One night while I was sleeping in the Kidepo Valley in Uganda, loud rustling noises and darting shadows on my room's canvas walls awakened me. I was alone. There was no electricity to switch on a light, no phone to call anyone, or anyone to call, and I had no idea where I'd find the guard who spent all night walking all around the giant property. My would-be attacker (thankfully) turned out to be a grumpy old water buffalo foraging for food. Mustering the courage to get out of bed, open the door, and deal with whatever awaited me on the other side nearly gave me a heart attack.
Sleeping anywhere other than home can be unsettling. I've been startled awake by everything from jiggling door handles, fire alarms, inebriated locals, and gunshots, to injured geckos, chanting parishioners who sounded like warriors, toothbrush-eating rats, shoe-eating hyenas, squealing warthogs, and giant bugs in my bed.
Traveling by myself as often as I do, I've had to learn to deal on my own with whatever comes up when the sun goes down -- whether or not I'm scared.
In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad wrote, "I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice." Turns out sleeping alone in unfamiliar, often scary places is my nightmare of choice.
I kind of like the feeling of being scared. I don't "like it like it" the way I like, say, Hawaii, but the thrill, satisfaction, and empowerment I get from dealing head-on with whatever the night throws my way makes being frightened worth it.
Turning fear into the courage to act is hard. It doesn't always come naturally and sometimes takes practice. After all, I was scared of my own basement when I was little, even though it was furnished (rather nicely). I still can't watch the commercials for scary movies, let alone the actual movies, without suffering nightmares.
So over the years I've developed rituals to help me tolerate fear and sleep easier when away from home. Some are fairly straightforward, commonsense practices. Others, depending on how remote and/or creepy the destination, are a tad more "proactive" -- some may say paranoid.
- Most importantly, when I'm awakened by a noise, unless there is clear and present danger (e.g., a natural disaster, I see someone or something), I never react without thinking things through. Instead, I calm myself and lay still while trying to determine the source of the noise or problem, and whether it merits a response before even turning on my flashlight. Only after I have a game plan (and a plan B) do I make a move.
I try to remember to ask for accommodations (whether a room, tent, or cabin) close to reception, the main dining area, an exit, the driveway, or wherever other guests or staff may be. Besides feeling safer, the closer you are to reception, the stronger the Wi-Fi signal, if there is one. Before going to sleep, I make sure I know the way out well enough to do so in the dark. If I'm in a proper hotel, this means knowing how to find the elevator or emergency exit stairs. If I'm at a lodge or campground it means knowing my way back to reception, the main road, or the closest other people. For immediate access to a light source (if needed), I always sleep with my cell phone and/or a flashlight in the bed or on the table next to me. If I'm sleeping under a mosquito net someplace even moderately questionable, the cell phone or flashlight goes inside the net with me. At night, I leave a light on, when possible -- usually in the bathroom with the door nearly closed. I realize this is not great on the don't-waste-electricity front. But first, I rarely make it through the night without having to go to the bathroom. Finding the loo in an unfamiliar place in total darkness often ends with a stubbed toe or banged knee. Second, it's important I can quickly find my phone/flashlight and shoes should I be startled awake. When staying in a room where my door has an old-school lock that requires a key to open it from the inside to get out, I leave the key in the lock. If I need to get out in a hurry, the last thing I need is to search for the key to unlock the door. I always keep my wallet, camera, and other valuables grouped together so they're easy to grab. Depending on how sketchy the place is and/or what my gut is telling me, I keep valuables in my day bag next to the bed, or on the bed if the situation calls for it -- but that's pretty rare... thankfully. What I never do is leave valuables in the "safe" by the door when sleeping -- that just seems like a bad plan all around. Though I rarely unpack anywhere anyway -- other than perhaps removing a few items from my bag to make it easier to get to other things, or putting my toiletries in the loo -- if I feel concerned or spooked, I'll pack my bag and keep it nearby. I leave my shoes next to the bed with their openings facing me so I can slip them on without delay. At home I may sleep with little or nothing on, but not when I travel. And the more isolated or remote a destination, the more clothes (i.e. something on top and bottom) I wear. I was so freaked out one place I actually slept with my shoes on. (Note: it was not the country's fault, just paranoia run amok.) Frankly, I just feel better equipped to deal with anything menacing -- whether real or imagined -- when I have my shoes on and butt covered. If I'm taking a sleep aid, have had a few drinks, or am in a place with no lock or that is kind of dicey, I put something in front of the door (or opening) that will make a noise to wake me should someone or something thing try to enter. Ditto putting something in front of a window if I'm sleeping with it open. I always hated playing hide-and-seek as a child... just sitting silently waiting to be found (or not found)... like prey. Above all else, if I hear or see something, I do something. Even if it is ultimately deciding to do nothing.
It's immensely gratifying knowing I can handle more anxiety than I imagined I could, and can muster the bravery to confront whatever's waiting for me on the other side of a disturbing noise. I feel stronger, and perhaps, more powerful, in body and mind every time I "make it through" a bumpy night alone.
What are your strategies for dealing with nighttime's errant noises when traveling solo? Comment below or find/follow me on Facebook for more conversation.
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Water buffalo of the Kidepo Valley... perhaps he was my late night visitor?
Water buffalo of the Kidepo Valley.