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The safety issue (or my issues with how we talk about safety)

This is probably the most important and most ambiguous concept when you travel: Safety.

Everyone understands the general concept: keep your things safe, avoid looking like a lost tourist, be careful when it’s dark. My problem is this: sometimes there is very thin line between legitimate safety advices and concerns and racism and prejudice. Let me explain.

Before going to Albania, I must admit Vincent and I were a little bit worried. After spending 2 months in other parts of the Balkans, most people warned us that ‘’Albanians are thieves’’, people told us to avoid going there and some even told us horror stories. We usually camp and hitchhike, so we decided to try but find other ways if we started feeling unsafe. Our conclusion: Albanians are really nice and generous people. Some areas are quite poor, and as little for us could mean quite a lot for them, as privileged white Canadians, we decided to pay most of the time (when it was going straight in a local’s pocket).

However, it’s true that my scariest moment while hitchhiking was in Albania. Was it because of ‘’Albanians’’ or Albania being unsafe? No. It was because of us. We were stuck outside of a city and couldn’t find a place to sleep so we decided to hitchhike a little longer. After a few minutes, a young guy in a Mercedes stopped and offered to bring us to the next town. By the time we arrived, it was dark and he strongly advised us not to stay there as there was nothing for us. We had a misunderstanding and he thought we would sleep in a hotel. He left and we started to feel lost and vulnerable. We tried to ask people about a place to camp or sleep and, without speaking more than 1.5 words of Albanian, it got quite confusing and messy. Did we want to get in a car with someone without really understanding where we would go? And then, who came to our rescue? Two young Albanians who could speak English, yeah! After a very uncomfortable 10 minutes of having no idea what was going on, while the two older men argued with the two younger guys over who would take us home?! We had to choose who we trusted most, speaking in French, we asked each other who we trusted most. Vincent went for the first guys, the older ones working at the petrol station, and I was going for the younger ones, thinking that at least we could communicate! Absolutely uncertain, we got in the car with the young English-speaking ones, as we drove up a little country road, laughing anxiously. They knew the situation seemed a little ‘’sketchy’’ and the driver apologized, explaining it was the old family house in the country side. They turned out perfectly fine and we had a great night. The point is that our only ‘’unsafe moment’’ was our fault, and ‘’Albanians’’ came to our rescue, not the other way around.

I’m not saying that safety is never an issue, of course you can get robbed (as life reminded me), or even attacked, but this can also happen anywhere, anytime. Of course, this happens more often in certain places, like big cities or tourist attractions, but, to me, it’s more a matter of poverty and flagrant class distinctions, widened by mainstream tourism, especially luxury tourism, rather than nationality.

Safety concerns are guided by fear, and sometimes they show our underlying racism. Say you are going to Australia, Italy, France. Now, say you are going to Morocco, Sénégal or Turkey. Not the same reaction right? Of course, I understand that a big part of it is fear of the unknown and, since a lot more people travel in the first countries, it might be easier to feel safe about it. It’s true that some countries might be more hostile towards tourists, for multiple reasons, and yes it is important to get information about vaccines, the country’s political situation and their customs and traditions. However, I still feel like there is a strong bias when we talk about safety in different countries. This shows in the gap between the perception and stories of people who went to non-western countries and people who never went.

I will always trust more the stories of fellow hitchhikers, campers and couchsurfers when it comes to safety than the internet. It is quite amazing to realize that most of the advice and comments you hear on safety are coming from people who have never been to those countries, let alone travel the way I do. In other words, most of what you end up hearing is based on stereotypes and mass-media, which feeds your own negative preconceptions you might never end up confronting with the reality. That’s why I always feel a little uneasy with people’s eagerness to comment on how unsafe a specific country is, or how people will jump on the safety question as soon as you mention non-western countries.

People don’t realize, but giving me your safety advice or sharing your second-hand stories when you have no real knowledge of the country and experience is actually quite harmful. Although it is unreliable information I will do my best to dismiss, your words will still influence my perception of things. The real impact of this helpful intervention (unless you are sharing specific, valuable and useful information)? You’re just making it harder for me. As a hitchhiker, or people traveller, all I hear about, constantly is how unsafe I am and how I shouldn’t do what I’m doing. Like most adults, I know all the horror stories, I know bad things happen, I know the security rules of hitchhiking and living in general, I don’t need to hear anymore.

This is even more true as a solo female traveler. Yes, it is more unsafe for women to travel. You know what? It’s also more dangerous for women to exist in general, yet we do it. Let me get this straight: I refuse to let my gender dictate what I can and cannot do. That goes for the length of my hair, wanting a career and not a family life, getting angry over politics and yes, the way I travel. Truth is, if I get murdered tomorrow while hitchhiking, you’ll blame me. If it happens to a man, the media will talk about how adventurous he was. Yeah, you’ll probably blame him also, but he won’t only be reduced to that decision. The point is women are constantly monitored to ‘’watch out for themselves’’ and blamed for other people’s actions as they are judged for not taking appropriate precautions, while ‘’boys will be boys’’.

This is not doing any good. Women are held captive by the (legitimate) fear of danger, reinforced by constant ‘’advice’’ and remarks on how they should be careful. I’m not saying we should ignore the facts. Yes, women are more likely to be assaulted, abused, murdered, etc. As I’ve repeated a million times, most of these crimes will happen in the comfort of our own homes, not in the streets of Istanbul. Some countries are really more dangerous for women, and this should be considered, but telling every woman you meet to be ‘’careful’’ and ‘’not do this’’ is not helpful, it’s patronizing and stressful. I know it’s meant in a caring way, but let me tell you a secret: we are smart, we know. So, unless you have first-hand experience or valuable knowledge to share, please keep your ‘’advice’’ to yourself.

*As usual, I do not speak for all women, let alone all travelers, but I do feel like we should be more careful about what we say, the actual impact of our words, and not to vehicle stereotypes and unreliable information tainted with racism and sexism, amongst others.

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