I recently had to take a train from Bucharest, Romania to Sofia, Bulgaria. I ran into some male travelers who were showing visible stress at the idea of my traveling alone. The conditions on the trains were horribly uncomfortable, they said, and my landing in Sofia after midnight would be horribly dangerous. They were so worried, they got ME worried!
Well, it was actually really easy. I've experienced much worse transit! Why did I let their worry get me worked up?
As I make my way alone through Bulgaria, I am frequently reminded of the oddity of a woman traveling alone. Indeed, as I have met different people across Eastern Europe, the subject undoubtedly comes up in almost every conversation I've had. It often begins with, "Americans don't really travel; they don't really adventure; you're so unusual," but always leads to "You're a woman! Alone! How do you manage?"
I theorize that I have some sort of attachment disorder that causes me to not require the presence of other humans all the time. The presence of others does not make me feel any more secure in my activities; in fact, it's often the opposite, as I find myself feeling responsible for the well-being of others who choose to join me in adventurous pursuits. But that's a lot to put on a stranger, so...
I suppose that there is a certain vunerability as a woman traveling alone, so far from home or anyone I know. Indeed, even today I was nearly assaulted by a restaurant tout after I went in for lunch. He was handing out fliers for the restaurant on the street. I took one, we exchanged some basic pleasant conversation, and I went in to eat. He followed me to my table and we exchanged a few friendly sentences and he leaned in, touched my back, then stroked my face. He made a comment about joining me in my hotel room bed. I scowled and turned away, ready to leave when he said, "I kiss you, eh?" and tried. "Ne!" I spat at his incoming face and I moved away.
He tried to pass it off, "Oh, don't be shy," but as I left the restaurant he continued to harass me at the door; "You are just leaving without giving me some affection? I can't believe this!" I basically told him to piss off, and I am fortunate he was on the job and couldn't leave, because he suddenly became very angry, his threats of violence following me down the cobblestone street as I left.
Just another day in the world as a woman! This is actually a scene you could repeat verbatim in nearly any city in the United States. Indeed, the USA just landed on the top ten list for places it is dangerous to be a woman. It's the same everywhere.
My first major solo trip was to New York City at age 19. With the exception of mild sexual harassment (as described in today's story), I have never had a problem traveling anywhere. (Mongolia excluded; that is a whole different story)!
Me in NYC, age 19
I think the worst thing about traveling solo is that you don't have anyone to take pictures of you. That's about it for the cons.
- Freedom of itinerary
- Lower costs
- A chance to enjoy my own company
- You really get to learn how you handle yourself in a myriad of different situations. You get to know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, in a way that contemplating theoretical situations ("what would I do in this scenario") at home never brings. It makes you confident in your own skin. You have to think quickly, in the moment, making snap and effective decisions without hesitation.
A large element of travel is solving puzzles. Between language barriers, unfamiliar currency, the metric system, time changes, the military clock, different infrastructure and other environmental and cultural challenges that differ from that of home, it's a game of problem solving and reaping the earned rewards. I always feel immense satisfaction when I solve a puzzle - and nearly always it turned out to be easier than I imagined! I actually feel a sense of immense peace and satisfaction in all the unknowns - I feel at home everywhere I go. It feels natural to me.
On this current trip alone I will have covered well over 2,000 miles of territory on the ground via walking, buses, cars, trains and boats by the time I'm done. And every mile is a new experience.
Hiking in Peru on a solo adventure in the Andes Mountains
So, as a woman who travels alone, how do I handle the predatory ways of men who are socially conditioned to believe they are owed sexual access in trade for initial and casual politeness? The same way I do at home, of course!
I don't go out drinking. I don't party. I often pair up with other travelers (females and males I get to know and trust) in public situations. I play the "I Am Legend" game and don't go out after dark unless I must. (There are zombies out there!) I may be selling myself short on a few things, but those things don't truly matter to me. I can dance in night clubs back in Cali. (Let's be honest here; I'm much more likely to get killed or hurt doing the other crazy stuff I do, like wrestling alligators or base jumping off sky scrapers or illegally freediving archaeological sites alone. Shhhh!)
A major part of being a solo traveler is honing and trusting your intuition. It's never wrong. I met a man about my age on the bus the other day who failed to do so and was very nearly sexually assaulted by his new male companions. He knew something wasn't quite right, but he went with them back to their rental unit anyway... He escaped, but not without some lessons learned.
When your intuition says don't - don't! And when you can't guage a situation with your intuition (like today) GTFO. Bail! Or, as what happened in Mongolia, if you can't run, FIGHT!
In short, I'm never going to stop travelling so long as I can afford to go, and I will always save that special place in my heart for that epic feeling of being alone out in the world, with only my own wits, intuition and gumption to carry me on. It's who I am, it's what I do. And then I get to write about it. I will always be at home in the world.
Photo: My purchased horse and myself, on a 100-mile solo trek in Mongolia. It did not go very well, but I will always have the memories of that adventure, and I wouldn't trade them for anything!