By Caitlin Kelly
Is it safe for a woman to travel alone?
Depending where she is, and if she is aware of her surroundings, sensitive to the local/regional culture, stays sober and alert and exercises good judgment.
There is no defense, ever, for rape.
But this recent American victim — who was hitch-hiking and chose to accept a ride from three men — could probably have made a wiser set of choices.
I would never hitch-hike, alone, nor would I ever accept a ride from three men. Certainly not in India. Not anywhere!
It’s very tempting to simply turn off your brain on vacation.
We’re desperate to relax, to get away, to shed the daily routines of paying attention to everything all the time. We want to be taken care of, to “get away from it all.” Especially if you’re a single woman bored or frustrated by dating, travel alone can offer a chance to flirt, to test out our mojo, far from the tedious local talent or the disapproving stares of people we know.
But we may well do so at our peril.
I recently spent five days alone, traveling by car through Arizona. It included drinking alone in a hotel bar, staying alone in that small hotel and camping alone in a crowded campsite.
Was I scared? Never. Nervous? Only occasionally, late at night, wondering if the slithering sound of my tent tarp was, instead, some stranger who meant to do me harm.
And so, inside my tent, I also had a heavy rock, small enough to fit into my hand and heavy enough to inflict serious damage.
I was also terrified of locking the keys inside my rental car. I did bring a cellphone and charger, had a rudimentary first aid kit, always had water and a cooler full of fresh food. I had multiple flashlights and a headlamp.
I am strong and fit enough to run fast, if necessary, and unafraid to shout or scream if I truly feel threatened. I was also camping mostly around fellow Americans, whose behavior I could fairly safely predict.
Not the same for other places, and I am extra cautious there — i.e. countries where a woman in public is almost always accompanied only by a child, parent, male relative or husband.
But I’m also vigilant enough to try and avoid trouble in the first place. And one of the scary/creepy facts of life is that, as an open-hearted, curious traveler/tourist, observing and taking photos, we, too, may be observed, noticed or worse.
I traveled alone to New Orleans, rural Texas, rural Ohio and a rough town in Massachusetts while reporting my first book, about American women and guns. Some of the people I met were pretty sketchy, many of them male, some of them macho. Sometimes I had to keep my guard up to stay safe.
Being aware of the potential dangers of your surroundings — whether rape or rabies — is simply wise and prudent. Given how much information sits at our fingertips, through the Internet, there’s no excuse for remaining ignorant. Consulates and embassies can also offer plenty of current data before you leave. (I did not realize — ooops! — until I’d bought my airfare to Caracas that there was a Canadian embassy advisory out about how crazy dangerous the city was.)
One of the very best sources of real-time travel intel, in the most granular sense, is The Thorn Tree, part of the Lonely Planet; I used it when I went to Venezuela with a female friend in 1998. Ask its globe-trotters pretty much anything — no matter how unlikely and obscure — and you’ll probably find someone with a helpful, accurate answer.
If you have never ventured out alone, or do not know anyone who has, it can look fairly terrifying.
I’ve traveled alone — young, female, clearly alone, from my early 20s to today — in such far-flung spots as Kenya, Tanzania, Turkey, Mexico, Thailand and many European countries. Plus the United States and Canada. It’s totally do-able, and often highly enjoyable, as long as you don’t zone out.
For example, hotel and motel clerks have been trained now — and if not, yell at them — never to hand you your room key while announcing your room number out loud for others to overhear and note. No one but you should know it.
Don’t let fear keep you at home, or chained to family/friends/tour groups. Traveling alone can be a fantastic way to see the world and grow your self-confidence.
Here’s a recent fun essay about the many joys of solo travel — albeit written by a man:
I love a solo holiday. It tends to refresh the part of oneself that is most depleted by modern life — patience. I once went to Germany on a 10-city expedition…I was actually moving slower than I had when I was back at home. I was taking my time, giving things their due, and the solo holiday had in some way increased my reserves of contentment…My travels in Germany left me quite refreshed with thoughtfulness.
I’ve had solo pints of Guinness in the pubs of County Kerry and County Cork. I’ve walked across the sage- and juniper-scented maquis of Corsica on a spring day, where you can still find the world of Napoleon’s childhood. More than once I went to the Isle of Iona in the Scottish Hebrides, the burial ground of the early Scottish kings, and watched darkness descend on the Sound of Iona while evensong came from the old monastery. I wasn’t on these travels for visions or transformation, but simply to feel the force of the world, for a day, for a night, as it operates outside the chatter of commerce or media or mass psychology.
Some of my very happiest travel memories, like O’Hagan’s here, are from solo journeys:
— five days traveling through Corsica in July by mo-ped, (including a date with a local mason with a very large boars’ head mounted on his living room wall.) Here’s The Wall Street Journal story I wrote about it.
— dinner on the beach by moonlight in Ko Phi Phi
— picking strawberries in a Scottish field the summer I was 12
— jouncing for 12+ hours a day along rutted, dusty roads in Kenya and Tanzania, the dust so thick on my forearms by day’s end I could carve a furrow in it
Have you traveled alone as a woman?
How did it turn out?