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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.

Traveling Solo: An Impromptu Marriage Proposal

One of the privileges that comes with being a childfree single woman is the ability to travel unencumbered by the constraints of partner discomfort or childcare availability. Added to this privilege is possessing an American passport and having the expendable income of an educated person with an advanced degree. Because of this, I have had the great fortune to travel solo throughout the world since I was in my late 20s. I am often intrigued by people’s reaction to me – a Black American woman with no husband or children in tow – either wandering the streets of Mexico City alone or being driven around and escorted to temples in Kolkata, India by a local man whose job is to both ensure her enjoyment of the city and her protection from it.

No matter the place or the people or the context of the conversation, the first question I am always asked is: “Are you married?” It is followed by the standard: “Where are your children?” I relish these conversation starters because the discourse that normally ensues reminds me of what much of the world expects of me. More importantly, I am reminded of how the story that these strangers write about me in their heads does not likely resemble the one I have chosen to write about myself.

My driver in Ethiopia is curious about my story. We are less than an hour into our drive from Bahir Dar to Gondar when Webunte turns to me and asks: “What is it like…?” He pauses and I can see him searching for the correct sequence of English words to finish his question. “As a lady. As a single lady in a foreign country? What is it like for you?”

I am not sure of the question. Is he asking me if I am able to enjoy myself without having a travelling companion or is he asking if I ever feel unsafe? I decide to answer both questions. “It is fun. I always look forward to my next adventure. I do think about my safety, too, though. This is why I normally hire someone to drive me around or when I am out site seeing, I will sometimes get a male guide to show me around.”

Webunte says men get the wrong idea sometimes and I should be careful. “They will think…uhm…they might think sinful things. They might think you do sinful things with them.” I chuckle and confirm that yes, I am aware that many men in the countries I visit see me as an easy lay and might try to take advantage. “In the states, we refer to it as ‘running game.’ I know how to handle men who try to run game, Webunte.” Webunte reassures me that he will not let these men take advantage of me here in Ethiopia. “You no worry while you are with me. No bad men will bother you.”

I thank him for his protection and tell him he is an honorable man. I continue to take in the rolling mountains and cattle being herded by families outside my window. A few minutes have passed before Webunte strikes up another conversation.

“Keturah,” he begins. “I have another question for you.”

“What is it?”

“Would you like to marry me?” He laughs, but waits for an answer.

I laugh, too, and tell him that I am not in the habit of marrying strangers.

“Stranger? We not strangers? Yesterday, I take you to my village…”

I interrupt him to remind him that he did not “take me to his village.” He actually took me to see the water fall that EVERY foreigner goes to see when in Bahir Dar. “The Blue Nile River just happens to be in the village where you grew up, Webunte.”

“Oh, okay…that is true. But, you like the village, no?”

“Yes, I liked the village, but I do not want to live there. And I do not want to marry you.”

Webunte assures me he will give me anything I want. He says he understands that I might not love the village at first, but “after some time, you could change the way you think.” He lets me know that he no longer lives in THAT particular village. Where he lives now there are lots more goats and he has built a new house and all he needs now is a wife and children. He paints this elaborate picture of all of these children running around and goats doing all sorts of things goats do and the two of us drinking beer and me loving it all.

“Uhm…no…I will not take care of goats. I will not have children. We can drink beer later, but I will not be your wife. Thanks for offering.”

Eventually, I convince Webunte that I will not change the way I think. He will have to find a nice Ethiopian girl to have his children and care for his goats. He accepts that there will be no marriage, but offers another proposal.

“We have sex.”

For some reason, this suggestions cracks me up. I burst into laughter and have a hard time putting words together to respond to this latest ridiculous idea from Webunte.

“Didn’t you just say you would protect me from bad men?”

Webunte looks confused. “Yes, I protect you from bad men.”

“Yet, you want me to do sinful things with you? Webunte…come on, homie. Are you not running game now, Bruh?”

Webunte shakes his head furiously. “No run. No game. I offer you to marry. You say no.”

“So now you offer me sex.”

“Yes. You want?”

“No, Webunte. I do not want to marry you nor do I want to have sex with you.”

“So, no marry? No sex?” He shakes his head and wonders aloud what DO I want. “I will give you whatever you want,” he repeats as if I did not understand him clearly the first time.

And THERE is the story that Webunte has written in his head. In the absence of a respectable woman seeking marriage lies the whore seeking an outlet for her sins. A woman who is eschewing marriage is obviously only interested in meaningless sexual encounters. If she does not want one, she must want the other. If she is looking for neither…well, then…what the heck is she looking for, by golly?

“Here is what I want: I want to make it to Gondar alive. So, you can give me that. Stop turning around here to plead your case and keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the steering wheel.” I give him epic side eye and tell him he will grant me this wish ONLY.

He gives me exactly what I want. Periodically, he checks in with me to see if “you change the way you think.” I let him know that there have been no reversals in my responses to either proposal. He pretends that he is hurt and pouts before moving on to other topics.

By the time we get to Gondar, Webunte and I have become family. He insists that I am his sister now and tells me the reason why he wanted to marry me (or have sex with me) is because I am beautiful on the outside and the inside.

“You are like Ethiopian woman. But, you are really American. It was fun to make joke with you. Because you look at me like African woman when you do not like joke.”

Now, here is a story on which Webunte and I can both agree. I am American, yet my natural response to tom foolery is VERY African.

 

 

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