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Don’t Go. You’ll Die! (Traveling Solo While Female)

My first solo trip was to Atlanta. I was recently out of college and already dissatisfied with the unfulfilled promises of adulthood my teenaged self had dreamt up with vigor as I lived in my head throughout middle and high school. I had a job that was so inconsequential I struggle now to remember where exactly I worked and what I was doing. I had heard that Atlanta was some sort of Black Promised Land and had never left New Orleans long enough to fully appreciate that I was from and currently residing in the actual Black (Cultural) Promised Land so…

I woke up one morning and announced, “I’m going to Atlanta.”

I did not expect the commentary that followed. “You going all the way to Atlanta…by yourself?” It was the emphasis on the all the way that caught my attention first. To reach Atlanta from New Orleans, all one had to do was get on I-95 and then roughly eight hours later get off I-95, right? It took the second or third raised eyebrow for me to even hear the by yourself part. My mom and dad, of course, were supposed to be concerned about me getting in my car by myself and driving all the way to the neighbouring state of Georgia. I was their youngest child. A girlchild at that. Though level headed and responsible, I leaned toward impulsiveness sometimes. So, the imagined trouble I could find myself in was a reasonable response from my parents.

However, the by yourself from the mouths of friends and close acquaintances surprised me. I was asked if I worried about being bored or lonely for those seventy-two hours I would spend in the city. I was told that I should consider waiting until at least one other person could come along. “Safety in numbers,” a couple of friends said. Rapists, kidnappers and women beaters could be lurking anywhere within those 400 miles and that was not even to mention the men who were out to get me once I actually arrived in the city of Atlanta itself. “Don’t tell anyone you are alone,” a friend advised as I stuffed some clothes into a duffle bag. “Be safe,” I was told as I drove off. “What are you doing now? All by yourself?,” was a recurring question in the emails I opened once I got to the youth hostel where I would stay and logged on to let everyone know I had not been kidnapped since they last saw me.

In the twenty years since I returned from Atlanta, unimpressed and unmolested, I have traveled alone both domestically and internationally so many times I have to now force myself to at least make effort to include other people before simply booking a flight. Though not from friends who’ve known me since the Atlanta trip, I still get the by yourself question often enough that it makes me wonder why a woman traveling alone seems odd. Given it is the year 2019, and though violence against women is a very real concern in many parts of the world, one would assume that a female adult visiting a new locale without the accessory of husband, child or wing woman is not such an abnormality.

“Several times when I’ve checked into a hotel the staff were super concerned,” Ambra, a western woman currently living in China, said. “Like I’m there to kill myself or because I am depressed just because I’m by myself.” She went on to tell the story of a staff member coming out to the pool once just to see if she really were okay. Another time, (mostly) female employees chatted her up at breakfast, voicing well intended concern that she might be alone for some other reason than she wanted to be alone.

Natavia, an American expat currently living in China, had her announcement of an international move met with stories of sex trafficking throughout Asia. “They kept saying ‘Don’t Go!’ and asking me if I knew anyone here and when I said no, they’d come up with even crazier stuff.” Though the anxieties of her loved ones did make Natavia hesitant, she had a cousin who had solo traveled extensively and lived overseas alone. The cousin was curt. “Ignore them. Move to China.”

We know everyone means well when they ask us if we are sure we want to journey to a foreign destination alone. And we are also well aware that the dangers they imagine for us are not that far from the realm of possibility. However, those dangers are not that far from the realm of possibility when we travel to and from work in the same city where we’ve lived all our lives. Rapists rape in New Orleans during the day and night. Women take meticulous care not to get themselves raped from the time their parents find the courage to send them out the house without adult supervision until they inhale their last breathe. Kidnappers operate from the same playbook all over the world and there seems to be no fool-proof plan not to get yourself kidnapped when a professional kidnapper has decided he will — today and at this moment — kidnap. When people have asked me if I were afraid of getting trafficked or drugged or disappeared when I’ve traveled to India or Senegal or South Africa or Malaysia, I’ve always chuckled and said, “Well, if I’ve managed not to have any of those things happen to me here, then I’ll just keep that same energy in this other place. Maybe, I’ll get the same result.”

Even greater than concern for the female solo traveler’s safety is bewilderment about why she would choose to be alone on a travel adventure in the first place. After dozens of by yourself inquiries, I started to hear what people were really saying. And it was not tied just to imagined scenes of me being violated and thrown into a ditch. The visions of me touring city monuments alone. A quick flash of me eating the local cuisine alone in a restaurant filled with people. Taking pictures in front of famous landmarks. No one standing next to me. My friends and loved ones were not as forthcoming about their uneasiness regarding my aloneness. Sometimes I’d be asked if I ever got bored and lonely. When I’d respond that these emotions did occur and I just felt them the way I felt all the others until they passed, I’d be met with curious stares and silence.

“Truth is, I don’t ever feel alone unless I want to.” Latasha, who is originally from Cleveland, but has lived in three different countries since moving overseas, plans her solo trips to give her the option of interacting with others if she chooses. She loves talking with the locals in the countries she visits and her singleness makes that easier to do. She is often viewed as easier to approach because there is no one there distracting her from friendly banter with a stranger. When Latasha travels by herself, she notices a marked difference in how many impromptu conversations people initiate with her. “I also always try to stay in airbnbs, homestays or with friends of friends,” Latasha explains. This gives her the option of friendly human interaction if she’s had a day of solitary sightseeing or people watching.

For some of us, solo is our preferred method of travel. And why wouldn’t it be? You get to set your own schedule. Change it at a moment’s whim. You end up going to countries that truly intrigue you and not just places that are chosen because of compromise. You are beholden to no one’s budget but your own. No one’s accommodation idiosyncrasies. If you are a budget traveler who never spends more than $30 a night on an airbnb, then you can have your basic room with sporadic hot water. If you are unapologetically bourgie, then an American chain hotel will welcome you into its arms with thick, fluffy mattresses and 24-hour room service.

Aliki, a single British traveler, packed a bag and left London to tour Southeast Asia when she was only 19 years old. She went to Thailand and followed that up with Vietnam before checking out Cambodia and Laos. She was alone in each country and was not a part of a university study abroad or any similar program. “I still go on holidays with friends, family or my boyfriend,” she says, “but the majority of my travel is done alone.” Like the many single women I meet who travel by themselves more so than not, Aliki is not surprised that women who are fiercely independent in their daily lives would fully embrace navigating foreign destinations without a companion.

Between Ambra, Natavia, Latasha, Aliki and I, we have seen over half of the world. We have done so without any attempts being made on our lives. No sexual assaults to report. (Though we have had our share of inappropriate propositions from oddly confident men who took the L when told no and simply went away.) We’ve had no traumatic “close calls” that left us hesitant to take on the world alone again.

We have all traveled much farther than Atlanta. Much farther than North America.

And we are all still alive.

The Rogue Tourist (Who Smelled Barbecue)

If you talk to my childhood teachers and friends, they would confirm I was a good girl who did what she was told at least 97% of the time. While I had a smart mouth that often wrote checks my ass could not cash, I reserved respectful obedience for authority figures and followed the directions of people who were in charge of leading me in different areas of my adolescent life.

My friends, family and teachers would also confirm that I was a fat kid who was easily driven to distraction by food.

Which brings me to the half-day tour of Phuket I recently took. I had every intention of hopping out of the van at whatever site the tour company had arranged for us 8 random foreigners who wanted to get in some semi-culture between sun bathing on the beach and consuming mojitos. At the baby elephant site, I hopped out of the van and fed the elephant. And then hopped back in the van right as the tour guide was summoning us to gather again. When we went to a mountain peak to take in one of many breathe taking views of the island, same thing. Hopped off van, listened closely to the guide give us the history, took a few pictures and then, back to the van.

I was a good little tourist for the majority of this trip.

And then, I got hungry.

Thing was: I didn’t realize I was hungry until I smelled the smoke of the black diaspora’s favorite cuisine: barbecue. We had just left the honey plantation and were now at yet another temple that seems to be a requisite site when touring any Asian city. The guide gave us a quick history and told us we could explore on our own, leaving us with a time and location to meet up again.

Listen, Children…When you see one of these scared temples, you truly have seen them all. This temple looked just like the one I happened upon in my neighborhood in Shanghai when I was trying to find the Walmart so I could buy some paper towels. It also resembled the one I saw in Bali, except more grand and blingy. Ornate walls. Lots of incense. Altars. Buddha statues. Yup, it was a temple alright.

It was my plan to find the toilet and the barbecue while my fellow travellers found enlightenment praying and what not within the temple.

And when I found the barbecue, several things happened that were not truly my fault.

Thing 1: The barbecue was absolutely delicious. The old man who had all this meat on sticks waiting to be thrown on this open flame had put some magical, crack-like sauce on these skewers and his charcoal had to be made from the dust of fairy wings because when I bit into my first chicken skewer, I felt like the Hebrews being sent manna from Heaven after Year #17 wandering around the dessert pissed because they still didn’t know when they’d get to the Promised Land. Because the chicken skewer was so succulent,

Thing #2: I had to order a pork skewer from the old man whose advanced age caused him to take an inordinate amount of time to barbecue meats. I only ordered 1 more skewer so I don’t know why it took him so long to grill it, but this is how things go. It would have been rude of me to rush him as he was at least two and a half decades older than me. To make use of the 5 or so minutes I had left before I had to meet the group, I went over to another stall where some sort of fruit drink was being offered. This, too, took a long time so when I came back to get my pork skewer, I realized I was hungrier than I originally thought and should probably get a beef one, too.

Thing #3: I had to feed a hungry child. This child did not say he was hungry. But, when I came back to the elderly barbecue man, I recognized one of the children from the family who had been on the tour with us throughout the day. We were coming up on hour 3 of this tour and the young lad had not even had a snack as far as I could tell. So, I asked him if he wanted a pork skewer. He did make note of the time and asked if we were supposed to head back over to the meeting point, but the sizzle from the grill, the aroma of the crack-laced sauce entranced him, too.

Thing #4: The elderly barbecue man did not have change for the big bill I gave him and thus ensued another lengthy event, wherein he roamed around to his other vendor colleagues trying to scrounge together my change.

Thing #5: I realized we had like two more stops before this tour ended. I would probably be hungry again so it would be smart for me to order 2 or 3 more skewers. As previously stated, the grilling process was inexplicably long.

When me and the young lad, who was visibly happier than he was pre-skewer, approached the rest of the group, I felt a bit of remorse. Well, actually, I didn’t really feel remorse. I felt bad for the other tourists in the group. They looked hot. And hungry.

“Wait…there was food?” One of them asked.

“I hope we still have time to visit the Big Buddha,” our guide passive-aggressively mumbled under his breathe.

Because my mama raised me right, I apologized for being a little late and setting us back on the itinerary.  The young lad was the one to rave about the barbecue meat and how he was glad he had the chance to have one.

I just simply crawled into the van that had pulled up once we got back and began eating my reserve skewer.

For some reason, it was really quiet on the ride to the Big Buddha.

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