People are impressed that I volunteer during my travels, but astonished when I reveal that I’m traveling alone and am in fact used to doing so. Obviously the world is still very dangerous for girls and women, as females are viewed and judged sexually before anything else and we still live in a male-dominated society. It seems easier to pick up or take advantage of a female traveling before herself. Much violence is also directed against women for their physical inferiority, or for pure misogyny, and robbery is common in developing countries with extreme poverty.
I’m probably as well-equipped as possible for a female solo traveler precisely because I’m an only child. Ever since I can remember, my mother has been worried sick about my safety. I’ve grown up with countless advices, warnings, and horror stories. I want to be clear that she was never overprotective, however, because everything that she did was to try to enable me to protect myself. There is a difference between teaching your children about what goes in the world and trying to protect them from that by dividing them from that world. That difference is empowering. For me, I started traveling alone in the big jungle of New York City in elementary school, but with a very developed sense of the worst that could happen. I remember very well some scary situations in which men were following me in cars, or when I felt that I was being inappropriately touched. In the case of being followed, I would pull out my cell phone to call somebody and start walking very rapidly towards a nearest store and change my direction completely. As for being touched inappropriately, I never hesitated to tell my mother or another authority. If you ever feel that you are being disrespected and highly uncomfortable, you must speak up immediately, otherwise it will continue, likely worsen, and possibly affect others.
I do recommend traveling by yourself, but only if you are completely aware of the risks and prepare yourself adequately as such. Never forget that bad things happen to good people, and sometimes for absolutely no reason. I never pretend to ever be able to control what might happen to me in the future, but I arm myself well against the worst risks. The following are useful safety precautions for all travelers –
1. Don’t fall off the map.
Stay in touch with your family and friends. Bring a computer, or buy a cell phone – better to have both. Give lots of people your number. Make sure people know where you are at all times, and how long you plan to stay there. Give your family and friends the contact info of the hostal, hotel, or the people with whom you will be staying. That way, if they do not hear from you in a couple of days, they can either call your cell, send you an email, and contact people where you are supposed to be. If you are traveling to a seriously dangerous country – México, Iran, Guatemala, etc – register with your country’s Embassy in that country.
2. Have the important things ready at hand.
Always carry a copy of your passport and some money with you. It’s better that it’s not too much money because that’s always a risk, but make sure that it’s enough for an emergency – to make a call, to take a taxi, to offer somebody if somebody is threatening you for money.
3. Take some common precautions.
We all know that it’s dangerous for women to travel solo precisely because they are in danger of sexual violation. Therefore, try not to make yourselves completely irresistible to crazy men – try to avoid completely provocative clothing 24/7. It’s natural to wear less clothing when it is very very hot, but we do know the difference between shorts and a tshirt and a crazy mini mini skirt, a bustier and stilettos, right girls? Carry on! Also, we all know that being alone in the night is very dangerous. Please, take a taxi. The cost of a taxi is nothing compared to the cost of your life.
4. Know the right people.
And stick with them. One of the great things about traveling solo is that you’re more likely to
meet more people. And with a higher volume of people comes a higher probability of meeting people that you click with and can trust. Once you make good friends, stay with them for at least a while. They’ll take care of you, and more importantly, make your travel experience unforgettable.
5. Always trust your intuition.
This should actually be the first rule. If you ever feel the LEAST BIT uncomfortable, don’t ever feel afraid to say something, leave, or ask somebody for help. This is your life. This is your body. You only have one – value it. Value yourself and don’t give a shit about what other people feel if they are not making you feel safe and good.
6. Go home with strangers only sometimes.
Let me explain. If you’re traveling alone, the entire world is already a stranger to you. We were taught that strangers are always bad people, but this is statistically impossible. Sometimes you meet people, and are immediately faced with the decision: Do I go with them? It is a risk. And it’s a question that only you can answer, because you are the only person in that situation, with those circumstances. This is where you have to listen to your intuition, and also think and analyze very clearly. I generally trust women and distrust men (let’s assume that completely platonic male-female relationships are rare and if a man that you just met is inviting you to go somewhere or to stay with him, that he is not hoping to become best friends with you) but there are exceptions. There are also exceptions with women – some women are crazy, too! You have to really get a sense for how the other person is, and this is sometimes difficult because first impressions can be mistaken. I’ve ended up staying with some people that I didn’t like, but I at least thought that they were safe and would respect me. That’s what’s most important. Sometimes, this risk pays off beautifully. My host family in Ecuador was a family that I met on a line to a ballet and after spending a day with them, I decided to live with them. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life, and I wouldn’t have had it had I not decided to trust some strangers. I suppose my moral is: Trust strangers very discerningly.
There you have it! Some of my experiences and beliefs about this topic. The worst that’s ever happened to me was that somebody robbed my camera in Ecuador (in the NGO where I worked… terrible, no?) and that a crazy writer tried to sleep with me in Colombia (good thing he was a writer because he was using all sorts of beautiful sayings and trying to be sentimental-touchy instead of flat out aggressive-advancing). I bought another camera when I came back to NY and vowed never to stay in the same apartment as crazy writers in the future, wherever it may be. Worse things could have happened, and I’ve only learned from these experiences. I hope that they will help you all. Happy and safe independent traveling, everybody!