I often hear when traveling on my own…
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
Probably. What isn’t?
“Um, how do they treat women over there?”
“Well, do not, under any circumstances, fall in love.”
No promises, but I’ll do my best.
Traveling alone, as a woman, has its challenges. You may feel vulnerable, exposed, targeted, judged, pitied. Or maybe admired, respected, open, free, independent. Traveling alone, as a woman, I have encountered unbelievable kindness, developed fulfilling connections, and felt unsafe, well, only a handful of times.
For me it requires finding the balance between spontaneity and caution, sociability and self-protection, freedom and restraint.
After spending the entirety of my 25 years on earth as a woman, and the better part of the last year traveling, I have developed some insights on doing those two things, together, that I would like to share with all of you.
1. Do your research
There are many women who have already traveled your itinerary and lived to tell the tale. Use that to your advantage. The Lonely Planet forum offers answers to most questions you could imagine. Searching for “is it safe to travel as a woman in —-” is a great place to start. Bear in mind, the opinons you will find are just that, opinions. The advice I am offering you now, is simply my opinion, colored my own experiences. So please everyone, grain of salt here.
For instance, I have heard widely divergent views from women on travel in Cuba. Some encountered no unwanted sexual advances, made great friends, and had the time of their lives. Others felt constantly harassed and would never return without a boyfriend in tow.
Before going to Spain I read numerous posts explaining the importance of modest dress, as unwanted male attention is a major concern. It was August, in the South, and for me any extraneous fabric was simply not an option. I felt more respected and less bothered than I have bundled in the USA.
Use your understanding of yourself, what you value, and how you operate as a filter when doing this research.
2. Accept the culture and adjust your expectations
Most of us constantly battle against what is instead of simply letting things be. Travel offers you the freedom to completely release your past notions about yourself and the world and simply surrender to what is right in front of you. I consider this a necessary practice for truly enjoying my experiences.
Be accepting of paradigms in this culture, rather than your culture. Be open, respectful, and understanding, without losing yourself and what you believe. Know that you are the outsider, and it is up to you to bridge the gap.
Politely decline when the shop owner in Essaouira wants to leave his job to show you the city. Accept the compliment. Smile. Continue with your day.
Let it roll off when drug dealers in Fez call you disrepectful for wearing shorts in 110 degrees. Perhaps begrudgingly put on linen pants.
Nod hello when Caye Caulker rastas wax poetic on the beauty of your strut. Do not feel like less when they begin on the next passerby. You are still beautiful. And they still meant it.
When a “helpful stranger” leads you to your hotel, restaurant, monument, then expects payment, give him what you can. He provided a service. Next time, with this awareness, ask the fee or decline the offer. Do not judge him. Thank him. He is doing the best he can.
Acknowledge when the local women offer a cold shoulder. Understand why. Give them your love and attention. Smile. Maybe they will soften. Maybe they will scowl. Keep loving them anyway.
3. Find a community
For me, certain environments and situations, are simply not safe to experience on my own. Exploring nightlife. Jungle hikes. As I learned recently, swimming in riptide prone oceans. Sometimes we simply can’t, or shouldn’t, do it alone.
Hostels are an excellent place to find other adventurous travelers looking to enlist in adrenaline pumping activities and dance in adrenaline pumping clubs. For this reason, I almost exclusively stay in hostels when traveling. In doing so I have cultivated friendships with people living all over the world who I keep in touch with to this day.
Other times I have met travelers simply by seizing the opportunity. When, on a whim, I arrived in Tangier on a ferry from Spain with no bus ticket out and a reservation in a town three hours away, I was overwhelmed. Unfamiliar smells wafting through the air, shouts in a completely foreign language, and men. Lots of men. Everywhere. Eyeing me. Asking if I was married. My eyes darted to the only other outsiders, evidenced by their massive backpacks and wide eyes. I made my way to them and asked in English, “Are you headed to Chefchaoen?” Sure enough they were, and became my impromptu body guards for the next five days until we parted ways in Marrakech. In their presence I received very little outside male attention, felt safe on buses, in taxis, and walking at night, and rarely carried my own suitcase. In return I led them to a lovely hostel, negotiated with a local who cooked us an authentic feast for pennies, and taught them everything I’ve learned about Moroccan culture from the last eight years of being related to one.
In Puerto Viejo I connect with several communities. I do yoga at least once, if not twice a day, and have met fascinating women and men in the process. It is my sanctuary above all else. I do all of my writing at La Botanica Organica, where I meet health conscious expats from all over the world. They teach me about cleanses, fasts, and natural remedies. They are there when I need them.
The key is keeping yourself free from codependent relationships that obligate you and prevent you from experiencing exactly what you want, yet having the option to spend time with others when you need and would like to.
4. Protect yourself, without closing yourself
This may be the most difficult and most important intention in travel. Finding the balance between being open to learn and receive without putting yourself in danger. Being overly self protective can prevent you from reaping the greatest benefits of travel. Opening yourself to new adventures, new foods, new people broadens your perspective beyond comprehension, and requires lowering your guard. Unfortunately, this does not come without risk.
This is where trusting your own instincts and being mindful come into play. Your body will tell you when something is not right. Listen.
Be smart. Sometimes the risk is simply not worth it. Do not get into a car with someone you do not know. Do not walk at night in unfamiliar neighborhoods. Do not tell people you meet in the club where you’re staying. Keep your belongings close.
In Puerto Viejo on a remote beach, I was approached by a local guy who spoke no English. I saw it as an opportunity to practice my Spanish. We conversed from my towel until he finally convinced me to take a walk with him. I wanted to stay where I was. Ignoring my instincts, I gave in. Decided to be “polite,” to not “offend.” I soon realized we were completely alone with the sounds of crashing waves drowning all other sounds. I said I wanted to leave. He grabbed my wrist and expressed that he only wanted to kiss me. When I said I wanted to leave he became more desperate. Fortunately I pried his hand off, got out of the water, and ran back to the safety around the bend, his apologies fading behind me. I was lucky.
One day in Marrakech, after missing my bus to the coast on a sold out holiday weekend, I sat defeated in the neighboring cafe. Two young Moroccan men began chatting with me in French Spanish fusion, as there was no single language we all could speak. They listened to my problem, bought me freshly squeezed orange juice, let me use their cell phone, then finally hoisted my bags on their shoulders and took me to a different bus company down the block. One negotiated a ticket for me, every bus was full, while the other shared travel stories and looked through my photos. When it was time to part ways, we embraced, and one of the young men gave me his watch. Their kindness was unbelievable. I felt comfortable and trusting. However, my eyes never left my belongings. I never strayed far from public. I adamantly expressed that I was, in fact, getting on that bus. My instincts told me they were safe, but I used appropriate caution to keep myself protected. Just in case.
Balance. Set boundaries without missing the beauty in people and experiences.
5. Appreciate the benefits of being a woman
You are a woman. A beautiful woman. You will reap unbelievable benefits when traveling as a consequence. Own this. People will go out of their way to help you. Do not feel guilt, that would be a waste. Instead, appreciate it, and help others because they will accept it. Because you are a woman. See them lower their walls, let down their guard. Because you are a woman.
What are your experiences traveling as a woman?
What about men? In what ways do you find it easier or more difficult being a man when traveling?
I would love to know.