My Experience as a Solo Female Wanderer (repost!)
My Experience as a Solo Female Wanderer
January 2017 update: Recent political chatter about rape culture, women's rights, misogyny, and other cultural issues reminded me of this article I wrote about 3 years ago. I decided to repost it as maybe my timing of writing it 3 years ago was not as timely as it is today. Originally published on January 2014.
(Disclaimer: Graphic language. These are my personal experiences and opinions and do not reflect the experiences of anyone else)
The recent news of the gang rapes of female tourists and local women in India is appalling. Today this was a strong headline in the New York Times:
NEW DELHI — A young woman in West Bengal was gang-raped this week on the order of a village council, to punish her for planning to marry a man from outside the village, according to Indian police. Click here to read the entire article in the New York Times.
This news reminded me of my experiences traveling abroad, often alone, as an American female. Another recent victim, a Danish woman that was raped in New Delhi marketplace when she asked for directions back to her hotel, has exploded all over the news around the world in the week. I am glad it is getting all the news and attention. Tourist Gang Rape Article Here Rape and sexual abuse have been going on in India for centuries, and now that they are raping female tourists from around the world, it has made headline news. As gruesome as this incident is, the positive thing is that it is brought to light what Indian women have been suffering from for generations, and maybe it can help bring change to their society. I am not an expert on gender relations and women's rights in India..but I have read quite a few articles, and I am hopeful that change is on the horizon.
The abuse that has been a cultural issue within India's borders is now an international relations issue. It is no longer just a cultural problem, but a human rights issue, and its affecting tourism, which makes it an economic issue. Female tourism has gone down 35% in India since the gang rape and death of a young India college student on a public bus that was reported last year...
New Delhi (CNN) -- An Indian court sentenced four men to death Friday for the rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi, an attack that appalled the South Asian nation. Announcing the sentence, Judge Yogesh Khanna said the crime "shocked the collective conscience" of India and fell into the "rarest of rare category" that deserves capital punishment.
I would like to travel to India, it is a beautiful and culturally diverse country, but due to the current issues, it's not on my shortlist. This news reminded me of my experiences traveling abroad and how I was treated as a female.
I have a lot of experience traveling abroad by myself. In all my months traveling alone in Asia and other countries, I have been groped, robbed, leered at, etc. because I am female. I also had a fantastic time and some great memories.
I spent several months traveling solo in Thailand and Laos working for a prominent travel writer. The leering and staring were annoying, but I got used to it and just ignored it after a while. I always wore sunglasses and avoided smiling and making eye contact with at men. I also knew how to tell them to buzz off in Thai so if I was in a situation where someone was following me or bothering me in a restaurant, I knew how to speak enough Thai to tell them to get the hell away from me. I did lock myself in my room in only two villages in Thailand and Laos, and I went to at least 30 communities.
Growing up, I was taught not to use profanity, be quiet, ladylike, polite, and demure. That teaching did not serve me well on the road. I left home when I was barely 18, and I learned how to take care of myself. Being shy, quiet, and unassertive were not skills that helped me survive on my own. I learned how to stand up for myself after I moved out of my parent's house. I am glad I knew how to use whatever language and street smarts where required. It kept me out of danger more than once. When a blonde American female tells a man in his own language to get the hell away from her - they tend to listen. One time I ran out of money in Laos, so I asked a fellow backpacker for $20.00 just so I would have enough money to get back to Thailand where the ATM as there was no ATM in Laos at the time.
If I were unassertive and shy, I would not have been able to even get a place to sleep that night. If I got on a bus, taxi, or in a hotel that I did not feel safe at, I would just get off at the next stop or switch hotels. If I felt like someone was following me, I would go to the nearest shop or restaurant and wait. Being quiet and unassertive is not helpful for any young woman, especially not in the real world.
In Vientiane, Laos, I had a close call with a male backpacker from Africa. He was hanging out with a few other backpackers and me during the day and later on back at the hostel (I think he was on drugs because he was saying some crazy things and had me pinned down, etc., etc.) I will never forget the words I said, "Get. The. Fuck. Off. Me. Now." and he did. Then I took my bag and left the hostel and went straight to the airport at 2 am. I did not feel safe in the hostel or even in the city anymore because I knew he was going to be there. I sat in the airport lobby the rest of the night with the solo guard and cleaners. I took the next flight out to another town at 7 am. That experience really freaked me out as I could have been a rape victim, but I was determined not to let one asshole instill fear in me or ruin my travels. I have always believed no one has the right to lay hands on you or use force against you just because you are female. There is enough violence against women in the world, and I was not going to let that stop me from living out my own dreams.
My junior year in college, I did a study abroad program in a Muslim village in Southern Thailand in my junior year of college. The town was near the Malaysia border, and it was a dangerous part of Thailand with a lot of extremist bombings. Many of the local women wore the head covering or even the entire face covering. Once we arrived in the village, the program director told us to wear modest clothes, etc. because it was a Muslim area, but I did not bring a burka or floor-length tunic in my suitcase, so I wore shorts and T-shirts/jeans. (My host mom was Muslim, but she dressed in Western clothes, and the host dad was Buddhist) For the most part, no one bothered me, sometimes the tuk-tuk drivers would ask me if I was married and if I had any babies, but it was not a big issue. Most of the time, I was hanging out with my male cousin and the other students, so even when I went on public transportation alone in the town, no one bothered me. My host family did have a curfew for me of 11 PM, which was for my own safety and their peace of mind. I think how you carry yourself is crucial to how people perceive you, but it is no guarantee that you will not be groped if you are a female traveler.
A few years later In Fiji, I was walking along a road with my American friend Heather. After a trip to New Zealand, we were visiting the country after a study abroad in Australia. Two local Indian Fiji men were passing us on the side of the road while we were walking. We just ignored them as usual as they passed, one of them reached out and grabbed my full crotch with his hand as he passed, he gave it a good squeeze and then kept walking, it was pretty shocking to have a large male hand grab your front crotch in the middle of daylight on a public road. I just kept walking and was like WTF? I guess he got off on it or something. I did not totally freak out about it, though, I just assumed he was a pervert... My friend had a similar experience with a Fijian taxi driver, so we figured the local men were creepers.
I think when you travel and have experiences like this, you lower your expectations of men in foreign countries. Groping women is never OK and makes you personally feel violated- along with the mosquitoes and rip off tour guides, I took it in stride.
I went to The Philippines three times and usually would spend most of my time in a village in Southern Davao with my Filipino friends. When I was traveling in the Philippines, there were travel warnings for Americans not to travel to the Philippines and especially not to travel to the Southern Islands, but back then I did not read travel warnings, I went when I felt like it. I was always with a local when I was in Mindanao except in Manila. One visit I had a one-night layover by myself in Cebu City. I did sleep at all that night in the hotel, I had a sick feeling in my stomach, so I locked myself in my room.
On my last visit, when I was visiting the beautiful island of Samal, located in Mindanao in the Philippines, I had a frightening experience with the Muslim extremist group, the Abu Sayyaf. They visited the remote resort we were staying at and offered money to my Filipino companion for me. My Filipino friend was worried about my safety, and that night we locked ourselves in the house of the resort manager instead of staying in the rented beach bungalow. During the night someone came and stole my clothes that were hanging off of the line to dry. Shaken, but OK, we took the next boat back to the mainland the following day. (Unfortunately a few months later that year Americans were kidnapped and killed on the adjacent beach at the Pearl Farm Beach Resort).
My Tips for Women Traveling Solo:
1. Speak Local. Learn some of the local languages if you are going to stay awhile in a country and take public transport. If you know how to say get lost to a creepy guy in their native tongue, you will have fewer problems.
2. Travel with a Friend. Travel with a local, other companion or a group if possible.
3. Pay attention to your surroundings, and try to fit in if possible. Traveled alone in Thailand and Laos for several months. I would go for days without speaking English. I visited remote villages much of the time. You get a sixth sense. You will know when to lock yourself into your hotel room at night and when it is OK to hang out with a local. On my journey, I made friends with locals and other travelers alike. Hanging out with locals and fellow travelers was some of the best times of my life, but you have to be smart about it and follow your gut instinct. The first month I got a lot of catcalls at night when I was walking around, so I started to wear a baseball cap to cover my hair so in the dark I did not really stand out anymore, the catcalls stopped immediately. I am not saying you have to wear a hat, but for me, it was just something I noticed, and when you are living and working abroad for several months you find out what works for you. I also packed one pair of long jeans which I wore at night. White legs stand out more than a couple of denim jeans and a baseball cap.
4. Nighttime. In the night hang out in local markets with lots of lights and always take a taxi to your hotel if it is off the beaten path. I would walk anywhere by myself during the day, but at night to return to my hotel, I would calculate my restitution in advance.
5. Just Get Up and Leave. If you are on a bus and do not feel safe, get off at the next stop. If you are at a hotel and feel unsafe, check out and go to another place if possible. I have left hotels and hostels at 2, or 3 am if I did not feel safe. There are no social rules to abide by when it comes to your personal safety, follow your gut instinct, and get the hell out of there if necessary. I always just traveled with one small rolling suitcase, it weighed 12 lbs so I could come and go quickly. You don't want to go with more than you can carry easily because if you have to leave immediately for safety reasons a heavy bag be a burden and slow you down.
6. Expect Some Disrespect. Expect to be fondled, stared at, masturbated to on a bus, etc. (yes men will rub their penis on you in a crowded public bus) if you are female. Many newly industrialized countries view women as second class citizens, if you are white, they might see you as a "movie star" or treat you better because of your skin color. The important thing is to listen to your gut instinct...and don't let anything stop you from enjoying the journey. Overall in South East Asia, I was treated well and plan to return again soon.
7. Party Time. Avoid getting totally wasted with locals or people you just met. You don't know their intentions, and if you are a single female, it could be a recipe for disaster. I don't think I can stress this topic enough. I was not a big drinker when I was on the road, so it was not a massive issue for me. I might have had a few beers with some backpackers or a local but nothing crazy. (If you want to get wasted make sure you are with friends and don't go off on your own) Drugs? Was never an issue..in Thailand, you can end up in horrible jails, and in Malaysia where I also spent some time, I heard they give you a death sentence if you are caught with drugs. Check local laws before you travel or partake.
7. Reverse Culture Shock. You are Not Crazy. You may have reverse culture shock or mild PTSD when you return to the USA after several months abroad. I did. After spending several months alone in a new culture and unpredictable environment and then to come back to your former insulated American (boring) life..it takes some getting used to. Your family may think you are neurotic, but you have changed, you will never be the same. People that travel or live abroad know precisely what I am talking about. Americans that have never actually spent time elsewhere will not understand this, don't expect them to. Try to talk to others who have lived abroad.
You only live once. I don't let the fear of the unknown stop me from traveling or doing whatever I want to do in life. There are many times I was in situations that were not comfortable, and I have been robbed, head lice, bed bugs, peed in holes in the floor, witnessed plane crashes, bus crashes, poverty - and I would not change any of my travels. Part of the allure of the journey is the unknown. They opened my eyes to a different world, and I am forever grateful.
In a few weeks, I am flying to China by myself and later on this year I am tentatively planning a trip to South Africa. I have never been to where I am going, but I assume I will be fine. My friend Joe Cummings who inspired my travels over the years has a quote on his website that I always like to borrow.
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"Not all who wander are lost." -- J.R.R. Tolkien