Is solo travel worth the risk?

At some point, most women travelers confront a vexing question: Do the rewards of traveling solo merit the risks?


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Dawn MacKeen
October 21, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

the irony of it all was how beautiful it was: mountains covered with Christmas trees, decorating the inclines like ornaments; hiking trails for miles; cabins with smoke pluming from their chimney tops; bright stars lighting the sky; the sound of cows mooing and clanking their bells.

Inside one of those cabins, on a bottom bunk in the middle of all this serenity, Laurie Gough's stomach was turning. First she heard the unzip of the pants, then the big leather boots dropping on the floor, one by one. "Move," he commanded in a thick Italian accent. And then she could feel him lying on her, all six feet of him, the strong body she once found attractive metamorphosed into something else.

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"I kept saying, 'No, go away, I want to sleep.' I had my knees up to my chest and was trying to kick him away with my boots, but he was clenching both my wrists back over my head. As soon as you don't have your arms, you are so powerless."

Chico -- the suave, handsome man she met in northern Italy -- raped her that night. He twisted her trust in other people and shaped it into a seething ball of anger. Tore a hole deep inside her.

"I was in shock, I was so filled with anger and betrayal and mad at myself for getting into the situation. I kept thinking, 'How did this happen, how could I attract such a dark force?'"

At one point or another, a woman traveling alone usually runs into a situation like the one Gough did that afternoon while sitting next to a lake looking at a map. A man comes up to her and asks her to go on a hike into the mountains. She decides to go. Why not, she thinks. Locals know the area better than tourists anyway, and she has taken chances on strangers before -- traveled for a couple of weeks with a guy she met in Morocco, spent the night at some guy's house in London, talked until dawn in a Grecian campground with a backpacker who came up to her from out of the shadows -- and everything had turned out OK.

But this time it's different. This guy leads her far up into the mountains, to a point where the trails splinter off in unknown directions and turning back isn't an option. They end up staying overnight in an abandoned cabin, and he traps her there for a day.

ironically enough, what attracted -- and still attracts -- Gough and many
women to traveling alone are moments like the one when she first
encountered Chico: that split second after he asked her to go hiking, right
before she said yes or no, when she had the freedom to decide on her own
what she wanted to do. Did she want to take a risk or not? She didn't
have to ask anyone else; she didn't have to consider how her traveling
companion wanted to spend that day. Part of the allure of traveling alone
is having the option to just go, to take chances. You can skip that museum of 16th century paintings and
spend all morning in the cafe next door, or you can bypass the vaunted
tourist town and ride to the end-of-the-line village not even
mentioned in your guide -- or you can decide to let a local lead you on a
hike into the mountains.

But when the flip side of having so much freedom is so much pain, is it
worth it to travel alone as a woman? Do the rewards merit the risks? Fear is still the No. 1 factor preventing women from traveling alone. It's what separates women's travel from men's; it's what keeps women from ever truly answering these questions -- because they never take the trip.

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For Gough, who experienced one of the worst things that can happen to a woman, and for the ever increasing number of women actually traveling alone, the answer to both questions is yes. It is worth it; it's like no other type of travel. Your senses
soak up the rawness of the environment, from the slight rustle of the wind to the smell of pine trees after the rain. "When you're traveling alone, all the impressions, everything you
experience, is unfiltered by anyone else's comments or preconceived ideas," says Marybeth Bond, editor of "Travelers'
Tales: A Woman's World," a collection of travel stories by women. "So you
are bombarded with everything. This allows you the freedom to experience
the world unfiltered. The result is that you are living intensely, you
are very much more tuned into your own impressions because you aren't
bouncing them off anyone else."

Two hundred thirty-eight million women traveled alone or with other women in 1995, according to an NBC report, and that's not just women between college and their first job. More women from all age groups are traveling -- and often alone, says Nanette Cowardin-Lee, editor of "Maiden Voyages," a travel magazine exclusively for women. Some have just finished college, some are just ending marriages, some are widowed.

"Our readers are women who aren't waiting for their honeymoon to go
travel," says Cowardin-Lee. "They don't wait for a boyfriend to come
along to go to the Caribbean; they go by themselves."

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I took my first trip alone -- to Greece -- only
seven days after graduating from college. After traveling for about 24
hours straight (I had far too many layovers), I arrived in Mykonos, a small
island about six hours by ferry from Athens. A Cycladic island, Mykonos
resembles all those advertisements you've seen for Greece, where cubelike white buildings cover whole mountainsides and the backdrop is always the blue, blue Aegean.

It was 11 o'clock at night and after hiking up the winding streets, I found
a pension that was built into the hillside, its entrance on the street and
the rooms following the hill down. I got settled, took a shower and sat
out on my balcony overlooking the sea, which was partially lit from the
businesses around the port. As night quieted the town, I slowed down too.
I leaned back in my chair and stared down at the sea and the barely visible
silhouette of a cross atop a small church. A faint rhythm from a
discotheque sounded sporadically; otherwise, the night was silent. For two hours I sat on that balcony, alone, my thoughts uninterrupted by anyone else's words or gestures. I didn't have to
placate anyone by looking to the left or to the right, to see what someone
else thought was important for me to see. I stared only in my own blank
direction.

That moment and all the moments that followed during my three-month trip
were completely mine. I sunbathed topless when I felt like it. I smoked
as many cigarettes as I wanted. I engaged in random conversations for the hell
of it. They were vignettes strung together only by me, for me; they define
me in a way that can never be conveyed when someone back home asks the predictable, "How was
your trip?" Traveling alone is like having a diary filled with
scribbled-on pages that you never want anyone else to see.

And, like a painful entry in that diary, on that same trip to Greece, in Rethymnon, Crete, an
end-of-dinner kiss turned into a near-date rape when the local
man I had gone out with pinned me against a wall, all to the peaceful
rhythm of the Aegean lapping against the shore. And a few days later, a couple of hours down the
coast in Hania, a pharmacist gave a fake diagnosis for a skin rash I was
having and dragged me into the back room of his shop so he could rub
"special ointment" on my body. Since the bottle was written in Greek, I
didn't find out till later, after running out of the shop broken in a
million pieces, that the ointment was a generic drugstore moisturizing lotion.

It's so easy when traveling to think
that you're in Vacationland, a version of Disneyland, where all the
animated characters around you, with the smiling faces, have altruistic
intentions behind their masks. Even if you think your gut is the most instinct-laden organ on the planet -- as I thought mine was -- you could still end up in a horrible situation. I'm now wary of everyone, even those pruned-up
fishermen sitting by the docks on a bench, the kind in the postcards, who
look like the archetype of a harmless old man. One once offered me about
$10 in drachma to sleep with him.

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But still, nothing like what happened to Laurie Gough happened to me. And as
Marybeth Bond says, for most solo women travelers, negative encounters with
men will come in the form of cat calls, dirty looks, pinches and lewd
remarks. If you're going to travel alone, you should be prepared to encounter these. And you should educate yourself before leaving on your trip, so that you know how local stereotypes and perceptions of women may affect you -- and how you can minimize the risks.

"A woman must assume in
other countries that men have seen the worst of Western women, on soaps
like "Dallas," in videos, sleazy movies and TV shows," says Bond. "They
often have stereotypes that are very untrue, that Western women are
available and hunting for men. The best way to counteract these stereotypes
is to respond just the way you feel." As an example, Bond recalls the time
a man propositioned her in the middle of a popular lunch place in India.
She yelled almost everything close to the F-word as loud as she
could, she says, and then she kicked him with her sandaled foot. Despite
the resulting broken toe, Bond swears by verbal public embarrassment -- and, uh, toe casts -- as a way to thwart unwanted advances.

"I got into a foolish situation by going out to a dance club with another
woman traveler," says Thalia Zepatos, author of "A Journey of One's Own:
Uncommon Advice for the Independent Woman Traveler." "She fell instantly
in love with this guy and offered this guy's friend to take me home. I
wound up taking a ride home with this man I didn't know, and he stopped on
a dark road and initiated sex with me. So I got out of the car and walked
home on a beautifully moonlit night."

It's common sense, Zepatos says: Don't be alone with someone you don't know
completely, and take precautions; minimize the risks. And even in the safety of your hotel room or pension, don't let down your guard. She uses the analogy
of the repair person who knocks on your door back home. Before allowing
him to enter, you make sure he has the proper credentials. The
same should go for someone who knocks on your hotel door and says he
works there. And just as you would not walk into a busy hotel in downtown Chicago with
only your bathing suit on, don't do it abroad. Dressing conservatively, and
in keeping with local traditions, is something all the women travelers I spoke
with recommended.

While Zepatos was researching the way women should dress for her book, she
spoke with one woman who traveled through remote parts of Turkey wearing a
halter top and Daisy Duke shorts because she
thought it was her duty to show the local women that in other countries,
women had more -- or in this case, less -- clothing options. After interviewing
many women, Zepatos says she believes there is a direct correlation between
how modestly a woman dresses and how harassed she gets. Not surprisingly,
the woman in the halter top was heavily harassed.

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"It's incumbent on the woman traveler to dress in the right way so she
doesn't invite unwanted attention, but also not to alienate the women of the
local culture," Zepatos says. Camouflage yourself into the local culture as
much as possible and respect the typical woman's role in that region, agrees
Lynn Ferrin, a travel writer and editor who has been roaming the world for decades. Be
hyper-observant when you first arrive in a country, Zepatos suggests.
Look at how men and women interact on the street. When women meet a man, do
they touch him on the hand or stay away?

"Every culture and religion are different, but basically there is something
the same going on between genders everywhere," says Zepatos, who believes all women recognize another woman in distress. "I think
that women of many cultures can feel sympathy for foreign women who are
alone and may be the target of some kind of unwarranted attention. They
understand immediately what is going on."

If uncomfortable on a bus or train, go sit next to a woman or a family,
Zepatos advises. Carry and show pictures of your family or home, or make an
insta-wedding ring by flipping over your stone ring and placing it on the
proper finger.

Toward the end of my trip, I, too, bought a "wedding" ring and told people
my husband was sick and in bed back at the hotel, and I made public
embarrassment one of my weapons. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
But attention from men seemed to decline in accordance with how stern a
look I gave as I walked through town. And who knows, if Laurie Gough had
read all the books on traveling safely, perhaps her hike would have ended differently. But 10 years later, Gough and all the other women I spoke
with for this article still pack up their bags and travel alone, largely because of a simple belief: The benefits outweigh the risks. "I am more cautious and wary these
days, more suspicious of men's motives and far less willing to put up with
bullshit," Gough says. "But if you trust in yourself and the
universe, things usually go OK. You come across these amazing
situations and you meet these interesting local people -- and that makes all the hard times worth it."


Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

MORE FROM Dawn MacKeen

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