Why I stopped travelling as a solo woman
Nearly every travel magazine, website or social media account now has a section for the intrepid solo female traveller. Women are ‘going it alone’ all across the world. It’s liberating, exciting and a finger up to those who are stuck believing women need men to accomplish their dreams.
As a fairly independent soul (to put it mildly), I decided this was just the sort of thing I’d love. So last Autumn I embarked on a solo mission across the world, confident that I’d love it, flourish and generally have a great time.
Travelling is, and was, easy for me. Working out how to get to one small town to another is my equivalent of giving a mathematician a Rubik's Cube. I love it. It gives me a buzz. Travelling solo was going to be easy as pie.
I was incredibly naive. Particularly considering I’d rarely actually spent anytime by myself in my entire life. Oh yes, I’d lived alone for the last two years. But during that time, I think the most time I spent (not asleep) in my flat alone was actually about 10 hours. The reason for those long 10 hours was a somewhat embarrassing addiction to Vampire Diaries I developed one winter.
So the being alone part was new. But actually sort of manageable. Oh there was no ‘mindful moment’ where I suddenly found myself and loved spending whole days in my own company. I actually think that’s sort of unhealthy. I’d like to spend a long weekend by myself happily. Coping with any longer than that is a skill I don’t really have an interest in developing. I’m human. I like spending time with other humans.
The part of travelling as a solo female that really truly got me down was becoming a ‘no person’. I like saying yes. I like being impulsive. For about 10 years, I’ve assessed any decision I needed to make with the phrase ‘Why not?’ which ultimately ended with saying yes to nearly everything.
Suddenly alone, I was not able to ‘go for it’. What, with friends was considered impulsive, alone would have been deemed reckless. The answer to ‘Why not?’ became a list of horrifying outcomes. I was suddenly incredibly aware of my gender and it was awful.
It was the midst of the #metoo campaign and I found myself re-assessing the various levels of harassment I’d experienced when travelling in the past. Situations which I’d playfully turned into jokey anecdotes- the over zealous taxi driver, the stranger who followed me home and the man who put his finger up my best friend’s bum on a crowded street, suddenly became less humorous. Not funny at all.
The much darker stories which I’d always covered with the blanket phrase ‘The men were a bit too creepy’ came back to haunt me. Alone, in budget hotel rooms, I began having nightmares. I stopped going out in the dark by myself.
It was like the new fear pushed me into a gloopy vat of never-talked-about memories. (Thanks for that one brain.) The problem with being pushed into a vat of gloop is that it is incredibly heavy and sticky. Like honey or tar. The energy it takes to keep afloat is unmaintainable and even when you get out for a bit the sticky residue is still all over you.
The sticky heavy gloopy situation was made worse by the fact the only non-backpackers to ask me to do anything in the countries I was visiting were men. I said no 90% of the time. The gradual descent into a ‘no’ person was a slow and disappointing transition.
The only times I ignored my increasingly over-cautious gut, my gut was proven correct. There was the man I went for shisha with who looked at me like he wanted to gobble me up and lick the flesh off my bones. The car chase, where two men tailed my taxi home. The man who trailed behind me for two streets before approaching. Fortunately, none of these incidents led to anything more than me being incredibly uncomfortable.
But for the first time, after years of living abroad, I felt unsafe. To describe it as the rug was pulled from under my feet would be a gross underplay. It was like being shaken by an earthquake.
If I was no longer a sassy, confident adventurer- who was I? Travelling solo did not lead to me ‘finding myself’ but rather lose my own sense of identity entirely. Who was this person?
Telling myself I was irrationally scared didn’t work. Actually, many women (and men) when travelling (and not travelling for that matter) experience sexual harassment. It wasn’t really an unfounded fear.
I admire all those women who can travel solo happily. It’s just not for me. I don’t want to hide my shaking hands anymore. I don’t want to pretend it was all OK. Many things that happen women when traveling that are not funny, spiritual epiphanies or a beautifully shot Instagram story. I think it’s time we talked about the other things which sadly happen as well.
I want to be the outgoing woman who leaps into life and ultimately says yes. But for now, I’m content beingas a friend once described me with a wink, ‘a strong independent woman, when supported by other strong independent women.’