The Frugal Traveler, a great column in the NYT, had an interesting article last week focusing on what it’s like to travel as a woman alone. It’s a good article, but the author Seth Kugel, seems amazed by the fact that, yes, women often have a different travel experience than men.
That’s funny, because as a woman I’ve had plenty of opportunities to reflect on how my experiences have been influenced by my gender.
Over the past year I’ve traveled in a variety of combinations: as a couple, with a female friend and yes, solo. The three experiences were pretty different, both in terms of how I traveled and how I was treated. Most enlightening was traveling with my boyfriend. As he is also an extensive solo traveler I got to have the unique experience of comparing the ways we travel.
On his last solo trip through South East Asia, Mike had a pretty great time doing things that I, as a solo female, would probably never have attempted. Things like accepting an invitation from a man on the train in Bangkok and spending a week with his family, sleeping on the beach in Ko Phi Phi because he couldn’t find a cheap enough hostel room and partying like a (very drunk) rock star in Vang Vieng.
I am a feminist and an egalitarian, but I’m also a realist with a mom who worries a lot. Sleeping alone out in the open or getting piss drunk on my own are just not reasonable or safe things for a wi=oman to do in the world we currently live in. They’re not exactly safe things for a guy to do either, but the threat level is higher for women.
When I am traveling alone, I have to be constantly aware of my surroundings and be able to assess the threat level of any situation. That means sometimes I miss out on really neat opportunities. I would never hitchhike alone (sounds like a good way to meet a serial killer) but my buddy Dylan did just that all summer long, and had an awesome time. I would never have gone home with a random man I met on the train like Mike did. As a result he got to spend an awesome week with a local family while I probably would have just switched train cars.
For women there’s always the threat of harassment, or worse. This is even more true outside of South East Asia. I was routinely followed down the street by creepy men in London until I learned to look meaner. In Italy there were constant catcalls when I was out sightseeing. It’s not because I’m some irresistible Hottie McHotpants, it’s because for some frustrating reason, some men around the world still think that kind of behavior is acceptable.
It’s not just when I’m alone either. When I was in Australia, camping with a female friend, we were cornered one night by a very drunk Ozzie dude who demanded to know if we were lesbians, with a kind of crazed titillation in his eyes. It was a pretty tense couple of minutes until his friends appeared to drag him back to their campsite. Nonetheless he reappeared several times over the next few hours to leer at us drunkenly. You can bet we triple checked the locks in our camper van before falling asleep that night.
This is not meant to discourage people from traveling, in fact I really hope it doesn’t. When you get down to it, this isn’t a problem with travel, this is a problem with the world we live in. Creeps live everywhere; just last year two girls were attacked and raped mere blocks from my quiet suburban home in Arlington. In her recent article on the same subject Jodi of Legal Nomads mentions a terrifying incident that happened to here in Marseilles. As women we’re taught to constantly be aware of our situation and to watchful for our safety. We’re told to watch our body language, to be sure we aren’t sending anything that could be interpreted as a “signal.” And sometimes that isn’t even enough. So ,until women can stop feeling unsafe in their own homes, there’s always going to be a hyper-vigilance involved with traveling the world. And I’m sorry but that blows.
There are silver linings though. As a woman alone you sometimes have access to certain cultural experiences men might not. In South East Asia I noticed that local people were much more interested in talking to me when I was solo, which lead to some really interesting conversations. This was a big part of why I loves Cambodia so much whereas my boyfriend didn’t care for it when he visited: I was able to connect more with the place and the people.
Additionally, much of my experiences in Asia were colored by the lens I use to look at the world: that of a woman who is concerned with women’s issues. I felt safer in Asia then I have most anywhere in the world, yet you barely have to scratch the surface to uncover so much disparity. There was the unreasonable beauty standards of Japan and China where women bleach their skin and tape their eyelids. There’s the exploitative sex trade in South East Asia and the ubiquitous human trafficking. Then there’s the sex-selective anti-girl bias in China which has lead to an entire generation of missing girls. There were so many things that made me feel fortunate that I even have the ability to be a solo traveling observer.
I truly believe the world is not an unsafe place and I live my life by that philosophy. I do think though, that the world is a very different place sometimes for men than it is for women, and often times in a detrimental way. Someday that will change, but not until the world learns to recognize the meaning of respect.