When “It Can Happen Anywhere” Happens to You

female travel safety
Some of the beauty to behold in South Africa

With that said, sometimes it’s difficult to write about the low points of your trip. Despite the beautiful landscapes and enjoyable tours, that one bad incident can mar your whole experience, no matter how much you try to not let it happen. Revisiting the incident via blog post can feel frightening – you’re opening yourself up for judgment about a situation that had a deep impact on you. Honestly, I would not have written this post if it weren’t for my friends (both male and female) that thought it would be helpful.

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In November, I took a great trip to South Africa – Pilanesberg, Johannesburg and Cape Town. After a stressful/exciting few days in Pilanesberg (the safari life is not for me), my sister and I headed to Joburg.  I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of things about Joburg – “it’s unsafe”, “people will mug you”, “never have your cell phone out!” People warned us off of visiting Joburg and told us we’d enjoy the safe haven of Cape Town much more.

While those things may be true for some people, we never had that experience in Joburg. Everyone was warm and friendly and we never once felt unsafe. I adored my time in Joburg, particularly in Soweto. I wish I had more time there to explore what the city has to offer.

We arrived in Cape Town in the early afternoon and after resting up a bit, decided to head to our 8pm reservations at Mama Africa restaurant. Mama Africa is located on bustling Long Street – a street popular with tourists and locals alike, saturated with bars, nightclubs and restaurants.

female travel safety
The day I arrived in Cape Town, chilling on the rooftop of the Hilton

After dinner, we decided to walk back to our hotel – the Hilton Cape Town was just a 5-minute walk from Mama Africa and it wasn’t very late out – 10pm, tops. While walking down the sidewalk to our hotel, I saw a group of men walking opposite us. My NYC mindset made me clutch my purse a little tighter and quicken my step – I didn’t want to assume the worst, but I did want to be prepared. Sadly, what I assumed is not at all what happened.

Related Post:   Lisbon: Making the Best of Bad Circumstances

The group of men (4-5 of them) linked arms in walking towards us. As we approached, we tried to turn to our left and right and go around them, but they deliberately blocked our path. Suddenly, one lunged directly at me – grabbing me into a bear hug. At that point, my mind is racing as to all the different things that could happen next – will I be mugged? Will I be raped? Where is my sister?

As I’m struggling against the man, he begins to aggressively grope me while his friends laugh and root him on. I’m fighting against him with all my might to release me – shoving him, punching him, grabbing his arms – and he just laughs continues his unwanted advances. Fighting someone off while you’re in a bear hug is pretty much futile. All of my strength is going into fighting this man off and all it does it make him laugh even more.

Eventually I’m able to wriggle myself free of his arms and probing hands. My sister and I scurry away as quickly as possible – I learn in the moments that follow that she had to work to distance herself from one of the other men. For something like that to happen on my first night in a city, it colored my entire time in Cape Town. After that, we were sure to be in our hotel rooms by 9pm each night – no longer did I want to hit the hot spots I’d read so much about. In my mind I replayed the incident over and over, thinking “what did I do wrong? If I had done this or that, this wouldn’t have happened.”

The fact of the matter is that this could have happened in NYC. It could have happened anywhere, which is a saying that a lot of travelers love to trot out. But it didn’t happen to me in NYC, or my hometown of DC. It happened thousands of miles away from home, in a country where I didn’t even speak or understand the language of my attackers. A country where I didn’t know where to go to feel safe, or locals to speak with or even alternative routes to get around in that area. Until something “that could happen anywhere” happens to YOU in a foreign country, I’m not sure you fully understand. The statement “it can happen anywhere” doesn’t account for how the emotional and mental impact can be 10x worse when it does happen to you so far from anything familiar. It doesn’t account for the lack of resources and support available to you as a traveler in a foreign country.

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female travel safety
Later in my trip on my way to Cape Point

One of the worst things that happened as a result of this attack was the shattering of my confidence as a female traveler. I know I’m street smart and can handle myself in most situations, but I began to question my own judgment.

In all honesty, I’ll never stop traveling. I recently came back from Colombia (without incident) and have another trip scheduled next month. Despite what happened, I can’t allow an isolated incident to affect my passion to see the world. However, I urge people to think twice about using the statement: “It can happen anywhere.”

Here are some resources and tips for female travel safety that have been helpful for me:

Top 10 Travel Safety Tips for Women via Adventurous Kate

Female Travel Tips via Nomadic Matt

Solo Female Travel Safety via A Little Adrift

Tips for Solo Women Travelers via Rick Steves

Information for Female Travelers via the US State Department

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5 thoughts on “When “It Can Happen Anywhere” Happens to You

  1. I’m so sorry this happened to you and thank you for sharing your story. I can not imagine how terrifying that was. I know you know this but just wanted to say, you did nothing wrong and even if you did decide to stop traveling that would be your decision to make. However sounds like your passion for travel is greater than their disgusting, violent, invasive behavior and I salute you for that! (also glad you got some punches in because f**k that guy) I travel almost exclusively solo and was planning a trip to Cape Town in August so appreciate the resources you shared. Side note: came here from GLT!

    1. thank you so much for your kind words! It’s hard to imagine what would take away my passion for traveling, so I’m glad I didn’t let that guy do it! Cape Town overall was pretty safe so you should be fine on your trip. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions. woop woop GLT!

  2. This rings so true when I think about my experience being assaulted in India my second week there out of a 10-month program. It definitely affected the level of comfort and safety I felt for the rest of the year. I often find myself saying “it could happen anywhere” when talking about my experience because I feel the need to justify that my trauma isn’t a reflection on the culture at large. But that proooobbbbss isn’t necessary and I should stop apologizing for my experience/perspective (and all the other things us lady-folk seem more inclined to/societally pressured to apologize for). But yeah, losing my confidence as a female traveler and questioning my judgement? Check and check. And in truth in subsequent trips I have opted for “easier” places to visit re language and culture partly because of this (Ireland, Hawaii) because I wanted to go on vacation in places I could actually feel relaxed. But there are still more places I want to see in this big beautiful world and I don’t see anything stopping me.

    1. I agree regarding the justification – we both did that in our convos with each other on our respective incidents. I hope your confidence still isn’t shaken – get back out there! But it’s definitely a process getting back to the fearless confidence we had before.

  3. This is so horrible, and I’m sorry you’ve gone through this. I always say that to my family when they get worried about me, but you’re right, it really is different when you are in a foreign country. Something similar happened to me in Paris and it definitely colors my opinion of the city. I lived there six months so, thankfully, there were great things that overshadow it, but if it had been on a trip I would’ve never ever gone back. It’s also the reason why I would think twice about going back to Morocco, and would never do it alone again. Thank you for making me think about how I use that phrase.

    Ps. I’m happy to hear you had a great time in Colombia (I’m from there!) 🙂

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