I am a female traveler. This is a key distinction and it isn’t. Sometimes it feels as though my femininity is a raging purple elephant in the room, like the other night in the Gok when a budding ajoessi spoke entirely to my boyfriend about me, in front of me. Oh, very pretty. Oh, when will you get married? Sometimes it feels like a pass to places forbidden to men. Sometimes it feels like it’s not even present. Sometimes it feels like I can’t shake it for the life of me.
I am a solo female traveler. I’ve visited so many countries in the past five years that the Indian Embassy’s website cut me off on my visa application. I’ve moved to three different countries in that time span, and each time I went alone. I’ve logged literally thousands of miles of solo travel, most of it out of my own country.
I’m also a feminist. This is not a dirty word.
There’s your background on myself, for context. In a few places online, the last week brought a torrent of comments about solo female travelers. Due to the tragic death of a woman traveling alone in Turkey this month, some are saying that women have no business traveling alone. Especially if they happen to be a mother. Especially in the so-called Muslim World. Especially “third world” countries. Some choice comments:
- “Another Darwin award winner. Young female traveling alone in the Islamic world. And a mother of two at that. What was she thinking?”
- “Forget about the mother,why did the husband let his wife travel ALONE!Foolish as hell.Dumbmove”
- “I don’t think women ought to travel alone period, mothers or not.Specially not to 3rd world Islamic countries, where we all know they have little regard for women’s lives.”
- ” I think maybe it’s a good idea for any women wishing to travel alone be required to call in to a loved once an hour during the time she’s away so everyone knows she’s safe.”
- “Her passion for photography ended her life. It’s unfortunate but you never know how things work in other countries; no matter how much research you do. It’s not like the US, people have their own agendas, and how dare us come to these countries as tourists, naive and trusting. It’s just a setup for a bad outcome.”
- “If the companion for this lady traveler (my emphasis) canceled, sadly, this was the signal that this woman should have canceled the entire travel plan.”
Mothers should never travel. Women should have permission of their husband to travel. Women should never travel unaccompanied. Women should not even have passions like photography. Well, helllooooo, Saudi Arabia! I didn’t realize that the US had imported your views on women’s mobility! It’s codswolloppy victim-blaming at its finest.
To be a traveler, as I define it, is to put up with everyone insisting they know better than you. People inevitably tell you to avoid the country to which you are moving at all costs. They think it’s their business to butt into your bathroom habits and tell you just how little toilet paper they found in Korea. They tie up a Skype conversation by asking when you will “get a real job” and “get serious.” They tell you that the food sucks. They tell you you’ll get robbed. They tell you to stop looking for yourself and settle down.
As tragic as the situation for Sarai Sierra and her family, I really didn’t need an extra reason for people to criticize my lifestyle. Whenever I am back home for an extended period of time, the subject comes up and someone gets a case of the can’t-shut-ups about traveling alone as a woman.
I remember the very first time that I ever traveled alone. I was 19, and I lost my lunch into the bin just out of sight of security after saying goodbye to my parents in DIA. I forgot my favorite belt of all time in the process. But I’ve come a long way since then. Here are my best pieces of advice and stories from the solo female traveler road.
Ignore Ignore Ignore Ignore
Is someone speaking to you on the street? Ignore. In English? Ignore more. Pretend you’re deaf and keep your face neutral. I lived in the heartland of the catcall (Italy) as a 6-foot-tall, blonde haired, blue-eyed woman with considerable, um…assets. I don’t think I even made it out of the US before I got my first Italian whistle getting on the plane. I accepted the constant chatter so well that by the time I made it back to the US I became depressed after nary a “ciao bella!” in a week of walking around Boulder.
I’ve also had the second tier of street harassment. If someone grabs you, calmly slip away. Avoid confrontation. Resist the urge to slap him and plant a “Motherfucking cocksucker!” on him at top volume, especially if he has buddies around him. Once a man grabbed me by the braid in front of the Napoli train station. He turned my head toward him and caressed my cheek. I avoided eye contact, calmly removed his hand, and walked away without a word. I could hear his friends laughing at my rejection, but I was safer than if I’d tried to start a fight.
In certain situations, a bit of separation can do you good. I often wear sunglasses when walking about alone abroad, because they pull triple duty obscuring my face, covering my blue eyes, and making my expressions hard to read. In Bologna I was desperately lost in the summer of 2010, and I wandered into an underpass in the city frequented by heroin addicts. My sunglasses kept me covered and separated, and no one could see my tears of frustration and fear.
Another blogger recently said that when abroad, she dresses to observe rather than to be observed. Better advice about dressing might not be possible, but I also add that I tend to wear neutral colors and baggy clothing. Modesty is important. You may believe, as I certainly do, that a woman’s body is hers to do whatever she wants with. You may believe that men do not have a right to harass women who don’t dress modestly. You may believe that a woman in the 21st century should be able to show as much skin as she wants. Hard truth: you’re not liberating anyone by breaking rules in a society that is not yours to “liberate.” You aren’t doing yourself any favors, either.
Whenever I travel to a new country, I observe the women keenly and adopt a lot of their customs when it comes to dressing and acting. If women in Korea never show more than an inch of their necks (even in 35 degree heat), neither do I. If Chilean women insist on absolutely no wrinkles in clothing, so do I. If Italian women wear knee-length skirts and cover their shoulders, me too. I am about to travel to India, and I intend to dress as Indian women do (and probably die of heat). The illusion of propriety does wonders.
Get a buddy
I often began the journey alone. I almost never ended it that way. Finding people to travel with is one of the best tactics of solo travelers. You have to have a certain amount of faith in the human race combined with an equal amount of faith in yourself to choose the right people. A few times, I made friends in hostels and went places that I wouldn’t have walked to alone. I reached out to friends and pulled them into my travels. I found companions, male and female, with whom I remain close to this day.
Russell is also a traveler and he said that he attracted a fair share of solo female travel buddies as a generally non-offensive and non-creepy man who also happened to be traveling alone in South America. Being tall and a jiu jitsu practitioner probably also helped his case, and I certainly feel a bit more comfortable traveling to India with him.
Let me be clear. I’m not calling for chaperones, male protectors, or saying that women should never travel without a buddy. Almost any buddy, male or female, will help watch your back and give you confidence. This is a bonus, not an essential.
“It’s fine now, but when the shit goes down, I’ll tell you,” says the man with the biggest scars I’ve ever laid eyes on, a minute after I mmm-mmm’ed a response to drinks against my lips. From heroin addicts. In Santiago de Chile. At about 11 o’clock at night.
Yeah, I’m not certain how exactly I allowed myself into that situation. It was sketchy enough before the obviously-doctored drinks because of an open-air heroin deal right next to us a few minutes before. My companions were two other Americans, seemingly oblivious to the sketchface situation unraveling around us.
Don’t ignore the feeling that you should leave, especially in favor of an “authentic” experience. I got up to leave two minutes later, having heard enough from my kind scar-faced friend. Travel buddies? They were dancing and leaving their purses out. I’d already been robbed once that week, and I wasn’t looking to be drugged and god-knows-what-ed. I bolted. They whined. We got home unrobbed and unraped.
This awareness goes for national and international news as well. Try to read the local news as much as possible, and stay up to date on the goings on of the world. Political demonstrations are a no no, and certain sporting events can be a bit more dangerous for women due to the gender ratio (at times 10 or even 50 to 1). Know where to avoid, and keep your wits on you at all times.
If I’d never traveled alone, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today. It’s given me confidence, skills, and languages that would have been completely out of reach. If I was hung up on always having someone to tag along with, I’d have never been on the trip to Seoraksan last May that led to me meeting Russell. If I had lacked independence, we’d have never ended up sitting next to one another on that bus ride and falling for one another over copious soju.
Women can travel alone, that’s certain. I take it one step further.
Women should travel alone.
Nothing that someone spouts on a soap-box commenting forum will ever deter me. May it be the same for you.