Since reading The Lost Girls' post on their trials and tribulations in northern Vietnam (especially the part about the cab ride from hell), I started to reflect on my own experiences, and the few times I felt threatened abroad (at least that I can remember). The experience that stands out the most in my mind was during my 2-day stay on the French Riviera…
Nice, France, August 1998
The French Riviera sounded rich and exotic, so I made it a must-see on my European tour. Rock, rather than sand beaches aside, it was a pretty city, and I was halfway through my trip and feeling as though I had the swing of independent travel. Early on my first full day, I came across a plaza as I was exploring. It was rather large, and seemingly popular and well trafficked by locals and tourists. I remember it because I saw a bunch of skateboarders working some ledges. I sat down on a bench on the edge of the park to observe, trying to figure out how good they were. I was a skater myself at the time so I enjoyed secretly rating the skills of others. I got the impression they were a group of friends.
Later that evening, I decided to walk along the plaza side of the street on my way to dinner. I was carrying my standard 1.5 liter of bottled water, though it was only half full. As I walked past the plaza, one of the older locals among the group I saw earlier motioned to me to give him my water. I immediately got the feeling the guy was on an arrogant power trip, perhaps showing off to the others. At the least I found it intrusive – certainly not something I'd ever encountered in the States, New York City, or Washington, DC. I could've said “no” for a variety of reasons running through my head, including the fact that it was gross to think I would then drink from the same bottle afterwords, or some random dude is cheating me of the water I paid for and fully intended on drinking that night (thus forcing me to buy more while I was on a tight budget). I was in no position to say “no” though, being vastly outnumbered by a group (I'm willing to say gang even) of kids hanging out all day in a public park in the Summer heat. If you've seen the movie Kids, then you know the thoughts running through my head about getting beat-up for no particular reason other than you've insulted a kid trying to prove himself. So I gave him my water. I then turned to find someone offering me drugs (which I declined). I turned back and saw some woman gulping my water. After she sucked it down, they returned the near-empty bottle to me.
I remember walking away pissed, and feeling belittled. I knew it was the right thing to do, I just didn't like the way it made me feel. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. You give the person your water because you don't know if they're drunk, on drugs, or looking for an excuse to fight.
The traveler is always at a disadvantage, whether it be knowledge of the locale, language, or local customs and culture. Learning to let go of one's pride is not an easy task. Buddhists subscribe to the belief that something so seemingly simple can truly take infinite lifetimes to achieve. The good news is it gets easier with practice. It's my hope that by acquiescing quickly and easily when I feel threatened or in danger on the road, I skirt the escalation of events such as occurred with the 3 Lost Girls, when their refusal to pay a small cab fare which was potentially inflated, based on principal, lead to a yelling, spitting cabbie who felt just as wronged as them.
Dave is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Go Backpacking and Feastio. He's been to 66 countries and lived in Colombia and Peru. Read the full story of how he became a travel blogger.
Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:
- G Adventures for small group tours.
- World Nomads for travel insurance.
- Hostelworld for booking hostels.
- Rail Europe for train passes.
Sunday 1st of April 2007
Alan - Thanks for the feedback. I definetly could've misinterpreted the situation with the skaters, and overreacted a bit (internally at least).
I owe France another trip now that I'm older, if for nothing else, their approach to food which I've come to appreciate!
Friday 30th of March 2007
Hi, I've read your story and about all your trip in Europe, very good blog! Too bad that you decided to visit Nice. I am french, and trust me Nice is not such a good place to visit, the center is nice, but it's quite a boring city and people are really unfriendly there. About your encouter with skaters kids, trust me on that, skaters in France are never looking for trouble, and probably you misinterpreted their attitude. There are some kids that are violent and looking for some random fight, but definitely not skaters.
If only you had known, instead of staying in Nice, you could have taken a train to Avignon or Marseille, that are maybe 2h away, and that are much more beautiful and much more friendly (especially for tourists)! But anyway the best to visit in France is Paris first. Then if you like the sea, go to the west coast (Biarritz or Bordeaux). If you prefer mountains, go to the Alpes, most interesting mountains in Europe. If you like the country, go to Picardie (Amiens), just an hour north of Paris, and really beautiful during summer.
Friday 30th of March 2007
I know exactly where you are coming from, Dave. Although only of seldom occurrence, its not unheard of to be approached by someone purely out for trouble. Its only happened to me once, which isn't bad when you consider the amount of people that one encounters on their travels, and the fact that as tourists we do unavoidably stick out like sore thumbs at the best of times. Nevertheless, you are forced to play by a different set of rules in a foreign country when approached by someone on a little bit of a power trip or with a chip on their shoulder. Its a shame, but thats the way it is. Its a case having to bite your tongue and focus on how to get yourself away from the trouble as swiftly and safely as possible. When abroad you are effectively on your own - we have to accept the fact that, in reality, even if we happen to be in the right, rarely will others take our side. Its a bit of a shit sandwich, but, just like you rightly did, we all have to take a bite of it every now and then for the sake of self-preservation. Easier to say than do, but we all have to try and take it in your stride. Good post, Dave.
Friday 30th of March 2007
Ourman - I read the letter you wrote to people who may visit Vietnam, and found it very encouraging after reading about the Lost Girls. Thank you for sharing it in their Comments section. I can't pretend to know what it's like to be a woman traveler in these countries, as I know women always have to deal with the fear of rape, which few men do.
Ubertramp - nice analogy, glad I'm having Thai for lunch rather than a sandwich!
Friday 30th of March 2007
Most scary travel experience for me was in France too. Bierritz, a car pulled over just as I was walking back to my hostel. I looked down expecting to see someone offering me a ride or asking directions. It was a guy exposing himself.
I was shocked, looked up and ahead and kept walking. The guy started the car turned around and, again, parked in front of me on my side of the road. This time I didn't even look and I kept walking.
It happened four times in all. I was freaked. In hindsight. Being a guy, and a reasonably big bloke at that, I shouldn't have been so weirded out but I was quite young at the time.
In the end, I hopped over the wall at the hostel, dived into my tent. Pulled up the zip and sat there in the dark for ten minutes.
As for the lost girls - I lived in Vietnam for two and half year and I can absolutely say 100% that it is the safest place I have ever been. Its a country I feel strongly about and have so many good memories of so much kindness. I can't believe that the LGs are entirely blameless.
People in Vietnam don't take kindly to aggressive behaviour. In the past I have seen people get ripped off and then they treat the next taxi driver/ sales person with an attitude and it just keeps getting worse and worse.
There is a knack to surviving in Vietnam and must people suss it in a couple of days. Others never get it. It's a love or hate type place.
But I never had one scary moment there. There are plenty of poor parts of the city but there is nowhere unsafe and while, crime in on the increase, it is nothing compared to most parts of the developed world.