What It’s Like to Travel Alone as a Woman

In honor of International Women’s Day, I’m going to write about a topic I haven’t written about in the past because I feel like other blogs have covered traveling as a woman better than I ever could.  However, I’ve finally thought about it enough that I think I have something to add to the conversation.

A few days ago, two Argentinian lady travelers were killed in Ecuador.  They accepted the hospitality of two men who in the night attempted to rape them, and then killed them when they put up a fight.  The story came across my radar on Facebook, in a post that berated the media for saying the women were traveling “alone,” as if they had to have a man in their group to not be “alone.”  To be fair, I can’t think of a more efficient way to say they weren’t with a tour or part of a larger group, but journalists probably should watch their words, since all published material tends to be picked apart for sexism, racism, etc.

But I digress.

A woman from Paraguay named Guadalupe Acosta wrote a letter in response to the media’s victim-blaming reaction entitled “Ayer me mataron” (“Yesterday They Killed Me*”).  Here is the full letter in Spanish, and here is the article from which I took the following translation:

“But worse than the death, was the humiliation that came later. From the moment they found my lifeless body no one asked where was the son of a bitch who ended my dreams, my hopes, my life. No, rather they began asking me useless questions(…)

What clothes did you have? Why were you walking alone? Why was a women traveling alone? You got into a dangerous neighborhood: what did you expect? They questioned my parents, for giving me wings, for letting me be independent, like any human being. They told them that we were probably on drugs and that we asked for it, that we must have asked for it somehow.

And only in death I understood that no, to the world I am not equal to a man. That dying was my fault, it’s always going to be.”

*The internet has been translating the title as “Yesterday I was Killed,” but I prefer to translate it literally rather than poetically to keep the murderers and the media as the subject.

This kind of article is why I get the questions and comments from non-travelers:
“But aren’t you scared to travel alone?  I could never do it.”
“You couldn’t pay me to leave this country.”
“Did you often feel unsafe?”
“Are your parents ok with it?”
And I understand where the questions come from; the world one has never seen is a big unknown full of scary headlines.  It took me months in Costa Rica to feel comfortable taking a weekend trip on my own.

In my recent solo backpacking trip in Europe and Morocco, there was only one instance in the four months that I felt like I was in immediate danger.  However, an encounter after dark with a drunk is not exclusive to foreign countries, and to be honest, I had more scary encounters last summer in the middle of the day in downtown Houston walking to the Chipotle a couple blocks from where I worked than I had the entire time I was abroad.  So to answer my non-traveler friends’ questions, I feel as safe while I’m traveling as I do while I’m at home.  You simply have to learn to navigate your environment.

However, that feeling of security does come at a bit of a price.  Women cannot be as open to the world around us as men can.  A woman traveler’s experience is different from a man’s.  I realized this about two-thirds of the way through my trip.

I was feeling a bit nervous about flying into Morocco, since I wasn’t completely familiar with the cultural rules, and it was different from anywhere I had been before.  Fortunately, an American guy my sister and I had met earlier in our travels happened to be in the city I was arriving in, and I traveled with him for a couple of weeks as I adjusted to Moroccan dress code, haggling, and transport.  He’s a great guy and much more perceptive and less predisposed to judge than most people I know, but there came a point where he simply didn’t understand my perspective.

I had expressed some envy at some of the spontaneous adventures he had had.  He told me I simply needed to be more open to those around me.  He told me about the time a Dutch man, upon learning my friend was foreign, asked him how he was liking Rotterdam.  My friend said his experience hadn’t been so great, and long story short, that’s how he ended up on the motorcycle of a local who was determined to show off his hometown.  Rotterdam ended up being one of my friend’s favorite places.

That’s great for him, but hopping on strange men’s bikes is how women get raped and dumped dead on a beach.  Sure, most men (and women) would never harm me, but I’m not willing to gamble my life on it.  Even in daily interactions where my life isn’t potentially on the line, a misdirected smile or an instant too long of eye contact could mean a catcall, a product being pushed under my nose, or a conversation with the ultimate goal of asking if I have (or want) a boyfriend.

At home, a woman habitually avoids potentially dangerous situations.  It’s to the point where she doesn’t even notice–it’s just “common sense” that she doesn’t accept rides from a strange man, or walk in certain areas alone, or let her drunk friend walk out of the bar with a stranger.  In foreign environments, these precautions are more conscious.  One night in Paris, I was frustrated because I had gone to the wrong train station and missed my night train.  I had lost about $35 on the train reservation, and knew I would have to spend about $45 more on metro transport and a hostel, so I was just sitting in the station, stewing.  A local man approached me and attempted to communicate, despite that fact that he knew no English or Spanish.  He finally got it across that he was offering to let me stay at his place for the night.  I refused and resigned myself to going back to the expensive hostel.

I’m glad I did.  Maybe I would have saved money and woken up to homemade croissants and espresso in a quaint Parisian apartment, or maybe I would have ended up in a homemade body bag like the Argentinian women.

To clarify, those girls did nothing wrong in accepting apparent kindness.  It was 100% the men’s fault that they attempted to rape and killed the girls.  I hate that we as women have to assume the worst of people, because it often prevents us from seeing the best of people.

11988305_10153853809908455_8122977772966023754_nLong story short, women approach the world differently than men every day because of the potential for danger.  I found in my traveling that when we’re in a foreign environment, women simply have to adapt the strategies we already use.  So no, I’m not scared of traveling alone.  It’s taught me more about myself and how I interact with the world than any other experience.

Edit:  If you want to know more about the women who were killed and the backlash against victim-blaming, here is an excellent article in Spanish, and an adequate article in English, both by BBC.  Here is a full English translation of the letter “Yesterday They Killed Me.”

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11 thoughts on “What It’s Like to Travel Alone as a Woman

  1. I really do admire you for travelling alone. I remember I used to travel alone before I met Ryouske and while I did have a lot of fun, I also had my fair share of really dangerous, uncomfortable situations which (in the end) turned me off travel as a whole.

    I am 100% okay with travelling alone in Japan. But so far I haven’t been eager to try that again in any other country because of bad experiences I’ve had travelling alone (or travelling with my husband, but going out for lunch alone while he is at the market, etc). I really hate, hate, HATE how helpless I feel sometimes – and how I feel like I can’t accept kindness from a stranger for fear of ending up in a body bag. Because yeah, it happens. And yeah, women usually get blamed when it happens to us.

    Basically what I’m trying to say is thank you for this post and UUUUGGGGGGGGHHHH and Happy International Women’s Day.

    • Yeah it helps when you’re familiar with the culture, because it’s easier to read cultural cues and know how to handle situations. I still feel more comfortable traveling in Central America than I do even in Europe.
      Also it sucks that a woman’s first impression of a place is often pushy or creepy people, because these are the people that approach strange women. In our own or adopted cultures, we write them off as weird individuals, whereas in unfamiliar place, they tend to represent the rest of the people we haven’t met.
      I’m glad you liked the post!

  2. This is well said. People asked me the same things. Stated the same things. Such sick and disturbing beliefs people had of what would happen to me in India. Including but not limited to being raped, sold into the sex trade, and otherwise … they pictured India like a Mideast war zone.

    You words are brilliant. And very true.

    • Yeah I had to start looking at those questions as opportunities to give people a perspective they’d never get through the media or Slumdog Millionaire. Most people actually listen to me, which is nice.
      Thank you, and I’m glad the post resonated with you.

  3. I’m traveling solo to Osaka and Kyoto, Japan this May. I’m a 22 year old woman and so my family isn’t completely thrilled about my new desire to see the world solo. I am married and my husband cannot come along but he can’t stop me lol. ^_^ He does, however, fully support me. I want to make traveling and blogging/vlogging a career.

    • That’s great that you want to travel! I haven’t been to Japan, but I’ve heard that travelers generally feel safe, so that should help your family cope with it.

      I make exactly no money with my blog, but I’d recommend checking out http://howibecametexan.com, if you haven’t already. The woman who runs it does make her living writing and blogging, and she has some great stuff about the experience of being a foreigner in Japan.

      Good luck, and happy travels!

  4. great article. I never thought traveling alone would be so different for women but that could also be because, like you mentioned, the things women watch out for become common-sense things. It really is a different world as a woman…. Long Live Women!

  5. I totally agree with where you ended the article. Sometimes it makes me sad thinking of all the great experiences I might have missed out on because I was being cautious or sensible, but it’s no different to living in London. I’m very egalitarian in my mistrust and don’t accept favours/lifts from men or women of any age: equality ftw!

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