There are not many things in the world anymore that women could not do just as men. However in many places it’s not common for women to travel alone and this might take some time getting used to. It’s important to keep safe and respect the local culture, but the good thing is that as a lady you might get to go to places groups or men are not allowed in.
read my tips for travelling solo at the end of the story!
When I started doing my first solo journeys abroad, my big brother told me: “Remember that you’re so small that a bigger dude can just lift you up and run away!” That’s many years, kilos and continents ago, but that was his way of reminding me to keep safe.
I’ve not done months-long journeys alone, rather moved alone from one friend to another. Sometimes I’ve stayed behind after my group has left in places like Chennai, Lima, Luang Prabang, Fukuoka and Negombo.
It’s common and maybe wise to tell anyone travelling alone to keep safe, but especially so to women. When I was 20 and visited French Grenoble alone, an older lady asked me how my family lets me travel alone. And all I was wondering was how would a family not let a 20-year-old travel alone?
A woman travelling alone does still shake some cultural boundaries in many places or stretch them at least. On the positive note, a woman travelling alone is not considered much of a threat anywhere we go. That is both our disadvantage and your advantage. In many cases a solo female traveler is treated with a slight sheltering approach. It can also bring benefits when trying to see places men are not usually allowed in.
A single female traveler is easily invited to local homes. The kitchen often is female territory, but interesting for a traveller to see. And in my experience, even if the dalla-dalla in East Africa is full, it can still often fit one more lady.
When I've travelled with Duara Travels in Sri Lanka, two out of my three hosts were also single ladies. They felt comfortable sharing their home with me and go to the market or temple with me. Once I was even escorted to take a shower in the backyard to make sure I knew how to use it in local style. Instead of being a dangerous way to travel, homestays feel like a rather sheltered way to travel, privileged even.
It’s good to estimate dangers and risks when travelling alone, as a male or a female, but sometimes even the locals might be thinking about cultural barriers rather than dangers when protecting females. And in some cases they might know the real dangers better than travellers themselves. Sometimes it’s not easy to tell the difference.
Instead of being a dangerous way to travel, homestays feel like a rather sheltered way to travel, privileged even.
It was one such case, when I was escorted by an Indian colleague to a poetry evening in Mumbai. The event was in an area known for trendy nightlife. My colleague was from another city, but also from a conservative family and did not go to bars. When I told her I was going to attend a poetry gig, she didn’t want to let me travel there alone at dark.
When we arrived to the venue and saw local ladies in miniskirts, she looked like she was facing a culture shock in her own country. In the end the event was good and later on in her emails she kept reminding me about our poetry event together in Mumbai. It seems that together we broke some cultural barriers that night. Had I been a single man or in a group, we might have missed that chance.
Being a solo female traveller also often puts you in a space which in some countries is not considered appropriate. And since you don’t behave like a local woman would, local men might not know how to treat you. Sure, in India also Western men get stared at, but probably not to the extent as women. Once I felt there must be some limit to staring, and decided to politely ask the staff at a hotel reception to give me some peace. After that there were only two waiters serving me, instead of one serving me and six openly staring at me behind the counter.
Another time a young waiter in India wanted to take a selfie with me. It’s common in India and not really a problem, but this case was different, because he brought food into my hotel room and decided to put his hand around my shoulder. I believe it was a question of naiveté rather than harassment, but sometimes you also have to show the limits to friendliness, so I politely rejected the photo opportunity. Travelling as a woman alone you of course are alone to keep guard of your boundaries. It may be wise to keep alert, but no need to get anxious.
Of course many things that a woman travelling alone will have to think about are similar to a male traveller having to think about. You can get lost, you can get sick or you might run into stray dogs on your morning jog. It’s a good idea to let people you trust know where you’re going, and not let people you don’t trust know where you’re going and what your plans are. Most likely you will sense whom to trust. Like you do at home.
The good thing is that as a solo traveller you are easy to approach and people engage with you into conversations. You’re also free to decide when to stay for longer talks or sojourns. One of my favorite such memories is having had a lengthy discussion with a Japanese guesthouse owner on Kyushu and finding he had sent me a birthday card when I returned to my flat in Tokyo. Later on I hosted his cousin in Helsinki. I find that leaving alone you might go alone, but you easily return with more friends than when travelling with company.
TIPS FOR SOLO FEMALE TRAVELLERS
- Leave details of your travel plans and accommodations to friends and family back home.
- Keep photocopies of your passport and other important travel documents in your email in case they get lost.
- When you use taxis or rickshaws, if possible book them in advance through a tourist office, an internet site or a hotel. This way someone will know your whereabouts. Agree on the price beforehand.
- You will often attract attention. It’s okay to politely ask for privacy and peace. In public space just keep it cool.
- If you want to be respected, respect the local culture. That means no bikinis even on the beach, if locals are not wearing such.
- Carry something like dry oatmeal mix with you in case you get sick and have no one to fetch food for you. While being sick it’s also nice to have the option to eat something without chili or other strong spices.
- In many countries ’are you married’, ‘how old are you’ and ‘where are you from’ are just lines to open a conversation and not considered private information. Keep your patience. If you really get bored of answering, whether you have a boyfriend, use a fake wedding ring.
- Act as local as you can and don’t forget about humor!