There She Goes…Alone?!

Summer usually finds me somewhere new and exciting, chasing down another top priority item on the ever-evolving list of things I want to do before I get a job, die, or climate change permanently mars the plant. College afforded me plenty of opportunities to start crossing them off. One summer it was the United Kingdom for a rigidly structured mission trip with some church friends – an easy step into international travel, because everyone spoke English. Another summer, it was a longer study abroad in Italy with loose guidance from professors and a pack of other female students to explore alongside. On a spontaneous jaunt to Canada, my dear friend and I were joined at the hip. My undergraduate class trip to Mexico was heavily chaperoned and given only half a day of freedom on the condition that we stayed in groups of three or more.

 

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Image: The Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia.
Credit: https://www.butchartgardens.com

 

I was never alone for more than a few hours at a time. I always knew where I was and what was happening next. My companions were always within arm’s reach – or at least within earshot. One night in Italy, I decided to stay out late with a handsome stranger I met at a festival. The study center was just down the hill, so my friends went on home, set an alarm, and told me if I were not back by midnight, they would come looking for me. They knew what he looked like and his first and last name. Our circle had already friended his entire entourage on Facebook. He was harmless, sweet, and now the star of a favorite story to tell of my summer in Tuscany. But if my over-zealous sense of invincibility and naïve faith in cute boys had betrayed me, I had back-up coming.

 

 

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Image: Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy where I studied abroad.
Credit: http://tuscantoursandweddings.com/tour/cultural-tours-in-tuscany/guided-tour-castiglion-fiorentino

 

This summer, it’s all me. I booked a trip to a language school in Cusco, Peru – another adventure that demanded its due and happens to fulfill a requirement for my graduate degree. Apart from staying with a host family and attending classes at a local Spanish school on the weekdays, I will be on my own. There may be other English-speaking students at the school that I could invite to come along on the many weekend excursions I have planned, but it isn’t guaranteed.

 

 

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Image: Machu Picchu, one of the many sites I plan to visit while in Cusco, Peru.
Credit: Lonely Planet https://www.lonelyplanet.com/peru/machu-picchu

 

Frankly, I am overjoyed to finally go on a trip where no one can tell me what to do. I don’t have to consult other travel companions to ensure we are hitting all the items on their list, too. My hypoglycemic habit of stopping for frequent snacks will never annoy my non-existent coterie. And I’m not the only one who feels this way! According to a report from the George Washington University School of Business, nearly 2/3 of travelers in 2016 were women.[1] The Travel Industry Association estimates that 32 million American women travel alone every year.[2] Women all over the world, like me, are realizing that if we wait for someone to agree to come with us, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.

But the second you say that out loud, people start to question your sanity. I never felt like I had to be afraid – until everyone started acting like I was crazy for booking a flight to a place I had never been without a contact in-country. I told myself they were overreacting – the language school knows I’m coming! My host family will certainly notice if I don’t come downstairs in the morning…won’t they?

A deep dive into the WomanStats Database variables on women’s physical safety in Peru (LRW-PRACTICE-1, MURDER-PRACTICE-1, TRAFF-DATA-1, and all of the IIP variables for those of you who may also need to run a background check on your country of choice) derailed my train of happy thoughts entirely. One article reads, “Peru, while famous for its modern culinary delights and ancient civilizations, also has a far less flattering distinction: it has more reported cases of rape and sexual violence than any other country in South America.”[3] The World Health Organization ranks Peru in second place in Latin America in terms of gender-based killings.[4] According to a 2016 survey conducted in Lima, “41% of the women interviewed said Peru was not safe at all for women and 74% said they lived in a sexist society. Meanwhile, 53% of women and women surveyed believed that if a woman wears a mini-skirt it is her fault if she is harassed in public areas.”[5]

My solo sojourn for self-discovery now seemed very discouraging indeed. My next stop was the U.S. State Department website to consult their travel tips. In a section titled “Women Travelers”, I was urged to “avoid dark, isolated areas at night”, be wary of public transportation, and “use facial expressions, body language, and a firm voice to fend off any unwanted attention”.[6] But my personal favorite was the suggestion to research my destination and pack clothing to accommodate local laws and customs for how women should appear in public.[7]

For anyone who has ever traveled, this is the equivalent of telling someone to remember their passport. These are things you just do, and that I had been doing my entire life as a young American woman. Furthermore, appropriate attire for women in public is entirely subjective and even if a woman fails to dress appropriately in a given setting – despite cultural and religious customs – she does not deserve to be harassed, assaulted, or abused.

So, what do solo female travelers need to know? What is actually helpful? Answer: advice from actual women who actually travel alone. After conducting an extensive review of prominent female travel blogs (Kate McCulley[8] and Laura Begley Bloom[9]), here are the gems of advice (for both security and overall enjoyment) I discovered for solo female travelers – and no, the answer is not to wear a fake wedding ring.

  • Plan ahead for any medications – especially prescriptions, and contraceptives. If you’re going on a long trip, talk to your doctor about prescribing enough medication to last you the entire time. Do not count on the safety or availability of local pharmacies! And while you’re talking to your doctor, ask about how to…
  • Schedule a travel consultation! I’m going to South America and plan on visiting some tropical locations in the Amazon, so I have to be vaccinated at least 10 days before I depart, and all live vaccines have to be given on the same day. Even if you won’t be doing much physical activity, or you’re only going to be in Europe for a week, it can help to chat about ways to keep yourself healthy and safe while you’re there.
  • Don’t just leave a copy of your itinerary – Create two hard-copy portfolios of all relevant documents. Include color scans of your driver’s license, passport, hotel reservations, flight itineraries, and front and back copies of credit and debit cards. Keep one in a locker, safe, or other secured location in your accommodations and give the other to your best friend, sister, significant other, or whoever will be keeping up with you while you travel.
  • Schedule phone calls or skype dates with people at the same time every week or another regular interval that works for you. If you miss an appointment without notice, decide on an appropriate course of action for your friends and family to take back home.
  • Drink responsibly. We know this. We do it at home; we definitely, absolutely should continue to do this abroad.
  • Try to blend in. Or at least dress and move with the confidence of a long-time expatriate. This also means stepping inside shops to consult a map instead of openly looking lost in the street.
  • Spring for safety. Even if a cab is not in your budget, if you find yourself in an isolated area of the city after dark, it may well be worth it to hail a more expensive cab than a sketchy one and definitely better than walking home alone.
  • Travel insured or don’t travel at all. Seriously. World Nomads offers great travel insurance. If you’re a student at a university, your school likely offers it for much cheaper!
  • Support local women entrepreneurs! A good way to make friends and support small businesses!
  • Talk to everyone! This is not to say overshare! Your accommodation, marital status, length of stay, and other personal details aren’t for everyone and can be answered vaguely. But the more people you are friendly with, like fellow hostel guests, hotel staff, local shop owners, or a regular server at a restaurant, the richer your experience will be! You’ll learn more about the area and people will start to look out for you and notice if you miss a regular interaction.
  • You won’t remember the name of the tiny bakery you loved to visit every morning years from now unless you write it down. Journaling also helps us reap all the beautiful benefits of traveling alone – getting to know ourselves, how we persevered through challenges, and how it felt to be out there on our own, doing exactly what we needed to rest and recharge.

And finally, GO ANYWAY. Even if people don’t believe you can do it. Even if your sense of direction is questionable. Even if you don’t know much of the language (yet). Even if your budget is tight and you can only go for a long weekend. Even if you think it would be more fun to wait until your honeymoon, a girls’ weekend, a more significant birthday, or a better life accomplishment. Don’t make excuses. Do make memories. Do be brave. Do get out there. And when you do, tell another woman what you learned and what it meant to you.

-SLE

 

References

[1] George Washington University School of Business. (2016). Retrieved from https://gwtoday.gwu.edu/most-travelers-today-are-women-and-industry-may-finally-be-catching

[2] Begley Bloom, Laura. (2018). 33 Best Trips and Tips for Solo Female Travel. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurabegleybloom/2018/07/24/best-trips-and-tips-for-female-solo-travel/#2d7a9e69294e

[3] Girard, Francoise. (2012). In Peru, an Epidemic of Rape and Double Jeopardy for Rape Victims Seeking Abortion. Rewire News. Retrieved from rhrealitycheck.org/article/2012/12/19/double-jeopardy-rape-victims-in-peru/

[4] Castro, Aramis. (2016). Peruvians say “No!” to Violence Against Women. Inter Press Service. Retrieved from http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/08/peruvians-say-no-to-violence-against-women/

[5] Castro, 2016.

[6] U.S. State Department. (2018). Retrieved from https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/before-you-go/travelers-with-special-considerations/women-travelers.html

[7] U.S. State Department. (2018).

[8] https://www.adventurouskate.com/

[9] Begley Bloom, Laura. (2018). https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurabegleybloom/2018/07/24/best-trips-and-tips-for-female-solo-travel/#2d7a9e69294e

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