an ode to solo female travellers

I really haven't travelled much by myself for the last eight years.

No, instead of independent adventures, life has dealt me new travel buddies, and different ways of seeing the world.  That's the thing about growing up - there's a lot 'we-ing' and a little less 'me-ing'. 

But it wasn't always like that. In fact, I think I'm probably the person I am now because of those times I spent on the road, alone. Those cumulative months taught me to be content to be by myself, yet how to reach out to others when it was needed. I learnt to solve problems, I discovered how to survive, and most importantly, I learnt how to be me.

Yet, solo female travel is not always easy.

Everybody knows that if you have blonde hair, blue eyes and western clothes and you're not in a country where those feature are commonplace, you're going to get some attention. Hell, that happens to a lot of us when we're in our own country. Stares, the odd wolf-whistle and the occasional lewd comment are something that unfortunately a lot of us have come to accept. 

I understand that when you are in a country with different cultural norms, you have to respect them. And so, on a short trip to Morocco a few years back, despite the sweltering temperatures, a scarf was perpetually draped around my shoulders and my legs were always covered. Of course, there were stares and curious smiles but when I was with Andrew, for the most part, I felt respected and safe.

However, the one occasion I ventured into the streets of the medina by myself, I had an entirely different experience. Harmless looks evolved into leers, smiles into lewd comments and my personal space was no longer my own.

As I approached a narrow street I felt a hand on my arm, that slowly tightened. The hand then grabbed at me, pulling me away into a darkened alley. I responded quickly, and escaped without issue, running back to the guesthouse and the security of my boyfriend.

But it scared me.

Was it this one man or a reflection of this beautiful country? I have my suspicions.

Unfortunately, Latin America is no different.

During our two years there, Andrew and I spent a lot of time together, with moments of independence being limited to beer and supermarket runs (or when one of us was laid up with the actual runs). Generally, I was sheltered from the hissing, whistling and cat-calls but on those rare occasions that I did venture out alone, I experienced what it is actually like to be a foreign woman in this world of machismo. 

Should we be forced to cover up? To relegate every pair of shorts we own to beach days - even when it is patently clear that they are worn amongst the locals? Are breasts something that should be hidden from sight, for fear that even the most subtle suggestion of cleavage will send men into a craze? And what of those of us with long blonde hair? I quite like mine.

Sexual harassment back home is normal - and not simply restricted to builders at the side of the roads. It is something so common place that it is often not even acknowledged as such. Sure, that time a drunk guy grabbed at your crotch is obvious but most of us probably don't even consider the tasteless comments, 'alright darlings', butt glances and boob conversations. 

Yet, back home, I have the confidence to speak up. To let him know that what he just said isn't acceptable, to slap away the hand that is not wanted and threaten further action if he fails to listen. 

In countries that do not speak English, I lose this. Is anything to be gained from letting him know that his advances are not wanted, or should I continue to keep my head down, and walk the streets ignoring everyone in my path. This is not the way you experience a country. For that you need to be 'in' the country - not on its periphery.

And it is for this reason that I have so much respect for solo female backpackers. For those that go beyond the hostel and embrace the country. These women are the ones you'll find in people's homes, chatting with elderly couples in the park and making children giggle on the street. 

They travel in spite of these problems, not in fear of them.

There may be countless countries in the world where it is difficult for a woman to roam, but every step that is taken will leave its mark.


 

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