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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 Male Luxury of Safety

A recurring question I get as a woman who travels alone is: Are you ever afraid? This question has taken many forms, appearing as the following queries: Don’t you think it is smarter to wait until some of your friends want to go with you? But, didn’t something bad happen to some woman at some time in that place you are going? Recently, a male poster in a travel group I belong to on Facebook remarked that Black women, particularly, allow the vague possibility of gender violence and racism to restrict their movements around this incredibly beautiful planet. Something about this man’s well intended advice to “don’t let fear stop you” bugged me. As I and several Black women in the group called him out on his rather dismissive tone when discussing a very pertinent reality for women in general, but for women of color, specifically, I found myself thinking about the many “Are you ever afraid” questions I have fielded over the years from concerned family and friends. A part of me agreed with this man’s posting that the fears we imagine turn out to be far worse than the actual experience once we have the courage to live it. However, there was a quiet condescension underlying his repeated “No, I know gender violence is a reality, but, I am just saying…” He was somewhere on the opposite side of the spectrum than my friends and family. While they assumed any foreign country a woman explored on her own held the ceaseless potential of gang rapes and kidnappings, he seemed to blithely downplay that gender violence with a touch of general devaluing of black life does, in fact, loom over Black women’s travels even when there is no real or perceived threat to them.

In Zanzibar, when a man identifying himself as a “police officer” stopped my tour guide and me, I was not terribly concerned. Although it was Ramadan, I was aware that I had not fully covered myself like the local women. I was a tourist. In the biggest tourist trap in Tanzania. I have never traveled to any conservative culture where the locals actually expected me to completely model their customs and expectations, even the ones pertaining to female modesty. It seemed to be understood that I should not ignore the customs, but making effort to be more modest in my dress (even by Western standards) was enough to show respect. Hence, my ankle-length maxi dress with no V-neck or any similar cleavage-exposing cut struck me as perfectly fine.

“The dress is too tight and your shoulders are exposed.” The police officer had been conversing back and forth in Swahili with Sole for a few minutes before I assessed that the tone of their back and forth was sedate enough for me to stick my nose into the problem.

This dress is tight? And no disrespect, but a whole lot of women are strolling around wearing spaghetti strap tanks.” I was truly flabbergasted as I had worn this dress all day – through Stonetown, the Spice Plantation, Prison Island – with no looks of disapproval from men, absolutely no side eye from the Muslim women I passed who were fully covered from head to toe.

There is annoyed backtalk from Sole, who tells this man that I am not his girlfriend, but client. That of course I am not dressed like the Muslim women around me because I am a tourist like everybody else. That he is wasting our time. The call to prayer has just gone off, which means we can finally eat. “We are very hungry and were heading to the Square.”

“Get in the car so we can drive to a less crowded area and I can talk to both of you further.”

I look at this “police officer” who is not wearing a uniform and his two companions who do not strike me as remotely official. My eyes turn to the vehicle in front of me that does not have the words “Zanzibar Police Department” emblazoned on them. I think about the assumptions this man has made about my life. The confusion he will undoubtedly feel when I tell him the following: “Sir, I don’t get into cars with strange men in my own country, where I actually speak the language fluently. I don’t plan on taking up this habit in a foreign country.”

Sole explains that this man is the leader of the “community police,” which I translate into, The Captain of the Neighborhood Watch. I still look at all the men present as if they are mildly retarded to truly expect me to just hop in a car with four strange men.
I can tell that they have no idea of the gravity of what they have asked me to do. The Neighborhood Watch Captain says that he has been given the responsibility to “watch out” for foreign women during fasting because locals take the laxness in following the dress code personally during this period. There have been incidents of neighborhood men harassing women who do not at least cover up their arms.

Sole tries to reassure me. “There is no reason to be afraid. They are harmless and you are my responsibility. I will not let anything happen to you.”

Oh, how simple it all is in the world of men. Hakuna Matata, Sole is advising me. My concerns are unfounded. There is no reason to think anything untoward would occur. Why would I not trust him to protect me? This man who I only know because five hours ago, the hotel said: “This is Sole. He will show you the city.” Why would I even think that these men I do not know who may or may not have been elected by a community of people I do not know would hurt the very person I am not even confident they were actually instructed to protect.

“Look, I am not getting in your car. I will drape these trousers I just bought around my shoulders and answer any questions you have.”

30 minutes later, the Neighborhood Watch has been given about 10,000 shillings and I have been chastised again by the captain. Sole and I are eating dinner on the Square. He is still grumbling about how much of a pain in the ass the community police were, pointing me out to several food vendors who agree with him that there is nothing inappropriate about my attire. While they are all up in arms about the injustice Sole is decrying, I am thinking about the ease with which I was told not to worry about my safety. The befuddlement as to why I, a woman traveling alone in a foreign country, would be hesitant and downright defiant about getting into a car with almost half a dozen strange men and being driven off to some unnamed place. This confident posture of Hakuna Matata when it concerns your body – your right to it, your agency over it. What an enviable luxury it must be to assume that everyone, everywhere believes you have that right, will allow you to dictate what can and cannot be done with your very person.

As I finish my grilled squid, I remember the posts of the women in the Facebook travel group: “I always google violence against women before I go anywhere.” “It must be nice not to have to think about your personal safety all the time and just, like, pack some trunks and then be on your way.” Repeatedly, Black women spoke about the very real message they get all around the world: Your body is available to anyone who decides he wants it. To do whatever he pleases with it. I think about that brother who kept following up his “support” of Black women’s right to feel safe with that very revealing conjunction: “I hear what you ladies are saying, BUT…”

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