A few weeks ago, my mother sent me an article about two Argentine women in their early 20s who were murdered in Montanita, Ecuador in late February. The town where they were staying is a mere 20-minute walk down the beach from Manglaralto, where I will be spending two months this summer.
The day my mother sent me the article, I was about to buy my plane ticket to Quito — I’d been looking forward to making my plans solid at last. But while I’d been blissfully drafting an itinerary for my time in Ecuador, my mother was fretting about my safety as a young female traveler.
For the rest of that day, I researched the story of the two Argentine women more fully, familiarizing myself with their faces and the identities of their suspected attackers. A latent fear — which I had quelled since traveling in Latin America last summer — began to re-emerge within me.
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Traveling alone as a woman can be seen as an act of defiance, a break from the traditional script of women’s need for protection from and by men.
“Whenever I would talk to my parents about places I wanted to travel to, they would always immediately talk about how dangerous it is to travel as a woman,” recalls Skyler Inman ’17, a veteran of solo travel and a staff reporter for the News. Although her upbringing conflicted with her deep-seated desire to travel, Inman chose to confront her fear of the outside world when she studied abroad in France after her junior year of high school.
“It was the most formative experience of my high school years — my youth,” Inman reflected. “I didn’t know I was brave before I traveled.”
For Kelsi Caywood ’18, traveling alone gave her greater freedom to take charge of her own experience abroad.
“When you get lost, it’s more of a sense of organic exploration, as opposed to the combined interests and travel habits of someone else. It’s nice to have the quiet reflection that is only allowed when you’re [traveling] by yourself,” Caywood said.
She remembered crying when she saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time. “It was so overwhelmingly grand,” she explained. “It’s not something I ever thought I would see or go visit.”
Raquel Brau Diaz ’18, who traveled alone to Prague, Amsterdam and London over spring break, expressed a similar sentiment. In traveling solo, she found an opportunity to make the most of her time and accomplish what she found to be most important.
“I don’t really like to do tourist Top 10 sites,” Brau Diaz said. “I mostly like to walk around neighborhoods, specifically those that have special significance or culture.”
She particularly enjoyed the opportunities she had to speak with locals and other travelers whom she met at coffee shops or while roaming the city streets. On one occasion, Brau Diaz encountered a fellow street-art enthusiast while gazing at a particular mural. She laughingly recalled how the man, a highly devout Catholic priest, placed the street art into a religious context. A deep conversation about spirituality ensued.
There’s a certain freedom that’s only readily available when one travels solo without restrictions or inhibitions from a fellow traveler — without the need to compromise. As Kira Tebbe ’17 put it, “You don’t have to ask anyone permission to do anything.”
Tebbe took advantage of this freedom to discover and delve into a love of Icelandic music. Last June, she embarked on a five-day stint in Iceland without any plans or intentions. In her wanderings, Tebbe stumbled upon an enormous record store.
“I don’t know anything about Icelandic music besides Björk. Can you show me some great artists?” Tebbe recalled asking the shop owner.
The shop owner sat her next to a record player and, after asking Tebbe about her musical tastes, picked out several artists. Tebbe spent two hours in the store listening to them. She still regularly plays the two records she bought on that spontaneous excursion.
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Unfortunately, this freedom of experience can arguably be hampered simply by virtue of being female. Every woman I spoke with had dealt with uncomfortable confrontations which peppered their generally positive experiences abroad.
Last summer, Delaney Herndon ’17 traveled to Morocco for a Yale study-abroad program. On a free weekend, she found her way alone from Paris’ 16th arrondissement to a museum near the city center.
“I felt very empowered figuring out a city on my own,” Herndon recalled.
But there were moments when Herndon felt uncomfortable exploring on her own.
“Catcalling is a global phenomenon,” Herndon quipped. Although she was singled out by men in both Morocco and Europe, her ability to respond or defend herself was hampered by language barriers. In Morocco, it was only when she was able to swear in Arabic at the men who taunted her that she was able to gain a sense of confidence.
Catcalling had an especially negative influence on her experience in Rabat. “I didn’t want to go out alone at night because I didn’t have anyone to go with. It made me less comfortable with exploring,” Herndon said.
Being a woman can often come with a sense of vulnerability. No amount of confidence or supposed comfort can eliminate the fact that some men view women as sexual objects.
Inman’s most terrifying experience abroad occurred during a spontaneous skinny dip in Tel Aviv.
“I was just floating around on my back, and I stood up for a second to see the shadow of my belongings on the beach — my clothes, cell phone, wallet, everything — and realized it was larger than it should have been,” Inman said. She recalled realizing that a man was going through her things, and she had no idea what to do. “I ended up shouting at him as I ran out of the water. He ran away and didn’t take anything, except for maybe a few shekels. I felt so dumb.”
At times, the liberation so central to the experience of traveling solo must be relinquished in favor of safety.
Once, when traveling in a taxi in China, Caywood was forced to call a male friend to her reluctant rescue. She realized that the cab she was in was traveling in the opposite direction of her homestay and, although she communicated her address to the driver multiple times, he refused to correct their direction.
“That sense of [lacking] control was very debilitating and discouraging,” Caywood said. Eventually, she phoned her friend and had him converse in unintelligible Chinese with the driver. Her friend managed to convince the driver to take her home.
The experience still comes to mind whenever she travels abroad.
At the same time, the objectification and sexism faced overseas may not always be foreign. “My experiences traveling haven’t been that different from my experience as a women in general,” Tebbe said.
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For other students, being a woman abroad did little to color their experience.
As Brau Diaz wandered through the streets of Prague in search of murals from the emerging street art scene, she gave little thought to any impact of gender on her experience.
“I’ve never felt that being a woman has ever hindered my experiences,” Brau Diaz said. When traveling, her main concerns revolved around logistics and loneliness.
But the fact remains that the term “solo female travel” elicits the assumption that being female changes the innate experience of exploration.
Many concerns regarding solo female travel fall into the same vein as instances of victim-blaming in sexual assault cases. The constructed narrative of women as traveling targets only serves to reinforce a culture that teaches women to be fearful, not powerful; cowardly, not confident.
“When you are a young woman traveling alone, you spend a lot of time talking about being a young woman traveling alone,” noted Julia Gilbert ’18. While it can be positive to acknowledge the empowerment that comes from independence, the emphasis on traveling alone as a woman can also point at detrimental societal assumptions.
“There are a lot of problematic things wrapped up in these conversations, particularly those centered on women’s safety abroad: how women’s bodies are seen as objects of violence; how other countries are seen as sites of criminality or backwardness; how for women, simply leaving home is seen as taking undue risk,” Gilbert explained.
With the emergence of the trend of female solo travel, it’s possible that these assumptions will eventually dissipate as it slowly becomes a norm, not an aberration.
For all of the women I interviewed, the benefits of traveling greatly outweighed any safety concerns or negative experiences they had had.
Inman noted that while travel can be occasionally scary, it’s made her more at home in the world than afraid.
“I am stronger and safer in the world than I was trained to think I was,” Inman said. “I realized that I could get myself and out of tough situations, that I could rely on my own strength, knowledge and language skills, allowing me to move through places I had never been before.”
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Travel experiences inevitably differ from location to location. Most of the women I interviewed came from America and had only been to Europe, Asia and Northern Africa. More developing areas, such as South America and sub-Saharan Africa, may present radically different challenges.
Brau Diaz attributes her lack of anxiety while traveling alone to the fact that she was traveling in European countries with more liberal attitudes toward feminism. Similarly, Tebbe chose Iceland as her destination because of its reputation for accommodating female travelers.
Preparation and knowledge of your destination make all the difference.
“Be very conscious about where you book your accommodations and [about] traveling late at night,” Caywood advised.
Inman, too, recommended reading about and researching one’s destination before traveling.
“I was always very defiant about the way people talked to me about being safe while I traveled. You have to realize that there are places where it isn’t safe to go alone as frustrating as that is, you have to be aware of yourself and your situation.” Inman said.
She noted the importance of maintaining a balance between boldness — taking advantage of opportunities — and trusting one’s gut in potentially dangerous situations.
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That night, I was determined to buy my plane ticket to Quito. As I typed in my credit card information on the airline website, I couldn’t help but picture myself in the situation of the two women in Montanita. But as I pressed the button, the images in my mind evaporated.
The one-way ticket appeared in my inbox. I reviewed my itinerary again and added another destination. All that’s left is for me to pack my bags.