WHEN I ANNOUNCED that I was going to travel solo around the world, people thought I was a) out of my mind or b) a tragedy waiting to happen. All I heard were horror stories about kidnap, rape, white slave traffic, and the world being a very dangerous place. I was scared to leave Buenos Aires, but my impulse to travel and write about it was stronger. It couldn’t be that bad.
After being on the road for seven years and making traveling my lifestyle, I confirmed that the world is a hospitable place and discovered that being a female solo traveler has many advantages that I never imagined. Wherever I go, other women help me and protect me, I have substitute mothers in all the continents I visited, families have invited me to their homes, people tend to trust me from the start because I’m a girl, and it’s always been easy to meet the locals and feel welcome everywhere. However, there are also disadvantages.
As a solo traveler, we face challenges regardless of our gender: feeling lonely and sad at times, not having a loved one taking care of us when we feel sick, having to spend more money on accommodations, among others. But there are some uncomfortable truths that only apply to “girls”… some of those are far from the stereotypes and horror stories that people told me about. Here is the list.
1. If you’re a girl traveling alone, people label you and even pity you.
Even though for us, as travelers, it’s common to meet other solo female travelers, in many places of the world we are a rare sight for the local people. In central China, a woman old enough to be my mom made me promise her that I wouldn’t do it anymore, that I would find a husband and either settle down or travel with him. For many women around the world, especially in Latin America and Asia, I was too young to be traveling alone and too old to be unmarried.
Many people will tell you how brave you are, but will feel pity that you choose traveling over having a family — which I don’t, since I think both can be combined, but it doesn’t seem to be the most widespread idea. You’ll hear things like “Do it now that you can, ‘cause once you have kids…” or “I got married at 29, you still have a chance.”
In countries where women have very defined roles, men may think you’re a carefree and everything-goes girl and will assume that you are easy just because you don’t have a partner beside you. And then there’s the idealization: Many will see you as a very lucky person and others as a reincarnation of Wonder Woman. We are none of the above. And those labels can be heavy burdens.
2. When you travel alone, you don’t do everything you’d like to.
In these seven years I’ve traveled alone, as part of a couple and with friends, and I’ve always dared to do more things when I was with other people — not necessarily men. Hitchhiking is something I love to do when I have a travel partner, but that I’m still not brave enough to do alone (but that’s just me, I know many girls who do it). I don’t go trekking on my own and I try to avoid taking night buses, even though I’ve done it many times.
My friend Laura started as a solo female traveler until she met her boyfriend Juan, with whom she is hitchhiking around the world. In 2012, they spent twelve days in the Ecuadorian jungle with the Shuar people, a tribe known for the tsantsa: the process of shrinking heads. “To meet the Shuar you need permission from their government. We didn’t have this, we had been invited by one of the tribe chiefs but had no paper to prove it, only his word. We had to sail nine hours down the Mangoziza river to get there. We didn’t know where we were going and what would happen once we arrived. If I hadn’t been with Juan I wouldn’t have dared to go alone, and I would have missed what was a great experience,” says Laura.
3. In some cultures, being a woman means you have to follow certain rules.
It’s good to know about the cultural norms of the place you are traveling to in order to avoid problems or misunderstandings with the locals. In Bali, for example, you can’t go inside a temple when you are having your period. In Buddhist countries such as Thailand you cannot touch or sit beside the monks. In Morocco, local women don’t go inside the cafés. In Muslim countries you should dress appropriately and cover at least your knees and shoulders, and sometimes your hair and entire body. As a foreigner, this is not strictly enforced, but it is expected as a way of showing respect.
I don’t mind the dress codes and I usually follow them, but I suffer from the heat and I do feel uncomfortable wearing long clothes when the temperature is over 35 degrees, as I did during the months I spent in Indonesia. I knew I could dress as I wanted, but I felt stared at and out of place whenever I wore short pants.
Daniela, who has traveled around Oceania with her partner, recalls: “In Fiji I arrived at a remote village that is seldom visited by foreigners, and had to ask permission to the chief of the village to use his beach. Finding him was not easy, and when I was finally next to this house he happened to be drinking kava with friends, so I felt a bit intrusive. After some questions, he gave me permission to enjoy his beach, but under one condition: I had to be fully dressed.”
4. You get a lot of unwanted attention and this means sometimes you can’t just relax.
If you are a woman traveling alone you stick out in the crowd, especially in countries where your physical appearance is different. My friend Itziar, who has traveled from the north to the south of Africa with her partner, says about her experience: “The most uncomfortable part of traveling as a woman around Africa is that if you are white you stick out immediately, and since it’s not normal for a woman to be traveling without her husband you may get many “proposals,” including marriage ones. They are not aggressive, but in some cases I had to show my anger while trying to get loose of that hand that insisted on holding mine.”
In Indonesia there’s an obsession with bules (Westerners). At first it was fun to be treated like a movie star: Everywhere I went, Indonesians wanted to take pictures with me, shake my hand, and add me on Facebook. When I went to the beach, even if I was swimming with my clothes on, people got inside the water and took pictures of me thinking I didn’t realise. After a few months of living there it got tiring to be pointed at as the bule every time I went out to buy groceries.
When I travel I love to be on the streets experiencing the local routine. I also like to sit in cafés or plazas to take notes about my day, but in many places it’s hard to do so without being interrupted. In Peru, almost every time I sat down somewhere alone I was approached by men willing to make conversation. In the Malaysian buses I had groups of Indian-Malaysians gathered around me, reading out loud what I was writing in my notebook. When I walked down the streets of Morocco with a male friend, local men didn’t even look at me when they spoke to us, but whenever I went out by myself I was made all sort of propositions. Being from a city like Buenos Aires, where you cannot walk by a construction site and expect not to be whistled at, I don’t feel too intimidated by the sounds or stares, but it does get tiring to be the center of attention, especially when you just want to relax and blend in.
5. Hygiene may be an issue, especially during your period.
“In the rural parts of Africa it’s hard to maintain good hygiene. The standard is to have a small bucket with water or a shower with very little pressure, and after days in tropical areas or in arid regions with a lot of dust, this is not enough,” says Itziar. For some girls, the idea of using a squat toilet is terrifying. Many friends told me that they felt very stressed when using the Asian toilets because they didn’t know how to stand and they were used to having toilet paper. In my case, I prefer the squat but I understand why it may be intimidating for others: In rural China, many roadside toilets don’t have doors so you have to go in front of other women — who don’t really care, so don’t worry.
The first time Laura went to India she hadn’t traveled too much before. “I remember how uncomfortable I felt: The staring was intimidating, I had to cover myself, wear a fake ring, talk about a fake husband. I was not prepared for that. One time I was in a night bus and when the driver made a toilet stop I had to go back to the bus and ask another traveler to go with me. The toilet was just a plain space in open air, and three Indians had followed me to watch what I did.”
Then, there’s that time of the month when you get your period and feel uncomfortable wherever you are. I remember being on a beautiful beach in Karimunjawa (Indonesia) feeling sick and not being able to enjoy myself because of nausea and cramps. The frequent change of weather may also alter your cycle and make you miss it or get it more often than normal. There are many places where you will not find tampons, some days you will not be able to properly rinse your mooncup, and other times you will want take a warm shower but you’ll be in a country where you only have cold water from a bucket.
And then, there’s depilation. This woman summarizes some pretty hilarious stories around “getting your bush waxed in various places around the world.”
6. You are seen as more vulnerable and this may lead to dangerous situations.
In the travel equation, the lonely girl is always the most helpless. Some people take advantage of this and try to rip you off, others scare you in order to sell you safety. A few years ago I was backpacking with my friend Belen around Central America. We were crossing the border between Nicaragua and Honduras, the immigration offices were far apart from each other, and the space between them looked like no man’s land, so we decided to take two bike-taxis. The men around us said things like: “Don’t trust these drivers, if you get killed we will not bury you” (sic) and “I’m a policeman, you’d better come walking with me” and “Don’t trust him, he’s not an officer.” The tuk-tuk drivers asked us how we carried our money, if we used credit cards or cash, and wanted to know if we were alone. Nothing happened in the end and maybe they were just trying to scare us, but I wonder if the same situation would have taken place if I was travelling with a guy.
At a foreign country or at home, walking alone at night means you might be exposed to dangerous situations. One evening in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, one of the most touristy and crowded areas of the city, I was followed by a man. At first I thought it was my imagination, so I went inside a store hoping that he would go away, but ten minutes later I saw him outside, waiting for me. He kept walking behind me and even though it was full of people I felt so scared that I took a taxi back to the hostel.
7. And yes, there’s always the fear — and possibility — of sexual harassment or rape.
Even if I trust people and I know the world is a good place, I also know that one day I may be in the wrong place at the wrong time and things may get out of control. I don’t think about it every day and I don’t get paranoid, but I know it’s a possibility. Sexual harassment and rape may happen and has happened to female travelers, and countries like India and Egypt are getting bad press because of this.
Even Couchsurfing experiences can end up being very uncomfortable, as it happened to me in France when I realised that the guy hosting me used Couchsurfing as a dating site and saw me as a potential candidate. Apparently, there is an unspoken culture of sexsurfing which is better to be aware of beforehand in order to avoid surprises. This means we have to be extra careful when we decide to stay in someone’s house or hitchhike in someone’s car, and it means keeping our guard up and being mentally prepared for certain situations.
All this said, every woman has a different comfort zone and we all have common sense.
These points are based on my experience and will vary from woman to woman. We all have different boundaries and comfort zones, and none of this should stop any girl from traveling. I believe that the world is a safe place and that being a solo traveler teaches you to trust others and to trust your intuition. As women we have to watch out for certain things, but the rewards of being a solo female traveler outweigh all these truths. They are just part of the road.