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The rawness of Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild,” and the subsequent movie adaptation, struck a collective nerve amongst audiences and readers. Something about Strayed’s inward journey towards self-discovery continues to capture and delight travelers, particularly those who manage to venture out on their own.
Traveling solo is particularly important for women if they have the means and opportunity. It’s also unsurprisingly complicated by gender, though by no means is it irrevocably ruined. Awareness of yourself and your surroundings are key, both in terms of safety and social norms.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the intimidating prospect of journeying to a foreign place alone, it’s undoubtedly a deeply beneficial endeavor in terms of self-assurance. Jenavieve Hatch, a writer at HuffPost Women, formerly employed at UC Davis Study Abroad, lauds the benefits of solo female travel.
“I would encourage anyone to do it,” she says. “I would encourage every woman to do it at some point in her life, because it’s so empowering.”
Dawn Lloyd, a teacher at the American University of Afghanistan and another well-traveled woman, believes that the skills of confidence and self-reliance instilled through solo travel are important, though she also believes they can be learned elsewhere if an individual doesn’t want to or is unable to travel alone. Nevertheless, given the means and opportunity, she believes it’s a worthy undertaking.
Not only does solo travel build useful life skills, it also makes trips much simpler. Without the constraints of other people’s plans, as Hatch puts it, “traveling with friends is really fun and everyone should do that too, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to do whatever the fuck you want.”
For Alex Press, PhD student at Northeastern University and a seasoned solo traveler, the logistical freedom offers a break from social pressures unique to women. Autonomous decision-making and the pursuit of personal pleasure are often denied to women. Press relishes taking solo trips as a woman because traveling alone “strips all those sexist illusions away.”
“Every place or event you go to is because that’s what you want to do,” she tells BTRtoday. She remembers traveling alone in her youth and feels it taught her, “what it is to be independent and make your own decisions.” Something that we can all agree women are too often not able to do.
The personal freedom that solo trips can offer women is often hindered by sexist tropes and violence.
“Borders don’t matter when it comes to misogyny,’ Hatch assures us. That extra “layer of stress” requires more conscientious plans and movement.
She recalls a time in Latin America when men were, true to stereotypes, “pretty shameless” about catcalls, whistling, and the like, to the point that she occasionally had to stay home. It could be a perfect travel day otherwise but she just “couldn’t do another shift of that.”
It is important to clarify that none of the women BTRtoday spoke to believe that misogyny is only a disease in places outside America. As Press puts it, “there are men who hate women in every city and country on the planet.” She tells us that she has traveled alone in Guatemala, France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji, but America has always been the most fraught with problems and danger.
Hatch, too, reports a similar degree of exhaustion right here at home. She tells us about a recent time when she was followed around a Brooklyn 99 cent store in the middle of the afternoon.
“Sometimes shit just sucks if you’re a woman,” Hatch casually admits.
Misogyny is not the only complication to traveling as a woman. Learning to reconcile feminist notions of empowerment and independence with compliance for local customs is both difficult and critical. Hatch tells BTRtoday that when she would take UC Davis study abroad students through their pre-departure orientation, a large chunk of her focus was on “how not to go to another country and be an asshole.”
The ass-holery Hatch refers to is the trend of white people going to a mostly non-white nation and taking photos with local children, to adorn the white traveler’s social media and receive glowing praise of their humanitarianism and spirit of adventure. “Stuff like that is fucked up,” Hatch neatly summarizes.
Condemning the stereotypical – and in her experience, fairly accurate – American attitude of “I can do whatever I want,” Hatch recalls doing her best to educate UC Davis students on appropriate attire and local customs. When traveling to another country, she tells us, “you should respect what their norm is because you’re visiting.”
Attempting to integrate is, according to Hatch, particularly critical for women traveling alone. She wholeheartedly agrees that “it’s shitty and it’s horrible” to have to hyper-focus, as a woman, on what you wear and how you behave in each country or region you’re in. Obviously, she acknowledges, “you shouldn’t have to worry about being groped, grabbed, or being followed around on the street.” At the same time, “if you are going to a different country, you have a responsibility to educate yourself a little bit.”
In a fit of justified annoyance, Hatch recalls “that horrible fucking scene” in “Sex and the City 2,” where the women travel to Abu Dhabi and Samantha (the one who has all the casual sex, for those who managed to skip this bit of pop culture) drops a bunch of condoms and has a loud moment about loving sex, in the middle of a crowded market. Hatch cringes and informs us that she wouldn’t encourage that type of behavior for several reasons.
The first is that Samantha’s melodramatic outburst displays a lack of the regard one should have for the country they are visiting, and by extension a lack of appreciation for one’s own personal growth.
Lloyd recalls an instance of immersion that helped her in Turkey. Given the linguistic epidemic that is English, it is possible to travel most places in the world and make no effort to speak another language. While teaching in Istanbul, however, Lloyd tells BTRtoday that she spoke “about enough Turkish to survive.” She asked, in Turkish, a street fruit vendor for a couple peaches. Delighted at her familiarity with his language, he peppered her with questions about her thoughts on living there, before insisting on shoving a mountain of fruit at her and insisting she take it for free.
The second reason Hatch would slap Samantha’s outburst down is safety, particularly for women.
“You shouldn’t just say, ‘I’ll just do whatever I want, I don’t care,’” she lambasts. “It makes you a more noticeable target for mugging and sexual assault. It makes the travel experience a little more negative, and a little less fun.”
Hatch is conflicted, because her feminism guides her in the direction of “obviously you should be able to wear whatever the fuck you want, whenever the fuck you want to” but respect for the local climate and pragmatism, in terms of safety, both tell her to assimilate into the local norm.
Obviously, victim-blaming is a terrible social ritual and men everywhere in the world should know not to intimidate and assault women, regardless of clothing and behavior. Leaving the conversation there, however, is not enough.
“We’re not there yet,” Hatch reminds us. “Until we can do that [teach men to not violently objectify women], to pretend like it’s not a problem is not going to keep women safe.”