Travel Safety: Scary Encounters Abroad And What I’ve Learned From Them

threatened

Photo courtesy of Aurimas Adomavicus.

Traveling isn’t always a picnic. Sometimes, we encounter situations that threaten our safety and make us second guess our security. The important thing when something like this happens to you is not let it scare you into not traveling, but to learn a lesson from the experience. Here are some of my personal scary encounter experiences abroad, and what I’ve learned from them and about travel safety.

1. Threatened In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Two Reais and seventy-five cents. That should cover the bus ride back to my hostel in Gloria. It wasn’t a lot of money — about $1.25 USD; however, it was enough for one man in particular to notice me.

I’d been warned not to ever show cash when walking around Rio de Janeiro, but I figured they meant large bills. Besides, it was daytime and I was standing at a bus stop full of people. Nobody would take notice.

But someone did. He looked about 53, a weathered face and dark hair. While I don’t remember his clothing or details about his features, I can clearly picture the menacing scowl that took over his face as he stopped dead in his tracks and glared at my exposed wallet. His stance reminded me of a cheetah ready to pounce as he bent his knees and angled his body toward me, his arms raised slightly. One false move and I was a goner. But, would he really jump me in broad daylight?

My skin felt prickly, my heart racing with fear. I was frozen in a moment that seemed to last forever, although it was probably only a minute or so.

Suddenly, my solo female travel instincts kicked in and I took action. Spying a group a local women chatting nearby, I quickly ran over to their group, never turning my back to the man. While I didn’t speak Portuguese, I smiled at them and waved, gesturing slightly with my eyes at the man. They understood, and made a small space for me in the group, where I nodded along pretending to be an old time friend. The man glared a moment longer before moving on his way.

While I was lucky the situation didn’t escalate further than a scare, it did teach me a lesson: Never make assumptions. If someone tells you an area is dangerous and that pick pocketing is likely, take all necessary precautions to prevent this from happening — whether it’s daytime, nighttime, $2 or $200. A better idea would have been to have my money organized in my wallet so that I could quickly pull it out when on the bus, or discreetly grabbing the money without showing my wallet.

dog

Photo courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar.

2. Dog Attack In Banos, Ecuador

It was a steep ascent, but the view of Banos, Ecuador, from the top of Bellavista was worth it. It had taken me much quicker than I’d assumed it would — less than an hour — so I decided to continue on and follow the signs reading “Runtun”.

As I was trekking solo, it was up to me to navigate myself, which felt somewhat disconcerting. It’s no that I didn’t have hiking experience — I’m an avid trekker; however, the narrow trails were thick with mud and so dense it made day feel like night. Something felt off to me. I knew I was following the trail markers correctly, but that didn’t necessarily mean I was heading toward a place I would want to go, especially while traveling solo.

As I continued on, trudging through ankle-deep muck and climbing over giant rocks and thick branches, I came to a village. While it comforted me to know there were people around in case I needed help, this relaxed feeling was quickly erased as I heard the angry barking of a dog.

I saw the snarling animal racing up the trail, as my mind dove into its subconscious and pulled out the only relevant source I had on file: “The Simpsons.” I remembered an episode where Lisa, acting as Sacajawea, is approached by a cougar. To scare it off, she extends her arms to try to make herself look at big as possible. Sure, it was a ridiculous cartoon, but it was all I had.

Quickly, I grabbed the largest rock I could and held it over my head in an attempt to appear larger than my 5’2” self really was. At least if my cartoon-inspired tactic didn’t work I’d have a weapon of some sort. The dog — which was clearly strong enough to kill me — stopped about four feet away from me, barking like mad and glaring its teeth. While it wasn’t moving closer, it also didn’t seem to be leaving. Finally, just when I thought this staring contest would go on all night, the dog backed away slowly then ran away.

While at that moment I wanted to head back to my hostel immediately, the dog had ran in that direction and I didn’t want to cross paths with him again, so I continued on. It didn’t take long for another even larger dog to find me, chasing me and barking menacingly, no doubt telling me to get the hell out of his village. Luckily, I was near to some homes at this point, and still holding the rock.

“Ayudame! Ayudame!” I screamed, shouting for help in Spanish. “Por favor, ayudame!”

Suddenly, a young boy not older than 10 appeared. He looked confused as he looked on at this foreign girl almost in tears holding a rock over her head and a dog the size of a small horse ready to pounce on her.

“Ayudame!!” I begged.

He turned to the dog, shouted something in Spanish, and the dog ran off.

What was I doing here? There were absolutely no hikers on this trail — which I wasn’t even sure was a legitimate trail — and in a matter of 20 minutes I’d almost been attacked by two different very large dogs. It was time to get a cab.

After some wrong turns I finally found a paved road away from the village. I toyed with the idea of hitch hiking — especially when it started to rain and there were no taxis in sight — but with the luck I was having that day I figured robbery and kidnapping were probable. Finally, soaked to the bone, I came to a hotel and was able to have them call a taxi for me. At that moment, I would have paid $1,000 just to be in my hostel with the door locked, away from dogs, scary trails and strangers. A hostel bed never looked as good as it did that day.

Looking back on the situation, the biggest error I made was not trusting my gut. I had a weird feeling about the trail, but continued on anyway. Not only that, but I went hiking alone on some desolate path with nobody on it, despite the fact I didn’t know the area well and hadn’t told anyone where I was going. Especially when traveling solo, it’s important to take necessary precautions. While I’m not saying to never hike alone — sometimes it can be very therapeutic — try to choose trails where other people will be in case you need help. And at the very least ask your accommodation for safety information and let someone know your plans.

It can also be a good idea to carry a safety whistle, big rock and first aid kit, as you never know what you might encounter.

Bus in Naples, Italy

3. Tourist Scam In Naples, Italy

Getting off the train in Napoli Central in Naples, Italy, I feel a surge of excitement. Naples, Italy, is the place where my grandparents are from. Hell, half the population shares my last name of Festa. I already feel at home.

I have been backpacking through Europe for a month and a half already and have gotten pretty used to the public transportation system. My hostel, Hostel of the Sun, has given me specific directions on how to get there by bus. Usually when boarding a local bus in Europe, I have simply asked the driver how much (many of them have luckily spoken a little English) or will perform a kind of charades/gesturing act to imply I want to know the fare. Either way, I have paid inside the bus.

When I see my bus pull up, I let everyone else go on ahead of me. Once everyone has boarded, I hold up a 5 Euro bill to the driver to indicate that I want to pay. He doesn’t seem to speak any English, but communicates to me with a big smile and beckons me onto the vehicle.

“The people of Naples are so nice,” I think to myself.

The doors slam shut behind me and the bus drives away. Standing there, I am still waiting for the driver to ask me for money. Then I see him pull out a notepad and begin scribbling on what I think to be a receipt.

He hands it to me, and as I read it, I begin profusely sweating. “52 Euros?!” I scream, confused and upset.

Not a moment later the bus driver and another official looking man begin screaming at me in Italian. I don’t know what they’re saying, but I’m terrified. Everyone on the bus is staring at me, waiting to see what I will do. Holding up my hands, I try to explain that I’m not going very far, maybe 5 stops, and I don’t understand why the fare is so much.

That’s when a local woman sitting in the front seat sticks up for me. I can’t understand her words, but I can tell by her facial expressions and gestures that she’s angry at them. By now I am starting to realize what’s going on and the woman, who apparently speaks a bit of English, confirms my fears.

“They are fining you for not buying a ticket,” she says, looking angry. “It’s because you’re a tourist.”

The bus driver shouts angrily again, and I am positive whatever he is saying includes various obscenities.

She scowls and looks at me. “They say if you do not pay they will call the police.”

This is one of those situations that you don’t want to be in when traveling. If I were back in New York, I absolutely would have cursed out the driver and let him call the police. However, here in Italy, I am a foreigner who is traveling alone, doesn’t speak the local language, and has just been humiliated in front of about 30 locals.

I pay the fine, angry at the injustice but grateful to not have to deal with foreign police.

When I get to the hostel, I tell the girl at the desk about my incident.

“They’ve tried that sh*t with me,” she says. “Next time, don’t pay it!”

I laughed. It’s so funny how just being in the place that you live can make you so confident, and when you become a foreign that confidence can get so easily lost. Still, I believe that when traveling it’s best to dilute your confidence just a bit in order to become more open to (or to save yourself from) a different way of doing things.

So I was down $70. At least I wasn’t in Italian jail. Looking back, doing some more research before arriving into Naples would have been a good idea so that I could have known beforehand about what tourist scams to be on the lookout for and how to properly ride the bus.

4. A Picnic Turned Hostile In Rome, Italy

Picnicking. Is there any better way to meet people when backpacking through Europe? My friend Lindsay and I loved buying random items at the market; cheeses, meats, crackers, fruits, wine, and then heading over to one of the piazzas or parks to mingle and people watch.

Tonight was the perfect night in Florence, Italy. Not too hot, not too cold. A sleeveless dress was the perfect outfit. We made our way out of the hostel and into the streets, kind of just following the flow of the crowd, not having an exact plan but ready to experience a night out in Florence.

Carrying our bottles of 3 Euro wine, we noticed three guys our age sitting in a grassy public space sharing a pizza.

“I’ll trade you some wine for a slice,” I offered with a smile, making myself comfortable on the grass. It’s funny how I would never be this self-assured at home, but traveling seemed to bring out a confidence in me. I knew we were all backpackers in the same situation, just looking to meet people and make the most of our experiences abroad.

We formed a circle and began doling out perfectly cut slices of fresh baked bread and gooey mozzarella as the bottles of wine were passed around the circle. Other groups of people, both foreigners and locals, were also scattered about the lawn. Florence felt alive and exciting, historical architecture setting the background for a modern adventure.

It was then that I noticed two angry looking Italian guys stand up and begin shouting at each other. At first, it was simple arguing, and then it escalated into shoving and soon, it was a full on brawl, with the men rolling around on the grass wrestling. Something about the situation seemed off to me, however, and my instincts kicked in full force. Maybe it was the fact that they were wrestling and not really hitting each other, or that I could make out a smirk under their frowns, or that they kept getting closer to all of the tourists, but my body was on high alert.

“Hold your bag tight,” I warned the group. “I think they’re play fighting to distract everyone.”

We decided to leave the scene before anything got out of control, trading the open skies for discounted shots at a nearby bar. Later that night, I ran into a girl who had been sitting behind us in the courtyard where the fight had broken out.

“Did those guys who were fighting ever make up?” I asked her, curious.

She nodded, rolling her eyes at the same time. “Yea. In fact, they stole my credit card and my friend’s wallet.”

I couldn’t help but give myself a silent pat on the back for trusting my instincts. Rule #1 when traveling (and in life): always trust your instincts.

5. A Tour Gone Wrong In Torres del Paine, Chile

“Do you see the Paines?”

I was currently on a guided tour of Torres del Paine in Chile, and my guide was pointing out the iconic horns of the park. It was eerily beautiful, the shark peaks draped in fog providing a backdrop for icy lakes and eery twisting roots. The travelers in my group took turns snapping photos of themselves with the Paines as a backdrop.

“We should take a picture together,” said my guide, Martin. He was in his mid-20s with a crooked smile and welcoming eyes. He seemed harmless enough.

“Sure.”

Martin came close to me, putting his arm around my waist, his hand touching a piece of bare skin on my hip that I had t noticed was exposed. Or had me put his hand under my shirt? We took the photo, and I quickly rushed toward the group.

Our next stop was a coffee shop to warm up. When we arrived at the cafe, everyone stood to get off.

“Jessie, if you could just stay on the bus for a second I need to talk to you about something,” Martin said.

Huh? I’d paid in full and presented my voucher, so there shouldn’t have been any issue there. What could he have needed to talk to me about. I had a nervous feeling in my stomach, especially after the photo incident.

I stayed in my seat and Martin came and sat next to me. While I wasn’t exactly scared of him I no longer felt he was harmless. Something about him made my arm hairs stand on end.

“What did you need to talk to me about?” I asked.

Suddenly, he leapt on me, his arms pressing me against the window and his tongue shoved down my throat. It was potentially hot — aside for the fact I had given him zero reason to suggest I wanted his mouth on mine. Wasn’t he supposed to be my tour guide?

My mind raced trying to think of a polite way to get his cigarette-stained teeth away from my face. Looking back now I don’t know why I cared about being polite. Maybe I didn’t think anyone would believe me, maybe I was scared he’d react badly, or maybe it’s just something ingrained in my personality after 26 years of living in American society. Suddenly, I had an idea.

“I have a boyfriend!” I shouted, pushing him off.

Martin laughed. “Well he’s not here, is he?”

Apparently Martin didn’t believe in monogamous relationships. “No, but I love him and don’t want to cheat on him. I really want some tea I’m going inside.”

He let me pass, and I sprinted into the bathroom. The rest of the group smiled at me, but instead of speaking up I went and hid in a stall.

When I finally calmed down enough to come out of the bathroom, there was a tea waiting for me.

“I bought you a tea,” smiled Martin.

He said this in front of everyone else, despite the fact they’d all paid for their own drinks. I now had an audience, I could speak up, rejecting the tea and calling Martin out on being inappropriate. Instead, I said thank you and drank it, politeness getting the best of me.

On the way home from the tour Martin made sure I was the last to be dropped off so that we could have some alone time. I put on my headphones and tried to pretend I was asleep, but he persisted in trying to talk to me.

“What are you doing tonight? Do you want to come over? I have wine and we could watch a movie.”

I tried to make eye contact with the driver to show him how uncomfortable I was, but his eyes were focused on the road. “I have a boyfriend. I can’t.”

Martin persisted, “We don’t have to do anything we can just watch the movie.”

“I have another tour tomorrow I have to be up early.”

Just when I didn’t think I could dodge Martin’s pestering anymore, we arrived at my bed and breakfast.

“Thanks! Bye!” I shouted, literally running off the bus, fumbling through my purse at a rapid pace to find my keys. My heart didn’t stop pounding until I was inside with the door locked.

The hell was over, or so I thought. Around 7pm Martin called the bed and breakfast asking for me.

“I’m coming over. See you soon,” he said.

“No, don’t…” But the phone was dead.

I’d had enough. Why was I trying so hard to be nice to someone who was showing me absolutely no respect. Screw being polite, Martin didn’t deserve it. It was time to speak up.

I went to the front desk of my bed and breakfast and confided in the owner, Maria, about my situation.

“If he calls or comes here, please tell him I’m not here.”

And she did. Not only that, but Maria happened to be in a local tour guide association with Martin, and planned to tell Martin’s boss exactly what happened.

Looking back on the situation, I have no idea why I didn’t speak up sooner. My gut told me there was something weird about Martin, but social graces and the need to be perceived as a nice girl got the best of me. It reminds me of a scene from “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” where Michael Blomquist breaks into Martin Vanger’s house to find evidence, as he suspects he’s a killer. When Vanger nearly catches him — out in the backyard — he invites Blomquist in for a drink. Despite the fact he knows in his gut Vanger is a murderer, he goes inside because he doesn’t want to be rude. This is how he ends up tied up and almost killed. Always trust your gut!

Have you ever had a scary encounter abroad? How did you handle it? Please share in the comments below.

*Featured image via JenavieveMarie

18 Comments

  1. h’Omg! Such scary stories – glad everything worked out in the end.

    In Martinique, hitch hiking is a common way of getting around – everyone does it…women, students, old people. Once, I hitchhiked with a man who was a little too friendly and touchy-feely in the car. Half way to where he said he was going, he said, Oh, I just have to get something from my house and then I’ll drop you off… He invited me in, but I stayed in the truck – I thought I was a goner. Luckily, I was living there and knew where I was so I got on the phone with my friends, telling them where I was he was inside.

    In the end, he took me to meet my friends, but not before taking my number and offering to be my sugar daddy… It was very scary and I couldn’t even imagine if it was a place I was completely unfamiliar with!

    1. @Alyssa: Eeek! Smart of you to listen to your gut and NOT go in the house, even if it may have been “impolite.” I think too many times people are nervous about seeming rude — especially in a foreign country — when in reality you need to trust your intuition over caring about social graces. I’m glad you got out of that situation okay!

  2. Oh, sorry to hear all of these. You must have been so afraid of Martin! I guess we should never really trust strangers too much, especially when we are in a foreign land. Indeed, experience is a great teacher. Thanks for sharing these helpful lessons in traveling solo.

  3. Scary adventures, Jessica! Glad none of them turned really, really bad.

    I recognize completely the experience of ignoring my gut feeling. Because I want to stay polite, because I am a pleaser, because I do not want to spoil a nice day, because my mind cannot believe what’s happening….

    Being a scaredy cat, it’s sometimes hard to determine if it is my fear talking or a real, streetsmart gut feeling.

    1. @Anja: That makes sense. Your fear of not being polite might be masking you gut’s fear of a situation. I would say whenever you feel either of these kinds of fear to get out of there. You can still be polite and make up an excuse about having to get up early to sightsee 😉 Better safe than sorry. Happy trails!

  4. I really liked and resonate with this post, having had a couple of incidents myself, including being bitten by ‘various’ animals on my trips – a dog in a Alaska, a penguin in South Africa (don’t ask!). But on a serious note, one of the things we really drive home on our women’s travel safety courses is that politeness should always come second to self preservation.

    We women have a fantastic skill – our instinct and we shouldn’t ignore it.

    Re the Martin scenario – again very unnerving and a cautionary note re accepting drinks from guys with ‘ill intentions’ remember there is the risk of drink spiking.

    I read a brilliant book recently called ‘The Gift of Fear’ a great insight into the minds of predators.

    Safe travels everyone.

    1. @Carolyn: Ah, downloading that book right now. I’m already drawn in by the title. Have you seen The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo movie (the latest one)? There’s a scene where Daniel Craig KNOWS this guy is a killer and he shouldn’t go into his house, but when said killer invites him in for a drink, Daniel Craig is too worried about being impolite to decline and, well, things get very hairy for him. The killer guy actually says something along the lines of “I could tell you knew you shouldn’t come in, but social pleasantries wouldn’t allow you to say no.” That scene still haunts me because it’s so so so true. We ladies need to screw being polite and think about our own safety!

  5. Wow! Those are some scary stories. I’m traveling alone in India for the first time. Young women travelers are telling me about all kinds of strange things that have happened to them. I am SO glad I’m “middle aged” and have grey hair. I feel completely safe here (although I’m still careful). No men are harassing me or following me. And I think I have a certain “don’t mess with me” air about me, which also helps. Thank heavens for age and maturity!

    1. @Ann: I definitely think the way a woman carries herself can go a long way. Locals can tell when you’re lost/not from there/clueless! Glad you’re in enjoying India. I did a 2-week bike trip through Kerala last year (solo, but with a local guide) and LOVED IT. Right now I’m in Bhutan (again, solo but with a guide). Really enjoying it, though it’s very pricey compared with India!

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