For some reason, people have always encouraged me to write on my own experiences about traveling alone as a single female. I don’t believe in making the distinction between “solo female travel” and “solo travel” because I don’t believe these boundaries should exist.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no beef with Adventurous Kate or any single female travel blogger out there; the same safety principles chicks should follow are the same safety principle that everyone should follow. Making the distinction between “solo female travel” and “solo travel” only creates a belief that it’s somehow more inherently dangerous to embark on adventures as a female. Though gender sometimes plays a role in different cultures, if it’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that idiocy has no nationality or gender.
Though it's arguable whether females are more susceptible to crime—I don’t find it an issue most of the time—I’ve taken the stance that regardless of gender, you should always be aware of what’s going on and taking certain precautions. By following those two guidelines alone over the past five years, I’ve never had a single issue wherever I went, whether that was Latin America or the Middle East. (For the record, I’ve only been a victim of crime once. I was traveling with my father, who kept playing the role of ultimate blind tourist. That doesn’t count.)
Obviously, there are exceptions. Some of the more extremely conservative countries—like Saudi Arabia and Iran —would definitely give me pause, but it’s about being able to assess the situation realistically, either from a first-hand source that’s been there or through other well-vetted travelers. For instance, it is illegal for women to drive alone in Saudi Arabia and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Being accompanied by a man that’s not your husband or a family member? Definite no no. You just don’t want to pull that kind of shit in a real dictatorship. In cases like this, exercising much more caution than you normally would is a very good idea, conservatively saying.
The issue of dress can also be pretty fairly significant, especially when it comes to being female. In Jordan, though it was acceptable to forego a hijab—a Muslim headscarf for women—I still mostly wore one out of respect. I did it mostly because I wanted to, not because I felt pressure to wear one. It also had the added side benefit of shielding me from unwanted attention. After all, nothing says hiiii! or draws significant attention like a single Asian check roaming the streets.
Just about the only time I remember being reprimanded for my clothes was in central Turkey, near Cappadocia. I was looking at a couple of early Christian-era churches (think caves) at an outdoor museum when a middle-aged Turkish man working there tsked me rather loudly and pointed to the bottom of my shirt. I hadn’t noticed, but my shirt had slowly upturned, leaving my midriff had been showing. Mortified, I pulled the shirt down. In more conservative parts of the globe, it doesn’t hurt to cover shoulders, cleavage, midriffs and wear pants for good measure.
In principle, the big cities are always the most liberal while the smaller towns are always naturally more conservative. For instance, in Amman, Jordan’s capital, it was completely acceptable to go in full Western dress (within reason, cover those shoulders, gal). Conversely in Irbid, a smaller town further up north, my traveling companion and I noticed men and women automatically self-segregated themselves on the public bus. If there was ever a situation where two of the same gender were forced to sit together, the man would often choose to stand.
I’m a firm believer that safety should be at the top of your list, no matter your gender. Though some countries have special laws for crimes against foreigners—because they're concerned with cultivating a positive image abroad—this doesn’t make you immune from crime or violence. The main denominator for being a target is the fact that you stick out like a sore thumb and no amount of genetics can change the fact that you don’t look like a local. Gender has nothing to do with it.
One particular guy I met in Kuala Lumpur about five years ago sticks out in my mind. He was a fairly green Australian who had never really backpacked before and decided to, for whatever reason, to attach himself to me. Not only did he prove troublesome—he often refused to do things because it was too hot and often refused to eat anywhere that wasn’t a corporate chain—but at some point, he decided to go out to a bar with some other travelers in the hostel.
The next morning I discovered that he had been robbed on the way back to the hostel around 3 in the morning. Drunk, he had decided to go back by himself but was unable to pay the taxi driver appropriately because of his inebriation. According to him, he threw what was the equivalent of pennies at the driver (Southeast Asia is cheap, but it isn’t that cheap). The driver, finally frustrated, punched him, took the wallet and left him in front of the hostel. The morning after, he vomited over all the reception.
This was a textbook example of violating every safety precaution in the book. His first error was thinking that because he was on vacation, he was invincible. I get that you’re enjoying yourself, but the world doles out no special treatment just because you are on vacation. Second of all, he decided to head back in the wee hours of the morning by himself. I always try to go back at least with one other person after it gets dark, and if I go back by myself, I am certainly coherent enough to take care of myself.
But it doesn’t end there. The third error was insulting the driver — you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, the saying goes. I make an extra effort of trying to smile and be congenial to everyone I meet on the road. The third was having such a disregard for the culture that he was traveling in, that he failed to understand the driver was actually asking for a pretty fair price. When in doubt, err on the side of caution. Unfortunately, he erred on the side of asshole.
Sometimes, I think the only reason boundaries exist is because people acknowledge them and give them power. This is more true for some things more than others — and I think the idea of solo female travel is a prime example of this trap. Safety affects everyone, regardless of gender. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written about some pretty weird things, like hitchhiking in the Middle East, but common sense should be exerted at all times. Unfortunately, it just seems common sense isn’t that common.