Sometimes on the road you have to be your own mother, father and police force: follow our travel editor's advice
Why western women fall for Petra’s ‘love pirates’ and how to avoid a romance scam
Like many people reading the story that surfaced this week about female tourists falling victim to romance scams in Jordan, I laughed. The idea that educated women from the world’s most developed societies are believing the corny, cooked-up lines fed to them and, even worse, handing over or sending substantial amounts of money, is, well, laughable. Maria, “a European woman in her 30s”, was one of many who have fallen for Ahmed Alfaqeer, who “gave her a piece of kohl and entranced her with tales of his childhood in the desert”, before becoming controlling and asking for money.
Yet there was also a creepy sense of recognition. I, too, have been hit on, although not successfully and not for money. Early in my travels to the Middle East, I was three days into a tour of Jordan when – yes, in Petra – my tour guide made a pass at me. When I declined, he tried to argue, saying because he had spent so much time with me, he “deserved” some alone time – in my hotel room – as a thank you. Presumably, this is why he spent the previous day telling me that I “deserved the best” as he steered every conversation, observation and piece of information, towards the personal. I realised that all the apparent epiphanies we had together about life were leading to something less than genuine. Disappointing.
Deep in the Tunisian Sahara, another tour guide hoping to take advantage of the fact I was travelling alone to an extremely lonely location offered to “keep me company” in my tent. Not appealing.
Sometimes on the road you have to be your own mother, father and police force. Yet it’s precisely when they are vulnerable that so many people drop their guard. In the case of Jordan, and probably lots of other places, there’s a kind of weird but ultimately orientalist dynamic at play in which romance-starved women from the West are showered with the kind of attention and fairy-tale nonsense that they were fed as little girls – and which they would never in a million years fall for as adults in their own country. Having had perhaps very limited knowledge and expectations of the Middle East in general, and wanting to prove wrong those who would tell them “I told you so”, they are surprised and delighted to find out how well-spoken, funny and worldly these men are. More fool them, although it’s admittedly much easier to fall for a scam when you’re in unfamiliar territory, thousands of kilometres from home and without a protective chaperone.
This is a serious issue around the world, and the Jordanian authorities in Petra and elsewhere would do well to take firm action.
As I travel, I see too many women being taken advantage of, and abused, by men. Sometimes it’s tourists doing the abusing. In Cambodia, I’ve seen older western men with teenage girls. Numerous documentaries have highlighted the sexual exploitation of even very young children by tourists throughout Asia. I was once travelling in a bus along a street in Thailand when I saw a local woman in a state of severe shock and upset try to get away from her western male companion. I wish I had done something.
Yet it’s what we can all do for ourselves that really counts. If in doubt, don’t let your guard down. Wherever you are from and wherever you are, value yourself. While remaining open to new experiences, be critical. Cultural differences sometimes override our instincts, and sometimes we are even aware of it, but tempted to let it happen. Never lend money to people you don’t know, unless it’s pocket change to help a woman get a taxi to safety.
Not all holiday romances are shams, but remember the adage: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. And that’s a line that works in every language.