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, women-on-the-road.com). 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!
German – Feuer!
Arabic – حريق (harry-eck)
Mandarin – 火 (hoo-ah, as in ‘fwaaah!’)
Swahili – moto
Turkish – Yangin (yangah)
Hindi – आग (‘aag’ with the ‘a’ of ‘latte’)