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Women Travel

Rewards for Women Traveling Solo

Solo travel can be intimidating in prospect. But traveling alone—particularly if you’re a woman—can actually increase interaction with local people along the way. Confronted with the peculiar sight of an unaccompanied female traveler, people tend to react first with surprise, then curiosity, then friendship.

In countless trips across the Balkans, I have always been warmly welcomed, invited to drink Turkish coffee, and seen and heard first-hand the nuances of another culture. Solo travel is a form of direct, grassroots cultural exchange.

On a trip to Belgrade, for example, I hopped aboard a bus from Sarajevo with someone I’d met the day before. Sonja, a Serbian woman who works for a human rights organization in Belgrade, took me under her wing and acted as my guide as the bus crept along the winding mountain road. When we finally reached Belgrade, Sonja whisked me off to her house for the night because she didn’t want me to find a hotel by myself. The next day, she showed me around the city and introduced me to her colleagues at work, who carefully instructed me on how to change money on the black market and how to orient myself in the city.

Were I accompanied by a traveling companion, I would have conversed with my friend on the bus, rather than sitting with Sonja. Two is a closed crowd, dependent mostly upon each other. Traveling with another person makes it much easier to bypass local culture and thus the reason for travel in the first place.

For the solo traveler, open, uninhibited interaction with locals is particularly easy in developing countries, where visitors are not taken for granted as they are in Western Europe.

If people are surprised to see a lone foreign traveler, they are stunned to see a woman alone. In traditional societies, few women venture off independently. Again and again, people have asked me in astonishment, “You are alone?” I reply “Yes” without fear. In my experience, people offer more courtesy and guidance to a woman. My male friends have also been welcomed by locals, but not to the same extraordinary extent.

Challenges and Pitfalls

It is important, though, to proceed with caution. Westerners, particularly women, have been subject to various forms of harrassment in areas where they really stand out. A different hair or skin color, a different way of dressing, and other subtle indentifying traits can signal the locals that a foreigner is among them. In areas including the Middle East, India, and Africa, solo Western women are frequently hassled by men. The best precaution is to stay constantly alert—know where you are, don’t wander too far off into deserted areas, and, if you have taken a self-defense class, brush up on those skills before you go. (A Let’s Go researcher in Jordan, a small, wiry woman, fended off an aggresive man with a few well-placed kicks that left him reeling. A “Model Mugging” course, that she took before leaving the U.S., helped out her moves.)

Of course the challenges and pitfalls of traveling seem more acute when you’re alone—there is no companion to consult or to joke nervously with when you miss a train connection in Siberia or get a flat tire in rural Guatemala, and it can be exhausting to draw always from your own resources and stamina. But in the end the challenges are stimulating and the resolutions are exhilarating exercises in self-reliance.

Traveling alone requires a certain level of assertiveness, something that begins to come naturally after a little practice. For example, if you arrive in a new town and need a room for the night but have not planned ahead, ask the people immediately around you. The grocer or taxi driver is likely to know about hotels and where to eat. After six months on the road, I have lost my inhibitions about asking for help. When I ask for directions, people often change their own direction and lead me to the place themselves.

Knowing the local language—even a few words—can greatly facilitate these interchanges. A phrasebook (with pronunciation tips) is essential.

Particularly in countries with “exotic” tongues—like Uzbek or Basque—people will be amazed and gratified that you know their language, or are at least trying to learn. Time and again I’ve seen people’s faces light up with delight when I utter the few Serbo-Croatian words I know. Using the language demonstrates a respect for the culture and paves the way to friendship.

The main challenge of traveling alone is loneliness. Regardless of how many people you meet, there is a prevailing sense of transience, the knowledge that you must eventually push onward to a new destination and leave new friends behind. But, as they say, memories are golden—and you will always remember the man who took time to show you around the town or the woman who offered you coffee.

Safety Tips for Solo Travelers

Stay in touch with friends and family back home. The Internet can be especially useful in this regard. Most large cities, from Bombay to Irkutsk, have terminals at “cybercafes” or other locations, where, for a small fee, you can log into your email account and send messages back home. Checking email also helps alleviate loneliness.

Size up the people you meet carefully. First impressions are not everything, but if you’re not comfortable with someone, there may well be a reason. Trust your instincts.

Don’t walk down dark alleys at night. The old adage is not only worth remembering—it can be expanded and improved. Other deserted or dubious venues, such as parks, are also wisely avoided after dark. Stick to lighted streets—if you must walk at all.

For budget travelers: If staying safe means paying a little bit of extra money, do so with a clear conscience. Take a taxi rather than walk late at night if your apartment or room is far.

Try to dress like the local populace. The more you blend in, the less likely it is that you will be targeted for crime. Bear in mind, however, that clothes are not the only mark of a foreigner. No matter how closely you emulate local attire, you may be given away by your coloring or the way you walk.

Be particularly alert on transportation routes. Trains in Eastern Europe, for example, have notoriously high crime rates. Plan your trip carefully, and do not take a lot of valuables.

Finally, don’t be afraid—it’s adventure and excitement that awaits.

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