!

  13. says

    Great post, Suzy! It’s an age-old issue we girls have to deal with when traveling. I think my approach to this is to take everything with a grain of salt. Striking up conversation with a stranger is okay, but, in the back of my mind, I’m always reminding myself that this chatty new friend of mine may be looking at me as something more. Just being aware of your surroundings is always important. I wouldn’t suggest to anybody to be vigilantly suspicious of everyone they meet on the road (because there are some genuinely nice people out there), but being naive and blindly trusting isn’t a good idea, either. Balance and awareness – I think those are the keys!

    And while stereotypes have a place (and usually some root in truth), you don’t want to always rely on them. In China, where I was told the men weren’t nearly as aggressive as in some other parts of the world, I was thoroughly felt-up by a sweaty Chinese man in a dance club who then tried to drag me away with him. Luckily I had some good friends with me to help me out!

  14. says

    It’s a tough call, Suzy. Obviously, if anyone wants you to do something bizarre, like run off to Sardinia with them, that’s a red flag. But what about a group of men piling into your car on a train or a guy engaging you in conversation every day? You’re right – it could be cultural differences that make them comfortable doing this, or they may have ill intents. I say just never go off with any guy alone and if someone’s making you uncomfortable, get away even if you might end up seeming rude. Rude doesn’t matter. I think most guys you meet everywhere – whether its overseas or at home – are harmless. But it only takes one person to inflict a great deal of harm. If you’re ever alone somewhere where you’re feeling uncomfortable, you might want to sidle up to another woman or a family. Even if it’s obvious you’re not with them, they might give you a bit of comfort just by being there, and you’ll have the whole safety in numbers thing by standing or sitting by their sides for a while.

  15. says

    Having been to Bangladesh, this story makes me chuckle, more than anything else. As the most densely populated country on earth, Bangladeshis are always all up in your face, no matter where in the country you are. It seems like it extends to outside the country, as well! Based on my experiences there, Bangladeshis are among the first people I would trust to look after me, even if I were a total stranger.

    But again… trusting your instincts is key. There’s a fine line to walk between being to guarded all the time and missing out on amazing experiences and being too open and getting yourself into bad situations. I guess each person has to find that balance for themselves.

    The rule I travel by is giving people the benefit of the doubt and realising that 99% of people aren’t out to get you. I trust until they give me a reason not to. So far, so good!

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