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Women: Travel safely, but keep traveling

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 1:48 PM EST, Thu February 7, 2013
The tragic death of an American woman visiting Istanbul, Turkey, should not deter women from traveling, author says.
The tragic death of an American woman visiting Istanbul, Turkey, should not deter women from traveling, author says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ghitis: A life without travel is a life half-lived for many women
  • Violence against women highlights a need for caution, but staying home is not the solution
  • The first defense for any traveler is becoming aware of a destination's known risks

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist for World Politics Review and the Miami Herald and a regular CNN Opinion contributor. She has traveled to more than 60 countries. Follow her on Twitter @FridaGcolumns.

(CNN) -- The world can look like a dangerous, intimidating place. Or it can seem like a mysterious, irresistible adventure. Undoubtedly, it is both.

That's true for everyone but especially for women.

In recent days, evidence of the risks female travelers face has been prominent. We all grieve for Sarai Sierra, the 33-year-old mother of two, killed in Turkey while venturing out of the U.S. for the first time in her life. By all accounts, Sarai prepared well for her journey. On January 7, the aspiring photographer said goodbye to her family and left for Istanbul, one of the most magical of all cities. She never returned.

Every time I hear about Sierra, I'm reminded that years ago I enthusiastically encouraged a friend to take an opportunity to visit Turkey. "You will love Istanbul," I assured her, telling her she should not be afraid to step into a different culture.

My friend took my advice with more than a little trepidation. She returned from her trip visibly changed. A traveler was born. She has continued exploring other countries, and I have always viewed it as a small personal accomplishment that I helped open the world to her.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

For Sierra, travel ended in tragedy. Her family reported her missing after she didn't come home as scheduled on January 22. Last weekend, Turkish police found her body just outside the city's ancient walls. The investigation has yielded questions, rumors and the predictable blaming of the victim. We still don't know what happened.

Then we heard about the six Spanish tourists brutally raped in Acapulco this week. All of this coming after months of awful, infuriating news of attacks against women in India, in Egypt and elsewhere. And the bad news keeps coming.

What should women learn from these terrible stories? Some will surely say women should not travel or should stay away from "exotic" places.

For some of us, however, travel can feel as indispensable as oxygen. I know I am not the only person, the only woman, who would consider a life without travel, limited to one location or even one country, as a life half-lived, a life barely worth living.

And yet, pretending that travel is risk-free would be dishonest.

The drive to experience and explore the world has been the most powerful force of my own life for as long as I can remember. The day I came home from school and my father told me we would soon take a trip across the Atlantic is one of my most vivid childhood memories. I circled the departure date on the calendar and counted down the days, sleeping less and less as the date grew near.

The joy of travel and excitement at discovering new places is as strong now as when I was a child. My appetite for seeing and understanding this world remains insatiable. It determined my career choices and has shaped the way I live.

I consider myself infinitely wealthy because I can't imagine anything more valuable than my travel experiences, from postcard-perfect cities to active war zones.

I wouldn't trade any of it: whispering about the Dalai Lama with Tibetans in Lhasa, trying -- unsuccessfully -- to see Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon, gazing at Mount Everest from my airplane window, learning about political passions in the Balkans and the Middle East, interviewing "retired" Marxist guerrillas in the Amazon jungle, exploring Cuba, chatting with monks on the Mekong River banks in Phnom Penh, shielding my eyes from the sun in the Saudi Arabian desert or the Sahara. The memories are part of who I am.

And the best is that there is still so much to discover.

Should a killer in Istanbul keep me, or any other woman, from experiencing what the world still has to offer? Should despicable attacks against women in New Delhi city buses keep even one woman from living her life to the fullest?

The answer, I believe, is a resounding "No."

And yet, we cannot ignore the very real dangers. Everyone faces risks, but predators target women because they seem, and sometimes they are, more vulnerable.

We should travel joyfully, adventurously and carefully.

Wherever we live, there are areas we would not visit alone at night. The same is true, sometimes in broad daylight, in other cities. The most important precaution anyone can take -- and this goes for men, as well -- is trying to gain an understanding of the risks even before departure. Different places require different levels of caution.

It's useful to find at least one knowledgeable, trustworthy person to offer guidance on the security landscape. It's also important to learn about customs -- and this is especially important for women -- to avoid sending the wrong signals. Information is widely available on the Internet, from people who have taken similar trips and have useful information to share.

Obviously, engaging with shady characters, buying drugs and participating in illegal activities make the chances of disaster much greater.

We should listen to our instincts. When a place feels dangerous, when a new acquaintance seems suspicious, we should heed our internal alarms.

Dangers exist at home and abroad, but one of the greatest risks is not living the life that is meant for us. The greatest crime is shutting ourselves away from new experiences.

It is possible for women to see the world, to have adventures and to do it safely. The awful stories we have heard in recent days should give us pause, make us think and plan more carefully. But, for those of who can't conceive a life deprived of exploration, the lure of travel remains irresistible -- exactly as it should be.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

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