In the past few weeks many things happened which influenced my state of mind. Maya Angelou died, and popular media exploded with stories and quotes from her life. The New York Times ran an article about the dangers women face when they travel: an article that spoke a truth that is rarely spoken. A misogynistic, mentally unwell man went on a shooting spree in California. People responded to the shooting with #YesAllWomen: a platform of discussion and intention around the treatment of women worldwide, calling for change.
I felt depressed at Maya Angelou's death. I never met her, I only read her books. But I was disappointed that I would not meet her, that her living voice was gone. Most of all, I was overwhelmed by the challenge of how to pay homage to such a woman. A woman who was so real, so true, so honest she deserved the same back from me, from the world...not just a list of top ten quotes. I thought I should share something here which required the same honesty I had learned from her. A thank you in the form of a story deep and wide.
The New York Times article on the world of difference women face traveling compared to men made me think about how I always read essays and blogs which are encouraging women to travel, but that don't really spell out: here is what you will face when you are somewhere else. How we don't really talk about those dark things, because we don't want to live fearfully, we want to go.
My response to the misogynistic rants of the shooter were twofold: first, I was surprised at my acceptance of it, that I was not outraged, only saddened, for these kinds of events and points of view have become almost expected. It frightened me that I did not find it unusual, but instead fell into a state of uneasy grief. But then quite quickly there was a turnaround within me and within the outside world: #YesAllWomen, a movement of women's voices sharing stories and calling for an end to the misogyny which runs rampant in our culture filled my social media feeds with opinions, essays, calls to action.
Somehow these four events blended, and I found myself writing a personal response to them, a collective one, a little essay that honors Angelou with truth and talks about travel as a way to bridge the gap between how I'm treated because I am a woman and how I respond to that challenge.
Here it is.
Women often ask me if I'm afraid of getting raped when I travel solo. The answer is yes. I am. I am terrified of being raped.
But it's a more complicated answer than simply yes. I was raped in my late twenties by a man I barely knew. He broke into my apartment, raped and tortured me for days: I barely survived it. The rape was brutal, leaving me severely beaten and in shock. Afterwards, people, even those very close to me, asked me what I had been wearing, or what I done to encourage him. I had done nothing at all, but this seemed to make little difference in the minds of people.
Afterwards I shut down almost entirely: I stopped eating, I spent my days in bed sleeping, I watched as my body seemed to fall apart, disintegrate. Suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, I hallucinated my rapist constantly, lived in a state of half aliveness, just breathing.
The house where I was staying had a long bookcase in the hallway, and one day, wandering down the hall, I chose a book with a bright yellow cover. It was Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I don't remember why I chose it, but I think it may have been a simple reason: on the cover was a bird in cage, and I felt like that bird.
I took it back to bed and read it over and over: here was someone who understood. Understood raw, numb, closed. Understood that I was afraid to leave the house. Understood silence, chatter, madness.
Angelou had written more than a book: she had come to life, and now she sat on the edge of my bed, stroking my hair, and I did not mind she was there.
Slowly, over months, I began to feel better: I began showering, I cut my hair, I changed the bed sheets, I ate, I dreamed, and finally one day I left that house, and went out into the world again. I was still closed, still terrified, still hurting, but I knew I had to become someone more than I had been being.
It's been more than sixteen years now, since that rape. I never talk about it, although I write about it. Sometimes people treat me differently when they find out I've been raped: they don't know what to say, or they use it against me. A few men have treated me like I was dirty or tainted, or too troublesome to have a relationship with. Some people have told me I was being a victim when I have talked about it, other people have broken down in front of me and told me their stories of being raped. Some people feel sorry for me, other people get very uncomfortable. Talking about it often feels like an exercise in powerlessness: everyone has an opinion about it and strangely there does not often seem to be room for my own. But here I can share my opinion, and it is this: it was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and I wish sincerely that it had not happened at all. But since it did, I had to use it the best way that I could, I had to find something good to come out of it, otherwise I think I would have never left that bed, and just slowly starved to death.
It made me tougher. It forced me to think harder about who I was as a woman and what I wanted as a woman. My womanhood, my personhood, my life. It made me fight for myself in a way that reached deep. I had to do it, for there was no one else to do it for me. It meant a daily practice of overcoming for years: nightmares, recoiling from touch, folded. Slowly it moved from overcoming into flying: soaring high above my old self, above the rape, above what society said I was. It made me draw on a courage that I had not known I had.
Traveling solo as a woman is an act of independence: it says, I can be here, despite whatever you may think. I am free to go where I want to go and experience more than what you may believe I should. One reason I prefer to travel alone is that it is a courage-building exercise: it is not for the faint-hearted, it is for the Joan of Arcs, the Warrior-goddesses, the Valkyries. It took me a long time to get to the place that I actually enjoyed it. When I first started intensively traveling solo, I was so afraid I could hardly sleep, scarcely able to enjoy the travel itself. But I've experienced firsthand how traveling can make me whole, and it is through travel that I found myself again.
Even though I travel alone much more comfortably now than I did ten years ago, I still have fear. I still have doubt. I still ache for the ease of a tour, a perfectly planned vacation with a guide, no decisions, minimal risk. That ache is just a small ache, however. An impression, fading. For I am well aware that to have the kind of richly varied and adventurous experiences I seek, I need to travel alone. For its only in traveling alone that a strange partnership is forged within me: a balance of vulnerability and power.
It's not all roses traveling alone. I've had my share--perhaps more--of danger, of close calls, of almosts.
The time I was locked in a Honduran border patrol office and the official took off his clothes, telling me that he was going to rape me. The time I was on a crowded Calcuttan street and a group of men groped me. The time a Columbian taxi driver refused to let me out of his cab and drove me around for hours, talking dirty to me. The time I discovered my hotel room in Bangladesh was full of peepholes and I had been being watched for months. The time an Englishman, the husband of a dear friend, offered to take me on a day tour of London and instead took me to a hotel, and I when I refused to go in with him, he held my wrists so tight he bruised them. The time in Spain, along the remote trail of the Camino, that a man forced himself on me, trying to kiss me, holding my arms down as two other men laughed. The time in Bihar that I couldn't stand being cooped up anymore in the compound with the women, so I went on a walk and found myself surrounded by a crowd of angry men who wanted to teach me a lesson since I had wandered out without a headscarf. So many more stories I have:countless leers, jeers, stares, fondles, lingering touches I had not asked for.
When these things have happened to me, I have done whatever I needed to do to escape. Smiled. Prayed. Yelled. Pushed. Fought. When it was possible, I have tried to search for the humanity in each man, and in doing so, helped him to see mine. When I saw that the Honduran border patrol officer was actually going to rape me, I knelt on the ground in front of him and prayed the rosary in Spanish. When the Columbian taxi driver would not let me out of his cab, I asked to see pictures of his children, encouraged him to tell me his life story. Other times, I have left the scene running so fast I barely touched earth, shaking and angry, wondering if I should go home and stop going places. Sometimes I have locked myself in my hotel room for days, too afraid to go out. But when the hurt passes, I open the door and go out again, into the city, the village. I am a fighter, I am doing battle. I refuse to miss out on what is extraordinary, what is beautiful, what is important, simply because in that place, there will be a handful of men there that have a different idea of who I am and what my identity is as a woman.
There have been so many articles written about what to do when you prepare for solo travel as a woman. How to dress, how to walk, how to wear your hair, how to ask for directions, how to take a train. Where to sit, where to eat, where to go and not go. I'm not going to write any of that here. It's obvious to me that when I travel somewhere else, I'm going somewhere else. Therefore there are always a plethora of customs and beliefs which must be paid attention to, rules to break and rules to follow. I don't like some of rules in other places, but I feel like I'm changing things for the better, for women everywhere, just by going.
Traveling solo can be a lot of different things. But it's not limited to fears and challenges. It's also this wonderful high, this sublime conversation with yourself: you are actually here, doing this, alone. This is, for me, the greatest achievement of my life: I can get on plane and go anywhere on Earth and have a marvelous time. Every time I do it, I'm terrified. Yet slowly the fear takes leave of me and I begin to take on the colors and patterns of a new place. I'm not limited by my fear of rape, of having been raped, of wondering if it will happen again and what I will do if it does. I'm trying to encourage other women to just go, to not plan, to take charge of their own experience of the world. I'm calling the world out, I'm calling that rapist out, I'm calling men out, I'm calling women out. I'm saying, I am here.
This is my tribute to Maya Angelou, a truth-teller, a sooth-sayer, a woman whose words got me out of bed and out the door into the world.
This is my answer to all the questions I get about traveling solo as a woman.
This is my #YesAllWomen.
Amy Gigi Alexander
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