go it alone
"Wow, aren't you afraid?"
That’s a comment I got a lot from people whenever they found out I was travelling alone - presumably because people immediately assume that terrible things are more likely to happen to solo women travellers than to men or people travelling in groups.
Maybe it's because of the deeply engrained perception that women are the weaker sex. And I'm not trivialising the risk of sexual harassment or rape - these things can happen any time, any place. There are also countries where women are subject to social mores and laws that may leave one more vulnerable.
But when you think about it, there is very little one can do about that, short of staying home to avoid danger.
I think the real fear of travelling alone lies in the fear of loneliness, or at least, a desire for familiar company. And there were definitely times I felt alone, or just bored, or homesick for friends.
But for the most part, travelling alone is extremely liberating and relaxing. You do whatever you want, whenever you want. You have time for your thoughts. You’re a better observer and you take in more of whatever you’re seeing. You’re more likely to talk to strangers than if you were absorbed in spending time with your friends.
Was I ever self-conscious about travelling alone, worried about being the only solo diner in a restaurant, or that people might feel sorry for me because they think I’m a social outcast with no friends or boyfriend? The first time I travelled alone (years ago), I did feel a little weird, especially when I ended up in a small town that seemed to comprise solely honeymooning couples. But by nature I'm always happy to do things on my own, even back home, and I stopped feeling self-conscious a long time ago.
I had my moments - I fell while mountain-biking and ended up hurting my right hand, which made it difficult for me to haul a backpack around. But I still had to travel - I had a flight to catch in Ecuador and I had only so many days to make by way there from Colombia by bus. I definitely felt sorry for myself then.
There was also the one time I had diarrhoea and stomach cramps that made it near-impossible to get out of bed - but I still had to get up, take my meds and get out of the house to buy dinner because the Airbnb host wasn't around, and there wasn't any food in the house.
There were also times where I wished it was someone else scrolling through endless hostel and Airbnb reviews to find the best place to kip for the night. Logistics is tedious.
But I would do it again in a heartbeat. I love not having to put someone else's needs first, and I like having all this room in my head just to think about what I'm seeing and experiencing.
And for all our anxiety about being left on our own, you are never really alone when you travel. You are surrounded by people whom, like you, came all the way to a foreign land to see something different. You are also surrounded by locals who often are happy to share something about their lives with you. There is always someone to talk to, if you feel the need. I'm not naturally social, but even I came away with a few new friends from my trip.
Yes, casual harassment can be a problem for women. In South America, men sometimes made kissing noises when I walked past, or asked if I wanted a boyfriend. But these are things that could just as easily happen to me back home, and have happened to me elsewhere. And personally I never felt I was in real danger - nothing ever escalated beyond the "irritating" level.
The best we can do is to use the intuition and common sense we've used all our lives to avoid danger. For example, I don’t stay out late alone, especially if I’ve been advised against it. I avoid dark alleyways. I don’t linger in places I don’t feel good about. I watch out for suspicious behaviour. If I’m nervous about say, a dodgy border crossing, I seek out other travellers (locals or other foreigners) headed in the same direction and stay close.
Sometimes, being viewed as vulnerable can work to your advantage. I’ve met plenty of locals (men and women) who are extra helpful to solo travellers. They walk me to the right place when I ask for directions. They come up and translate for me when they see I’m struggling with the language barrier. People from the next table sometimes invite me to join them (in a non-creepy way). Being alone makes you appear more approachable, and this can be a good thing.
I’ve travelled alone several times, and one thing that stays with me is how empowering it feels to be in charge, and to come out on the other side knowing that you can do it alone. Whether it’s just a weekend escape, or a year-long trip around the world, give it a go.