248 years ago Jean Baret’s secret was revealed. The French botanist, was in fact a woman. Jeanne – her real name – became the first woman in history who circumnavigated the globe.
Dressed up as a sailor, she managed to protect herself for many months but some figured out her gender when her ship arrived to Tahiti, in April 1798.
Two centuries later, women who decide to travel on their own don’t have to disguise themselves as men; nonetheless, they still face challenges when undertaking their solo trips. For women, travelling alone is not only an exciting way of spending their leisure time: it’s a perpetual learning ground.
Travelling alone gives you more confidence
For Stefania, a 24 year-old Foreign Languages student from Italy, even small things like figuring out the way from the airport to the hostel are useful to boost her self-confidence and to strengthen the belief that she can do everything she wants. She started travelling alone two years ago, intrigued by her female friends’ solo-travel experiences.
When listening to her talking enthusiastically about her solo trips it’s easy to be persuaded that it is a great way to properly enjoy a place.
Fun aside, the social skills acquired during the solo trips – like asking for information to complete strangers – pay back once the traveler returns home. When Stefania came back from the trip to her hometown, Cagliari, she found herself being more confident in relating to people: starting a conversation with a new person, breaking the ice, giving directions to tourists wandering lost in the city centre, appeared to be easier tasks compared to the past.
Likewise, the 26-year-old Elena, gained a lot of self confidence after she moved completely alone to Buenos Aires.
The beginning was not easy, she would get lost every day – pickpockets had stolen her smartphone and she couldn’t find a place to stay overnight. But finally, after almost one month spent in a hostel, she managed to find a private accommodation all by herself. This simple achievement boosted her self-confidence.
Travelling alone can be challenging
Sometimes, being a young woman traveling alone might raise people’s suspicion – anything from curiosity to concern for their physical welfare.
“Why are you here alone?”, combined with a weird look at the person sitting alone at the table, is a common question for solo travellers.
For Stefania this kind of question sometimes could be the occasion to start a conversation and make new friends. She recalls her trip to Greece: she was having her salad in a small restaurant and she started a deep conversation with the waiter. However, most of the times it led her to leave the place as soon as possible, annoyed with the question.
Once, she was sitting in a bar, located in front of the spices bazaar in Istanbul, and filled only with men. A guy her age who was sitting next to her casually started to move his hand closer and closer to her legs.
“As a first reaction I swung my legs to the other side, but he kept on doing that so I hit his hand, stood up and walked away”, she remembers.
For many women traveling abroad, sexual harassment is a frequent occurrence. “Many western women may inadvertently send signals to men in foreign countries; making eye contact, standing too close when speaking, and even being friendly can be perceived as sexual advances”, states one of the biggest healthcare companies, United HealthCare Global.
“Be prepared to alter your behavior to curtail harassment. Keep in mind that how you act at home is not always an acceptable way to act abroad”, it adds.
Elena was aware of the risks she might encounter during her stay in Argentina. Local people always kept reminding her of the numerous dangers of the city. Some girls she knew were coming back to Buenos Aires from a trip in Mendoza. On the way back home on a cab, one of them decided to stop one block before her house, in order to avoid the taxi driver a long drive around the neighbourhood. While walking home, some attackers, who had been hiding behind the trees in the boulevard, pointed a gun against her head and she gave them all her belongings.
This might be scary but it’s also true that “when you face an armed criminal it doesn’t matter whether you are a boy or a girl”, Elena says.
Be aware not afraid
The Canadian Government states on their guide for women travelling alone that there’s potential for sexual assault anywhere in the world. “Taking precautions is your best defence against becoming a victim.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 7.2% of women reported experiencing non-partner sexual violence around the world on 2014. There are not reliable statistics about female solo travellers regarding this topic.
In order to avoid unfortunate situations in her journeys, Maxime, a 23- year-old German student who has been traveling throughout the world, trusts her own instinct.
Whenever she doesn’t feel comfortable with someone, she is not afraid of saying “no” or to head to another direction. “I really trust my feelings,I have listened to my inner voice and so far I’ve always been right”, she says.
Research on nonverbal-communication skills has shown that women are better than men when it comes to reading facial expressions of emotions, explains Dr. Ronald Riggio on Psychology Today’s website.
He adds that women are more likely to pick up on the subtle emotional messages being sent by others. Nonetheless, many experts suggest practical safety measures, such as:
- Avoid wearing your hair in a ponytail because it makes an easy handle for attackers to grab. It’s better to wear a shorter cut or loose hair;
- Many assaults occur from people posing as drivers, so it is wise to make reliable arrangements for transportation;
- Never arrive at night to a new destination;
- Keep change in your pockets and hide the big bills in your underwear;
- Always let someone know where you are going.
On the bright side
Travelling alone -besides building up confidence – also improves spontaneity.
“I wake up in the morning and I spontaneously decide what to do, like going to another city or even changing my flight! I can decide where to eat, and I don’t need to ask for anyone’s permission. If I want to take pictures I can take as much time as I want”, explains Stefania.
On top of that, travelling alone gives women unique opportunities to try new things, such as food.
The ultimate female traveller, Meher Moos, a 72 years-old Indian woman who has travelled around 180 countries, and still continues to do it, has never refused a good meal. She has tasted hundreds of exotic dishes: from crocodile, to grasshoppers, from monkey brain to worms.
She started travelling in 1965, which was a much more restrictive time for women. However, she managed to overcome all the obstacles travelling alone has and she even became the first Indian woman to travel to Antarctica.
Nowadays there are still challenges for women travelling alone, but nothing should keep them from exploring their world. As Moss advised on a travel conference last year in Mumbai, “Get out of your shell, you dreamers and seekers and Reach for the Sky!”.