Yep, it happened.
Last month in the Philippines, as I was dozing off in a little bungalow on a beach that you can only boat to, I felt the walls and ceiling of my room shake. At first I passed it off as an animal, until I saw someone shine a light into my room and try to open the door from the low balcony.
I panicked, and the only thing I thought to do, was shine a light right back at them to let them know that someone was inside. Thankfully it worked and they disappeared, and when I heard the owner walking through 20 minutes later, I opened the door to let her know.
She looked shocked. “I… I have no words,” she stammered.
In the 10 years that the villas have been there, predicated on an agreement with the locals who live there, there had never been any threat to the set of bungalows before. It seemed implausible and yet, it happened.
I was shaken up for a couple of days. I wondered: Should I leave? Should I let it go? In the end I stayed, but I learned a few things from the experience that are at the top of my mind now.
These are the mistakes I made and what I could have done differently:
I got lazy:
While I am not victim shaming myself, I acknowledge that I’ve gotten a bit lazy. It’s always when I get ambivalent and break my own rules that I have issues, like walking alone at night in Nepal and getting robbed in Berlin. Both sucked, and neither one is entirely my fault, but both could’ve been avoided. Though I could not have avoided this situation, there is more I could’ve done to make myself safer.
Carry a personal alarm and doorjamb:
When I was interviewing solo female travelers for my 31 Tips for Solo Female Travel Safely and Conquering Mountains, a couple of women mentioned carrying a doorjamb and a personal alarm. Although there were no police around on that beach, had I made a lot of noise, perhaps the owners or other villagers could’ve caught the wannabe thief. Since I have no way of letting anyone know while it was happening, I was just stuck stewing until I heard the owner walking by some time later.
Although this was a sliding glass door, a doorjamb would protect you in most situations. With a doorjamb up against the door, it can’t be opened.
*Note that I don’t recommend mace or pepper spray since most airlines will not permit you to carry it on board or even put it in checked luggage. In some places, like the EU, it’s also considered a concealed weapon.
Make it easy to get up and go:
If I had needed to bolt, I could’ve run out the other door with a flashlight and my shoes nearby. But that’s not how I set it up. I tend to sleep unclothed, so that would have delayed me or would’ve forced me to run outside naked in a pretty conservative country. Two choices I don’t love.
Thankfully my phone was nearby enough that I could use it as a flashlight, but that was about it.
Learn and practice self-defense:
I’ve started practicing self-defense after this situation. I already knew a few things but I think it’s important to take it even a step further. I don’t believe that the person trying to come in wanted anything to do with me, but having the skills is helpful no matter where you are in the world, and in the worst case scenario, it’s good to know a thing or two.
Things I did right:
This is not to say that I did everything wrong. I did a lot right, too. The best thing I did was to lock the door instead of assuming that I could sleep with the door open or be relaxed enough to leave things unlocked. I always lock my doors no matter what, even if people tell me they never have an issue or that it’s not necessary.
After an initial period of being a bit scared, I also didn’t let it harden me to the beautiful place I was at and make me fearful and mistrustful of the people on Tablas. There are bad eggs everywhere, and desperation drives people to do things they would probably rather not.
Following that, a reader reached out to tell me that she had been following my footsteps on Tablas and had accidentally lost her bag with her money and camera in it, and that it was actually returned to her in its entirety! It almost feels that everything is canceled out and in harmony again with that amazing gesture.
In the end I haven’t decided to stop trusting when I travel. I don’t want to constantly live in fear – that’s not in alignment with my view of the world or how I want to feel. I’d rather assume that everyone is good and doing their best. It didn’t scare me out of traveling solo, because that could’ve happened no matter what, and has happened to me several times at home in California, anyway (it’s the place I’ve had the most home break-ins – 3 – and the most theft).
However it did make me aware of the ways in which I have gotten lazy. I am responsible for my own safety when I travel. Especially when in such remote places, I have to remember that it’s still not time to totally let my guard down.