The Frugal Traveler recently wrote a column on travel myths and revelations about travel and the gender gap. In it, he revealed that some female readers took issue with certain advice, specifically that recommendations of $4 a night places or accepting lunches with locals would not be wise counsel for women. As anyone who has read this site knows, I don’t agree. I tend to stay in cheaper hostels, and have found that the best and most lasting cross-cultural learning has resulted from an invite to a family’s house or business, or a wedding with locals. The article was subsequently posted to a travel blogger’s forum on Facebook, launching a discussion on what it means to be a woman who travels and whether tips fall on a specific side of the gender divide.
Is there such thing as a solo female travel tip?
I don’t tend to brand myself as a solo female traveler. Over the course of my travels, I’ve certainly offered up some tips and experiences, and my meta tags on this site belie the factual obviousness that I am, really, a female traveler traipsing around the world alone. A fair point made both in the Facebook thread and in other forums is that many female-specific tips aren’t specific at all. Instead, carrying a doorstop in your bag, bringing a mugger’s wallet with you or carrying a safety whistle are tips that apply to both genders. With the exception of the Diva Cup (something that cannot in any way be construed as dual-gendered), travel solo is travel solo as far as practicalities are concerned.
However, focusing on tips does a disservice to the reality that many women are afraid to travel alone. I get emails every single day from women who want to know how I do it. Am I scared? Have I been mugged? Was I ever assaulted or attacked? These are extremely personal questions, but very valid ones from people aching to travel but scared of what might happen if they go unaccompanied. Trepidation about rape and sexual harassment remains a checkmate argument as far as I’m concerned; while tips might apply across the board, rarely do men need to worry about safety the way we do. Their mental ‘worst case’ scenarios don’t usually dip into sexual assault.
Separating the tips from the experience of travel as a woman
Much of what we encounter as travelers transcends the pragmatic. So while the intricacies of gender can be debated, we can’t pretend we’re all the same. As the NYT column notes, differences exist within groups of women or men too; the way we each approach travel and the travel experience as a whole is extremely personal. Reading the article brought me back to a draft post about the ability as a Western woman to live both worlds, male and female, even when visiting traditionally conservative places.
While this can be catalyzed by some choice advice – a little research, some powers of observation – the take-away is the interaction itself. This is what I mean when I talk about the ‘solo female travel experience’. And this is what I allude to when I write these women back: yes, you might occasionally be scared. Yes, there might be a close call or two. But you’ll eventually learn to trust your gut and ultimately you will find that travel as a woman, even a woman alone, will bring you a wealth of wonderful memories.
Walking the Line in Myanmar and Jordan
In Myanmar, I spent close to a week along the bustling shores of Inle Lake. With rotating markets at dawn, colourful Pa-O tribes and more Shan noodles and grilled fish than I could handle, it was a concentrated week of wonder. As I wrote in my photoessay from Inle Lake, one of the days involved a visit to my boat driver’s floating village and an invitation to his best friend’s wedding. As a woman, I was plunked into a giggling group of thanaka-covered kids as soon as I walked in, eyes bright with confusion about what I was doing in their midst. When we all walked upstairs, I was led to a sea of women, each with wide smiles and hands reaching out to me. Soon thereafter, someone nudged me over the invisible line separating the room in two, and I was proffered cheroot cigars and whiskey, the men nodding in approval as I puffed away.
It was an incredible thing, this ability to experience both aspects of a traditional Burmese ceremony. Conversely, none of the male tourists were invited to the women’s side of the room – that would be extremely inappropriate in the local culture. But by being a strange amalgamation of male and female, feminine but independent (I was, after all, travelling alone), I was able to experience both.
A similar thing happened in Jordan. I joined a family in Rasun to cook dinner, apron-clad and in the kitchen while my guide and driver sat outside with the men. The hours of chopping and washing and giggling with the family’s children were great fun (the flower you see in my hair below was foisted on me by the youngest child). It was also a chance to as some of the questions I had about being a woman in Jordan without intervention from a male figure. At one point, my guide Ali walked toward the kitchen and one of the daughters fled to the back room. As he was not family, she did not want him to see her with face and head uncovered. Once dinner was made, I went outside to the patio and ate with Ali and our driver Rami, along with the male members of the family. We stayed quite late, talking with them about their lives and work, leaving long after dark. I remember getting into the car and feeling very lucky that I could see both sides of this world I barely knew.
The art of fitting in
I’ve lived countless experiences like these, and reader emails from women often ask how it is that I’ve managed to find myself interacting with locals. My advice is the same as I would offer to anyone (male or female) who was looking to get under the skin of a new place: dress the part, watch everything and ask questions.
I recently shared some stories about Myanmar, some involving my decision to procure a longyiand then wear it for most of my travels. This wasn’t a matter of kitsch or mimicry for the sake of tourism, but rather a genuine attempt to blend in a little more. Given the sensitivity to sexuality in many countries I’ve travelled, getting invited into someone’s home or becoming a part of a street cart’s daily routine is a lot more likely when you’re cognizant of the benchmarks for conservative dress and act accordingly. Wearing a bikini while wandering around a Muslim village in the Gili Islands isn’t the best idea (oh, but people do). Don’t go to the Middle East with a crotch-dusting dress, or wear hot pants to a Buddhist temple. When in Indonesia, I covered my arms and legs and when I was invited to a Balinese wedding, I went to the local market to get a kebaya out of respect for the bride and groom. Dressing the part isn’t obligatory but I’ve found it goes a long way toward breaking the ice with locals, and the local women were particularly pleased with my efforts.
Trust, travel and a leap of faith
Occasionally I have judged wrongly, or my gut said to leave but I convinced myself otherwise and regretted my choice. However, the worst situation I was ever in stemmed from a completely innocuous walk along a bustling street in downtown Marseille in 2001. It was the middle of the day in October and I was wearing a jacket and jeans. I was simply walking to the train station. Other than being elsewhere, there was nothing I could have done differently. I was harassed with increasing intensity by a group of men, who then followed up the street. Among other things, their taunts culminated with my head being cracked against a brick wall. Fortunately, two large Australians stopped – though I’d like to note that no one else did – just as I was being told I wouldn’t actually be heading home. Thus I’ve never dealt with any severe consequences, unlike some other brave women I’ve met. But that moment has most certainly stayed with me, replaying itself during the years. It was a lesson in the fragility of paths but also in a strength I didn’t realize I had: the next day I forced myself back to the same exact road to mirror my steps. If I didn’t go back then, I felt like they won.
I’m not telling this story for pity points- if that was my style I’d have written it long ago. Other women have shared much more horrifying stories and I’m certainly aware that I was extremely lucky. I’m writing it here to make a point: that despite the fears and very real potential issues, I took a leap of faith on this trip and traveled alone. And I’ve been rewarded for that choice, with all the crazy stories of karaoke with captains and being told I was brave in the Philippines and then getting told off by a cab driver for the same reason. In the shadow of a moment, I can now decide exactly what I’m going to do in a given situation.
Don’t forget the bottom line
We travel to experience the world, and I do so in the body I’ve been given. Semantics are irrelevant when you look at the macro picture, and the singular most satisfying aspect of my travels has been intense glimpses of what it’s like to live life in a wholly foreign place. (The food hasn’t been bad either.) The weddings, the weeks with street stalls, the times living in Palawan and fishing for breakfast with locals – each of these situations took a small leap of faith to trust that despite being a mini-sized solo female traveler, I would nonetheless reap great rewards from trying something new. With each experience, I’ve gained confidence to keep trying. The positives of traveling alone have far exceeded the negatives (among them: someone to watch my bag while I pee), and my curiosity has only grown. As the comments to the NYT article show, I’m not alone.