A Long-ass Post Concerning Backpacking & Travelling Alone as a Girl

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I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while due to the fact that the always-controversial topic of whether or not women should travel alone has reached new heights of debate, due to the tragic death of a  female tourist from NYC while travelling alone in Turkey.

I emphatically did not show this article to my parents; they are worried enough about me travelling alone; and I admire them especially for letting go of their hesitation and letting their slapdash little daughter go out into the world, while living in a culture that strongly cautions against women travelling alone. It’s not like it’s a law, or even a strictly enforced social code–it’s…just not done. From what I know of Taiwanese young people, they barelybackpack (unless it’s their one study abroad year/semester) and they hardly ever do it alone, choosing instead to travel in huge throngs of friends. Now that I think of it, I don’t even think Taiwanese men travel alone; and the ones who do are hailed as slightly suicidal, albeit admirable, adventurers. When I went with my mom to get supplies for Sri Lanka (which, mind, I wasn’t even going to backpack through alone)–we were met with gasps at every store: “Sri Lanka?” the owner would blink incredulously. “My, my, Mrs. Hsu, youare brave!” (No mention of me being brave, the one to actually go out, but no matter, no matter…)

From the NYTimes writeup:

It was her first trip overseas, but in many ways Sarai Sierra was the epitome of a modern young tourist — alone yet constantly connected….She struck out for Turkey from New York last month, trailed by a digital horde of hundreds, who followed her online postings, and by her family, who spoke to her regularly by Skype on her iPad. She went online to rent the room where she stayed — in a rundown area of Istanbul not known to attract casual visitors.

It was unclear how she found the room (she rented) or how she settled on one in Tarlabasi, a run-down neighborhood that has few tourist sites.

Let me be clear: don’t like travelling alone. I think that, given the option, I would always

choose to meet up with a friend in the country I’m heading towards; or set out with a set travelling companion.

However, here’s life for ya: you’re not always given the option. Some people, facing this reality, simply choose to not go, and I understand & respect their choice to either cancel their trip (or schedule it for some later date when a companion can go. However, I’m not one of those people. If I am set on going somewhere, I will go. If someone can come with me or meet me there, all the better. If not? I refuse to let the prospect of travelling alone deter me from seeing something amazing, because who knows when I’ll get the time to see it again? Life waits for no (wo)man, isn’t that what they say? 

There are, of course, pros & cons to travelling alone, which I’m sure anyone with common sense can figure out: pros: more flexibility, less discussion/arguing over itinerary, more incentive to meet others/cons: safety (obviously), being bored on long transportation rides (a huge, huge factor of why I don’t like travelling alone!), more expensive (you can live in better rooms for less $$$ if you have a companion). 

I’ll be honest: I am so scared of travelling alone, and almost always scared while travelling alone. But it’s a fear (..an…”edge” may be a better way to describe it) that fails to deter me on actually going on the trip (that would make it a bad fear)–and it’s a fear that keeps me safe along the way. So I would say that it’s good to be scared, actually, when you are backpacking/travelling alone. 

Maybe I’m mis-reading it, but the NYTimes seems to imply the contribution of several factors to Mrs. Sierra’s disappearance, a tragedy obviously came as a shock to everyone–especially considering how “connected” she was to the Internet (constant emailing with her family & friends, thousands of followers on Instagram & daily posts). Like the article states, she’s the modern woman traveller, with technology at her fingertips, but no amount of Skyping with your family is going to help you when you’re alone & on the road–I mean, what could they do, time zones & thousands of miles away?

First, she stayed in a more run-down area (some might kindly say bohemian) that wasn’t a popular tourist lodging spot. Second, she agreed to meet up alone with a guy she had never met before, or been introduced to through other friends (maybe they met through Instagram or some other social website like Couchsurfing; the article doesn’t say).

Incidentally, and perhaps most tellingly, the article begins with the fact that it was Mrs. Sierra’s first time travelling abroad. I am in no way saying that her disappearance was due to her lack of experience or naivete of any kind–no matter how vigilant you are, tragedies can happen. But I feel that as a woman traveller, you are definitely more likely to put yourself in a bad position if you fail to realize (& act upon) a couple of concrete facts.

One. If you are traveling alone (or in some places, even if you’re with another female companion) you will not have the bohemian, wild, slapdash adventure of your indie travel dreams. Get over it.

 One day in Sri Lanka, while Sandra and I went to the very-touristy spot of Sigiriya, her well-travelled boyfriend Jordan went off to do his own thing. Upon his return, he told us a wild, amazing tale of how he jumped on a boat with some fisherman and went out in the middle of a lake; jumped on the back of a man’s motorbike and sped off into the jungle, where he swam with monkeys and looked for wild elephants…you get the picture. At first I was jealous. Why didn’t we do that instead? As much as I had enjoyed Sigiriya, it paled in comparison to this “bohemian” adventure that Jordan had. 

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Then it hit me: you’d never be able to do it. Think about it. Let me repeat the story to you, but this time, let me put Sandra in it. So Sandra was wandering around; and she approached a bunch of men she didn’t know, working by the lake; and when they asked if she wanted to get in their boat and go out into the middle of the lake, she agreed. Then she hopped on the back of a man’s motorbike and let him take her into the rainforest. Terrible, right? As sad as the fact may be, there is a huge difference between men & women while travelling (and especially if the man in question is a  6-foot plus, brawny white guy like Jordan). As a girl, you just can’t do these things. Accept the fact that no possible chance of bohemian adventure is worth the loss of your life/virtue, and move on. 

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Two. Try to avoid contact with male locals & male travellers– and be very, very wary (even to the point of seeming aloof & maybe even a bit rude) if you do choose to hang out with them.

Listen. Everyone wants a little love. I totally understand the fantasy of meeting some hunky local in Italy, moving there,  living happily ever after amongst loads of pasta. Or meeting some swoon-worthy, rugged backpacker on a train in India, and travelling the world together after a whirlwind romance (see? I have thought this through). But again, the shot at an epic travel romance is not even worth the risk that you open yourself up to (the loss of life, the possibility of being raped/drugged, I’m being honest here).

My advice to avoid male locals is easier to understand, especially if you’re travelling in countries that have a disrespectful attitude towards women, or where mob activity & crime against women is common. Everyone knows from Taken that if a cute local invites you to a party, don’t say yes! NO! Refuse him! Run away! 

But everyone seems to totally disregard this rule when it comes to fellow travellers. I understand that sentiment too, because when you’ve been alone in a strange environment and someone comes up to you & introduces himself as a fellow traveller, you immediately feel this surge of relief and instinctive trust which you would do well not to give into until you know a bit more.

Sandra & I were almost lured into a bad situation during our trip to Sri Lanka by a guy who offered to give us a ride from the hill country to the southern beaches. We were tired, cranky, and didn’t want to transfer 3 buses.The guy said that he was Sri Lankan, but lived & worked in Dubai. He also said he was gay. These things made us trust him more; which was silly, considering that we had no way of verifying these claims. Without going into further detail, it turned out to be an extremely shady situation and we were lucky to get out of it without being harmed. But use our experience to your advantage: sure, there’s a good chance that cute blonde boy sitting next to you on a train is exactly who he says he is, Adam from Australia backpacking during his gap year. But there’s always, always the chance that a fellow traveller isn’t who they say they are. After all, when you’re abroad and have no social “checks” around you, you can become anyone and say anything. 

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#3. Mo’ Money = More Safety, and that’s always worth it. 

Now that I think back to Mrs. Sierra’s situation, she probably took the room (she stayed 13 days, according to the article) in a less touristy, more run-down area of the city–because it was cheaper. Again, I think every traveller understands this sentiment: a buck saved means another buck we can use on further travels. But again, it all comes down to this: no credit card bill or overspend is worth risking your life to avoid.

My tip, which isn’t always possible, is to always arrive before dark. Once you settle down somewhere (especially if you are staying there multiple days, because it’s easier for someone to notice you & track your movements), go out and take a look at the surroundings. Are there businesses catering to tourists–like Internet cafes? How many tourists are there walking around? Is there a police station nearby? These are all good things to know, and this ties back to my first point–sure, it’d be a nice story to say that you “found a wonderful area that the tourists don’t know about”–and I would say that in some places like Switzerland or Sweden, you can look for places like that. But remember, you snob, you are a tourist! And so, as a lone woman traveller, if you want to trek mountains and explore rivers alone during the day, whatever. Be my guest. But at night, when you’re choosing lodging, run, run, run towards the tourists! 

It will definitely be more expensive, but it is worth it. And if you ever arrive at a place and don’t feel safe there, do not hesitate to leave. If you feel bad for leaving, then pay the damn bill for the night and go stay at a nicer hotel. Like I said, no amount of money, or social etiquette is worth risking your life over.

But don’t be stupid, okay? If you hear a bunch of guys laughing outside you window, it’s probably just some schoolkids walking by, who don’t give two shits about you whatsoever. Don’t cast yourself in Taken 3.

In the end, just use your travel-sense, which is similar to common sense, but different in that it improves each time you travel. So embrace the good, “safety-keeping” fear, get over the bad “No-I’m-Not-Gonna-Go-Anymore” fear, and get out there & see some damn beautiful things that take your breath away.

Have you ever travelled alone? Do you agree with my advice? Would love to hear stories & thoughts!

Comments

comments

7 Comments

  • Reply March 4, 2013

    Citraningrum

    This is a great post, Steph!
    Mind you, I always opt for traveling solo because I dont like the fuss of compromising my thing with other people (selfish yes, but hey this is MY trip). I have traveled solo to several countries in Asia and I like it. Yes people say im crazy, my parents already gave up telling me NOT to do it, but so far I managed to do it safely.

    I do agree with all of your points, and being cautious while traveling solo is very important. Dress down etc is necessary to avoid any unwanted attention. And I always choose well-rated, medium-not-so-cheap hotel/hostel for my comfort after an exhausting day wandering around.

    • Reply March 4, 2013

      stephanie

      Thanks dear! And yes, I totally understand the desire of not wanting to compromise, but thankfully I have very, very ah…passive close friends that pretty much sit back & let me run the show. And I would love to hear more about your experience! Where have you travelled and have you had any strange situations?

      Yes, dressing down is a huge, huge part, I definitely saw the value of that in Sri Lanka, although it was so tempting to wear shorts and makeup most of the time.

  • I totally agree. I’ve travelled alone quite a few times now with the main “scary” ones being Shanghai (when I was 18 before I spoke chinese) and to Vietnam for a week, everything you say makes sense and unfortunately lots of people don’t feel the same way. I really wanted to go to Vietnamp especially while I was so close and it was much cheaper to fly from Taiwan than London! I didn’t enjoy my evenings as much as I could have done if I had been with friends, sur Wei met new people and enjoyed myself but I didn’t want to take any risks – but this didn’t stop me from seeing beautiful Vietnam, eating loads of delicious street food and having a wonderful time sightseeing and going on a cooking course! There is no reason to not go to a place just because you have to go alone, but common sense is needed and also sufficient preparation and planning so you don’t find yourself in too stressful situations which is when the worst decisions come out!

    • Reply March 20, 2013

      stephanie

      Giulia: I totally understand your motivation to go to Vietnam; like I said, you can’t always wait for the right people to go with, or else you might miss a golden opportunity! I’m glad you have such a great time: and I agree that planning ahead (something I highly, highly subscribe to) will keep you from a lot of unnecessary stress & trouble.

      I went to Shanghai last March & didn’t find it to be scary at all; perhaps it’s changed a bit since you went!

  • Reply March 18, 2013

    FGSG

    just saw this post and was sort of mystified by the reactions of taiwanese people when they knew i was travelling alone there in jan. i had gone there with 2 friends initially but my plan was to cycle to taichung alone after a few days. it was not my first solo trip but first cycling trip. everyone was very shocked and thought i was crazy and doing something really dangerous. i was explaining it to everyone from the hotel staff to hawkers to cab drivers and whoever else wanted to know. after reading your post, i sort of understand now. i am surprised that taiwanese guys don’t do backpacking though.

    • Reply March 20, 2013

      stephanie

      thanks for sharing your experience! i think that cycling is a bit different though: maybe people were concerned because you were cycling alone & they were afraid if you got into an accident, etc on an isolated stretch of road, no one would be able to help…? I think it’s a shame that more Taiwanese guys don’t backpack (and for that matter, Taiwanese girls!) but like I said, it’s a bit embedded in our culture to be overly cautious and paranoid about going abroad.

  • Reply December 18, 2013

    Anna

    Hey Stephanie! It’s good to read your blogs again!

    This post honestly made me feel more reassured. I was happy to see you posted something like this because as a matter of fact, I am going through a similar thought/concern about backpacking through Europe this Summer. “Life waits for no one” and like you, I am not unwilling to let go of my dreams and opportunities simply because on the hands of others’ decisions. It is hard getting other people to travel with you and even harder to pick the right companion to travel with- so I said ‘eff that” maybe I’ll take on this journey alone. After all, every woman should travel alone once in her life, right?

    Sure, there will be times of loneliness but I realized- how can we be happy with our lives as separate individuals with our minds, intuitions, values and our bodies if we can’t even be alone in different settings? More than introspection, I think it will also be a moment of self-reliance and self-awareness.

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