Solo Female Traveller
If you asked me what I thought about travelling alone as a woman 10 years ago, my innocence and boldness would have said fear was holding most women back. And it is true, but for good reason. Ten years ago, I started this solo travelling thing to prove the world wrong, to prove that women had the same rights as men, that anything a man could do a woman could too. And even though that sentiment still burns true in my heart, I was not prepared for the realization that the rest of the world may not be ready for such unambitious equality. Ten years ago and every day since then, innocence was lost.
Culturally, there is a stigma around solo female travellers and although that is shifting, it still lingers in the air when you tell someone you are a woman wandering alone. An awkward fright hovers over your head and even in the safety of your own home you begin to question your sanity.
Recently, I decided to venture to Barcelona for a few days and people around me thought I had gone mad. The only person who seemed to think this was normal was my laidback, supportive partner who thought it was kind of cool and was maybe even a bit jealous that I got a break from work. That wasn’t the first time I had received a generalized negative reaction. I travelled solo a lot in my twenties and not just to the next town by bus, but to foreign countries where language blockades easily derail one’s confidence. The last time I left to live in Buenos Aires, Argentina, my dad’s teacher colleagues asked him if he was going to let me go. At the time I was 26 years old. I could do whatever I wanted. Let me go? I’m going, gone.
When I was 24 years old, I took my first big solo excursion to Patagonia in Argentina. The backlash of dissent nearly tore me apart. From every angle I had questions on whether I had lost my mind, if I had cancer, perhaps a form of mania, but deep down I only felt that I should be afforded the same experiences as the solo men travellers around me. I left for 2 or 3 weeks, I can’t remember, and there were obvious challenges to being a woman. There were advances from men, but nothing that escalated to a dangerous level at that time.
Trying to merge my youthful idealism with practical adulting had eventually rendered me penniless. It also taught me a lot about travelling around alone as a woman. There were uncomfortable moments that I would never wish upon anyone. I had been robbed, once at knife point. One time my landlord kept my deposit and changed the locks of my apartment, my remaining money and passport inside. My male roommate was allowed to stay in the newly renovated space in exchange for lending a hand. I had been assaulted, accosted, and wolf-whistled at as I ran to my apartment after a late shift working in a whiskey bar. Why was I walking alone so late at night, you ask? To make ends meet during my unpaid internship. I had been chased through a plaza by a man who either wanted to rob or beat or rape me, but maybe he just wanted to talk. It’s hard to say what a man who chases a small woman at 2am wants to do to her. To say that I don’t have a bit of baggage from the experiences would be robotic and psychotic. To say that it helped me learn a lot would be an understatement. Perhaps the world isn’t as rosy as I eagerly hoped it could be 10 years ago.
Some people take these kinds of experiences with a grain of salt. Some are traumatized by them and either process is a completely normal coping mechanism. Certain moments are still triggering. I tend to hold my purse tight, I don’t go out after dark in foreign cities alone and I make sure that all my windows are locked. I have also met women who experienced none of these things. Maybe they had a better, more realistic grasp on how to exist than I ever did and, therefore, didn’t go about at 2am in dodgy neighbourhoods in foreign countries. Whatever the reason, those were my experiences and I wanted to share them to promote the idea that travelling as women isn’t the same as it is for men. There is less freedom and it feels claustrophobic.
After travelling around for my twenties, I eventually found steady work, started a steady relationship and fell into the happy rhythm that only a wild decade could provide. However, that ember still burns. So when my partner booked a trip for himself to Edinburgh to see his friend, I followed suit except I didn’t have any friends in Barcelona. I booked the trip feeling proud that I was about to relaunch my solitary self back into the travel world. After revealing my adventure to locals and some family members, the constant message was always the same: to take care of myself and be safe. Although I appreciated the care, it made me wonder if the opposite sex had to listen to the same message like a scratched up vinyl record?
I felt the wishes had a negative impact in two ways: 1) it meant that I was fragile and needed protecting or saving and, 2) it never demanded that men should be more mindful of a solo travelling female. The culture that we have created about the interaction around men and women is a toxic one. We know how ‘men can be’ and we put the onus on women to be mindful of that position, as though it is their responsibility to not be assaulted or victimized in some way. We don’t tell our men to watch out for solo female travellers and to be mindful of their experience. That they might fear being surrounded by men who, pound-for-pound, could overpower them in a physical way. We don’t tell our men to ask for consent, or to be mindful of women who might be drunk, because honestly women should be able to get as fucked up as everyone else. No, no. Instead, women are the ones who are warned back into the safety of the indoors. They are told to cover up, they are told to not get too drunk in order to not regret the evening, and they are told to be cautious when travelling alone.
While in Barcelona, it meant early mornings with early nights. There was no hard drinking into the early hours of dawn, not that I have the stomach for it anyways. There were no open, random conversations with strange men, not on the plane and not in any bars. There were the constant questions from fellow tourists asking if I was meeting up with friends. And, although I profoundly appreciated that I had mini-guardians stationed around the city, complete strangers caring for my well being, I was heartbroken that their first thought about my adventure was one that centred around my fragility. The experience highlighted my vulnerability of being a 5’1” petite female who wanted to drink absinthe in one of the oldest bars in Barcelona, like Hemingway once did. I was discouraged at the fact that I had to be a part of some group travel experience to enjoy a city so rich in history and food and art. I just wanted to be there alone. I just want to travel without fear, with freedom to roam like anyone else, to live like an independent woman I had always dreamt to be.
Travel has evolved into something different for me. Although it builds the confidence for some, the idea of solo travel has made me anxious and nervous, not only about the potential risk from strangers, but from the barrage of worry from others that attaches itself to the experience.
All travellers should do their research beforehand, whether it is a solo female or a group of brazen soccer heads who tear up a plaza days before a match. We should be keeping an eye out for one another and we should also be supporting each other through our adventures. But please, for the love of travel, the shock and stigma that encircles any adventure should be quieted to a personal preference. Teach everyone to be kind and mindful. Wish all travellers to be aware of safety and wellness. Of course there will be a risk to exploring a new place because venturing into the unknown is half the magic. And please, for the love of travel, encourage women that their choice to fly solo isn’t a crazy one.