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6 Mistakes to Avoid as a Mideast Woman Solo Traveler: Since my childhood days, I have been a female solo traveler navigating six continents for 50 years. Although I have been able to do so safely, women do have to take into account different cultures and customs.
6 Mistakes to Avoid as a Mideast Woman Solo Traveler: Dress Codes:
Don’t overlook what is considered “modest” dress. This is widely interpreted depending upon the context and the country. Jehan Sadat, Egypt’s former first lady, in her biography “A Woman of Egypt” recounts that she, herself, was sometimes criticized as not dressing modestly enough. Coming as tourists from abroad, we can find it really hard to know what is right. There is no way any of us can please everyone all the time, but there are a view general guidelines that work well. Customary dress includes: 1. Long jacket, tunic or thigh-length shirt worn over slacks. 2. No open-neck, low-neck shirts. 3. Scarves worked for me: I wore a large silk scarf at the neck to add some color and style. It was also practical when, as needed, to enter certain buildings that required covering my hair. Some sites may have loaners, especially if they are ones visited by tourists. 4. Indian Kurti tops, tunics and shirts. They are available on the Internet at a range of prices. The fabrics work well in hot desert temperatures. The vibrant designer silks also go easily from day into night. 5. Be especially aware of dress codes coming and going to work out, swim or catch a yoga class.
6 Mistakes to Avoid as a Mideast Woman Solo Traveler: Cultural Customs:
Don’t forget that being merely friendly at home can be misperceived as being “available” in a Mideast setting. Here in the US, it is common to strike up a conversation with taxi drivers or have a chat with strangers. In the Middle East, that is not the custom. As a result, avoid such misunderstandings, watch how casual interactions can be interpreted, and do sit in the back of cabs.
Avoid making eye contact which can imply interest in dealing with strangers. Journeywoman has pointed this out recently for women solo travelers around the world. They had a practical solution: Wear sunglasses! In the sunny Middle East, this makes sense in any case.
Don’t assume that it is customary for women to patronize all restaurants and cafes open to the public. Some restaurants do have family sections as well.
I was surprised one evening some time ago to find cafes by the Pyramids only had male customers. My solution was to take a cab to an international hotel for dinner and swung back for the Sound and Light Show. In Amman in the daytime, I found that women went to restaurants but generally in pairs or several friends together. I would stop in during daylight hours for a cappuccino. However, I made a point of choosing tables near other women hoping to telegraph that I was not looking for “company”. In the Middle East and many other parts of the world, I have typically selected a hotel with a good restaurant thereby avoiding looking for places to eat out at night. Another good option I found is taking a taxi from my hotel to dinner at a restaurant and having the driver wait while I ate. In Cairo, the price was right but always get an estimate first.
6 Mistakes to Avoid as a Mideast Woman Solo Traveler: Safety Issues:
If you will need a private guide, don’t hire someone who is not referred/recommended by an established agency or your hotel. If you have any problems, you can report back to the source, and find a replacement. In actuality, few guides will risk losing revenue by unprofessional contact. Do meet the guide at your lodging. I had a mix-up renting a horse to ride at sunset at the Pyramids. I suddenly became aware in the middle of the desert way past dark that my “guide” was not from the stables but a stranger. So do avoid following the “wrong man” in any case.
Don’t risk losing valuables in the airport where there is a separate security facility for women. As a solo traveler without a travel mate, that can mean leaving your purse and bag on a security conveyor belt while you are in a separate room. When I had this happen, I grabbed my passport and wallet. During the screening by a woman in line with other women, I held out my wallet and passport so they could be checked. There was no problem. When I was sent back to the conveyor belt, my x-rayed bags and purse were awaiting me with no problem. Had there been, I would have at least had ID, passport, credit cards and cash.
Four Tips for All Travelers in the MENA Region:
Don’t overlook safety when choosing a hotel. My hotel had been bombed sadly during a wedding celebration. As a result, the hotel was largely new, and security equal to that of an airport. Every person that entered, including guests, had their bags, purses and totes sent through a metal detector. I felt perfectly safe although it was a reminder of unfortunately what can happen.
Don’t fail to take military checkpoints seriously, and do carry your passport securely. I was surprised when my driver and I were stopped at a Jordanian checkpoint, and the car was required to pull off the road for a series of questions. We were near the Dead Sea so that I knew it was a sensitive area. We were sent on our way shortly, but it was a reminder to take my passport during times of heightened security alerts.
Don’t assume that the items allowed on board flights at home will be legal abroad. In the Middle East, I was stopped at security because I had a package of batteries for my camera. My guide helped me to negotiate taking some of them in the cabin since my camera was not rechargeable. I was surprised by the security guard’s explanation: “We are at war”. I was puzzled but didn’t ask what that meant. I had previously learned from savvy fellow travelers, engaging in political exchanges at national borders is never a good idea.
Don’t end up in jail instead of on vacation. This can happen abroad to both women and men by taking over-the-counter drug and prescriptions legal at home but prohibited abroad.
With some planning and thought, the Middle East can be a really fascinating solo destination combining monuments from ancient times to 21st tech and architecture. Do keep it on your bucket list!
For more on my personal solo female travel in the region, take a look at my adventures in Egypt.