Close calls with solo traveller Gwendolyn Janke

Two eye-opening experiences come to mind when I think about my solo travel as a woman and they occurred to me during the #metoo movement.

I first left to travel the world at the age of 22 to find myself, of course, which was the done thing in the 90s. Actually, I just wanted to get out, discover the world and experience a real culture shock. So off I went and, having been brought up well and safe in a small English town, I naively transported my courtesy, respect and common sense onto everyone I met.

Close Call Number 1 – India 1992

Whilst settling down in the corner of the floor of Delhi station, like hundreds of Indians on their mats or sheets of newspaper to wait for an early morning train, I was invited to wait in the station master’s office along with three other travellers whose train was an hour before mine. We took our shoes off, lay down, fully clothed, on our sleeping bags and, before dozing off, I asked them to wake me when they were leaving.

Next thing I know there’s foul smoky breath in my face and I’m being pinned down by the station master and he is saying “no fuck, just kiss”! The shock is so great that I shout out loudly, pushing hard against him. He is so surprised, tumbles off me and starts shushing me with a panic stricken look on his face. My heart is beating ferociously, a huge lump is forming in my throat and as I am shouting I realise my shoes are not there.

Gwen makes a ruckus

I just start randomly shouting “where are my shoes, police, help, police, stop” and this man looks so scared so I realise I have the upper hand and calm down a bit inside. The station concourse is full of Indians waiting for their trains and this man is obviously petrified. He retrieves my shoes from behind his desk, repeatedly says please no, please no, please no and unlocks the office door.

So, all was well, but what got to me the most was how three men thoughtlessly left a young girl asleep, alone, in a room with a man at night!

Close Call Number 2 – Mexico 1997

I’m tall, usually dress more like a man and reckon I can take care of myself. So when invited to go dancing in a grungy music dive in downtown Guadalajara, I’m all in. The people I’ve met are smoking weed and drinking like there’s no tomorrow and we’re all moshing at the front of the stage to the awesome rock band doing covers of Mana and La Mosca. I’m taking it easy on the alcohol, keeping my wits about me and when I’m knackered, at about 2am, I decide to leave in an official taxi rather than wait for the others from my hostel.

As is the done thing here, I haggle for the price before getting in and off we drive. About half way the driver starts up price negotiations again and I’m only understanding a bit because it’s all in Spanish but the numbers I know and it’s beginning to get ridiculously high. So I smile and am refusing to change the price upon which the driver says “vale, police.”

Ooooh, here comes that familiar lump in the throat and the increasing heart beat. Obviously if HE is suggesting the police, this does not bode well for me – it’s well known that the Mexican police are corrupt.

Gwen makes a run for it

I’m thinking what would Indiana Jones do? I begin to recognize where I am, and as we slow down at a traffic light, I pull the handbrake, kick open the door and make a dash for it. I’m just flying, man! Jumping the metal barrier of the main road, tearing across the building site behind which is my hostel – what adrenaline!! My hand is shaking as I fumble with the key in the door and once inside my room I collapse and get my breath back and start giggling. It’s incredible how the body reacts to stress and danger!  But hey, I’m safe.

Anyway, the next minute there’s a knock at my door – what an idiot I am, the driver knows where I live – and the hostel owner tells me there’s an irate taxi driver at the door who says I didn’t pay him. I go to the door and with the help of the hostel owner pay the original price and the driver leaves.

Gwen makes lemonade

Both these situations taught me to always have my wits about me and keep my eyes open. Above all, don’t trust everyone, but also don’t assume everyone is out to get you, either. Every situation hones your instincts a bit more.

And so, I keep travelling and the threatening incidents can be counted on one hand, while the incredible, fascinating, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime situations and encounters I’ve had over the last 30 years out there in the world would easily cover hundreds of pages.
Happy travelling everyone – keep your wits about you and stay safe!

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Gwendolyn is a half German, half English bilingual secretary who worked a boring bank gig bank in London before the travel bug bit. She then led adventure tours in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Eastern Europe for three and a half years. She gets out to adventures whenever she can, given the current situation.