Ready to take on the world, are we?
The topic under discussion today is very dear to our hearts as it highlights an important aspect of travel – solo female travel! We are happy to have Adrien Behn from Strangers Abroad write for us. Read on to understand what travelling alone is actually like!
Over to her…
Being a solo female traveler has plenty of misconceptions. Everyone thinks you are going to get kidnapped, sold into the KGB sex trade, and be found years later in a Moldovan heroin den believing your name is Klavdiya.
The world still questions whether women can travel safely on their own. As someone who has traveled to 30 countries solo, without the shadow of a man always beside me, I can say that I believe women can travel the world intrepidly and independently. It’s not that we should, but that it is imperative that we do. Not for the likes and the x off our bucket lists, but for the generations of women who were locked away in their homes, forbidden to go out, and explore beyond their own villages.
This is the first epoch in human history where women have the opportunity to travel freely through (most of) the world. Where the assistance and presence of a man is not required, where we can go to places of our own choosing, kiss people who don’t speak our language, and dance all night just to watch the sunrise over an unexplored city. Women’s abilities and independence outside of the home have always been doubted. People used to believe ludicrous “facts” about women like having erratic wombs that would float around our bodies, how reading would make us infertile, and how our brains were scientifically smaller. These stories are painfully, and only recently, proven false. Nevertheless, we can continue to debunk the stories that are imposed upon us.
Our freedom of movement is a relatively new right that we are far too comfortable in it for its brevity. However, we must do it for our mothers who married too quickly, for our grandmothers who fought for our suffrage and our great-grandmothers who couldn’t even entertain such an idea. Now, we can travel alone, and, yet, there are still issues we face. However, these challenges will become your source of power.
People will question whether you can do it and you can prove them wrong
The first time I backpacked on my own, I got numerous questions, hesitations, and second guesses on whether I could do it alone.
I would get one of the following:
” Don’t you think that is pretty dangerous as a chic?” -misogynistic uncle
“ Don’t you want to travel with a (male) friend?” -boyfriend
“ Why don’t you wait until someone else can go with you?”- gender studies professor
And then they would be followed with the myopic knowledge of someone who has never actually traveled.
“ That’s really risky. I hope I see you again.”- ex-boyfriend
“ I wish I had done something like that, but it’s too scary.”- forlorn female bank teller
“ EMAIL ME EVERY TEN SECONDS.” – Mom
But the point was to see if I could do it on my own.
Women’s independence might still be unsettling to some because we are still expected to be emotionally responsible for others and tend to be defined by our relationships instead of accomplishments. That’s also not to say that these people aren’t just being protective; however, I still get questioned on whether I can do it even AFTER I have traveled to 30 countries by myself. People in my life who understand me better have been extremely encouraging, but know that if you do decide to go off and travel, you might get the occasional micro-aggressive question on your own abilities. And you can totally f***ing do it.
It’s not always the doubts of others that you will have to push through (which you will), but the doubts you hold about your capabilities.
As women, we also have internalized misogyny. We begin to question whether we can take on the world mainly because there are few women showing us we can. Representation is a contributing factor to one’s perceptions of their own abilities. My own hesitations came from not seeing enough examples of other women exploring. I still have doubtful thoughts as I’m packing my bags the night before. Voices will run through my head that ask, “Why am I doing this? Women who travel with me are much safer…should I invite a dude? Am I asking for it traveling solo?” But, just because we have seen few embark beyond, doesn’t mean we can’t. There is a small pool of female explorers (recorded) throughout history. Let’s try to make the list longer.
You have to be culturally sensitive
You need to research the country you are about to travel to and now with the magic of ~* the internet*~ you can look up other female travelers’ experiences in specific countries and how to prepare for them. It’s important to know cultural hand + head gestures like how the “okay” symbol is chill in America but is extremely offensive in Brazil, Iran, and parts of Europe. Or the typical agreement headshake of nodding your head up and down in the states is a hard “no” in Albania (which is the bane of many food orders when you DO want extra fries).
And watch the clothes you wear
And while you might stand out as a tourist in certain countries (like how I stand out like an All-American sore thumb in Peru) I can control the clothing that I wear. I am in full belief that what people wear is NOT an invitation to be approached or touched without consent; unfortunately, not everyone or every culture has embraced this 3rd wave feminist philosophy.
So, be sure to research what is and isn’t appropriate. Some countries might not care if you wear crop tops and booty shorts but others will. I have lived in abroad and received unwanted attention for wearing dresses at knee length and then other places where bathing suits were acceptable as work clothes. You are the one that will have to be flexible.
Practice Active Listening
Once you’re out there, you need to be aware that the world does function differently outside of your hometown. When you’re abroad, you may want to argue with the machismo men that they are being sexist or explain to women in burkas that they are being oppressed, but you are treading on THEIR TURF and imposing your beliefs upon them.
Not everyone in the world holds the same beliefs about how the world should run or live a life. You wouldn’t want someone coming into your home and telling you how to redecorate it after only seeing the vestibule. Even if you find specific aspects of a culture oppressive, insensitive, or harmful towards a specific group, don’t think of it as an opportunity to “educate” individuals (there’s a LOT of colonial baggage with that one). It is a better opportunity for you to practice active listening, which will increase your empathy and compassion for those you are interacting with.
When you actively listen to someone, you will hear what they are saying and not what you want to hear. When you listen, you will gain a better understanding for that individual or culture and maybe realize that they aren’t so different from you. Once they feel as though they are being understood, you might have an opportunity to discuss your point of view and be heard as well.
All you can do is provide an example that there isn’t only one way to live and should respect another’s decision to do differently. Keep in mind that you are also a walking example of what the world can be. When you travel (respectfully) in other people’s cultures, you are showing the locals that you yourself (an outsider) are no different than them and can help expand their world view as well while you pass through their homeland. If there are countries that are supporting harmful acts that you are against, don’t travel there and support their economy. However, I do encourage you to adventure with cultures that do have contrasting values or opinions about how the world works.
Violence towards women is not country or culture specific. Even after the global waves of feminism, achieving the right to vote, burned our bras, and embraced non-gender binaries, there are some places in the world that will not perceive you as equal (well, technically we aren’t here in America yet, so….).
Although some places are worse than others, violence against women is not culturally specific. Don’t believe that since you are going to a “progressively minded” country that you will be exempt from unwarranted behavior. Across cultures and histories, women have been perceived as sexualized objects and with most cultures inundated with sexually graphic advertisements and porn being three clicks away, these perceptions about women still ring true. You can be assaulted in Norway and treated with respect in Honduras. Rape culture is not exempt from any one place. However, don’t let the fear of assault thwart your travels. The probability of you being assaulted in other countries is lower than at home. Although rape statistics are notoriously under reported and from the data we have at hand, most rape victims know the perpetrator. Meaning that someone grabbing you in a back alley is less likely than it happen somewhere closer to your home.
Some things to keep in mind….
• Depending on the country you might be harassed more, especially if you are alone. Just continue walking and don’t engage if you feel uncomfortable.
• Women are often warned about walking around late at night. Take some time to get to know the area you are walking around in the daylight so you have a sense of direction once it gets dark out.
• Have fun but be careful. Watch your drink and bring the minimum amount of possessions with you and hide them in safe and indiscreet spaces (my bra is my wallet).
• Don’t be discouraged from going to certain places (or traveling at all). But know what your personal limits are and travel to areas you feel comfortable in or have connections + hosts in.
Which leads nicely into the lessons I have learned
The world is more protective than predatory
I personally have found that the world tends to be more protective than predatory. I have had people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities help me get to the right bus stop, watch my luggage while I go to the bathroom, or even let me stay in their homes after knowing them for only a few hours.
I was often warned to be weary of strangers and sceptical of people’s intentions. However, my trips have always been based off the benevolence of complete strangers. I have couchsurfed with as many locals as possible and have done work-stays where I have lived with a host family. I would rather sleep on someone’s couch over a 5-star hotel any night. These people who showed me the world through a different lens, helped me carve out a clearer picture of the whole story. People are proud of their homes and want to give others a good experience of it. If someone is a d***, it’s because they are a d***- not because they are Swedish or Australian or Bolivian. Relish in the simplicity of kindness. It’s everywhere. You will overcome. We need to show the world examples of our strength.
Travel evokes learning and disrupts the self. The opportunity for self-reflection has typically been thwarted away from women since our roles have historically kept others at the center of their attention.
When you take yourself out of the comforts of home, you get to experiment with different sides to you. You recognize what parts of you need to grow and soften and which parts are fundamental to your being. You can find what parts of you have always been misunderstood thousands of miles away from the land you were born. You are able to see your full potential. Being a solo-female traveler has helped me move beyond my gender and the limiting stories that accompany it.
So please, go.
Do it for the dreams of our for-mothers who only envisioned other lands from the stories of their male counterparts as they stirred soup on the stove with a baby cradled on a hip, chained to a life within the home. Do it to make travel safer for the unborn women who will someday stand where you have been fortunate to be. We can change the world, one plane ticket at a time.
To a world that does not always welcome women, I will wipe my feet at its doormat and say hello.
About Adrien Behn:
Adrien Behn has self-produced Strangers Abroad, a travel+storytelling podcast. Strangers Abroad is a series of conversations she had with strangers that she met while backpacking throughout Latin America for 5 months, overlapped with her personal stories about being a woman who travels alone. The podcast aims to focus on the self-growth and eye opening experiences that happen to individuals when they travel abroad. She is a travel writer, live storyteller, and intense pie baker. She desires to hit every country before she dies ( with modern medicine, she still has plenty of time).
Follow her on Facebook and Instagram as well.
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