You’ll have to call me a liar because I have realised that there is no way that I am going to cover this topic in just 2 more sections, if you thought that 1 section = 1 post as I had originally planned it. I can honestly say that I’m not sure how many “sections” there are to come, so I guess we’ll all be surprised.
Seek out and look closely at transport timetables, and know exactly where to catch your bus/train/metro from, and what time these services start and stop. Take the trouble to read through these thoroughly because there are always little notes about the exceptions for a certain service, like: “this only applies to the summer schedule, in winter we only operate three days a week”; and “this bus terminates at –stop about 20km earlier than the one you want to get off at– for the 13:15 and the 18:30 services”. Of course in general they won’t spell it out in full sentences like that for you, they provide instead a set of keys to decipher, which it is worth your while to undertake rather than go “Ehh? SO? PCC?” and assume that they can’t be that important. If they don’t have an English translation and you can’t work it out to your satisfaction, go to a counter at the station, an information centre or the company’s agency and get it clarified.
I’m concerned now that this all sounds very basic and that I’m being patronising, so I’d like to explain why I am making a point of this. It’s not about being a perfect little traveller, being able to check off all the “how-tos” on a checklist. It’s that… you want to limit the amount of time you spend hanging around bus stops or stations alone, especially if you are looking bewildered because you don’t understand why your ride hasn’t arrived. Also, the transport system should be your ally in letting you explore and feel secure in travelling through the city. If you don’t take time to understand it and work it effectively, then it could leave you in places you don’t want to be in at times you don’t want to be in them in. If you are not in an urban environment, or if you’re in one really really late at night in winter, missing the last ride means that’s it. You literally won’t have any options other than a long walk home, alone and down deserted streets. I also personally believe really strongly in using public transport over accepting lifts from people. Now I have accepted lifts before, but only from those who I know without a doubt are reliable friends. Meaning: people I have spent quite a lot of time with and have talked to on numerous occasions through real conversations. Faith in yourself and your ability to use the services provided is a better bet than faith in the good intentions of a stranger offering a ride.
An important reason why I suggest having a good grasp of the transport system (and it is one that I will reiterate through other suggestions) is because it will simply give you more confidence in yourself and your ability to cope in this still mostly unknown environment. Your confidence as you move about is a palpable thing to everyone around you – doing anything you can to build this up in a relevant way is the best preparation you can have. So forget the generic “oh yeah girlpower, rah rah rah you go girl!”, I’m talking about confidence because you know just how much it is you know and can do.
Where you are and want to be
Scope out an area in the daytime first if you plan on spending time there at night. In addition to orienting yourself with maps, identify landmarks to help guide you. Further, if you’re in a big city landmarks will generally still have human life and some degree of lighting in the middle of the night. Know how to get there – what form of transport will take you the closest and be the safest bet; and how long it takes to get there and back. To and from journeys are not always going to have the same duration or follow the same route. Or drop you off where you started.
Have a look, pay attention to the types of buildings that are there. Are they offices that might be empty at night, shops that stay open ’til late, or private residences? How easy would it be for you to disturb them, yell and draw attention to yourself if you had to? Get a sense of the general atmosphere, keep in mind how the space might feel under the cover of dark. Is there a big park lined with thick bushes on the street that you will be walking down; are there seamy alleyways coming off it? Even things like big signs and bilboards can be jumped out from – I was surprised by a flasher like this once. It wasn’t a particularly dangerous encounter, but it made me realise how easy it is for people to hide behind an object like that simply because we don’t usually give it a second thought as we walk by… We don’t assume that there will be someone standing in wait behind it. Does the area see much traffic? And of course most importantly – how adequate is the lighting?
The caveat to all this is that until you’re in the situation, you will never be able to judge with complete accuracy how safe it really is. And even then, it could be eventless one night and risky another. What’s most important in paying attention to and taking note of these features is to feel like you have canvassed the environment and are in some ways aware of what you are getting yourself into. Putting some thought into checking out your environment gives you time to think through your plans and assess what the risk is for you. (NB: For you. Not for how brave or fearless female you think you should be. Trust your instincts on this.) If you are going to end up in a place of no return, it’s much better to have knowledge of this beforehand than to find yourself inadvertantly in it and shaken with panic.
Ask people, travellers and locals, about how safe it is
Especially get specifics, i.e. if that’s true for your neighbourhood, and what “kind” of dangerous there is. If they can personally see you being safe walking alone in such and such area, taking the B2 subway line at 9 o’clock at night… Make them think about it, because most people (and I’ve found this to be particularly true in Europe) will shrug it off with a “Yeah, yeah, it’s pretty safe.” Note that if the person replying is a guy, they also might not understand the significance of this question and how an area could be different for a woman.
I prefer not to have a bag as I’m walking around at night. Some could say that it can double as a weapon, but unless you specifically practise how you’re going to wield it in case of emergency, I see it as an unnecessary, potentially cumbersome extra prop – one that could draw more attention and be used against you. My money, flat in my pockets. I like to feel free as I’m walking about, and ready to put my body into action however and whenever necessary.
On the subject of money, have enough of your own. Don’t spend it all while you’re out, always have a certain amount that is not for the entertainment portion of the evening. And don’t depend on a card. In fact this point matters even if you are out with friends. You can’t always be sure how the night is going to unfold. Friends might offer to help you out cash-wise, transport-wise. But you should always have your own ways of getting away if you need to.
Wearing heels is just not a good idea if you are going to be walking alone. They are a liability. Even if you are a woman who knows how to run in them, you will never achieve as much in heels as you will with your feet in their normal position. If you do happen to get in any sort of struggle, balancing on your heels will become an extra thing to pay attention to and worry about, rather than you being able to just react. Again, people might say that they could be weapons. I agree, heels can be very very good weapons. It’s just up to you to be sure that you are more likely to be able to use them effectively than to be disadvantaged by them. There are not that many women who can say that I think.
Jesus christ that’s a lot of work
If all these recommendations seem daunting, please let me reassure you that it’s not necessary to walk around town carrying a notebook and looking for a billion details. It’s just a matter of paying some attention when you are wandering about exploring. And checking with yourself to see how being in a given area makes you feel.
As for transport matters, yeah that does take a bit more concerted effort to work out. This is the case for some countries and cities more than others. But if you make an effort to learn about it early on, making it one of the first things you spend time on after arriving somewhere, then you are likely to not have to stress about it for the rest of your time. Once you have figured it out and know what to look for, know what the keys mean, have some idea about the idiosyncrasies of your locale – you will not need to waste further time muddling about and feeling disgruntled.
Most people probably find out about hostels and their accommodation through the internet. And most accommodation providers will give directions. Sites like hostelbooker.com includes tabs for directions and maps for each hostel listing they have. Hostelworld.com gives the directions that hostels type in in the booking confirmation they have sent you. I’m not saying you need to book through these sites, just giving you an idea that it really is easier than ever to find out how to get to places. With hostelbooker you can use the directions they give to figure out if the hostel is even in the sort of area you want to be in. Even without directions, a hostel will have to give its address. And there are many many map services out there now, google maps one of the most convenient. It is very easy these days to plan how to get from A to B.
Conversely, I would say that for transportation, you are mostly better off going straight to the source once you are in your destination. There is a lot of information online but not many companies and city councils provide completely up-to-date information. Except for journeys by planes and trains, which will give you a journey planner function to search through current and relevant trips, don’t count on the transport websites that give you set timetables. It’s not harmful to have a go at this but I tend to find that it wastes a lot of time. At any rate things can always change on the day so even if you have organised, booked and paid for everything in advance, be at the station a good deal earlier than you need to.
The next post will be Part II: Preparation – Interpersonal