When I first began planning my gap year of international travel I had never heard of the phrase “solo female travel.” I didn’t know it was a thing. A movement rather, of independent women like myself seeking adventure across the globe. In my naivety I hadn’t even hesitated to consider traveling the world alone. I’d traveled abroad in the past and felt confident in my ability to navigate the challenges long-term traveling would bring. I was optimistic and excited.
This optimism soon turned to anxiety when I began sharing my plans with others. Suddenly I received negative feedback from co-workers and friends who frequently showed me articles of women disappearing while traveling alone abroad and made jokes about me spending the rest of my life pooping in hole somewhere in the jungle. Their skepticism was thinly veiled by wary smiles of support and cautious enthusiasm. It felt as if I were breaking some unspoken rule, as if I were testing an invisible boundary tied to my gender and our beliefs about what women are and are not capable of doing on our own.
Kayaking in Greece, 2011
I never planned on being a “solo female traveler.” I just knew I was living a life inconsistent with my values and beliefs and that I had to change. I was responding to an inner voice telling me to make a move, to take a leap of faith and step into the Unknown. Traveling has always brought cathartic change in my life and been my chosen method of therapy, so it only made sense that I would travel while realigning my priorities and seeking a more authentic lifestyle. Deciding to travel alone wasn’t a conscious decision I made, it was the only option since friends and family couldn’t afford to go with me.
I’ve been traveling alone for five months now and the more I read and write, the more I experience, the more I realize that what I am doing is not unique or particular. Women all over the world are traveling on their own seeking adventure and authentic lifestyles. They are breaking rules and charting their own path.
In spite of this, there are so many negative and polarizing narratives about solo female travel, this “thing” that is picking up steam and drawing international attention. I recently read an article titled, “Dangers of Traveling While Female.” The article itself didn’t discuss any statistics about why traveling as a female was more dangerous than traveling as a male; there was no evidence for why gender made any difference in the safety of traveling alone. Instead, author Tara Isabella Burton lamented the lot of the female solo adventurer when compared to the freedom and openness of the male travel heroes she admired. “I wanted to be a fearless adventurer like my male heroes, but a voice kept warning me: Don’t get yourself raped,” she says.
I feel a lot of inner conflict each time I read an article or commentary like this. Tara continues her narrative with, “But deep down, I’ll know that such freedom is born of a privilege I do not have and perhaps should not want. It is a privilege that blinds those who have it to the fact that the world is not raw material, shifting, uncertain geography for us to shape and create anew in our words. It is not a moveable stage set upon which we can create visions of ourselves, invent ourselves as the adventurers we would like to be.”
Part of me understands her perspective and the limitations our gender forces us to live within. I can relate to her inner monologue of “Don’t get raped,” and I can’t deny that my vulnerability as a woman traveling alone affects certain decisions I make.
I almost said “no” to this solo jungle trek in Ecuador in 2012.
I have a hard time admitting this because I’m not sure that it should. As women we are conditioned to constantly worry. We’re told directly and indirectly that we are the weaker sex and are taught to depend upon our male counterparts for strength and security. We tell ourselves certain opportunities are not open to us because we are women, and this idea is reinforced by societies all over the world.
Tara goes on to say, “My approach must be a different one. I must watch; I must listen; I must look. I must sometimes remain silent and observe; I must avoid calling undue attention to myself. I must sacrifice the desire, born of too many readings of “A Time of Gifts,” to become the hero of my own story, the folk adventurer with the lace-up boots.”
Perhaps I don’t pay enough attention to the fact that I am a young female traveling alone. Perhaps I should take my father’s advice after this happened and “never walk anywhere alone,” an idea men everywhere would scoff at and never take seriously. Maybe I should listen to another globe trotter’s advice when she said, “I would never couch surf as a female traveling alone.”
But then I wouldn’t have met Fred, who invited me to stay with his family after couch surfing with him in Biarritz. I wouldn’t have shared a picnic in a field of wildflowers next to the Normandy beach with two boys I barely knew. I wouldn’t have met Guillermo or enjoyed a bonfire on the beach in Mexico. If I had based my decision solely on my gender, I never would’ve seen the virgin Amazon jungle and I never would’ve captured this beautiful sunset as I set off to walk along the coast alone.
I spent a night guerrilla camping along this shoreline in Hendaye, France.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t have moments where I wished I was a man traveling alone instead of a woman. I recently attended a ferria in France where I spent an entire sleepless night being woken up by strangers unzipping my tent and peering in at me. I cried angry, hot tears of frustration that night and thanked God I didn’t have a knife with me because I would’ve used it. Being constantly on your guard and fending off unwanted attention takes an emotional and mental toll that somehow leads to even more vulnerability.
It’s a Catch-22 I still don’t quite understand- being told the only thing to protect you from the unsolicited advances of men is to surround yourself with more men.
Spending time with new and old friends in San Sebastien, Spain 2013
I honestly wish “solo female travel” wasn’t a thing. I wish it were an outdated and irrelevant narrative. I wish we could spend less time talking about gender and more time sharing human stories that have nothing to do with our sex. I wish the undertone of fear and concerns for safety didn’t permeate our dialogue.
As for me, I continue to believe that I can and will reinvent myself as I travel the globe. The world is shifting and changing, new opportunities for adventure do exist. I will continue taking calculated risks and saying yes to jungle walks and ferrias, even if it means going alone. I will keep smiling at strangers and accepting kindness, even if it’s being offered by the hand of a man. I will be careful. I will listen to my instincts and choose to keep trusting in spite of the fear mongering around and within me.
Maybe I will get raped in an alleyway. Perhaps I’ll die of malaria in Africa. It’s possible I’ll be murdered and thrown oversea to never return home. I live with these unknowns and I accept them. I hope to live a long life where none of these things happen to me. But I want to live, to really live and not let the worse case scenario playing out in my head to stop me from experiencing the life I love.
Unlike Tara, I refuse to sacrifice the desire to become the hero of my own story, a story where I hope the fact that I am a solo female traveler is not the only thing people remember.
Meeting members of the Waorani tribe in rural Ecuador 2012
What are your thoughts on solo female travel? Do you think it’s a necessary and relevant topic? How does gender define the way you travel?Google+