Round Table Discussion: Women Travelling Alone
Travellers: Julia, Laura, and Sydney are all friends from high school that have been travelling off and on for the past couple of years. Between the three of them they’ve been to Europe, Asia, Africa, and throughout North America both alone and with others. They all have unique experiences on what it’s like to be a woman travelling in a foreign country and agreed to share their thoughts on safety, planning, making friends on the road, and yes, even selfies.
Mel: What are your current feelings or thoughts on travelling alone as a woman? What experiences have shaped these feelings?
Syd: It depends on what part of the world I’m travelling to. I’ve only really done Europe and I didn’t have any experiences that were super negative, I suppose? But I would be hesitant about some places. Like I know before you [Julia] went to India, everyone was advising you to wear a wedding ring.
Julia: For me I didn’t really think at all about it, like I didn’t think it would be an issue whatsoever. Until people started approaching me being like ‘oh my god, you’re going to India? Let me tell you about this rape story and that rape story and that rape murder story’ and ‘let me give you tips on your trip even though I’ve never been but I’m going to tell you all this stuff’. And so I sort of started freaking out and reevaluating my decision to go to India, even though I obviously still ended up going. But yeah, people were telling me to wear a wedding ring and to protect myself and I was terrified because I was arriving at 4am and didn’t really know where I was going and I thought I was going to get kidnapped by the cab driver just from the thoughts people put in my head. And then when I got there it was the complete opposite and everyone was super friendly!
Laura: I’ve only ever travelled alone to get from point A to point B, but even when travelling with someone else, I think it’s smart to always plan for the worst that can happen and keep your wits about you. You have to make sure you’re making the right choices so that you can protect yourself.
Syd: I find that when I do travel on my own… you know in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Mad Eye Moody just yells “CONSTANT VIGILANCE” all the time and I completely embody that when I’m travelling alone. I keep my belongings close, I don’t trust anyone, and I don’t make eye contact.
Julia: It’s sad though and I wish that wasn’t the case. I purposely try and not think that way. I would rather think the best of people, like sure, you have to be aware, but I don’t want to ruin my experience by being overly cautious. For example the first time I travelled to India, I booked my trip completely and had a plan for each day. I wanted to spend some time travelling, but everyone made me so scared that I didn’t. And I met other women there that were like ‘yeah, I’m going to travel around for a month alone’ or had already been travelling alone for months and it really made me regret not doing that.
Syd: From an optimist’s point of view I do agree that you should always try and see the best in people, but at the same time that kind of ideology…
Julia: Like I’m not going to get into a car with a stranger.
Syd: I know, I know. But I think there is a reason there are these cautionary tales because it does happen.
Mel: Are there any locations in particular that you have reservations about?
Laura: Absolutely. Our friend John was recently in the Middle East and that’s not a trip any of us would physically be able to do.
Julia: I know, I’m so jealous! I would love to go there.
Laura: Exactly, it’s really unfair.
Syd: You would actually want to go to the Middle East?
Laura: I want to go to Petra, Jordan, Israel. There’s all these amazing places out there that as a single white female, I wouldn’t be able to go unless I was accompanied by a man.
Syd: I know someone that went to Cyprus on an archeological dig with a group of all women and when they arrived they were looking for their hotel and were verbally assaulted by men. They were basically saying ‘who are you, where are you from, why aren’t you accompanied by a man?’ I was 16 when I heard this story and it terrified me and I resent the fact that while I can travel there, it’s in my best interest to be accompanied by a man.
Julia: The whole time I was in India I was with [my boyfriend] Sandip and he would teach me things about how to act in their culture. He said ‘don’t smile at men’ because I’d be walking down the street smiling because I was happy about where I was. Now if I accidentally made eye contact with a man while smiling, that’s taken as a sign of me flirting with them. And Sandip said “honestly, I’ll be hearing about it a week later. A guy will be like ‘oh that white girl in our city? Yeah, she smiled at me’ and someone else will be like ‘isn’t that Sandip’s girl? What is she doing going around smiling at other guys’ and that’s just how news gets around”.
Laura: My mom was in Riyadh for business and while she was there she wore a niqab and she had to stay in a very specific hotel that had women’s only areas. Any time she wanted that leave that area she had to be accompanied by a man. So why would I want to visit somewhere where I would be required to follow rules like that?
Julia: I’m different in that I would travel somewhere to experience that sort of situation. I love the culture shock because I know that’s not how I usually live. So I would look at it as a learning experience because that’s what I think travelling is all about – putting myself in a different situation out of my control and learning to adapt to it.
Mel: How did you mom feel about that work trip, Laura?
Laura: My mom has been travelling for work for a long time now, so she always expects some cultural differences. Many years ago she went to Japan for business and they didn’t even have women’s washrooms in the building she was in, whereas our generation would expect there to be a women’s washroom on every floor, let alone the whole building. On the way home from her Riyadh trip she was wearing Western clothing and a man sat beside her on the plane even though she had the whole row booked and started making rude and uncomfortable comments about her being a woman travelling alone. It was really demeaning for my mom, especially since she had booked the whole row of seats specifically so that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen. He ended up being chastised by the airplane crew and was embarrassed, as he should’ve been.
Mel: How do you guys keep from getting lonely when you’re travelling alone? Do you have any tips on making friends and contacts while in a foreign country?
Syd: The first thing I did when I went to stay in London was go to the local pub and sit at the bar and chat with the bartenders. Everyone goes to the pub there and it was great because the bartenders were telling me all about the neighbourhood and it’s history. But that’s the UK, where going to the pub is a social institution. When I’m travelling alone other places I try to embrace loneliness.
Laura: I do the exact same thing and think it’s important that you find your creature comforts. Life can be really busy at home, so I like to take some time for myself when travelling and find things to do that genuinely make me happy. But in terms of meeting people while travelling, most people I’ve talked to recently say they’ve used Tinder to meet people.
Laura: Not so much to find people to hook up with, but to ask people what the best bars are, or what’s fun in the area. You can message people saying ‘hey I’m new in the city, what’s there to do?’ Tinder becomes what you make it because of it’s simple interface and the fact that it’s location based.
Julia: When I was in Japan for a couple weeks, it was probably the loneliest I’ve ever been while travelling and I think it’s because of the culture. From what I saw, Japanese people tend to stick to themselves. As a tall white girl, I definitely didn’t fit in.
Mel: Did you try and make friends with any Japanese people?
Julia: I didn’t even know where to start! The people I did speak to didn’t know a lot of English. They are incredibly nice, but I think sometimes they’re just a little shy and reserved. So the people I did end up being friendly with were the other foreigners in my hostels, which is a great place to meet people because they also want to make friends and go out and see the city. I still keep in touch with a few people.
Mel: Were there any times when you were travelling alone that you felt you were in danger, particularly because you were a woman?
Laura: If you speak to any woman, she’ll probably have the same answer, which is an annoyed and disgruntled yes. And even if it’s not direct danger, there’s definitely some paranoia about being in danger and wondering ‘what if something happens, who am I going to go to for help’?
Syd: There have been moments where it’s like ‘I’ve been taken to the second location, this is what Oprah said never to do’.
Laura: What I hate most is when people hear stories of bad things happening to women travelling and they say ‘well she should’ve known better then to get into that situation’. You never know what could happen even when you’re trying to be as safe as possible.
Mel: Taking photos of yourself at landmarks or in beautiful scenery is hard, what are your opinions on selfie sticks and taking selfies while travelling?
Laura: As long as you’re not in any sort of memorial or something like that, I think it’s fine.
Syd: I’m against the selfie culture, like why do you need to take photos of yourself?
Julia: Theme parks and music festivals have started banning selfie sticks.
Laura: I think the problem is that it affects other people’s enjoyment of the environment so it makes sense to me that they’re banned. I don’t think selfies are fundamentally wrong.
Julia: I take selfies and sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s me posing with a double chin in front of Buckingham Palace. I think selfie sticks are good for group photos, but if it’s just going to be me on a mountain then it’s kind of lame.
Laura: You also have to respect the culture of where you are as well. There was that young girl that took a selfie in Auschwitz and that’s not okay.
Mel: Where do you think we should draw the line at what’s acceptable?
Julia: I felt uncomfortable taking any photos at all at Auschwitz. But people were there taking photos of 30 tons of human hair in the gallery! I don’t even think you’re allowed to take photos of the hair, but they were anyway.
Laura: I think places like Auschwitz and memorials are supposed to be introspective experiences and personal moments to reflect on the horrors of history. If you need photos to do that then that’s your business, but I personally find something wrong with that.
Syd: I think if you dig deep into why you’re taking a selfie while travelling, it’s not really for you anymore. It’s more for posting on social media to be like ‘look where I am, look where I’ve travelled’.
Laura: I honestly think that no one even wants to see all of your travel photos. If you post on Facebook, that’s one think because people can browse them at their leisure if they choose. But no one wants to sit through hours of you showing them your photos and that goes for selfies as well.
Mel: What do you wish you had known before travelling alone that you know now and what advice do you have for other women that are planning on travelling alone?
Syd: Never walk away from your belongings! Because you never know what could happen to them. And always stick with your friends and people you feel safe with.
Julia: I think I was too anal and overbooked my trip to India. So I would say leave some wiggle room so you can do spontaneous things as opportunities arise.
Laura: Always have a safe spot to go to or a meet up spot if you’re with others. Also find things that make you happy when you’re alone and know where they’re located. Finding a place or thing that makes you comfortable in a place that might not make you feel so comfortable is a great feeling. It could be a certain restaurant or a museum or even somewhere to just sit.
Julia: It could even be the sweatpants in your bag!