This is timely for my trip: a piece in the New York Times about a woman’s experience with solo travel. I’ve traveled solo many times, within the US as well as in Europe, Israel, China, and New Zealand. And as of this weekend, I’ll be on my own in Uzbekistan for a week before I meet up with some people.
I love traveling solo. The independence allows me to go where I want to, eat when I feel like it, and change my plans on a whim. It can get lonely; I’m too shy to approach people, to make friends easily. But it also offers an intensity that I find harder to come by in the company of others. When I sort through my favorite nuggets remembered from past trips, I tend think of solitary moments: the utter silence of camping alone in the Negev Desert; my legs aching from hours of wandering the medieval stone streets of Český Krumlov; the view of Beijing from Jingshan Park in the harsh light of a rare clear summer day.
But traveling alone can be hard. There’s no one to try strange foods with, no one to help you approach intimidating people, no one to grab your hand to ward off stares or suggestive calls or open propositions. Whitman seems to discount the dangers of traveling solo, but anyone in almost any city should be cautious of walking alone at night. It’s great to feel free enough to travel – I do – but I wouldn’t recommend her blithe abandonment of caution.
Whitman writes, “I think women are definitely more approachable. And it doesn’t have to be in a sexual way, for sure.” But it can be. And being alone, in an unfamiliar landscape and language and culture, makes sexual advances all the more threatening. Her attitude irritates me, and I felt the need to respond to a few of her points.
Q: Were there ever times when you wished, “Oh God, I wish I was a man in this situation?”
A: Oh, wow, I’ve never wished that.
One example: I was about 20 years old, living in Jerusalem, and I dearly wanted to go to Jordan to see Petra. My parents, understandably enough, didn’t want me going alone. But my friends were unable to make the trip with me, and I ended up not going. Male travelers frequently make that same trip safely, but no one I spoke to, no book I read, recommended that I do what countless men have safely, easily done.
I’m 5 feet 2 with blond hair, and I stick out like a sore thumb in Asia — I’m tall and fat! But someone else with darker hair and features isn’t going to stick out as much, and the same goes for places like the Middle East. I’ve got a friend who’s traveled all through the Middle East, and she just loves it. But for me, it would be a really difficult place.
I’m several inches taller than she is, and I stick out like a much sore-r thumb in Asia. I don’t let that stop me. Sure, I get stared at. Sure, complete strangers deposited their wives or children next to me to photograph them with the funny blue-eyed foreigner. That’s part of the experience, not a deal-breaker.
The fact that she so casually discounts the entire Middle East for herself turns me off, particularly because she implies that it’s more her coloring and build than any more profound reasons, such as cultural differences. I feel uncomfortable in heavily male-dominated situations, and that would make certain places difficult for me to travel through. But I’m not going to limit my travel to Europe simply because I’m less conspicuous there. I stand out from the people around me because I’m a tourist from a different culture, who speaks different languages. For me, fitting in is not the point. Finding new experiences and beautiful places and interesting people is the point.
What are some of the challenges that women traveling solo and on a budget have to face?
Gosh, I think that there’s a mind-set that most women grow up with, that you have to have all of your shoes, and you have to have all of your nice clothes, and you have to stay in an expensive place to be safe….
Seriously? She’s worried that women let shoes and nice clothes hold us back? I’m not the first person to point this out – many intelligent, sensible people have made similar comments in the NYT thread – but this is absurd.
Solo women travelers have many genuine issues to consider, including physical safety. These considerations don’t have to be deal-breakers, but they should be carefully thought out. Has she ever felt uncomfortable because she found herself staying in a cheap hostel in a sketchy part of town, with men eyeing every step she took down the stinking sidewalk? Has she ever found herself debating whether to ignore or politely decline a sexual suggestion, or perhaps feign ignorance and offer a fakely naive hello, and oh dear god don’t let him follow me?
Shoes aren’t the problem.
But let me leave behind this idiocy and quote another woman traveler: my grandmother, who traveled the world with my grandfather and walked the Great Wall of China years before I did. Her signature phrase was: If you don’t have fun, it’s your own fault. Yes, be cautious and all that, but have a good time and don’t forget to write.