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Travelling While Female

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So there’s a strip from webcomic artist Natalie Nourigat that’s making the rounds, about traveling as a woman; or, rather, about being a woman planning to travel, and getting pushback from people who warn her that it’s not “safe”.

In my case she’s already preaching to the choir.  I never had much fear of traveling, or exploring the unknown; one of my earliest memories was of an incident in my day care when I was four, and the teachers set up a play tunnel in one of the rooms to let us pretend to be “exploring” a cave, just like the child in a picturebook they read us.  But I got so into it that I ended up “exploring” my way out the door, down the hall, up the stairs and into the middle of the administrative offices of the church my day care was in.  One of the secretaries saw me and brought me back downstairs, where it was gently explained to me that I was supposed to be only pretend exploring, and I needed to stay in the day care.  I distinctly remember crawling around in the tunnel afterward and thinking that pretend exploring was way less cool than the real thing.

So I somehow didn’t notice any of the messages people give to women who are planning to travel.  We’re going to unfamiliar territory!  We could get robbed! Or kidnapped! Or assaulted or….well, anything can happen!   But…those are all things that can happen to women in their home cities too, so…why is traveling that much  more dangerous?

Even if we’re not doing anything especially risky, people warn women about solo travel.  When I was in my 20’s I went on a spontaneous road trip to surprise a friend working at a Renaissance Fair in Massachusetts.  Even pre-Internet, I was easily able to book a hotel nearby, find a car rental place that would rent to someone under 25, and get a ticket for a bus to the car.  On the bus ride up I struck up a conversation with the young woman in the seat next to me, and when she heard that I was going alone and that my friend didn’t know I was showing up, she was shocked.  “You’re traveling alone?” she asked.  “No one knows you’re coming?  Aren’t you afraid something will happen to you?”

“…No?” I said, honestly baffled.  The way she was reacting, it was as if I’d said I was hiking across Nepal in a bikini; but there is vanishingly little to fear in North Carver, Massachusetts, so I just plain didn’t get why she thought I should be afraid.

There’s a definite double-standard at play.  The kinds of risks women face when traveling are no different from the ones men face, but we don’t ask men whether they’re afraid if they say they’re going to be hiking the Appalachian Trail or going to Paris for a week or what have you.  But women, we do.  Not that there aren’t risks unique to women – I know my brother and I have both looked into trips to other countries, but his travel research generally doesn’t include “how to deal with street harassment in [country]”.  But there is street harassment everywhere, so staying home wouldn’t exempt me from that anyway. So if I’m going to be facing street harassment no matter where I am, why not go be in another city once in a while?

And there’s something else about risk anyway – risk is not guaranteed to happen. When we look at a risk, we focus on the worst possible outcome. However – we overlook the fact that everything turns out okay the majority of the time anyway.  Looking back on some traveling I’ve done, I realized I’ve done some profoundly risky things:

  • I let a guy in a bar in Wicker Park, Chicago pick me up and went back to his apartment to make out.
  • I went to Italy despite not knowing any Italian.
  • I crossed 4 districts of New Orleans on foot alone in search of food when the streetcars shut down during Mardi Gras, and then recrossed two more on foot again looking for a cab to go home.
  • I got lost in Kansas during a road trip, pulled over in a town where the population was only about 325 and went to check into the only hotel in town – with a front desk clerk that actually leered at me when I said I was alone.
  • I hiked in the desert of Utah in July at mid-day with only a 16-oz bottle of water.
  • I ate in a really dodgy kebab place in Cork, Ireland.

A couple of those things were profoundly dumb. I realize that. But here’s the thing – not only did I survive, a lot of those risks were also things that lead to some of my best travel stories.  That walk through New Orleans lead me to finally ask a cop to recommend me a restaurant, and he not only gave me a recommendation, he gave me some official New Orleans PD Mardi Gras beads.  And then when I was trying to find a cab, the same damn cop ran into me again and gave me a free ride back to my hotel in his squad car.  As for the guy in Chicago – he fell asleep within three minutes, so I was left to find my way out of his apartment building and out to find a cab on my own. But I did so, within a block.

HIking in Utah?  Getting into and out of an airconditioned car kept the worst heat danger at bay, and the only heatstroke symptom I suffered was a split-second hallucination of hundred-foot tall flaming Hebrew letters adorning one of the cliffs in Arches National Park (at which point I promptly returned to my car, drove to the visitors station, bought a half-gallon bottle of water and drank the whole thing in one go).

Not knowing Italian? Most people spoke enough English to deal with me.  The one person who didn’t gamely tried using hand gestures, and so I got to see someone tell me “hot chocolate is a seasonal beverage and so we don’t serve that in spring” entirely through using charades, which believe me was seriously fantastic.

The creepy hotel guy? I told him I was meeting my fiance in town, and that leer was all that happened. That town is also where I discovered my all-time favorite small town newspaper headline: “Tractor Accident Sends Local Man To Witchita.”

The kebab place? I wasn’t alone anyway – I was staying with my dear friend Cliona, at her parents’ house. I did get food poisoning and ended up getting sick at about 2 that morning, but Cliona and her mother played nursemaids, and it was one of those food bugs that hits you hard for a couple hours and then clears up, so short of the embarrassment borne of accidentally mooning them both during one of my sprints to the bathroom, I bounced back.

Those are all stories that I would have missed out on if I had let anyone dissuade me from being daring and taking risks while traveling.  There are maybe one or two I would think twice about today; but even then, if things had gone worse, I did and do know enough about self-defense and risk assessment to get myself out of trouble.

So – there isn’t any reason why women need to worry more so about risk than men when traveling. And so – to paraphrase Nourigat – maybe I could have died, but at least I sang “Moon Over Bourbon Street” on Bourbon Street first.  And I’d rather have had that.

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