Should women travel alone?

IMG_2952

I drove the 10+ hours to reach this gorgeous place for a conference — alone.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Seems like a bizarre question — since many of us have to do so for work, and many of us like to do it for pleasure.

But this sobering New York Times piece raises some questions as well:

 

In December, the bodies of Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, of Denmark and Maren Ueland, 28, of Norway, were found with knife wounds in their necks in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Danish officials called the murders an act of terror. That same month, the Briton Grace Millane disappeared in Auckland, New Zealand, on the night before her 22nd birthday; she was found slain days later. In 2015, a 19-year-old British backpacker was gang-raped by bikers in Thailand. In March, an Australian man was convicted of kidnapping and raping a Belgian traveler seeking work after keeping her locked up in his pig shed for two days.

There’s no question that women face unique risks when traveling solo, experts say.

“We have evidence that shows that women face risks that men don’t face in public spaces, at home, wherever they may be,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, an organization that promotes female equality. Increasingly, “wherever they may be” includes alone in foreign countries.

 

 

I’ve traveled alone, most recently in the fall of 2018, driving alone for hours through upstate New York on my way to Canada. For many hours, I was out of cellphone range (although comforted by a system in our car that tracks it and had a way to communicate) and far from ready access to police or a hospital.

I drove only in daylight, as is my habit when going solo, whenever possible.

Was I scared? No.

I’ve also traveled alone in rural Sicily, Istanbul, rural Portugal, Thailand, Mexico and other places where bad things can happen and where “decent” women are generally accompanied by one of three people — their mother/father, their husband or their child(ren) and thus left unhassled.

Yet the worst things that have happened to me have always happened at home — in Toronto, Montreal and suburban small-town New York.

All were robberies, none assault or worse.

 

IMG_2879

Also alone, albeit in my hometown, a place filled with friends

 

I plan to spend some time alone again this summer, albeit in the cities of a Western European country, more worried about an act of terrorism now than personal attack.

I really love being outdoors and wish I could just go camping alone, but I don’t. I hate that I’m afraid of others, but I think it’s prudent. Last time I did it was about four years ago in a crowded campground at the Grand Canyon.

My mother traveled solo for years, an attractive woman in places where women don’t really go out alone, and was fine. She also taught me how put a chair beneath the door handle of my hotel room to prevent someone opening it and to dress modestly and remain hyper-aware of my surroundings and culture.

I’ve only gotten drunk once while traveling alone (in San Francisco, a few blocks from my hotel) and I don’t take drugs nor dress provocatively. I don’t walk around wearing headphones or staring into a phone or wearing expensive jewelry.

I try to be extremely aware of local customs and dress and behave accordingly.

I think it’s one of the best things a woman can do — to travel alone and know how to trust her instincts. It has, so far, given me tremendous self-confidence and brought me new friendships.

 

L1000877 (1)

Venice — alone, July 2017

 

But one of the challenges of solo female travel is knowing that we’re often being closely observed and — yes — sometimes considered vulnerable prey by the wicked. That’s frightening and I know of no very practical solution for it.

Here’s part of a wise comment (722 of them!) on the Times story by a woman in Montana:

solo travel teaches intense situational awareness, reliance on gut instincts, and a willingness to run rather than trying not to offend, as women often do to our detriment.

 

Do you travel alone as a woman?

 

Have you ever felt unsafe?

Slut-shamed at the American border

Welcome to the United States of America
Welcome to the United States of America (Photo credit: Kai Strandskov)

By Caitlin Kelly

This is one hell of a post, by University of British Columbia student Clay Nikiforuk, from rabble.ca:

What do you do when you’re detained by powerful officials, everything you say is presumed deceptive, arbitrary “evidence” is held against you, and you’re treated like a moral deviant? And what if its 2013, you’re a woman, and the “evidence” is that you possess condoms? It happened three times in two weeks — being detained by U.S. border officials on my way to or through the States…

I was detained, yelled at, patted down, fingerprinted, interrogated, searched, moved from room to room and person to person without food, water or being told what was going on for what seemed like forever. Just as I thought they were tiring of me and going to refuse me entry but at least let me back into Aruba, a ‘Bad Cop’ type took me to a distant, isolated office and yelled at me that I was full of shit. He had found information online that in the last couple of years I had been modelling and acting. This, he concluded, was special code for sex work, and I was never going to enter the U.S.A. ever again. I tried not to laugh and cry at the same time. I told him I’m currently writing a book on the sociology of sexual assault.

“Are you looking to be sexually assaulted?”

I blinked at him. I couldn’t breathe.

“Was that meant to be funny?”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“Ah, no. I’m definitely not.”

“Well, it sure seems like you are.”

“… How so?”

He wouldn’t elaborate.

This post raises a whole host of questions about power, sexuality, female agency and abuse of power. I also had my own issues with it because she admits — brave? foolish? — that she was traveling with her lover, a married man. Not my thing. I hate adulterers, frankly; my first husband was one, as was his partner (now his second wife.)

She had initially entered the country by bus. Bad choice!

But the larger point remains: whose fucking business is it, when women cross the U.S. border, who we’re fucking, when and why?

Are young, unmarried men subjected to the same sort of interrogation?

I’m betting that’s a “no.”

ARIZONA BORDERS AND CITIZEN SAFETY...
ARIZONA BORDERS AND CITIZEN SAFETY… (Photo credit: roberthuffstutter)

I’ve also lived through a much milder version of this, as a young, single Canadian regularly crossing the American border for a year or so to visit my then beau, (later first husband), an American I had met when he was at med school in Montreal and who was then doing his residency in New Hampshire.

I did not then know how to drive, at 30, nor did I own a car. I did not understand that, in the United States, traveling anywhere by bus shrieks — at least to border officials — of poverty, desperation and an apparent lack of any economic choice.

To me, as I’m sure it was to Clay, also a well-educated Canadian woman, it was just a damn bus, an affordable, efficient mode of transportation, with no coded message implied.

Wrong!

The offices of The Gazette newspaper on Saint ...
The offices of The Gazette newspaper on Saint Catherine Street, Montreal, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was also making, for a young journo, a healthy wage as a staff reporter at the Montreal Gazette, a large regional newspaper. I had a laminated press pass with my photo on it. No matter!

Every single time I crossed the U.S. border and showed it to prove my full-time, staff job in Canada I was subjected to nasty and aggressive interrogation by U.S. border officials — surely the only reason I was dating an American man was to marry him, rightaway so I could escape my hideous, unemployed life in Canada.

Riiiiiiiiiiiiight.

I climbed back into the bus every time shaken, crying, humiliated and angry. This bullshit was sexist, ugly and routine, and — luckily — something I’d not been subjected to before.

This was the country I’d be moving to to marry? Jesus!

Like Clay, I was young, single, female. These interrogations scared the shit out of me. How could they not? Would I lose the right to see my sweetie? Lose the privilege of crossing that border then, or forever? What records were they keeping and how could they affect me?

I moved to the United States, with a green card as a permanent legal resident, in July 1988 — after submitting to an AIDS test.

And yes, I learned how to drive and bought my first car, stat. The hell with the bus.

Have you ever faced this sort of experience?

Kids, Travel And Weaning In Lapland

Masai Mara Tribe Women 2
Masai tribesmen; image by The Dilly Lama via Flickr

Having a mom who’s a travel writer has meant great adventures for Wilf and Reg, sons of British journalist and author Sara Wheeler. Wilf, now 12, has already seen a polar bear and met the tribesmen of the Masai Mara, although his mom was warned that his infant noises might attract lions thinking he was a dying impala.

I was driven from Vancouver, my birthplace, to Mexico, when I was two, my parents taking the back seat out of the car for the journey. Ever since, I’ve reveled in travel, counting the weeks or months until my next trip. This week — Atlanta! I’m psyched, having found a female freelance photographer there who’ll spend the day with me exploring. I’m only going there for a board meeting, my first time in that city, but tacked on two extra days for fun.

I first flew alone, to Antigua, when I was six, to meet my mom. As she traveled with world alone for many years, years later, I’d fly in to meet her in Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru and Fiji, places I’m not sure I’d ever have gotten to on my own time and dime for years, if at all. We slurped room service tomato soup while suffering altitude sickness in Cuzco, froze our asses off on a train through the Andes at midnight, got frisked by the police coming home from midnight mass in Cartagena, and snorkeled amid blue starfish in Fiji. She created an addict! Now I spend every spare penny planning the next trip, our apartment filled with our photos from places visited and memories treasured, from Malta to Paris to Juno Beach to the Eastern Townships of Quebec.

I think the greatest gift you can give your kids is the insatiable hunger to keep a current passport, get out into the world, and the confidence to make themselves, and others, at home once they’re out there. Here’s a fun blog by American ex-pat and mom Karen Van Drie, living and working in Prague. And one of my favorite experts on life overseas is fellow Canadian Robin Pascoe, who runs expatexpert.com, which she began after leaving life as a journo to follow her diplomat husband around Asia.

If you’re suffering a little cabin fever — it’s a cold, gray day here in New York — these offer a quick, cheap escape.