Solo Women Traveling Abroad*

by Michaela Gacnik

Millennials are the jet setting generation. The United Nations World Tourism Organization projects that young travelers now represent 20 percent of international tourism (Doucette). More young travelers value the experience of “living like a local” when they travel abroad by meeting new people, staying in hostels instead of hotels, and immersing themselves in local cultures. Not only are more young people traveling but they also are doing so alone. Solo sojourners have increased 15 percent in the past two years.

Another emerging travel trend is the rise in solo travel by women. This year, TripAdvisor surveyed more than 9,000 women, 41 percent of which said they’ve travelled alone before. Add the women who have plans to travel independently for 2015 and the figure jumps to 74 percent.

Why are more women traveling? Most solo females traveling abroad are between ages 25 and 39. In “The Realities Women Face When Traveling Alone, And How to Stay Safe,” for Forbes Magazine, Elisa Doucette suggests that the increase in travel can be attributed to travelers’ lifestyle changes. She notes many women are traveling because they are widowed or divorced; other reasons include wanting to travel on their own schedule, having more time than friends and family, or wanting to pursue a specific interest.

While the tourist map of the globe becomes more accessible for women, there are still some things demanding and dictating our attention. We have to be aware to travel at a certain time of day, consider the promiscuity of our dress attire, and assess the places we deem “safe.” Travel has a dark side and unfortunately the risks for women can be deadly.

Sarai Sierra (pictured below) was 33 years old, an American, happily married and a mother of two. In February 2013, Sarai, a first-time international traveler, disappeared while touring and photographing Istanbul, Turkey. Her friend was supposed to accompany her but last minute couldn’t make it, and Sarai decided to go on the trip alone. It’s still unclear exactly what happened, but a Turkish man confessed to killing her after trying to kiss her. The report first aired on NBC News and I was shocked and upset with the message board and war of words following the article.

Sarai

@JohnRational–“It is abysmally stupid and/or foolish to travel alone, and identifies a person as residing on the left side of the bell shaped curve. Stupid is as stupid does.”

@MICHAEL-273917–“I love my wife and we have traveled all over the world and still have places to go. However, some parts of the world I would not let my wife go.”

@MgLvR–“A single woman traveling alone is risky. In a foreign country, it is downright foolish.”

@I’moutahere–“Let this be lesson to other naive women who fantasize to Eat, Pray & Love and leave their young children and husband behind for an exotic, narcissistic adventure.”

The commentators are putting the blame on Sarai for her death and questioning her common sense. They believe she is being selfish by traveling alone and not thinking about her family. However, Sarai did not engage in especially risky behavior. She did not ask for this and I’m sure she didn’t want to leave her kids to navigate this world for themselves. In the comments section, many solo women travelers tried to fight back in defense of travel with their own safe experiences. However, others would just continue to write with insensitivity, putting fault on women for traveling alone.

Unfortunately, the victim blaming does not stop here. Lauren Wolfe, a New York Times journalist, visited Turkey a year later to learn more about the locals’ thoughts on Sarai’s murder and how it affected their lives. When interviewing Hakan Haykiri, a storeowner in the neighborhood in which Ms. Sierra was found dead, he explained, “‘The same things happen everywhere in the world and it does not affect tourism.’” But he went on to say: “‘If the woman does not flirt, a man would not attempt to do anything, any harassment. Everything starts with a woman.’” Lauren soon found that many of the men she interviewed blamed Sarai for her “stupidity” and didn’t even consider accusing the man who killed her.

The question that remains is whether women should avoid traveling alone all together. My answer? The world is not just a dangerous place for women to travel on their own—the world is a big and scary place, period. Instead of focusing on how there are more solo female travelers, we need to look at what is actually happening to these women. Headlines such as Sarai Sierra’s murder spark conversation for a little then fade away, waiting for the next sexual assault or harmful act to a woman to make national news. A number of reports of attacks on female tourists have made headlines. An Italian tourist was raped by police officers in Mexico the same month Sarai Sierra’s body was found. In June 2013, an American woman was raped in a store in Israel. On January 15, 2014 seven or eight men raped a Danish traveler when she asked for directions in New Delhi. In March 2014, a luxury hotel security guard in Egypt raped a British woman. These are just the stories that have made national news. Many more unknown cases of assault on women go unreported every year, including being groped in public or forced to perform sexual acts for repayment purposes, abroad or in their own neighborhoods.

Being a woman should in no way be a deterrent from traveling abroad. Two women close to me–my mom and older sister–have had the opportunity, both starting in their early twenties, to travel for extended periods of time on their own. Travel has shaped their identities by exposing them to new people and cultures, and their travel experiences have also inspired me. When I asked them about their travels, they had a lot to say regarding women traveling abroad through the lens of their experiences.It’s worth listening to their stories.

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Teresa Gacnik

“It was the spring of 1984, I was 24 years old and did not intend to travel solo. Diane and I were in Greece on the islands and she did not want to visit Athens because her last boyfriend was from Athens. I wanted to see the Acropolis. I departed on the ferry and Diane remained on Milos headed to Santorini. Our plan was to meet at the airport in Athens for our scheduled flight to Paris in 2 weeks.

While in Greece I rode ferries to islands and stayed in “rooms to let” from people that greeted the ships. I followed an old man down a narrow alley late at night trusting that I would be safe as he led me to a small house and courtyard. He did not speak English and I did not speak Greek. He motioned me to be quiet because a baby slept in the next room. I felt part of the family in my cozy room. Several days later two American girls were in the courtyard. They approached me and asked if I spoke English. I told them I was American and they were surprised because I slept in the house and had meals with the family. They had seen me at the dinner table and thought I was part of the Greek family.

Milos

On the island of Milos before leaving for Athens     

When it was time to meet Diane at the airport, I arrived early and waited until the last person boarded. When the doors were closing I finally boarded without Diane. I thought maybe she had taken an earlier flight and would meet me in Paris or she had a new romance and left a note for me at the airline counter. I arrived in Paris with neither sight nor word from Diane. I boarded the train to Zurich as planned and did not panic until I arrived at my destination with family friends. ‘Where was my friend?’ I was asked and I burst into tears! ‘I do not know… I lost her!’ When I left San Francisco the hospital staff had joked and given me clear instructions at our going away party… ‘Do not lose Diane.’ We were both nurses at the UCSF Hospital and had worked together for several years. The staff knew us all too well.

From Switzerland I called a friend in San Francisco and learned Diane had a motorbike accident in Greece. Her parents had paid for her childhood friend from New York to fly to Athens and stay with her while hospitalized, then accompany her home once stable. She spent a month in the hospital in Athens and had surgery on her ankle. My travels would have been over if we were together.

I had the option to return home or continue my travels until the date of my purchased airline ticket. I chose to continue solo for another two2 months. Men followed me in groups and pinched me in Florence. At the train station I waited in line to book a hostel or hotel. All single rooms were full I heard from the travelers ahead in line so I turned to the guy behind me (who I had been listening to) and asked if he wanted to share a room. I later learned he was gay but the Signora that ran the pensione treated us as a married couple because she did not allow unmarried couples. The beds were two single beds pushed together. We acted as if we were together. We found a quaint Italian restaurant for dinner and talked. The night was warm and we watched the colored light show on the Ponte Vecchio while sitting on the riverbank with hundreds of young travelers. I still remember his name—–Kip. I visited him in San Francisco when he started his new job. Someone had stolen his camera in Rome and he was devastated not to have the magnificent architectural photographs he took such care in capturing. I did not travel with a camera for that reason. I would have been heartbroken to lose my film! My friends took the pictures I do have from those travels.

On traveling alone, you learned to search for the safest and quickest solution to the task at hand. Lodging was always an issue since summer travel was tight. You learned to make friends without the aide of Facebook. You had to trust your instinct and judgment. You always kept watch on your belongings in hostels because of stealing. I kept money close to me and hidden. I found other travelers to trust to watch my belongings while swimming. I never left valuables in my room even with lock boxes since people that did lost passports.

serifos

After a swim in Serifos after trip from Milos

Thirty years later I still have my dear travel friends. I met people on trains that slipped me their contact information in my backpack and woke me when I missed my train stop. Luckily I received help with directions and transportation. Train travel required border checks and showing passports no matter the time of night, which was always a bit frightening when armed soldiers boarded the trains and came into cabins speaking foreign languages. I found companions on trains and believed there was safety in numbers.

Driving in England is on the other side of the road from America so I took coaches to Kent to see Hever Castle. After booking several coach tours to sights, the travel agent invited me to her house for tea. That is how I met Audrey and Sammie. Now Audrey is in her 90’s nineties and Sammie is married with 3 three children. Audrey informed me of the Greyhound ticket special which I could only buy outside the USA. I bought this ticket and traveled one-month solo across the USA from NYC to San Francisco so that I could visit Diane in Cheyenne, Wyoming while she convalesced after her accident. Traveling across the USA through Greyhound stations was much more frightening than any travel in Europe. I always sat as close to the driver as possible.

I met my friends by traveling solo and seeking connection. I found female companions to travel with or share meals. If I ate alone I would sit in the back of the restaurant and bring a book. I learned to be comfortable eating in restaurants by myself. I have many memories of fun at nightclubs and discos since disco was big at the time. I still believe luck plays a lot in travel too…some days you have it and some days you don’t. Personally, I do not think travel is more dangerous for a woman today than it was years ago. The same problems and risks exist. Technology has not really improved ease of travel or safety for women, from my standpoint. I have continued to travel and made numerous trips to the East Coast solo. I connect with friends as before only now I can text rather than ring on the phone. Directions are still difficult in New York City. My friend was shocked when I arrived at her apartment in NYC from London in a hired limousine with a man I met on the airplane. I was fine—–only ‘owed’ a kiss back then. Learning to read maps is still a good skill. Watching your purse and money is still important. I have encouraged my daughters to experience other cultures by accompanying them on travels to foreign countries since they were young. I know they have the skills needed to navigate solo trips and also have faith that the angels will protect them as they travel. You have to have faith and luck if you want to do anything in life.”

bright

On the ferry in Greece going to the island of Serifos. Written on back of the photo is ‘I can’t see a thing without these sunglasses!! God it’s bright!! Teresa’s polluting view of Serifos.

Annika Gacnik

“Our family’s history contains such a love of international travel I thought little of leaving California on my first solo journey, at age 22, through Australasia. But when I later recounted my adventures to two female coworkers, one a muscular professional triathlete and the other a broad-shouldered water polo player, they were visibly horrified. ‘“Haven’t you ever seen the movie Taken?’” was their response, and they both agreed that as women, they would never travel alone.

Awful stories do exist of the women who unwittingly befriend a psychopath on vacation in Aruba or Lima á la Joran van der Sloot. The very worst things can and do happen to women traveling abroad, but misfortunes also befall people mere miles from their childhood home. One of the most influential individuals I know is a woman who has traveled to violent countries on every continent in pursuit of peacekeeping and diplomacy. She braved assault in Central America and a brief kidnapping in the Middle East. Experiences like those prompted her to join her university’s boxing club, but she would be the last to profess that women face more danger abroad than at home. When we were in college, her older brother took a road trip along the Northeastern U.S. While revisiting the state he grew up in, he was killed in what authorities suspect was a senseless gang initiation, but his murder was never solved.

Women are culturally assumed to be more vulnerable to violence, particularly sexual violence, and though my feminism hates to admit it, that widespread belief has likely summoned a lot of kindness towards me from strangers who might not treat a male traveler with the same care. Island-hopping on a privileged shoestring budget through eastern Indonesia, I turned down an easy flight back to Bali in favor of a boat, followed by a bus, then another boat, a bus, and a final boat. On the first boat ride, a group of women cloaked in dark hijab beckoned me to sit with them and their children. ‘“Maybe there are bad people,’” they warned me in Bahasa. I looked around: the other passengers, most of whom were sleeping, were the same people I had walked amongst for days without harm on the previous island. Later during a bus stop, a male passenger grabbed my arm in alarm as I began to walk across a completely deserted street. I yanked my arm away from him, although it occurred to me that I, as a rare bule foreigner on this island, might appear to him like a child, unaware of local road rules.

bule

I took countless pictures with men who wanted to be seen next to a female ‘bule’. Most of them just wanted the picture, although a few tried to sneak in a kiss.

Though the dangers of my solo travels are more often hypothetically perceived than realized, I have occasionally put myself in unnecessarily risky situations. In Flores, Indonesia, I paid two dollars$2 to rent a room with a broken window by the door when I could have spent ten dollars$10 on a properly maintained hotel. In the middle of the night I bolted upright to a man’s voice outside my room saying ‘“Hello?’” in accented English. He reached through the broken window, unlocked my door, and let himself in. I felt like a cornered dog, terrified but prepared to bite, as I growled, ‘“Go away! Please.’”. Yes, even fear couldn’t douse my desire to be a polite foreigner. He stared at me, and for a reason I will never know but for which I will be forever grateful, he turned and walked out of the room. The next morning I turned in my room key and two dollars, and found more secure lodging.

pirates

At one point in Indonesia crew of pirates marooned us on one of the country’s thousands of tiny islands ruled by a benevolent raja. After gaining a good grasp of Bahasa, the national language, I traveled for two weeks alone, visiting shrines, partaking in local festivals, and snorkeling.

In a foreign country with a foreign language, I cannot predict with absolute certainty who I can trust, and the outcome of a situation is often beyond any one traveler’s control.  On the way from Slovenia to Italy to meet up with our family, I took a train to a tiny town not much bigger than the station itself and missed the only bus to Trieste, where I needed to catch another train. I could either sleep in the station or hitch a ride to Trieste. I decided to hedge my bets and stick out my thumb. A burly Slavic football player offered me a ride, and despite his size he seemed more bashful than brutish. We didn’t speak each other’s languages well, but when he began taking detours to la piú bella destinations and looking at me for increasingly longer periods of time, I got the feeling this ride wasn’t free. When we finally reached the station, he insisted on helping me buy a ticket with his fluent Italian. As I thanked him, he grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me close, imploring me to kiss him, but I whipped my face away, wiggled free and ran with my ticket to the train. Though I felt angry and hurt that he expected such repayment, he at least let me go when I refused his kiss.

Those who fear embarking on a voyage to unfamiliar territory alone fear the nature of humanity. To them I say for every one time I have been swindled, harassed, or coldly ignored as a foreign traveler, there have been ten more times a kind stranger has pointed me in the right direction, loaned me a coin when I’ve come up short, invited me over for family dinner, or simply sat and exchanged stories of life. And though there is a distinct comfort and joy in traveling with a familiar friend, I have reached most deeply into a place by going into it with nothing to hold me back but myself. Along the way I have met so many adventurous women: in a mountaineering club in New Zealand, amongst dragon lizards in Komodo, Indonesia, in an all-female hostel in Cairns, Australia, and in sparkly European towns from Helsinki to Ljubljana. Their stories may contain the occasional robbery at knifepoint or unwanted romantic advance, but those incidents are the outliers, the brief bit of bad luck in otherwise worthwhile journeys full of rich new experiences unobtainable without stepping away from daily routine. The difference between the person who embraces the unknown and the person who is afraid to leave their doorstep alone is not that one might die while the other will not; neither will live in the world forever. The difference is that the ones who open themselves to adventure will fall deeply in love with this world while they live.”

thisview

Solo travel can feel lonely when there is no one to share an incredible view or unbelievable experience, but the fear of being alone is a poor reason to miss out on the view entirely.

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… I didn’t know many details about my mother’s travels, including traveling on her own and putting so much trust in those she met along the way, such as Kip from San Francisco. I didn’t realize that when my sister hitchhiked to Trieste a burly Slavic man expected wanted more than a “thank you” or that when she traveled to Indonesia, a man broke into her hotel room in the middle of the night. I don’t know whether I would have had the courage to confidently tell him confidently to go away, or if I would have just silently shrunk back in fear.

But then I think about the adventurous moments my sister had mountaineering in New Zealand with rowdy Kiwis or enjoying some of the most breathtaking views while backpacking through Europe. I recognize all the lifelong friends my mom made when traveling, the independence she gained and the unforgettable experiences such as swimming in the stunning waters of Greece. I think about the 12 unique countries stamped in my passport and the memories created with my family, and all the cities and sceneries I hope to travel to with friends or on my own.

I can see myself jumping off rocks into the dazzling, turquoise blue water in Mykonos. I feel the brisk wind through my hair as I bike the colorful streets of Amsterdam. I can taste fresh fettuccine pasta and deep red wines in the rustic vineyards of Tuscany. I can picture hiking through the Andes Mountains up to the crumbling ruins of Machu Picchu. As I walk along the beach by my house in California, I dream of all the places I will one day go, perhaps alone, but I won’t let the thought of solo travel hold me back.

Works Cited

Bond, Marybeth. “Women Travel Statistics.” The Gutsy Traveler. 8 Nov. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.

Doucette, Elisa. “The Realities Women Face When Traveling Alone, And How to Stay Safe.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 7 Feb. 2013. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Engel, Richard. “New York City Mom Murdered on Vacation in Turkey.” NBC News. 3 Feb. 2013. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

“Independent Women Shaping Travel Industry: Poll.” CTVNews. 7 Mar. 2015. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

“Indian Police Investigate Gang-rape of American Tourist.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 17 Sept. 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Mohn, Tanya. “Travel Boom: Young Tourists Spent $217 Billion Last Year, More Growth Than Any Other Group.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 7 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.

Wolfe, Lauren. “Women Alert to Travel’s Darker Side.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 May 2014. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.