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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.

For Single Girls (When Having a Boyfriend Isn’t Enough)

I learned early on into my life as a single woman living overseas that I’d have to put in the work to rebuild the social network I’d left behind in New York City. This was not difficult for me since I have always been a gregarious person who relished the company of cool ass women. In Kigali, small town life had its advantages because meeting friends who shared my interests happened almost instantly and maintaining those friendships involved a simple, five-minute moto ride to someone’s house or a local pub. Shanghai proved itself a greater challenge as it is one of the largest cities in the world and I live and work a significant distance from the city’s center. My first year here, I used wechat groups to forage for female friends. I spent a lot of my free time going to a plethora of “black folk events” with various types of black folks. At this, my third year, I have developed authentic friendships with a core group of women who now serve as my sister circle.

“I don’t know how you do it,” a co-worker said to me after I turned down an invitation to go to an after-work event because I had other plans. “You are always off campus and downtown doing stuff.” I had come to expect this reaction from the other Ex Pats at the international school where I work and live.

“Are you coming to the Thanksgiving potluck,” they’d ask.

“No,” I’d smile politely. “Got a homegirl in Pudong who hosts our Thanksgiving dinner each year.”

“We’re doing brunch and a spa day at the end of this month,” they’d offer.

“Sorry, going to Chengdu with my friend to see the pandas,” I’d reply.

You know other people here?, their wide eyes would ask.

I have answered these awestruck eyes more than once with: You know, you, too, can have a life outside of the school gates. It does take work, but it is not impossible. Usually, I get some version of the same response. “I am too lazy to find friends outside of the ones I see for 40 hours each week.” However, one response from a female co-worker has stayed with me long after our conversation.

“I just hang under my boyfriend.” She giggled as she waved off my suggestion that she didn’t have to force friendships with the other teachers she didn’t really like. She could find women here in the ‘hai who could become her crew. “I probably should make more effort to have friends, but me and my man keep each other busy enough, I guess.” This woman was well over 40. I was dumbfounded by her statement.

To be clear: I greatly appreciate the company of a male companion. Particularly when that company involves nudity and good conversation. I have dated often enough since living overseas and have found myself in love a couple of times. However, it never occurred to me that once in a relationship this should be it for me. That the extent of my community should stop with him. This one male human. I don’t know what to make of women for whom a boyfriend is enough.

I have witnessed some crazy shit here in the ‘hai alone. I’ve had no desire to share some of these shenanigans with a boyfriend because he wouldn’t get it. He would listen. Maybe ask the right questions. But he just wouldn’t get it. And more importantly, I didn’t need him to get it. My homegirls would. Immediately. They would skip over the questions and get right to the judgments. “Well, that’s some bullshit right there,” they’d say. “Nothing but fuckery and foolishness. I can’t even…” We’d carry on together until the timid little Chinese barista would ask us to quiet down just a little, please.

When your community begins and ends with your man, who do you go to when you need to find a gynecologist whose staff speaks decent enough English and who does not shame women who are over 30 without a husband or child? Who do you ask to buy you a quality bra on their trip back home and entrust with this crucial assignment after only handing them your size and cash? Who will listen with authentic delight as you describe each bite of the succulent molden chocolate cake that you experienced at an unassuming café? When your entire time is spent keeping busy with Bae, who do you go to when you start to question why you are even with Bae? Who do you confide in when you realize you are only with Bae because this relationship is just a lil bit better than loneliness and long stretches of celibacy?

A loving man who respects you can only give you so much. It seems impractical to put so much on the shoulders of a romantic relationship.

A few weeks after my co-worker explained she was relying solely on her boyfriend to be her village, she shared that she was not extending her contract and would return to the States for a while. The boyfriend had no desire to leave Shanghai and even less desire to live in the United States. “You mean, you gon’ leave Bae?!” I joked with her. She offered up a half smile and just nodded her head. “Well, I need to go back home and if he doesn’t want to come, I don’t have much choice.”

In that moment I felt bad for her. Here she was with a relationship at the beginning of the end and a life transition repatriating back to a country that was on fire. She had no village with whom she could share her story. No healing hands of women to engulf her in a hug and say, “I know you are scared and unsure of your next move. But, look, here is a cake I baked. And some wine.”

I wished her well on this next transition and wondered what would become of her when she returned to a country she had not lived in for most of her adult life. Would she try to boyfriend her way back in or would she employ the more sensible strategy: reconnecting with old friends and making effort to meet new ones?

I know what I will be doing when I return to the dumpster fire that is America. My circle of healing hands knows, too.

See, The Thing About Living Abroad Is…

If you’re not careful, this life will crack you wide open. While you are traveling to the latest country. While you are laughing at the latest miscommunication that resulted in your being in a completely different place than you thought you told the driver. While you are reveling at all the money that still remains in your savings account. If you don’t pay attention, your adventurous life laced with privilege will reveal ruptures. Not in your life itself. (No, that will still be pretty privileged and awesome) But in you. They will look like tiny abrasions at first. As if you got off the moto just a bit too quickly before checking to see if your leg was far enough away from the tail pipe. Those tiny abrasions. Barely noticeable burns. If you are not looking closely, carefully, you will be scooting around your new city with all your insides hanging out, leaving a trail of truths behind for these latest foreigners to assess in a language you do not understand.

I watched it happen in Kigali. So many sets of friends because…

So many relationships – from casual hook ups to married child rearing – that began and continued because…

The other person was just there.

About four months into my first international post, I realized I was friends with a woman who I did not like very much. It was not that I greatly disliked her, either. She had not done anything cruel to me nor was she a bad person at all. I just didn’t connect with her. And yet, here I was accepting invitations to go places with her. Grudgingly coming up with things for us to do so we could become even closer “friends.” Feeling bad for making up excuses for why I had to reschedule those things I did not want to do in the first place. I watched other acquaintances do this as well. Ex Pats determined to recreate the social networks they lost once they left their home countries gravitating to other English-speaking foreigners. Or paying off the locals with rounds of beer and subsidized trips to neighboring countries because “we are friends and if they could afford to return the favor, I am sure they would.”

Loneliness is not an emotion only the international globe trotter feels. It is one that every human will feel at points throughout their lives, regardless of who is or is not in that life when the emotion happens to surface. There is something that loneliness experienced abroad reveals, though. For me, I have seen it reveal how deeply delusional you can become about WHY you continue to nurture a friendship with a woman when the only common trait shared between you is you both speak English. There is a great amount of farce involved in continuing to respond to messages from a man who you only vaguely liked when you accepted a date from him and quickly decided on that date was an asshole and not a very cute one at that. There is a dogged decision to believe you are just trying to be more open. “Let me give this a chance. Isn’t that why I moved? For new experiences.”

You tell yourself that you are sitting through awkward conversations with this woman who consistently irritates you because you don’t want to rush to judgment. She is probably just as in need of friendship as you are.

In fact, she is just there. That is why you still talk to her. She is just there.

Just like the average-looking asshole. You are not still returning his messages because you are trying to figure out if the assholey things he says are just cultural idiosyncrasies that your western mind doesn’t quite understand. No, he is an asshole. An asshole who is just there. And this is why you have not told him, “Stop contacting me. I will never have time to go out with you again.” He is there. And his being there offers you comfort if you choose to take it. If offers you an out. If you choose to take it.

What Ex Pat loneliness can also reveal is that you are a damn good liar. You could easily release these people from your life. But, the lie you tell yourself is that it is nicer to lead people on, continuing to pretend you are interested in a connection, than to allow them the time to nurture a connection with someone who truly does value them in ways you do not. If Holden is a terrific liar, then you are an exceptional one. You convince yourself the lie is about the fake friend and the asshole dude. It is to spare their hurt feelings. But, see…it is really about you, Hun. You would feel kindda bad having to admit you are collecting people you don’t really want to keep anyway.

Before I left Kigali, I had strengthened my spiritual practice so Shanghai would not crack me open. If Kigali almost did, I knew this place definitely would.

I am looking around me now at the people who I encounter and observing the newbies start the delusion. Forced conversations that don’t have to become anything more than just small talk, but what if these are entry points into for real friendship? Flirtatious looks that are thought to be more significant than simply you are cute and his fiancée is still far away in London and he misses her so.

The realization that you have uprooted yourself and now have to recreate a life that had run almost by itself can cause a sense of isolation that is deeper than the loneliness one feels when she is in an unsatisfactory relationship in a country and culture that she understands. Or the loneliness felt when one has gone a long period of time without the intimacy that even a dysfunctional partnership can bring. The rebuilding of a support network can be more unclear in its design and architecture. I understand oh so well why people choose the delusion. The superficial and strained connections make them feel safe.

The unfortunate truth is, though, they are not any safer than if they just stopped lying. At some point, they will have to face the reality of what they have done. They have left their families. They have left their friends. They have left their good jobs. They have left all the distractions those families and friends and good jobs mercifully provided.

The rush to find replacements for those distractions will likely be the catalyst for their being cracked open more so than it will be the magic elixir to stop it from happening in the first place.

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