Safety while travelling alone as a woman

I’ve been travelling across the world on my own since I was 15 years old.  I love to explore new countries. It’s fun to travel with others, but sometimes it just doesn’t work like that and you end up travelling on your own. It can be a bit scary at first until you learn how to be independent and try new things. It’s going to be a bit uncomfortable to do things in a new way, but once you get the hang of it, you feel great!  The first time taking a bus on your own through Dhaka and actually arriving at your friend’s house. When you finally feel like the lady at the tienda down the street understands what you’re asking for in Spanish. Catching your flight after navigating a long customs line and running through an airport to make it to your gate.  These are all stressful situations, but once you master them, you feel totally accomplished – like you can do anything!

Then a person comes along… They may be a stranger, a colleague, a friend, or even your mom.  They say “Are you sure that’s safe?”, or “You shouldn’t go there, because you might get murdered”, or “Did you hear about that tourist that was abducted just last week?”, or “What’s a small girl like you doing travelling all by yourself?”, or “You should go back to Canada and cook for your boyfriend.”.  They probably mean well, and have the best intentions at heart, but it totally sucks. Telling someone not to explore the world just because “it’s a scary place” is not productive.

We learn these lessons most extremely from the media. Every time there’s a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or any other horrible event, we become afraid. When the only thing we’ve ever read about Colombia is the problems caused by the drug trade, we only have that one association in our head. However, some of these fears are totally unfounded. For example, the United States government recently put out a travel advisory against a whole continent (Europe) for a whole season (summer), which told Americans to avoid travel due to terrorist attacks. Perhaps that would be fine if the US was a small island nation with no crime. But to me, it just feels like hypocrisy. The US is full of gun violence, car accidents, and other problems that they warn their citizens about in other countries.  Many Americans are very afraid of travelling to Mexico, for instance.  However, over 150,000 Americans safely visit Mexico every day!  On top of that, Mexico actually has fewer homicides than many American cities per capita, with New Orleans having more than 4x the rate of Mexico City.  This must mean that what people are really afraid of is not high murder rates, but perceptions of “the other”, something different and unknown that scares them.

It’s especially ridiculous because the things that people fear are not common things. Yes, there have been a number of terror incidents around the world in recent years. But your odds of dying from a terrorist are about 1 in 50,000 while your odds of being struck by lightening are 1 in 3,000.  Do people not travel to country with thunderstorms because of fear of lightening strikes?  I think not!  Neither of these things can be controlled, yet it’s the things we see on the nightly news that scare us the most.  You’re more likely to die in your car on your way to work than in some sort of random shooting, but people drive all the time without fear.  Of course, nobody wants to be in a bomb attack, but never leaving your house is not the solution.  You never know what is going to happen tomorrow, so you just have to live your life the best you can today!

Thankfully, my family is very supportive. They travel a lot and aren’t constantly worried about my well-being in a new place. Other people I know aren’t so lucky. On my Facebook feed, I constantly see girls who are dying to travel (sometimes alone) but have been advised against by well-meaning friends and family who tell them it’s not safe or wise for a young girl to take a trip like that.  They’re young, and the fears of others have made them feel like it’s taking a huge risk to even leave their home city. I have friends whose parents have called, emailed, or messaged them in a panic telling them not to leave, not to take a trip, or to come back home early.  How do you expect your kids to grow up as independent human beings who care about others if they never leave your house and learn about different cultures?

I travel a lot, both for work and for leisure.  Since I work in international development, I often live in “developing countries” and travel to other nearby countries, which often have a similar economic status.  Unlike cities like Paris, Bali, or Miami, people often have no idea where the city I’m living is.  Usually I try to say the country, wait a second (for a look of confusion or recognition), and then follow up with “in South America, right in the middle”, or “it’s in West Africa, on the coast.”  Some people take offense to this and act like they already knew that, but most people are happy to have the additional information.  If I feel like getting more specific, I’ll say something like “I’ll be living in Sucre, it has a high altitude and is about the same size as Saskatoon (comparing it to a Canadian town that most people would know)”, or “I live in Accra, it’s the capital.  It’s in the south of the country.”

I get that people don’t all study geography, and I’m not offended if I have to explain to someone where a place is. In fact, I even enjoy educating others about my new “home-base” country through my blog.  However, when those same people who don’t even know where a country is on a map tell me it’s unsafe, it becomes a bit absurd.  The same people asking me about the “beaches of Bolivia” (it’s a land-locked country…), are also telling me that I need to “watch out” while I’m there, because “It’s not like Canada, it’s dangerous, and you need to be careful.”  For some reason, people have decided that all of South America is “extremely dangerous and should be avoided”.  Not only is that a false assumption, it’s also really horrible for the people who come from those countries, and those amazing places that are trying to attract others to visit.

While I don’t think that you should visit countries that are experiencing an active conflict, I do think that almost anywhere else is fair game. Yes, many countries experience poverty, but I think that they’re still incredibly interesting to explore. Do I think that you should be careful?  Of course! But who would advise against being careful everywhere?  You should be careful in your own kitchen when using a big knife, you should be careful in your own community when crossing the street, you should be careful not to drink too much at a party with your friends.  Being careful is not something that is reserved for vacations in “dangerous places”. Being careful is just something you do all the time when you use your own judgement and common sense.

So, next time someone comes up to you and tells you about their adventures, I want you to think twice before replying. Instead of saying “stay safe”, “be careful”, or “Are you sure about that place?”, why don’t you try something more positive instead?  Instead, you can try “That sounds like a blast!”, “Wow, take lots of pictures.”, “I’m excited to hear all about it when you get back!”, or even “I don’t know that much about ‘x’ city/country – what’s it like there?”  Let’s stop jumping to conclusions. Let’s stop making girls feel unsafe everywhere they go, simply because of fear. Let’s stop defining countries solely by one stereotype.  Because travel is amazing, and we all deserve a bit of adventure!

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2 thoughts on “Safety while travelling alone as a woman

  1. I have always been told that travelling alone is dangerous for a woman, despite that I’m on my second solo trip. Last time was backpacking around Europe for a few months (relatively safe apparently) and now moving to Sri Lanka alone (relatively dangerous?) and thus far apart from getting unwanted attention from men, I don’t feel any less safe than I would at home.

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