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Experience April/May 2023

Traveling Without a Net

David Z Kaufman


  • Practical tips and lessons learned regarding personal safety and situational awareness when traveling solo at an older age.
Traveling Without a Net

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When you travel without a net, you’re setting off by yourself, ruler of your own destiny and destination, traveling at your own speed and in your own way.

But I’m not 18 or 20 or even 25 anymore. That was a long time ago, and I—and the world—have changed. Once upon a time, I just went, maybe even with no real destination in mind. I met people, slept with people I’d just met, ate strange foods, and drank even stranger liquids. Somehow I survived.

These days, I still take risks of sorts, but not the same ones.

With age comes wisdom

Once, about seven years ago, I had an eight-hour layover in Doha, Qatar, on my way back from Nepal. So I fell asleep on the floor near the gate I’d eventually need. Not smart. I could have lost everything I was carrying to light-fingered thieves. But I was lucky.

Once I got lost in the Jerusalem souk. I mean really lost. I was wandering out of the souk and toward the Arab Quarter—areas where people like me aren’t always welcome. A kind soul spotted my confusion, straightened me out, guided me back to the souk, and wouldn’t even allow me to buy them a coffee as a thank you.

But don’t rely on the kindness of strangers. Be the more careful me. When traveling without a net, always have check-in calls scheduled with emergency backup. That way, if something happens to you, trusted people will know and take protective steps.

Be sure to tell people where you’re going and what route you’re taking. I don’t care if you’re driving to Chicago from New York, hiking the Appalachian Trail, or exploring London. Tell people what your plans are and when they can expect you to check in. And then, unlike my younger self, stick to the plan or tell people your plans changed.

A guide to guides

Tour guides are usually well known to tour operators, licensed (usually), and knowledgeable. Usually, they can tell you where to go or not to go.

Listen to them.

But be aware that in addition to the tips you’ve been told you must give the guide, many guides will also make a commission on the purchases you make at the shops the guide takes you to visit. Sometimes those shops will give you a good price, sometimes not. But the tour guide will make out. Buyer beware.

Guides you pick up on the street can be a mixed bag, so be careful. Some are good, knowledgeable, and true to their job. Others aren’t.

On my last trip to Nepal, I had a great guide when I was hiking in the Himalayas. He knew the trail and the people in the villages we passed through. And he kept me from getting off course several times.

On the other hand, I picked up a street guide in Nepal to show me around Pokhara who was the opposite. He tried to lead me to shops, tried to get me to leave the town, and generally gave me a feeling that I couldn’t trust him. I listened to my instincts, and it was a good thing.

My 2019 trip to Rome to visit places I’d never been was equally mixed. I had a couple of good guides, in addition to one who rushed around and was more on a forced march and one who got upset if I asked questions.

Key questions to ask yourself before hiring a guide: How is their English? How fluent are you in their language? How do they want to be paid—dollars or local currency? How did you meet them? Were you introduced, or did they approach you? Do they have local guide licenses or permits? Are they driving you someplace? If so, do you know where it is and how to figure out if you’re not going there? (More on that when we discuss taxi and shared rides.)

A warning about hostels

Hostels were fun when I was young, careless, and the world felt safer. I’d bunk down with anyone—male, female, young, old, whatever. I didn’t care. It was a way to meet interesting people and have another adventure.

These days, with more to lose, I’m much more careful. Perhaps I’m just more aware of physical and sexual assaults these days. Or perhaps it’s that, after turning 70, I’m feeling more fragile.

In any case, I avoid hostels these days if at all possible. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. If that’s the case, treat the hostel as if you’re on candid camera all the time.

Staying at a hostel can be very positive, if you’re careful. Much of my 14-day hike in the Himalayas was spent in hostels and sometimes sleeping on the ground. I met a lot of interesting people, some of whom I’m still in touch with. But I did have a guide who knew and recommended the different hostels. As the youngsters say, YMMV. (Translation: Your mileage may vary.)

Catching a cab or car

One time I was in Paris with a girlfriend, and we were taking a taxi to a riverboat dinner on the Seine. The hotel called the taxi, and off we went.

Suddenly the cab turned right when he should have turned left. The cabbie supposedly knew a shortcut. That didn’t go over well, and we renegotiated the route. Forcefully.

If I hadn’t been paying attention, hadn’t known where we were, where we were going, and the routes to get there, things might have gotten very unpleasant.

I stopped the cab and, after an argument with the driver, we got to the restaurant. I’m certain that had I not known where we should be going, we might never have gotten there.

You’d think I’d learned my lesson, but it was only three years ago that I walked out of my Jerusalem hotel and got into a taxi to go visit my newlywed daughter and new son-in-law and had another adventure. This taxi driver was apparently unlicensed (but looked legitimate), had no idea where the address was, and kept trying to take me up into the dark, uninhabited hills. I survived this adventure—but not without some more lessons learned.

I strongly suggest you always know where you’re going, the best route to take, the key roads you’ll cross or be on, and roughly the length of time the trip should take. Google Maps or Waze can be your friend if you have a smartphone and a data plan. If not, get a map, learn the major routes to your destinations, and then pay attention.

And if you’re paying by app, OK. If you’re paying cash, again be careful if the driver wants dollars instead of the local currency. Sometimes cabbies cheat by fudging the U.S. dollar/local currency exchange rate. Know the exchange rate.

Also, you should be familiar with local regulations about meters. Some cabbies will play games and lie, telling you the meter is broken or that meters don’t apply to your ride. If you’re not sure, ask the hotel or host. Or even ask a local cop.

Take a picture of the car on your phone and (if possible) the driver. And, again, listen to your instincts. In Paris, I did. In Jerusalem, I didn’t.

I’ve written about traveling in a city many times. When you’re a tourist, the principles stay the same, but the distractions are worse. You can have too many things to see with no idea where you are or where you’re going.

I once got so turned around in Paris that I crossed from the Left Bank to the Right while wondering where the Latin Quarter was. (It’s on the Left Bank.) The upshot is that the distracted tourist is prime fodder for credit card scams, pickpockets, purse snatchers, and muggers.

Safety while hoofing it

If you’re out at night, visiting clubs, the theatre, or having a late dinner at a fashionable time, you’ll be tired, impaired, and probably distracted. Dangers are magnified, so try to get a cab (but don’t hail one from the street).

How do you protect yourself when on foot? The basic rules are simple:

  • Don’t walk with your nose in your phone. Check the map frequently, but don’t walk with your head down. If you have a headset or ear buds, use them only to hear map directions. You need to be able to hear your surroundings.
  • Be alert to your surroundings. Almost 40 years ago in Tel Aviv, I was walking a beach with my wife when I noticed we were being surrounded by three young men who clearly thought we were prey. (Perhaps it was the fact that I was wearing shorts and steel leg braces at the time. I’ve never worn shorts since.) Because I noticed it, we were able to burst out of their envelopment and safely withdraw.
  • Don’t walk between a group of young men. Walk around them. If you can’t get around them, wait them out while not letting them get behind you.
  • If you use a cane, try not to lean on it but use it almost like a swagger stick. Leaning on a cane signals that you could be prey. If you must use the cane, be sure to be extra attentive to your surroundings. If you’re using crutches or a wheelchair, you have no choice—you’ll look like prey, so you’ll have to take extra precautions.
  • Carry your money and papers in a secure pocket, preferably zippered. Velcro isn’t the same, but it’s better than nothing. An inside zippered pocket is best.
  • Have a throw-away wallet with a little money in it so that thiefs can think they got away with your stuff. I’ve been known to carry a canceled, expired, or defaced credit card in my throwaway wallet so that a thief will grab it and run. If you do this, keep it in an easy-to-access pocket rather than the hidden pocket you keep your main wallet in.
  • Don’t travel with your arms full of packages. If you must carry your suitcase, backpack, and other things, pay special attention to who’s behind you and who’s coming toward you. Remember: You can’t run away if your arms are full, and not much is worth fighting for. Drop everything and run.
  • Carry an object to throw. If you must go out late at night, carry a cup of hot tea or coffee, a cigarette, or a cigar. They make excellent distractions when thrown into an assailant’s face, giving you time to run, evade, or scream for help.

Of all the ways to travel, I love traveling without a net best. There are always new experiences and new friends, even when you’re 70-plus years old.

But just because it’s right for me doesn’t mean it’s right for you. In any case, if you do travel, may your bags be light, your food and drink delicious, and your photographs shareable.