I get asked a lot if there have been times I've felt unsafe or threatened and I can honestly say I can count the times on one hand. In three months of travel I have accepted help from a lot of people and only turned down a couple. I may have missed out on great opportunities by declining an offer but as the saying goes, I would rather be safe than sorry.
Friends have told me they don't know if they could be as trusting as I am but when you are traveling and living from moment to moment I think you may surprise yourself. The kindness of strangers is always surprising and my first instinct is often to back away and say no thanks. I have learned if I take a moment to listen to what I am being offered and watch body language I can tell if it's a threatening situation or not. Sometimes it's just a small doubt in the back of my mind that doesn't dissipate during the conversation. Like I said, I may judge wrong but so far I have trusted my gut and have had no problems whatsoever.
I think the first time I declined an offer for a shower and place to stay was from a Norwegian man I came across in Texola, Texas. We were heading to the same place and he already had a room booked there. He offered for me to meet up with him, have dinner and a shower. I did take his phone number but didn't contact him. I wasn't comfortable meeting someone at a hotel to take a shower. This seems like a no-brainer but honestly if I had a better vibe I would have gone. Most of me thought it would be harmless but that small voice disagreed. So, I didn't accept.
In Indiana, I was offered a room in a motel-turned-apartments. I stopped to take photos of the motel's neon sign and the owner just happened to be there. He struck up a conversation with me and I learned all about his family and how he came to own the motel. When he learned what I am doing he offered me a vacant room for the night. My caution voice was there then too but it was different. I have learned over the last three months the different levels of gut instincts. It's natural to be guarded with strangers. We have been told our whole lives to be careful of strangers, don't talk to strangers etc. so I think we are always a bit guarded. I have found there is a difference between my natural, ingrained defensiveness with strangers and the serious warning voice. It takes time to recognize the difference but my general rule is if the voice is accompanied by a gut feeling I decline and move on, possibly missing out on something but possibly avoiding a dangerous situation.
In Louisiana, I made a goal of photographing the abandoned Six Flags park in New Orleans. I drove around the park and scouted out where I could park that would be far enough away not to draw attention to it. I ended up leaving my van a lot farther away than I thought. I began walking and right away a car turned around with a young guy and girl and their dog in the back. They came to ask if I had broken down and needed a ride somewhere. I immediately sized them up, looking around the car and studying their faces. I told them where I was heading and they offered me a ride. I took it. There was nothing out of the ordinary there and I felt no threat at all. On the way back to my van a guy in a beat up truck offered to drive me and I declined. I still don't know why I did but 'no thanks' came out of my mouth before I even thought about it. Sometimes it just happens that way and I don't question it.
Yesterday I decided to take a walk through the French Quarter during the day to take some photographs. Just as I crossed the street I saw two porta potties, but they were both locked. From out of nowhere a guy approaches me and wants to lead me to a hotel where I can use their bathrooms. I feel like he might be a hustler but there are so many people around I follow him. He tells me where I can find a free Thanksgiving dinner, free showers and free places to stay. He has only been in Nola for a few months and has learned the ropes. For the 3 minutes I am walking with him I am studying his face, the road names and all the shops around me. I have my hand on my purse the entire time as well. When he points to the hotel I thank him for his help and walk in the direction of the door. As I approach I can see there are door men holding the door for people and the car pulling up, filled with people who are checking in, looks pretty normal. I was thinking he was leading me to something sketchy and it actually turned out to be a nice place and a much needed pee break. I'm not saying he's not a hustler though. I met him later in the streets and he said, 'Where are you going? I'm trying to hook up with you". I simply responded with a very stern NO and he politely left me alone.
I would never suggest there aren't bad people out there but I am saying that it would be a great thing if we all just let our guard down a little and trusted more. Learning to trust your voice of caution and studying your surroundings is the best defense you have. Not being afraid to be forceful with language is another thing I've learned. Who cares if I offend some person I will never see again if it keeps me safe. I love people and my trip would be nothing without the interactions with them. In the end, they need to trust me as well. The people who have taken me into their homes or made dinner for me don't know me from Adam either so they are also taking a risk. Thank heavens they take a chance on me because they have helped shape this journey more than they know.