A New York Times article caught my attention this week and has quickly made the rounds among my travel-loving friends. The number of female solo travelers has skyrocketed, but amid Instagram-worthy escapades are tales of violence and death, raising questions about how the world is greeting women who travel alone.
Solo travel has always involved unique risks, and provided unique rewards beyond what travel with family and friends offers. Since living in Europe, and travelling alone almost every other weekend, I’ve developed a new appreciation for how powerful and satisfying it feels to move through space on your own. Aside from trivial things like doing exactly what you want when you want (and what is more of a ‘vacation’ from the everyday than that?), or swanning past groups and families in airport security lines, there are things I love about travelling alone that I could never have anticipated. I’ve found that with all the hours spent walking, observing, and letting my mind wander, that I come up with creative ideas and mental meanderings that are really different from the snippets that come here and there in our constantly interrupted daily lives. Another thing that always strikes me when I travel, is how lucky I am to be a woman who can move (relatively) freely through the world. It is an absolute privilege, one I don’t take for granted, and often as a female traveler, you look around and realize that the sphere you occupy is often not extended to local women. I’ve sat in cafes with friends for hours where everything seems ‘normal’, no one treats us oddly, the service is friendly, the patrons don’t regard us with any special attention, but we notice there’s not a single female patron who isn’t a Western tourist. We become aware that some unspoken exceptions have been made for us, as outsiders, that aren’t the same for local women.
Another layer of this was described to me by a friend who is British by birth but Pakistani by descent. She described how in some of the same Muslim countries where I’ve also traveled, taxi drivers and locals will pepper her with questions: “where is her husband?” “why is she travelling alone?” Because her last name and appearance cast her in a different sphere than a ‘white, Western’ tourist, she and I may travel to the same place and have very different experiences. All this despite the fact that she was born and raised in London. She told me about the fake ring she wears and the elaborate story she has prepared about her husband being a doctor and having to work, etc. just so that she can move through the same tourist spaces. In the Times article, Ms. Stefaniak’s friend suggested that because she spoke Spanish and blended in, perhaps the security guard who targeted her thought she would be subject to the same lax policing as local women. I also found the comments in this article from Jessica Nabongo about travelling as a black women particularly interesting (and heart-breaking) as she describes the unique challenges and assumptions that she faces moving through the world. In sum, women still face horrible treatment and violence everywhere in the world. From the most metropolitan cities to the most rural third world villages, women pretty universally get the short end of the proverbial stick, and violence against women proliferates. This article was a reminder that behind the wanderlust imagery and empowerment of solo female travel, the ugly truths about women’s place in the world can still spell disaster.
So what’s the takeaway? First and foremost, I’m not going to stop travelling alone any time soon. That said, I’ve only ever traveled alone throughout Europe, so I can hardly claim to be a particularly brave solo adventurer like some of the women in this article. When I travel to more exotic locations, I’m always with a friend and it gives me a sense of security that there are two of us (false security? I don’t know). Some of my most rewarding experiences have come by taking a slightly uncomfortable ‘risk’ or leap into the unknown in a way I wouldn’t in my day to day life. When you travel, there are often places where traditional rules don’t apply. Don’t walk down dark alleyways? Marrakesh is nothing but a maze of dark alleyways that look like the wrong way until they reveal hidden riads, souks, and lively restaurants. Don’t ride in cars with strangers? One of the most spectacular ‘off the beaten path’ experiences I’ve had was the San Blas islands in Panama. The experience of getting from our hotel to the islands can accurately be described as ‘are we being human trafficked or will this work out?’ as we were handed off from one person to another in a car, an underground parking lot, a jeep on a dirt road, a small boat, and finally, deposited in paradise. (I should add that we didn’t have any Spanish speakers with us which was idiotic, so we couldn’t communicate with a single one of the people transporting us, and couldn’t ask pertinent questions like ‘why are we now in this parking garage and what are we waiting for here and why are you leaving us in the car?’ which might have eliminated considerable stress). I’ve gotten rides all around Zanzibar from a local who barely spoke English, communicated by WhatsApp, and often had other friends in the car with him who ended up teaching us Swahili vocab and being some of the most memorable parts of the trip. Perhaps it all started the summer I was 15, my little brother was 11, and we spent all day every day for 2 months running around Bangkok, Thailand alone while my mother was at work on a temporary assignment. (People thought she was completely insane for allowing us to be in Bangkok unsupervised like this). This is all to say that some measure of getting out of your comfort zone is one of the most rewarding parts of travelling, and often leads to the deepest connections with locals. But it feels flippant not to acknowledge that these are all deep and rewarding experiences with locals from the comfort of hindsight, knowing everything worked out fine. I think about the various measures I take to stay safe in these instances and, when I read an article like this, it makes me feel as though luck almost plays the biggest part. You can mitigate risk, but as mentioned in the article “‘Carla Stefaniak did everything ‘right,'” a detail I found disturbing and resonant.
So what now? the article is a good reminder for me not to get lazy with personal safety when travelling. I have a few basic precautions that I follow, and that help me to feel safe, but it made me think I should look at perhaps doing more. I have a data cell phone plan and can always use my phone when I travel. This gives me some sense of security in an emergency, I wouldn’t want to have to ask for a wifi password to quickly call and notify people where I am and what’s going on. I walk everywhere when travelling, but stick to busy areas at night. Truthfully I don’t really ‘go out’ at night when I’m travelling alone. I’m not trying to meet people in bars, I’d rather just have dinner, maybe have a drink after if there’s a particular place I wanted to check out, and head home to wake up early. I know some people probably have stories of friends made and amazing nights of serendipitous encounters with locals, but I stick to myself when I’m alone in a way that I don’t when travelling with a friend. I always forward my Airbnb and lodging information to my boyfriend or family so they know where I’m staying and when I’ve made it safely home for the evening. I don’t stay in ground floor Airbnb’s alone, and I always pick “Superhosts” and look closely at reviews. (I’ve recently added a new policy; if I’m arriving late in a city alone, say after midnight, I always try to stay in a hotel NOT an Airbnb. I want a 24 hour reception desk to be open, I don’t want to meet someone late at night, and I don’t want to have to deal with lock boxes and keys alone late at night. I had one experience in Norway where a host changed key logistics at the last minute for a 1am arrival, and Airbnb proved unable to be helpful in real time, so I now only stay at cheap hotels for late arrivals).
If I’m booking any excursions or drivers, I book them through my accommodation where possible, and I always let my hotel know when I’m going with a certain driver or what excursion I am with. I also make it known to the driver and excursion that my hotel or other people know where I am. Basically, I try to always be in a situation where people know where I am, and people around me know that people know where I am. I’m also planning on keeping my solo travel to Europe, and continuing to do my more far flung trips in the company of friends and family.
One final note, I’ve been extremely lucky and had wonderful travel experiences, met wonderful locals wherever I’ve gone, and have taken what I consider to be ‘calculated risks’ that really paid off. My only two uncomfortable travel experiences both happened on public transportation. Once in Istanbul (with two girlfriends), and once in Mexico City (with my boyfriend). I would never take public transportation in these places again based on my experience, although I know others will probably say they do all the time and it’s no problem. In Mexico City I can’t stress enough that women should only travel in the female-only carriages. (Never a good sign when the only way to keep women safe on public transportation is to physically separate them from men, but I do appreciate that at least rules have been put in place to ensure their safety!) Let me know if you have any particular rules you follow for personal safety, or what your reactions were to this article.