I have a friend who was selected for an awesome fellowship job working with schools in India! I am so excited for her - and maybe a teensy bit jealous. Not surprisingly, she felt some ....reluctance.... from her family. A young woman travelling alone in India? Is that safe??
I talked about travelling to "safe/unsafe" places in this post, but I think there are certain considerations solo women travelers need to make in addition to the general, "everybody take care" kind of advice.
First off, I've notice that some people (mostly men) have been confused about this topic - why should traveling - or life in general - require more precautions from women then men? I think it's hard for men to conceptualize some of the things that women face daily - and may take for granted. I, for one, won't park next to windowless vans, keep my cell phone in one hand and my keys in another when I'm walking alone, always check the back seat of my car, etc. When I told The Boy all of this, he was floored. Little boys are (often) raised with a more laissez-faire, "the world is your oyster" mentality. They go out and do crazy things and get bruised and everyone shakes their heads and says "that's a boy for you." On the other hand, girls are taught early on that the world is dangerous to them - and it is. In most places, women are more likely to be victims of sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence. The world is not yet an equal place, and even developed-world women need to take care. Travelling doesn't necessarily make women more likely to be victimized, but it should inspire caution.
That being said, in my experience, travelling alone can be amazing - and very safe. There's no thrill quite like stepping off a plane and finding that you can be anyone and do nearly anything you might want. The limitations of your day-to-day life - job responsibilities, family expectations - stay on the tarmac as you venture out into a new cosmos of possibilities. I think every woman should do some travelling on her own, even just to say "I did it." So here are my top tips for solo travelling for the ladies:
-Be conspicuous. The single most exhilarating and frightening thing about traveling alone is the fact that you no one knows what you are doing or where you are. Sure, it's great to decide to get up early to watch the sunrise at Hampi or spend a day in front of your favorite painting at the Louvre without anyone complaining. But the flip side is that if no one knows where you are, there's no way to know if you're missing. So make yourself, and the basics of your plans, known to someone: leave an itinerary at home and check in routinely with a friend or family member, be friendly with the hotel staff and let them know when you plan to be back, learn your neighbors' names and wave when you get home. When you're out exploring, be visible as well - chat with people, make eye contact (if that's acceptable in the local culture), - whatever you need to do to draw just enough attention so that if something happened, people would notice.
-Don't draw the wrong kind of attention. Being visible and conspicuous is helpful - to a limit. Regardless of whether it's right or wrong, wearing revealing clothes, being overly friendly with men or ignoring local cultural conventions makes women all the more likely to experience some kind of negative situation. In many cultures, including the US, women who are seen to be "asking for it" won't get a lot of help in a sticky situation. Sucks, but it's true.
-Stay with the group. Go places where other women go and avoid areas where you don't see women at all. There may be a cultural norm you're not aware of that causes some segregation between the sexes. You don't want to step over those lines if you can help it.
-Keep your purse safe. If you carry one, it's probably just natural for you to sling it around, set it under tables and rummage through it on the bus. In a lot of countries, pickpockets see this behavior as an invitation to rob you. Get a purse like this with security features, or at least with a zip closure. Cross-body bags are harder to swipe from your hands -- just make when you're walking on the sidewalk that your bag is away from traffic. Thieves drive cars and ride in rickshaws, too. Always keep copies of your travel papers - passport, credit cards, visas - in your hotel or apartment, in case all fails and you do get robbed.
-Be aware of cultural stereotypes. This one is tricky. You want to make friends in a foreign culture, even have a little ... romance? But the trouble is, just as you may assume all Italian men are Romeos or all French girls love to shop, folks may assume certain things about you that are equally untrue. In a lot of countries (big breasted, blonde) American girls are thought to be easy - just think about the American TV and movies they get to see. This may very well color the ways both men and women treat you. I found this to be particularly true in India - men were overly friendly and optimistic, and women just gave me the stink-eye.
- Embrace the experience. You're away on your own for a reason. Take time to enjoy being alone and do things that push you. Don't be afraid to eat out at a restaurant alone - with or without a book! Whatever you can't do at home, see if just maybe you could here... remember, as my Dad always said, you won't see anyone you know!
Travel well, friends.