To Be A Woman & Travel
“Are you really traveling alone?” she said. “Aren’t you afraid?”
I was standing in a friend’s home, speaking to his mother. On the car ride to the house, the night before, almost as soon as the engine had fired up, she began to inform us of every terrible event of violence & theft that peppered the news channels since her son had been gone. (She reminded me of my own mother).
We were standing in a cozy living room with large windows looking out over quiet French countryside.
“Isn’t it dangerous, though?” She said. “Don’t you fear for yourself, as a woman?” She hushed her voice into almost a half-whisper, eyes unbelievably wide, like a child discussing a terrible secret.
“Did you know there was a fellow who got killed last year– Hey! Do you remember that hitchhiker–got killed last year?!” She called into the kitchen. “Hitchhiking is dangerous. I wouldn’t do it…But you’re really traveling alone, are you?”
Over the next few days, she would mention again & again how dangerous it was ‘in these times’ to her son, glancing my way with a look that contained something between pity & fear for my sanity. She was kind. She cared for her son’s safety as a traveler & the safety of a young girl traveling alone. Everywhere I go, it is the same story.
When I was in Spain, back in 2008, I met a group of travelers–two couples–who had been hitchhiking around the continent on holiday together. In my non-existent Spanish, I had attempted multiple times to try to explain that I had also been hitchhiking around Europe (on my own) & planned to hitch (or walk) my way across the continent. They spoke no English. I knew very little Spanish, but on every other topic we’d seemed to be able to liltingly stumble past our linguistic barriers. Every topic, except this one. No matter how I tried to find the words or gestures that would explain what I was about, they simply stared at me, confused. After almost an hour (and some ludicrous attempts at miming), we made contact when I finally managed to communicate the word, ‘alone.’ They all stopped walking. Then the taller of the two men took a step towards me & hesitantly said,
“Single? You are…travel…single?”
There was a look of utter disbelief on his face. I nodded, figuring he was confirming my travel situation & not my relationship status. There was another long pause. Suddenly, the youngest member of the group–-a dark, buxom girl with a deep, sultry voice–-turned to everyone & cupping the air with her hands, shaking them violently, exclaimed,
Everyone, including me, burst into laughter. (She proceeded to spend the next 24 hours turning to me frequently glancing my way & uttering a half-whispered, ‘…heuvos,‘ with a wink & giggling like a helium-filled school girl.
At the time, I chalked up our difficulty in communication to the language barrier, but I have traveled enough now & experienced enough similar situations to realize that it was not my lack of Spanish that had gotten in the way of our communication– the simple fact is that people do not expect a woman to travel alone. It happens all the time. Everywhere.
In almost a decade since my first solo adventure, so many things have changed…..and yet, nothing has.
In the movies, yes–-we have more & more lead female characters. Most of them Prance around in heels with bosoms heaving & hair undeniably in place & most--though not all--are still looking for Mr. Right.
Pop music now talks about feminism & girl power, while on TV long-legged chanteuses prance around in stilettos & lingerie–trading lace in for leather to prove how ‘strong’ they are. It seems to me that what I see around me are women who are apparently ’empowered’ through their sexual dominance, but for the rest of us here in the real world & for the young girls growing up watching these female role models, what is it exactly that actually makes them 'strong?'
People still seek to control women’s reproductive rights & bodies, as though a woman's body was somehow less than a mans. Rape victims are still asked what they were ‘wearing that night’ & if you google, ‘strong women’ on google images, the pictures that you get are mostly extremely-sexualized movie stars with kitchy quotes pasted over them. (I had hoped for photos of female athletes, inventors, mathematicians, writers, politicians…I was sorely disappointed).
A few months ago, a good friend of mine posted on Facebook about how badly she has always wanted to travel…and how unfair it was that she could not...'if only she were a man.'
I have, I suppose, become an 'accidental feminist' at some point in the last decade--meaning I always was one, but had a skewed view of the terminology. I don't wish to be unfair, but I do wonder how often my male counterparts get the same cautioning & questions that I do. But in my experience, it is generally assumed that a man can take care of himself, whereas--as a woman--the disbelief & questions & cautions dominate every dialogue. They flood my life these days. So many what if‘s & could happen‘s.
“Don’t you know how dangerous it is?”
“You are going alone?! To Spain? Italy? Morocco? Argentina? The Balkans?”
“Are you crazy?”
“Do you want to get raped?”
“You could be kidnapped.”
“You could have your wallet stolen.”
“What if you cannot get ahold of anyone?”
“What if you run out of money?”
“What if something terrible happens?”
“That’s a dangerous part of the world.”
“Aren’t you frightened?”
Of course I am. Every day.
I would be ignorant if I were unaware & unafraid of the many things that could happen to me, both as a woman & as a lone traveler. But the thing is, they happen to people everywhere, every day—often in their own towns or cities, and too often behind closed doors.
This summer I traveled on my own for the better part of 3 months. What people may not understand is that, within that 3 months, I was rarely ever actually alone & even when I was, nothing happened. I’m not saying it couldn’t have, but it didn’t. Being alone forces you to reach out & meet people. It pushes you past your comfort zones & forces you to open your eyes & your mind. I now aim to embark on a series of on-going travels all over the world, for the next few years…alone. People are still asking me how I plan to do this & why & what if something happens?
My only answer is this:
I have spent most of my life living in large cities–San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles–walking home through dark ally ways late at night because I often lived on the outskirts of the city & rarely had the luxury to afford the bus or a taxi. Granted, I have seen very little of what I myself consider to be the more ‘dangerous’ parts of the world. And yet, someone was stabbed to death only last year in the tiny, safe little town I live in. People in large cities get shot or mugged every year.
I am lucky.
Because of my size & my stature, I rarely get confronted with dangerous situations, compared to the majority of my female & transgendered friends. But I do get messed with–often when I’m simply in sweat pants walking home from the gym or sitting & waiting for the bus. I get cat-calls. I get threatened. I get looked up & down by half-drunk, smeary old men & groped by ‘nice-guys’ in Starbucks, who are just asking me to ‘move out of the way, sweetheart.’ I have been threatened by drug addicts & people on the streets & angry men (yes, men) in bars who were over-served. Ask any woman you know who has had to walk home in a city how many times she’s been harassed daily, no matter what clothes she is wearing & whether she was alone or in company. The number may surprise you. It should surprise you. It should appall you. Most women I know won’t walk home alone in a city at night. I just never had that luxury. The thing is, whether walking home in your won city or traveling to a foreign country, bravery is never the issue. It’s not even a thought. If a situation presents itself, you learn to handle it. Or you don’t.
I learned early on that it is rarely the homeless man or the guy in the ally one really needs to fear. It is the training we, as women, receive from childhood to be polite in uncomfortable situations; to question ourselves when a kind stranger or a friend of a friend is suddenly a little too close for comfort, a little too touchy. We are trained to ask
“Am I being too sensitive?”
It is the fear that we may just be mistaken—impolite, unkind, unladylike, confused, too emotional, misinterpreting, reading into things— which keeps us silent; which has us questioning our instincts & excusing away our boundaries. It is this training which then fosters the fear to speak up or fight back if we ever dofind ourselves in those situations (or worse ones), that too often results in victims born of silence.
I spoke with a dear friend the other day. She is moving away from Oregon & has plans to travel around the States, alone. She is a tattooed punk-girl; a mixture of sass & snarky comments & incredibly gentle sweetness. She is a woman who knows how to take care of herself. But she is questioned, nonetheless. We commiserated about constantly being bombarded with the same questions:
“Why are you traveling?”
Because I have to. For me.
“Where will you find the money?”
I don’t know. But I will.
“Aren’t you terrified?”
Of course I am. I am terrified of my shadow when I wake up in the morning.
There comes a point when you realize that nothing ever changed by giving into your fears; a point where you realize that to stay ‘safe’ in the supposed sanctuary of your own home means that, while you may not face the frightening reality that can be the outside world today, you will also never truly be alive. There comes a point when you realize that there are far more important things happening in this world then being ‘comfortable;’ when you realize that even the apparent safety & comfort of your home & your life can be taken from you, (or any one of us), at any moment, on any given day…without warning.
I have become haunted by one thought:
If I were to step into the street & die right now, would I be ok with it? Would what I’m doing/thinking/feeling in this moment be important to me? Is it worth giving these precious breaths & minutes of my life to?
After I answer that, everything is simple & clear.
Once you realize that security is an illusion, no place or life will ever feel truly safe again…but if you can sit with yourself in that moment & step past the fear, you will also be overwhelmed with an incredible sense of freedom & confidence. Am I frightened of being alone? Being raped or mugged or murdered? Being stranded in a country where I do not speak the language, with no money & no contacts?
Of course I am. I always will be. But I’ve learned it is the ability to move through & despite that constant fear–to be able to hone your senses to be attuned to danger, but not be strangled by them–that teaches you what you are made of. I have now come to the point when, to stay ‘safe’ has a higher cost than living.
Why do I travel? Because I have learned so much from the tiny amount I have seen & heard of the world, that I now believe my own view of it has been a lie; a fragment of a fragment of the ‘reality’ of what actually exists every day in this world. This earth is so vast; it’s people so incredibly diverse & unique, so beautifully interwoven. Having discovered this, I wonder if I can ever live happily in ignorance (or stillness) again–that is my truth & alone or in company, I must follow it. With that knowledge, I have awoken a voracious hunger inside myself to learn & explore, which far eclipses my fears. If, one day, something is going to happen….it will. But I will learn to handle it when it does, rather than being choked by a thousand fearful possibilities before they ever happen.
Or I won’t.
But that day has not come, yet.
I also owe to myself & my sisters to travel. Because, as long as we are afraid, individually–to travel, to speak out, to understand, to confront the dangers & challenges around us– as a sex (or as a species), we always will be. Nothing will change…because the world doesn’t change by talking or wishing or posting inspirational quotes on Facebook; it changes by doing–by beginning, even when you are least prepared & most afraid; it changes when we change–when we take action! And we change (and grow), when we look our darkest fears in the face & say, “This is going to be scary & I’m not going to be comfortable & I may not even be happy; everything might go wrong…and I’m going to do it anyway. Because I have to see what’s possible; I have to know what’s out there & what I can be.”
So, if the world calls to you–and even if it doesn’t–no matter your gender, culture or creed, I encourage you to open your windows, walk out your doors & find the thing that frightens you most & do it–not when you are ready, but NOW. Today. There won’t be a better time.
There is a world out there, beyond your wildest imaginings, waiting to be born & discovered; possibilities exist beyond anything we have dreamed of, but nothing was ever changed or created easily or by hiding behind closed doors & should’s…and it is so important now, in our time, to see what we are made of.
By all means, be terrified; be careful, cautious & aware……but act anyway. Then, and only then, do we change…And the world changes with us.