Muggings and rape threats will not stop me travelling

As a woman travelling alone, I have been assaulted, mugged and shown a lack of respect. It has made me more cautious but I refuse to live in fear

A woman asked me recently about Antigua. “Is it safe to walk home alone here?”

“No unfortunately not,” I said, “and even more unfortunately, I found out the hard way.”

“What happened?” she asked.

So I started to tell her the story of how I left a bar in the centre of Antigua, where I live in Guatemala, at about 1.30am on a Thursday, and got attacked by two men on a motorbike who tried to rob me and do God knows what else.

Before I could tell the woman that a hotel security man who was watching the CCTV cameras as it happened came out and saved me, the woman interrupted to tell me it was my fault.

“Well, you deserve it if you’re going to be so stupid as to walk home alone at that hour,” she said.

She was right. It was stupid of me to try to walk home at that time of the night, anywhere, let alone in Antigua, which is an easy place to feel safe in the daytime, when it is full of music, tourists, colourful buildings and sunshine. But to tell me that I “deserved it” is why I am here sitting at my laptop writing this piece.

I was brought up by my parents to be a strong woman, to really go for what I wanted in life and to always do my best – to always try, to always participate. And to travel wherever I wanted.

I left Ireland on August 13th, 2014. I quit my jobs, closed my accounts, sold my car and said goodbye to the people I love. I will return when I return, I thought to myself, but I am doing this journey alone.

The first country I visited was Kenya, and I stayed there for three months before moving to Costa Rica, and then Panama, Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala. I have had to have my wits about me, not just because I am a white, red-headed woman travelling alone, but because I am a tourist and a prime target for anybody out there with bad intentions.

A terrifying boat trip

Through nearly all my travels, I have been lucky that nothing terrible has happened to me, although something did on my second last night living in Bocas del Toro, a group of Caribbean islands in Panama.

I was taking a water taxi back to the island from the mainland when the boatman cut the engine. Two kilometres from the island, he asked me for money, which I immediately gave him, but he wanted more.

When I realised he wanted to rape me, I jumped into the water and started to swim as fast as I could towards the glistening lights of Carenero island. It was the first time in my life I thought I was going to die. If he didn’t do it, the water would; there was no way I was going to make it to the shore.

Then I heard the engine turn back on, followed by the noise of lapping water getting closer. He pulled me by the hair back into the boat, cutting my back in the process. I sat there crying and begging him to bring me home, where I could give him hundreds of dollars.

He laughed and told me that he wanted my body, not my money. I started thinking frantically: what can I say to keep myself safe?

At the time I had been working as a chef alongside a very respected 40-year-old Rastafarian family man, a father of two and king of Bastimentos island. There wasn’t a person in Bocas who didn’t know Miguel.

“If you touch me,” I shouted at the boatman, “Rasta Miguel will find you and you will never drive another boat in your life.”

With that, his face dropped, the engine went on and we headed towards my island. As he left me at the dock, he apologised and begged me to say nothing, that it was just a joke.

The next day Miguel and I found the man and brought him to the police, where his boat licence was taken and his wife told what he had done.

The next day I left Panama.

That night was one of the scariest of my life, but I was okay in the end. It didn’t frighten me forever; it made me stronger but more cautious.

Watching that man standing there with his head hung low as his licence was taken from him outside his house, as his wife stood in the doorway holding their child, was a very empowering moment.

Two attacks in Antigua

In the past nine months I have lived in Antigua. I have been attacked twice. The first attack was that time outside the bar. The second was a few months ago when three friends and I were walking home on a Saturday night. I was walking with my friend Audra and about 10m behind us were Rachel and our friend Chris, who is very tall.

The man on the motorbike who wanted to mug Audra and me wasn’t aware of Rachel or Chris. I am sure he would not have attacked us had he known we were a group of four.

He pushed Audra and me to the ground. We screamed and kicked but he ripped the leather strap of my handbag and ran for his motorbike, with my house keys, money and phone, and parked in a lane, ready for his escape. Filled with fury, I ran after him. I jumped on his back as he sat on his bike. It didn’t take much of a struggle before he threw my bag to the pavement and I pushed myself off him.

Not my smartest move, maybe, but I wasn’t going to let him away with it. Since then I have never walked home, never been alone late at night and never gone out without a way to get home.

But here is my point: I will not allow these things to stop me from living my life or continuing my travels.

It is so hard being a woman sometimes. We are often thought of as weaker, not as capable, too emotional and sensitive and so on. I get stared at every single morning as I walk Randy, my dog. Men hiss at me. Men look at every inch of my body as they pass me on the street. Men have slapped my ass in a night club and pestered me at the bar as I try to order a drink. The harassment is endless.

But I will not stop going out at night with my friends. I will not stop wearing nice dresses during the day. I will not change out of my hiking shorts as I come off the mountains and walk home, and I shouldn’t have to.

Just because I am a woman, do I have to think to myself, Hmmm, this summer dress is too sexy for the day?” No. Screw it. I will wear what I want (with modesty) and I will look how I want.

I know there are cultural differences and it is going to take years for that to change. But all I know is, it shouldn’t be me to change, nor should I have to explain myself to any other person, especially not another woman, as to why I still go out and why I still wear dresses or shorts or skirts.

I will not become weak

It is hard living in a place where women are not respected, where we are not equal to men and where we are expected to be and act in a certain way.

It is hard to be stared at every day like I am a piece of meat and to be told I shouldn’t wear this and I shouldn’t wear that. It is hard to walk down the street with your brother as every single man who passes in a pickup truck looks you up and down.

It is hard to deal with all of these things every single day, but if I let all of these things get to me, I will become exactly what these pigs think I am: weak.

Being a woman means being strong, fighting these things and standing up for yourself. I have always been surrounded by strong women. I was raised by a full-time mum who sacrificed her career for my brother and me. Every day as a child, I came home to a wonderful home-cooked meal. She would ask me about my day, ask me about school, ask me about my friends, boys, everything. She was always there for me, making sure I was growing up to be strong.

My godmother works harder than anyone I know, building her businesses and not letting tough times stop her.

My best friend graduated from university and followed her heart to the other side of the world to work for a position she really wanted.

My nana was loved deeply by her husband but neglected at times. She still made jokes and cooked amazing meals right up until the day she died.

My other beautiful grandmother played tennis and did gymnastics until she was in her 70s. She raised three great children and died still looking as beautiful as I ever remember her.

So, as a solo travelling woman who has seen a bit and been through some tough times but even more incredible times, I say we should keep travelling. The world is a scary place, yes, but that should not stop anyone from finding out how beautiful it is. There are more good people out there than bad; you just have to watch out for the bad ones.

  • Natasha Murtagh (24) is from Greystones, Co Wicklow. For the past nine months she has been working as a volcano guide in Guatemala. She writes a blog, thenoseyfox.wordpress.com. Her brother Patrick joined her recently in Antigua, where he teaches English

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