Smart Travel; Cultural Survival Guide for Travellers

The recent spate of horrific sex attacks on female travellers in India have highlighted a problem which as existed for many years. There have been numerous other attacks but the ferocity and aggression involved resulting in the death of one victim has received worldwide condemnation. Extensive media coverage has fuelled the feelings of revulsion aimed at the sub-continent.

“Reported rape is up and yet convictions are down”

The violent nature of the attacks, involving gang rape and even violation with a steel rod, it appears to be a hate crime. This aggression aside what seems shocking to many outsiders is the perceived apathy of the government. Although the suspected perpetrators have been taken into custody so were the suspects in the rape and murder of a 15 year old British school girl and yet after several years there still hasn’t been any conviction. Reported rape is up and yet convictions are down.

Travellers seek cultural immersion, phone users in the Cuban city of Santiago de Cuba in the Caribbean on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-300-277 cuban_phones

We enjoy cultural immersion on our travels

Ever understanding the reasons for these attacks is unlikely but an understanding of the environment in which they occur is worth some discussion. Some comprehension of the culture may reduce the risk of becoming a target for aggression.

Sexual aggression and violence against travellers is not restricted to India. There are other parts of the world where there is a culture of violence and are listed as ‘high risk’ destinations by western embassies and governments. Violent theft and even kidnapping are hazards which too many travellers are becoming familiar with. Often perceived as wealthy and easy targets for criminals, safety is a major concern for every world traveller.

Female traveller in the Cuban capital of Havana on the Caribbean island of Cuba on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-300-26 havana_girl

Personal choice over safety?

It is an unfortunate fact however that women have greater reason for concern than men and female solo travel has been the topic of numerous articles recently.

One of the reasons many travel is to experience a different culture however this gulf in values and understanding can be the surprising cause of these attacks. An alarming but enlightening article recently published in The Guardian provides some insight into some possible reasons for the attacks in India. The upbringing of males and females is entirely alien to that which we are accustomed to. On one hand the young men interviewed speak of respect for family then explain that women should remain at home after 6pm and seem to suggest that some women are actually asking to be attacked.

Young female travellers trekking in the forest near Trinidad on the Caribbean island of Cuba on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-300-96 female_adventurer

Dress appropriately for the activity and culture

Their comments may seem reprehensible but the open manner in which the men involved seemed prepared to discuss it is possibly more alarming. These sensible, respectable and decent young men appear to display some acceptance of these attacks. The underlying tone seems to suggest that they feel in some circumstances rape is actually justifiable.This is a huge culture gap.

However inaccurate or misconceived these comments may seem they are indicative of the attitude of some elements of male society on the sub-continent. There are also men protesting against these abhorrent acts however the group interviewed appears to be sufficiently representative of the male population.

“travellers are guests in another culture and ambassadors of our own”

It is likely that many of us have experienced a degree of inappropriate behaviour or code of dress in destinations which require both men and women to dress modestly.

On my last visit to India before boarding a train I witnessed an attractive young woman wearing in a bikini top and denim shorts both of which could be described as minimal making her way to the train. The local men (and 2 westerners) openly stared at her and the women blatantly cursed her every movement. Settling into a seat she was overheard to state “they will learn”. Her spunk maybe admirable but her common sense and attitude is not.

Travellers often proclaim the virtue of respecting other cultures but in a modern era of decreased tolerance this may have increased significance. Respecting the culture maybe even more important in terms of safety.

Respect is a two way street. Personal choice is a social imperative and expression and individuality of dress is of equal importance to many. Sensible compromise maybe required to prevent offence, be respectful of the culture and the culture should respect you back.

Ensure your next adventure is not your last

Research and planning before taking a journey has often received a degree of scorn from this site but having some knowledge and understanding of the culture is essential. There are numerous sources and heaps of detailed information available about almost every destination; the internet, guidebooks and government information sites are just a few. Apart from avoiding any unfortunate cultural faux pas knowing which areas to avoid and the values of the local culture should reduce the amount of risk the traveller is exposed to.

Travellers boarding a tour bus in Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-300-150 vancouver_tourbus

Public transport is not always what we are used to

Prevention is better than the cure, avoiding potential difficult situations merely seems wise. A simple list of sensible measures is as follows:

  • Wear clothing which is appropriate to the environment. Bikinis are fine on the beach but if the locals are covered up around town, the respectful and wise traveller should too.
  • Know your limitations; stepping outside comfort zones is commendable but unnecessarily endangering yourself is not.
  • Avoid situations which may provide confrontation.
    • Get to know the destination prior to travelling and ask at the accommodation if there are any ‘high risk’ areas to avoid. Steering clear of these goes without saying.
    • Be aware of the local transport situation. If the risk of attack is heightened at certain times don’t use it. It maybe necessary to find alternative means of getting around if there are serious issues.
    • Do not advertise any tourist credentials. Keep expensive cameras, smartphones and other bling out of sight, don’t tempt the weak willed or desperate.
    • Where possible attempt to join up with other travellers when going out at night in high risk destinations.
    • If going out alone is the only option keep to public places and don’t accept invitations to out of the way parties.
    • Don’t appear a potential victim, attackers will be on the lookout for easy targets. They don’t relish the prospect of confrontation, appear confident and it is likely they will look elsewhere.
    • Remain observant, keep an eye out for potential problems; broken streetlights, gangs or groups, those acting suspiciously or attempting to conceal their identity.
    • If confronted by an assailant, try tor remain calm, hopefully they want nothing more than your valuables. Hand them over without argument, they are not worth risking your life for.
    • Carrying a spare wallet/purse filled with a small amount of cash, disused credit cards and a family photograph  is a good ploy.
  • There isn’t any substitute for experience, serve out a form of travelling apprenticeship.
  • Hone instincts in less challenging destinations and make use of reliable tour operators for the first forays into more risky travel options. It will improve confidence and ensure the solo traveller is ready to safely experience any destination.
  • Experience can enable the traveller to recognise when to feel intimidated and walk away and when a situation is perfectly innocent.
  • Self defence is a skill and should be the absolute last resort, only to be used if an attack cannot be avoided by any other means and is imminent.
A typical street scene greeting travellers in Trinidad on the Caribbean island of Cuba on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-300-61 cuban_men

Some intensity but without intimidation

There isn’t any way these attacks can be condoned but it should be remembered that India is not the only destination where travellers and the local community are under threat of violence. Understanding that there are often cultural aspects to this aggression and how this can help to avoid becoming a victim is equally important.

The ability to read a situation and body language is one of the most useful skills an independent traveller can acquire. Being the victim of an act of violence is obviously traumatic but any unnecessary feelings of intimidation can also ruin a visit.

The debate regarding travel as a right or privilege maybe an on-going one but safe travel for all is indisputably a right. Those travellers with the necessary attributes and instincts will enjoy this right wherever they roam.

Useful Links

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The US State Department


Comments 11

  1. T.J. & Charlotte

    Great tips. I think there’s nothing wrong with being adventurous, but you have to know the places that you’re not supposed to be. I think that’s a real big thing. There are some places that you shouldn’t just go wandering, unfortunately.

    1. Post

      I’m glad you found this post useful. There certainly isn’t anything wrong with being adventurous it just needs to be tempered with common sense. Cautious spontaneity leads to successful adventures.

  2. Meg B

    Great article. We know, as we travel, that we are guests in another country, but you made a great point about being a guest in another CULTURE. To me, that means acknowledging the cultural differences and being respectful of them. You are treated more respectfully as a result (covering your head, removing your shoes, etc.) and draw less attention to yourself. Sad fact is even if you do everything “right”, these things still happen. Unfortunately, being careful and respectful isn’t enough in some places. I plan my trips differently or avoid those places when traveling alone or with my daughters.

    1. Post

      Thank you Meg I’m pleased you enjoyed reading it. I totally agree there are some destinations which have additional challenges especially for solo women. Deciding where to visit presents it’s quandaries, this is not procrastination but research and making informed decisions about whether to travel or not.

    1. Post
  3. Yeity

    Hmmm, agree that showing respect and understanding of your surroundings in new cultures and countries is always key… common sense goes a long way… but don’t think people should become empathetic or tolerant of cultural norms that accept violence or human rights violations against any person or being.

    1. Post

      Nobody is suggesting that we should in any way accept cultures which discriminate, are intolerant or violent Yeity. Human rights and safety of all should be of paramount consideration. In writing this post I am hoping to bring some issues to light, inform how to protect against personal violence and maybe generate some discussion.

  4. Linda Larsson

    First, I do appreciate you talk about travellers in general and not female travellers. Thanks!

    I just want to add: So many of my male friends have been beaten up on their travels. None of my female travel friends have. The girls I know who have been raped were raped in Sweden, not out on the road (with that said: the risk of being raped is big in every country).

    Also, I think there’s a difference between accepting a culture and respecting a culture. When I’m out on the road myself I do accept other cultures and I try to adapt to them (I cover up, I don’t drink…). But there’s no way I will Respect (parts of) cultures where women are treated badly, no matter if that’s in Sweden, in India or somewhere else.

    1. Post

      I totally agree Linda both men and women can be at risk when travelling. In some destinations it is possible that men are even more at risk of being violently attacked than women. The reasons can be numerous, homophobia, criminal intent, drink/drugs related, sexual or intolerance are just a few.

      Generally however women are at greater risk than men, unfortunately the male of the species is more violent and prone to acting upon their urges. This is why as you point out rape is prevalent throughout the world.

      I understand where you are coming from with the respect of a culture and by way of clarification I’m only advocating respect of the cultural aspects which apertain to beliefs and values. I do not respect any part of a culture which subjugates or mistreats any segment of society. Intolerance and poor human rights shame the culture which they hide behind to justify their actions.

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