Last weekend, I was guest speaker at the Women's Travel Fest in San Francisco, which was a whirlwind experience of talking travel and the issues and joys of traveling as a woman. The panel I spoke on was the Safety for Women panel, and it was an honor to be included alongside such traveling women luminaries as Mary Beth Bond and Beth Whitman, as well as travel physician Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, and WTF organizer Kelly Lewis.
After the panel, I got a lot of questions from women about traveling solo and travel in general. While I normally don't write how-to posts, I felt one was in order as there were so many good questions and important conversations exchanged that afternoon.
Here we go!
Are you ever afraid when you travel solo?
Yes. I am often afraid. But I think what is more important than overcoming fear or wishing for it's absence is to be comfortable with it being alongside you. Fear keeps us alert and aware, and these two things are very important when you are on your own in a new place. There's nothing wrong with being afraid--as long as it doesn't keep you from exploring and discovering.
Are you afraid of getting raped when you travel?
Yes. I am afraid of getting raped anywhere, traveling or not. I've been raped, right here in the USA, and I've written about it here. But that didn't happen when I was traveling--it happened when I was at home in my apartment. This was a long time ago--more than 15 years ago. I didn't travel at that time and I didn't know much about self defense or ways to protect myself.
Things have changed.
Prevention is the best way to not be raped. But sometimes situations happen, and when they do, you must try to remain in control at all times, keep a level head, and be self aware.
The best way to handle those moments when you realize you are at risk is to be wise and think carefully about the situation. You must be able to turn it around and look at it differently. How you can leave? How you can talk to him in way that dissuades him? What self defense moves can you use? Who is nearby that can help you?
Part of traveling as a woman is to deal with this fear of rape--but this part of a woman's experience, period, no matter where she is in the world: at home, at work, at the store. We women deal with this risk every minute of our lives, and travel is no different.
So work on protecting yourself at home, and you will be well prepared for what to be alert to abroad.
What is the one thing you suggest to be safe while traveling for women?
I think confidence is important--if you are confident in your decision making skills, you will not rely on others. Thinking back on when I have been at risk when I traveled, almost every single time it happened when I doubted myself and relied a man to make a decision for me. It's important to inform yourself about where you are going and be responsible for your own decisions, even if you are tired or confused.
What are some of the untruths you hear from women about their safety abroad?
"I'm safe because I'm older, and no one will bother me."
This is what I hear the most. Some women think after forty, they are not going to be at risk. Not true. Not even true after sixty!
"I'm safe because I'm in a European city."
There are the same issues facing women everywhere they go. You have to be smart wherever you decide to travel.
"I'm safe because I'm on a tour."
While tours and group travel can be much more structured with less opportunity, they can also null you into believing that you don't have to pay attention to your surroundings, and this is when things happen.
"I'm safe because I have short hair and/or dress more masculine."
Hey, lots of women have dressed in men's clothing or pretended to be men on their travels--and still had issues! Dervla Murphy is a great example of a woman who rode her bicycle to Coorg and thought she'd have no trouble due to her short hair and men's clothing--she was wrong. The good news is she protected herself and the assailant ran away.
How do you deal with men when you travel?
I treat them like brothers. I remember that every man I meet is six women: his mother, his sister, his wife, his daughter, his aunt, and his cousin. Each one of these women is a possibility of a more intimate picture of the culture or place, and I ideally I want to meet them. The man is simply the bridge.
Oftentimes, I am initially interacting mostly with men when I travel, as in many countries I travel to, women are not common on the street or in shops. So I do talk to men a great deal, but I always am seeking to know more about the women in their lives. Usually a man will understand if I ask questions about his family and so on that I desire to meet them, or at the very least, that I am not available sexually to him.
One of the big issues that I deal with is that sometimes men ask me out or for a drink when I travel. I always decline these invitations, not because I don't want to go, but because these are not the kinds of experiences I'm seeking. I want an intimate view of a place, and hope to be invited to an event such a wedding, a dinner with family, or other occasion. These kinds of events are where the good stories are--not battling a man groping me.
What do you suggest for clothing?
I was asked this more than any other question after the panel--it was big concern.
Well, you can find lots of great resources online about packing lists, so I won't go into detail. But my basic advice is that you must dress much more conservatively than you would at home, depending on your destination. If you are going to a country like India or Pakistan or Oman, you should dress in loose clothing that doesn't cling. Another suggestion I have--which I practice every time I go to country that has a specific costume of dress for women--is to go to the tailor right away and have a few outfits made in the local style. Sometimes I head right to the local market (mall) and tailor from the airport.
One thing to understand about Western clothing is that even what we consider conservative is not conservative everywhere else. It's not so much about being covered, as it is not showing the curves of the body. So while hiking pants might seem conservative at home, in India they are hugging your behind and long loose shirt worn over them would be wise.
This not to say that it is a woman's responsibility when something happens to her while traveling due to her dress--it is more that while you do have the ability to travel, that doesn't come with the added bonus changing cultures or societies that you visit. It's important to leave your own cultural ideas at home, and be open to what your sisters are doing abroad.
Do you think women should travel alone?
Yes. It's deeply enriching experience to travel alone. I've been alone for most of my travels and never once have I wished I was with someone else--even when something difficult happened, like illness or danger. There is a spontaneity and serendipity that comes with traveling alone, where I am the one in charge of the next moment.
I have also been on trips where I was very isolated, and I would say, high-risk for a possible negative interaction with men. But the risk was outweighed by the stunning minute by minute revelations I had as I was on the journey. I actually seek out these kinds of experiences which are very solitary in nature now, as they are so fulfilling.
I prefer villages and places that are remote, but these places can sometimes be more safe, because everyone knows of your arrival before you even show up. In an urban environment, where people are accustomed to tourists, men may have incorrect ideas about women who travel solo and may interact with you with expectations.
If you aren't ready to travel by yourself, a group is good idea. Just don't stay with them the whole time, and give yourself permission to wander off and do your own thing now and again. That can be an adventure, too.
What is different about traveling as a woman compared to a man?
Well, this depends on the woman, as much as the man. In general, I would say that women and men have access to almost all the same kinds of experiences, but that some of the experiences that are typically things that are uncommon for women to do may require extra precautions.
Women are able to do anything a man can do, for example, ski across the Antarctic like Felicity Aston just did solo. She was the third person to do it, but she was the first woman! And many more women are having adventures like these worldwide. Women are everywhere, doing everything.
That being said, women have access to distinctly different experiences than men, because we have access to the world of women. We have invitations to wedding preparations, births, rooftops, kitchens, gardens, and more---events men will never get invited to, with views they will never see. One of my highlight experiences of my life was walking up a mountain with female nomads; another was joining an all-woman religious pilgrimage; and a third was attending a childbirth. There are women everywhere, and we, as sisters, get to connect with them wherever we are.
It is an advantage--not a disadvantage-- to travel as a woman, because we have access to so much.
What are your safety tips for traveling as woman?
Take a self defense class. Take a martial arts class too.
Recognize your weaknesses and insecurities before you travel and strive to overcome them.
Practice getting lost and finding your way without asking for help.
Exercise so you are faster if you must walk or run from a situation.
Bring birth control, a morning after pill, and self care items.
Safety list would include: large scarf for hair, sunglasses, doorstop, locks, toothpaste to fill peepholes, and a travel clothesline for dissuading nighttime prowlers from entering your room
Pack half of what you want to take. No exceptions.
Purchase conservative clothing that is not low cut or body hugging. If you are traveling solo, attention from men is desirable only if you want it, so unless you are headed to a tourist spot or resort, dress with practicality and common sense.
Tell people your itinerary before you go, and have check in points along your trip.
Research your destination like crazy--the trip starts now! For example: If you are going to Jordan, your trip actually starts months before you go. You are in Jordan, live it, breathe it, know it.
Most importantly: ignore everyone who tells you can't do it.
For more detailed list of safety tips from the conference and general travel tips, Marybeth Bond did a great write up here.
For a packing list of what to take, Women on the Road features my all my time favorite packing list for anywhere you want to go, here.
Don't be afraid. Go.
It was a pleasure to meet you all! Hope this answers all the emails and questions you all sent! AGA