I usually write on the fun, frivolous, funny, and practical side of travel. Occasionally I delve into aspects of safety and awareness and the scary things that can happen on the road, and today I’m blogging about something viral going around on the internet. The past few weeks there has been a hashtag trending on Twitter stemming from the Santa Barbara shooting that has prompted all sorts of discussions, comments, and opinions. The hashtag is #YesAllWomen and I became aware of it through this article written on the San Francisco Globe website that compiles some of the more interesting and enlightening (or terrifying) tweets that have been written and tweeted on Twitter.
I feel strongly about this topic so I decided to write an article on it from the perspective of a solo, female traveler wandering the world on her own.
Each tweet in the article exemplified painfully the mistreatment, inequality and harassment that women feel everywhere. Regardless of whether it’s in the developing world, or in the developed world, women have a deep seated fear of abuse and harassment from men on varying levels. I know that I feel and have felt this way many times. I have been traveling by myself for 2 years over a 4 year period and I am incredibly lucky to say that I have never suffered any serious harassment or attacks that have made me fear for my life. But I’d be lying if I said I’ve felt safe 100% of the time. [pullquote align=”left” textalign=”left” width=”30%”] I’d be lying if I said I’ve felt safe 100% of the time[/pullquote]Although I’ve never suffered grievous, bodily injury, I’ve experienced a multitude of smaller instances where I was worried, concerned, or afraid of what could happen if things escalated and I didn’t avoid or diffuse the situation appropriately. So when people ask me if I’m scared to travel alone, I often reply not usually, but I’ve now realized that I’m just so used to having to be constantly aware and ready for something to happen that I don’t register this as a fear of travel, it’s just a reality of what I need to do to keep myself safe as a woman by herself. Traveling solo as a woman is an act of independence and an act of courage but it is also an enriching and challenging experience that has taught me how to support myself in complex situations and given me the ability to cope with things on my own.
Colombia is notorious for men catcalling, whistling, hissing, and commenting as you walk by. And once you turn your head towards the noise, they often like to smooch at you. It is by far the worst country I’ve been to for its vocal men who just happen to be hanging out and lounging on the street. It was relentless everywhere I went. Thankfully my Spanish wasn’t fluent enough to understand everything they said, but I sure understood a lot of it, especially since most of it wasn’t even words. Most of it was and is meant to be harmless, but sometimes, I felt it was necessary to acknowledge the catcall because it had a threatening undertone and insistence that I felt ignoring might make the men more aggressive in getting my attention. Some people might consider it a cultural thing, a manifestation of machismo, harmless, or a fun way for guys to occupy themselves. I’ve even been told to take it as a compliment as the man just wanted to offer me a phrase or sound of adulation and appreciation. But for me, I considered it not just annoying, but wearisome and often distressing. It was incredibly uncomfortable, and resulted in a lot of awkward staring straight ahead, pretending not to have heard anything while picking up my pace to get to my destination. So let me be honest here men, no matter where I am in the world (this includes jogging down the streets of the city I live in), whistling at me does not make me feel attractive. It does not make me feel like a woman. It makes me feel objectified and like an animal. Some ‘thing’ or dog being called at.
No means No, even in Spanish.
And as for other instances of harassment while traveling alone, how about the time, only 8 weeks ago, when I was taking a 26 hour bus ride from Salta, Argentina to Puerto Iguazu and had to fend off the advances of one of the two bus drivers. Not a passenger, but an actual bus driver who was in a respected position of authority. At one point, I was the only person on the top portion of the double decker bus (uncertain if anyone was on the bottom part) and had to firmly and repeatedly tell the bus driver in Spanish that No, he could not kiss me, No, he could not sit with me and No, I did not want to talk to him. And when he leaned in to try kiss me anyway, I had to put my hands up to block him and turn my head away. You might call this some cheeky Latin American just doing what his culture does, but how do you think I felt for the rest of the bus ride? Every time he came upstairs to take someone’s ticket, he would look at me, or smile at me, or try to talk to me. Not what I consider an enjoyable bus ride in the middle of a foreign country. At one point I considered getting off in the next town and purchasing a new ticket on a different bus. No means No, even in Spanish.
Or how about the young ticket taker on a local bus at night who sat next to me and kept trying to tell me in English he loved me and wouldn’t leave me alone. Or the older man on a bus from Ecuador to Colombia who insisted on giving me his ring (and I took it because he started to get upset) and then wanted to cross the border with me. Or when I was on a caving adventure tour in Belize and the tour guide took a liking to me and when everyone in the group was holding hands in the dark, he took the opportunity to grope me, ruining the entire tour for me and making me incredibly uncomfortable. And these are just some of the experiences that come to mind off the top of my head of harassment I’ve experienced while traveling. These are all situations that not only make me uncomfortable but are a constant reminder of sexism and gender discrimination.
So when people tell me I’m brave for traveling alone, in some ways they’re right, as there are so many times where the situation I was in could have escalated and something more terrible than feeling uncomfortable and uneasy could have occurred. And it’s awful that my immediate response is “I’ve been lucky.” I’ve been lucky to have not been attacked, physically harassed, or raped while traveling on my own. It shouldn’t be “I’m lucky,” it should just not happen at all. But it does and it’s a reality, as I often read reports about women who have been raped while traveling, and it chills me to the bone. So, yes, I guess it does take a little bit of courage to travel alone.
So why am I posting about all this? Because by me writing about it, it can help bring awareness to sexism and women’s inequality. And that traveling solo as a female does have its risks and can potentially be dangerous, and it would be wrong of me to pretend that it doesn’t. Me telling you about this will hopefully prepare you and make you aware of what can happen and what you might experience. Yes, you do need to be careful, yes, you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times, and yes, you probably will experience something similar to what I have. Hopefully not, and hopefully nothing worse. But, after everything I’ve just written about, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel alone if you are a woman. Don’t limit yourself and don’t let fear keep you from exploring the amazing world out there regardless of whether you have someone to travel with or not. The more independent, solo women travelers out there standing up and proving their determination, independence, and self-worth, the more things will change.
So Yes All Women.