The Vagenda

Ovaries in Transit

Ask a girl why she doesn’t want to travel alone and the answer’s always the same: because she’s a girl. No one ever asks for specifics; it’s all too often assumed that gender is enough of a boundary. The undertone, of course, is ‘safety’ – it’s just not safe for a gal to pull on her backpack and explore the big bad world herself. Women are apparently more susceptible to crime because they’re weak, eminently rape-able, and fairly unthreatening. Never mind that the demographic most at risk of crime is actually young males: if you’ve got a vagina and you’re stepping outside your front door and into the outdoors (or what I like to call The Man Space), then something you’re doing or wearing or planning probably counts as unwise.

What to do for the woman who stubbornly insists upon leaving her home? If at all, they should travel around in giant roofie-proof bubbles or else prepare themselves with ‘physical training and self-defence’ (thanks for that, It is astounding the amount of safety concerns that surround the solo female traveller; when you type ‘women travelers‘ into Google, 70% of search results are dedicated to safety tips. A persistent ad dominates with ‘Travel Tours for Women-Travel Safely in Small Groups!’ – what are we, grazing cattle? The reason someone sets out on their own is because they want solitude and independence, the chance to explore new cultures; not in order to cavort with a bunch of their own countrywomen sporting Nikon Coolpix’s and translucent linen trousers with the express malintent of ‘getting to know you’. At £1000-plus (not including flights) for a one week all-female travel tour, it would seem that travelling ‘safely’ also comes at a cynically hefty price.

And God bless the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who advise a woman traveller to shout ‘FIRE!‘ if she feels in any way threatened. Solid advice in the UK, perhaps, but I’m sceptical of the utility of shouting ‘FIRE!’ in a non-English-speaking country (perhaps the FOREIGN Office would like to think about that, because last time I checked, Abroadland stretched farther than the Solent. But I digress.)

Unsurprisingly, when you type ‘men travellers’ into Google, all search results either concern practical travel accessories or, indeed, Google adds a ‘(wo)’ to the search so that it can delve back into the plethora of literature on the perils of females leaving the homeland. Apparently, men don’t have to worry about skipping around the globe, totes fine dude, just grab a backpack and fly (and if you check out the Foreign Office website, soz man, but there ain’t no sex-specific advice for your sorry ass.) The Female Vacationer, however, is bombarded by Danger Danger High Voltage as though a solo trip abroad entailed certain death and possibly – probably - global disaster. It would seem that male travellers are as natural as a ballsack full of testosterone and necessitate no (web-based) ‘fuss nor fight’, whereas their female counterparts are the source of an online safety-tip epidemic. Now, I don’t hate to sound like a moany feminist but – de Beauvoir, anyone? While women travellers are still seen as the exception, we’re carrying a burden heavier than a backpack stuffed with overpriced souvenirs.

Now, I am by no means advocating that women should travel around in swimwear and start a midnight lemonade stall in a Johannesburg park, yet neither should they undergo infibulation or hide away after sunset, Princess Fiona style. There is a certain little something innate to human beings (well, most) and women are no exception to this trait of the species; it’s called common sense. I know, I know, it’s crazy, but this little thing is what makes the internet safety-tip fever seem so inane. With a little sprinkle of common sense anyone, no matter their gender, would have to be very unlucky to fall into severe danger on their travels. There are of course tragic occurrences such as road accidents and natural disasters, but they are unfortunately unavoidable and (would you believe it!) non-gender specific. Simple logic such as not waving your wallet around or leaving your stuff unlocked in a hostel or hitchhiking with a one-eyed ape-man or buying dope off a persistent sycophant apply here. Perhaps a female traveller has more on her mind, but this cannot be much different from how she feels at home. You wouldn’t get a lift with a stranger at home, or go hiking Snowdon without telling anyone, or cop off with a man who shouts ‘Guapa!’ at you in the street, so why would you do it when travelling? The average woman isn’t unaware of her own potential, individual vulnerabilities, so let’s just freaking take a chill pill.

I hate to add that a vast wealth of horror stories connected with feminine solo ventures have spurred on the buy-one-get-one-free safety-mania sale. Get paranoid while stocks last. Everyone’s heard a horror story of a woman traveller, either directly or through the media; but basing a fear of solo travelling on these stories is preposterous. You wouldn’t abstain from parenthood through fear of the constant flow of child abductions you’ve heard about on the news. And of course horror stories are more newsworthy than smug ramblings about voyages of self-discovery on mountaintops and midnight swims with sensitive Latin lovers. By nature mishaps are more attractive to the ear than ‘OMG I had such an amaaazeballs time in Sudan’. We just have to come to terms with the fact that that insatiably smug girl in our seminar who insists on speaking in broken Hindi and wearing henna tribal tattoos/sporting a picture of herself with the kids from the orphanage did survive her travels to tell the tale. Unbearable as she may be.

Want to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth? All-round awesome person Sarah Hepola wrote an article called ‘Every Woman Should Travel Alone’, detailing her solo trip through the US. Hepola claims that she felt truly scared when she made an ‘incredibly stupid decision’ and got a lift with a strange man who turned aggressive; it took her years of similar close shaves to realise that ‘climbing into that car wasn’t stupid because I was a woman. It was stupid, period.’ Again we see the gender neutral entity of common sense  coming into play here. Hepola believes every woman should travel solo specifically because it asserts our independence, it rids us of the idea that we are defined by others or by our gender. In retort to the ever-looming safety question, Hepola asks, ‘How safe do we want to be?’ Damn straight Sarah, high fives all round. 

I wonder how Maud Parrish would react to modern skepticism of the female traveller; a woman who reportedly travelled round the world 16 times with nothing but ‘nine pounds of luggage and a banjo’ for company. Or Mary Wollstonecroft, who travelled independently in Scandinavia and later gave birth to a child who would be Mary Shelley, the author of ‘Frankenstein’. I highly doubt that Mary Kingsley – who said of falling into a spiked animal trap that ‘it is at these moments that you realise the blessings of a thick skirt’ – would have much time for shouting ‘FIRE!’ at bemused Spanish-speaking locals. These fearless women did not pioneer the way of female independence for us emancipated layabouts to have our knees knocking at the idea of setting out solo.   

I would like to close with the wise words of the Second City Network’s ‘Sassy Gay Friend’, ‘Is this a stupid bitch I see before me?…No, it’s a strong, smart, independent woman.’ OK, it isn’t loaded with meaning. But goddamn, is it quotable.

Just in case – Arthur ‘god of hellfire’ Brown’s guide to ‘Fire!’

Spanish – Fuego!
French – Feu!
Italian – Fuoco!
Portuguese- Fogo!
German – Feuer!
Arabic – حريق (harry-eck)
Mandarin – (hoo-ah, as in ‘fwaaah!’)
Swahili – moto
Turkish – Yangin (yangah)
Hindi – आग (‘aag’ with the ‘a’ of ‘latte’)


18 thoughts on “Ovaries in Transit

  1. Great post. I spent four months travelling Australia, Cambodia and Vietnam by myself last year. I reassured my parents before I went that if I was capable of navigating the seedier parts of south London by myself it shouldn’t be any different the other side of the world – the same common sense applies.

    I never once felt in danger while I was away because I’m a woman. While I met a lot of people that had been robbed in Vietnam, sometimes quite aggressively, these were of both gender.

    What most impressed me was the amount of women travelling by themselves. While young men tended to travel in pairs or small groups, there were a lot of women of all ages that had headed out alone.

  2. This is not entirely relevant, but I live in Johannesburg and the thought of someone opening a midnight lemonade stand in one of our local parks made me laugh out loud. *wipes tears*
    (By the way, it’s a really interesting and actually rather beautiful place, so come and visit by all means. Even if it is by yourself. But yes, unfortunately safety can be an issue.)

  3. I did a solo RTW trip a few years ago (including two long train trips – one 6 days Moscow to Beijing, the other 24 hours Beijing to Hong Kong – in sleeper compartments with strangers). Apart from a bacterial filter water bottle I felt in no more need of ‘special precautions’ than in Britain. Often less – the Transmongolian Express may spend most of its time in the middle of nowhere, and it’s not as simple to just hop off at the next stop if you don’t like the look of a fellow passenger, but each carriage has its own attendant at all times instead of a single conductor in an unknown location probably at the far end of the train.

    And like LazyGirl I met a lot of other women travelling alone and independently on the way, whereas men were mainly in couples or small groups, or on an organised trip. I heartily recommend it. You’ll probably need more than 9 pounds of luggage, but on the other hand spiked animal traps are very rare.

  4. This made me laugh as my boyfriend likes to check that I’m travelling safely – when I go to Bristol, where I used to live! I keep having to ask him how he thinks I survived for 33 years before I met him!! Duh. (He likes to think he’s being chivalrous)
    Haven’t been travelling alone, but did go around India with a female friend, and we didn’t really run into any trouble aside from the usual tourist hassle.

  5. I am torn on this. I wholeheartedly agree that traveling through Europe or America or another Western nation solo is just as safe for common sense women as for common sense men. But I don’t think that is true for the whole world. I have travelled in the Middle East a little, and in India a lot (always in a group). While in those places I did occasionally venture out alone and remained perfectly safe, there were far more creepy scary instances where I would run not walk back to where I guessed the group would be…and some creepy scary instances when I was with a group of other women where we decided to run not walk back to where the guys were. As much as feminist me hates it, the simple fact remains….there are some places in the world where “no”, “go away”, and “Don’t touch me” from a woman means nothing, unless she has a man nearby to back her up. I would travel by myself in any western nation, and in the majority of asian nations. But India, and the Middle Eastern countries that I have been to? No. And I would advise other woman not to either. (sidenote…I mention these places simply because that is where I have been, not because of ay bias for or against them as opposed to other countries.)

  6. In a few weeks I will start a solo year long backpacking adventure and have been travelling solo throughout my 20s. In that time, a lot of people have tried to convince me how dangerous it is. Before my first big trip this petrified me, but I have encountered minimal problems in most of my trips and now I don’t even think twice about going solo. It really saddens me to think that some women would be put off from travelling to where they want to go and when, because no one they know wants to go with them. What a waste of a great experience. I really hope this article comes up when girls type in “solo female travelling” to counter all the negative messages out there.

  7. I absolutely agree with this comment. I have travelled solo in Europe, Asia and Australasia and never ran into any trouble – in fact I maintain that solo travelling is the way forward – but I have not and would never venture into many of the Arabic countries as a lone woman. They simply don’t have the same societal expectations as ours, for better or worse, and as a western woman travelling on her own, I would not do anything to improve the situation. I wouldn’t travel with a man to Morocco because I’m scared or incapable of doing it on my own, but because the attitude towards women in Morocco is simply not conducive and they don’t have the necessary respect for women there which is required and expected. I wish it weren’t the case, but it is. It’s their attitude which needs to change, most definitely, but by putting myself in that situation I’m not going to be changing it any time soon.

  8. I also agree. I went to Turkey with a female friend and the harassment we encountered was horrendous! Incidentally, women in various tours we arranged who travelled with a man we’re not approached.

  9. I lived in Egypt for six months, and the hassle is inescapable. Generally it falls into the category of harmless (if sometimes disgusting) cat-calls, which you have to learn to ignore or it drives you mental. You do have to be careful in crowds as some men take this as an opportunity to grope you (which I haven’t really come across in Europe!) and I certainly wouldn’t venture out into a local street festival alone. Having a man with you doesn’t always make a massive difference to the cat-calls though as they seem to switch to ‘Lucky man!’ instead of such gems as ‘Chicken legs!’ (yes, really!).
    Anyway, I digress. I can’t comment on all Middle Eastern countries, only Egypt, but I wouldn’t necessarily avoid travelling there as a woman alone – but do take sensible precautions, expect hassle and cover up as it really does help! I felt safer in Luxor of an evening than I would in London.

  10. This is a really timely article for me; I’m about to plan my first holiday alone (likely to be less than a week, and in Europe), which may not sound like a big deal, but is something I’m nervous as well as excited about.

    I’m very aware that most people in my large (mainly relationshipped) family will express concern about me travelling alone – in a way that they may well not to one of my brothers. Which shouldn’t be the case. That said, I’d be very reluctant to travel alone in India (amongst other places). A number of female friends have told me horrible stories about the treatment they received on a very regular basis whilst walking down the street in India (very modestly dressed – even though it should go without saying that their attire should make no difference, I think with clothing there can be cultural issues and issues of respect at play, too). ‘Eve teasing’ is prevalent there and the attitude to women by some people in India is one I’d rather avoid. I’m hoping things will change for them soon.

    Back on topic: it’s really encouraging to read lots of positive comments from people (particularly women) that have travelled alone. I’m looking forward to it! Any recommendations for mid-March? As I said: probably Europe, sunshine if I can get it, a city if not, sights and food and opportunities to meet other people a must…

  11. I’ve been dreaming of going to Croatia. I’ve heard endless comments from friends all over the world of how Zadar is the most beautiful place they’ve ever been. I am keen to check this out for myself. :)

  12. I feel like a lot of people, regardless of gender, are afraid of traveling alone. When I traveled alone I didn’t really give it a second thought. I just made sure I had people to meet up with so I wouldn’t get bored or so that I had somewhere to stay. Sometimes I look back and am amazed at my 21-year-old confidence!

    When I met up with a bunch of guys from home in Berlin, they asked me what I was doing. I said “traveling” and they responded with a shocked “by yourself?!” And then I realised that even thought they were “cool punk dudes” in a band, they were probably too chicken shit to travel alone. Perhaps that is why they started a band in the first place?

  13. I have to travel a lot for work on my own and I’m an anxious person anyway (in some contexts) plus I am a very young looking 25 year old. HAVING to go has really helped me and now I’m arranging to stay on places on my own because I love it! A bit of pre-planning really helps and just being willing to occasionally spend money on taxis home just for peace of mind.
    On the Middle East(ish) issue – I felt safe in Istanbul for the most part although felt very aware of being looked at and sometimes heckled. There are a lot of very interesting double standards in places like Turkey where much of the youth wants to emulate the West – and often some of the worst aspects of it. So it can feel very liberal but you don’t have to go much deeper to realise that it’s not all that liberal and cultural sensitivity remains important. It might be tempting to fight a feminist battle on their behalf by dressing how you want to dress and entering male dominated environments alone but feminism is very culturally specific and you could wind up harming their cause and potentially coming to harm yourself.

  14. I think the problem is that often travelling alone is associated with, and deliberately done because, people want to experience something “REAL” and NON-TOURISTY” which means they actively want to hitchhike and explore abandoned factories and go to dive bars in the small hours of the morning. I can understand how exciting that is, but it does leave you vulnerable to dangerous things no matter whether you’re a guy or a girl. A very pretty and attack-able friend of mine recently went on holiday and deliberately slept under bridges and hitchhiked to experience cool things by herself, but she did end up being groped and threatened more than once. But ‘safe’ travel doesn’t produce awesome anecdotes like “When I was staying with this drug dealer on his houseboat in Uruguay…”

  15. ha! I totally agree. There is this bizarre kind of slumming-it tourism that Westerners love as if poverty or imminent danger are somehow truly ‘authentic’. People living in those situations would give anything to swap places!

  16. Thanks for this article, I read it last year before going to Mexico and it gave me the confidence to organise my own trip instead of booking onto an expensive package holiday for ‘single travellers’. I’m so glad I did, I had the time of my life. If anyone’s planning on going to Mexico I wrote a few of my experiences on my blog

  17. I’ve also done a lot of solo travelling – Nepal, Syria (in 2010!), China, Mongolia, SE Asia, and been to India with another girl. I had a fantastic time, and would recommend it to anyone, male or female.

    However, much though it sticks in my feminist throat, it is worth checking out local customs, particularly if you’re going off the beaten track. After 2 months of having to spend more time than I would like explaining to young men in Nepal that, just because I was 21, wasn’t married, and was alone, it didn’t mean I wanted to go home with them (generally in non-threatening circumstances, but annoying nonetheless) I got myself a fake (£1.50 from Argos) ‘wedding’ ring before I went to Syria and India. Worked well, hard to argue with ‘I’m married, go away’. Dressing conservatively (long tops, no bare legs or shoulders) helps a lot too – if no-one else has their shoulders out, yours will attract attention. Perhaps slightly cowardly of me, but I was there to travel and see the country, and was more able to chat to locals when I didn’t have to wear my ‘fuck off and die’ face all the time!

    But like I said, hassle and safety was only a very small part of my experiences – if you want to go somewhere, go! Just be sensible like you would if you were a local.