I lay awake until about 5am last night, just thinking.
Thinking about all of the places I’ve travelled alone, of all the times I’ve felt unsafe as a solo female traveller.
Nepal 2012, the time I was coerced into a van by a man wielding a gun and driven to the middle of nowhere. India 2012, when a member of hotel staff entered my room and tried to force himself on me.
Venezuela 2013, a man in my hotel lobby said he wanted to exchange some money with me (the black market got you a way better rate!) and took me into a lane behind the hotel. He drew his handgun out of his pocket as a precaution when somebody rounded the corner. It was the first (and only!) time I’ve ever seen a handgun that close, and as somebody from a country with gun control so good you almost have more chance of seeing a spotted elephant in the wild, it didn’t matter that he wasn’t using it as a weapon, its presence alone was enough to terrify me.
Colombia 2013 when, after enjoying tea and snacks with a friend’s neighbour and his wife, I was told he was once an associate of Pablo Escobar. It’s worth mentioning that this was pre-Narcos and before I’d actually read into Escobar’s life, so I wasn’t aware that a lot of his associates weren’t exactly willing participants in his program of terror. But still, it chilled me to the core.
Mexico 2016, heading back to my hotel in Mexico City late at night after going to the shop for some snacks. The shop was only at the end of the street, so I didn’t question my safety once. A man started chasing after me. Like, he was actually running! I started to quicken my pace, not wanting to break into a sprint, just in case it startled him and he ran faster. Just as I was about to turn off into my hotel, he caught up with me. He held his hand out, a bunch of notes clutched in his fist. I’d left my change in the shop and he just wanted to return it to me.
India 2016, walking down from a small hill in a quite secluded area after enjoying the view over Jaipur, an Indian man followed me, asking me personal questions and insisting on selfies and exchanging numbers. I’m normally pretty good at refusing strange men’s requests in India, but we were so secluded that I couldn’t help but think if I said no, what would have happened? So I stood there awkwardly while he squeezed my shoulders and told me to smile. I gave him a fake phone number, but he called to check it straight away, so I had to give him my real one which was then promptly blocked from my WhatsApp as soon as I was off the mountain.
Fortunately I lived to tell the above tales, and in hindsight the situations don’t actually seem so scary after all. But if something were to have happened to me in Nepal or India or Mexico or South America, do you know what people would say?
“What did she expect? She was travelling alone.”
Because girls? They shouldn’t travel alone. Just like they shouldn’t flash their ankles. Just like they shouldn’t say no to sex when their partner wants it. Just like they shouldn’t make eye contact with a strange man because it might provoke him. Just like they shouldn’t wear sexy underwear UNDERNEATH THEIR CLOTHES because that’s “asking for it“.
I don’t know if it’s her being British in New Zealand, her travelling alone or a combination of the two, but I’ve found myself overly-sensitised to the tragic case of Grace Millane.
Before the police announced that they were treating it as a murder investigation, before they released the sad news that they’d found what was very probably Grace’s body, I couldn’t help but look for her everywhere.
I’m staying more than 100km from where she was last seen, yet since the day they announced her disappearance I’ve still found my eyes scanning the streets for her face. I’ve seen police cars speeding past, sirens blaring and wondered if they found her. I’ve heard helicopters overhead and assumed they were out looking for her (actually I live about 5 minutes from a hospital with a helipad so there’s a more simple explanation). She has, quite frankly, been all I’ve thought about.
I’ve cried for her and I’ve cried for her family.
I didn’t know Grace. But in a way, I did know Grace.
Because we are all her.
She wanted to see the world. She took that chance and she went. She did something unimaginably brave, something that most girls wouldn’t dare dream of doing, and she did it alone. That’s not something we should lambaste her for, but something we should be proud of.
What happened to Grace was not her fault, and anybody who so much as hints that it is deserve to be force fed to a pen of starving alligators.
It’s almost 2019 and women should be able to traverse the globe solo without worrying about being raped, attacked or murdered. Women should be able to go out at night without having to carry mace or a rape alarm. Women should have the same freedom as men do, because women are not the problem.
I didn’t know Grace, but for her to have done what she did, set off around the world completely alone for a whole year, I just know that she was strong, she was brave and she was somebody that we should all aspire to be like.
I’m in a few Facebook groups for backpackers in New Zealand and in the past few days have seen quite a few messages in there from people (mostly girls) who are now hesitant to come and enjoy the wonders of this beautiful country, who think it’s not safe anymore and that they should change their plans.
So to those girls, and to all the girls who want to travel…
Please, don’t be scared
It’s true, the world is a scary place and horrific things do unfortunately happen. But the world is also a shining light. There are good people everywhere, and they far outweigh the bad, I can promise you that! For every bad person I’ve come across during my travels, I’ve met at least ten more who drown them out with joy, laughter and love.
The outpouring of love and grief from each and every community in New Zealand is demonstration enough of that.
Since I tweeted out about the news of Grace absolutely devastating me as a Brit in New Zealand and a solo female traveller, I’ve received umpteen private messages offering me a safe place if I’m ever visiting the area. Manawatu, Auckland, Rotorua, Queenstown and more – women (and some men) from all corners of New Zealand have reached out to send arohanui and reassurances that what happened doesn’t define New Zealand, that they will look after us.
A quick scroll through the #HerLightOurLove hashtag will show New Zealand’s true feelings. They are appalled at what has happened in their country. They are ashamed that it was (unconfirmed) one of their own who did this. They are apologetic to Grace’s family and friends that they weren’t able to keep her safe.
There are bad apples everywhere, but they don’t ruin the whole tree. Don’t let one tragic incident cloud your judgement of an entire nation, or indeed an entire way of life.
You are brave
The fact that you’re even considering travelling alone is commendable, whether or not you end up going through with it. You are so fucking brave, honestly. I don’t know you but I am SO proud of you!
I remember the first time it truly hit me that I was going through with it, that I was travelling alone. I was 18, already on my American Airways flight halfway to Peru via Miami. We had to make an emergency landing in the Bahamas because of a hurricane (welcome to the tumultuous world of travel!), and while they were passing out some drinks the nice Irish lady two seats over turned to me and said “If my daughter were doing what you are, I think I’d have a heart attack. God bless you, love.“
Until that point I hadn’t really grasped the magnitude of what I was doing. There and then it hit me like a ton of bricks that I was doing this. I was flying to a whole other continent where they speak a completely different language to spend 6 weeks entirely alone.
My level of badassery peaked that day.
Whether you’re choosing a weekend in Paris, a summer in America or a whole year in Australia, you are brave. Just remember that. Whenever you’re having feelings of self-doubt, whenever you think “I can’t do this“, whenever you miss home, channel your inner Merida and remember that you are brave.
You are not alone
So yeah, you might be travelling alone but trust me, you are not alone.
There’s a whole army of female travellers out there who have your back. There are tons and tons of great Facebook groups there to give you any advice and support you need: Girls vs Globe, Girls Love Travel and Global Girls United to name just a few. There’s also destination specific groups, depending where you plan on going. I’m in a few for Peru and New Zealand, and it’s just like having your own little online club. If I ever need anything, I ask in the relevant group and a flurry of advice will come in, from something as small as which bus is the best to “I’m in desperate need of a ride, help me out“.
The backpacking community can seem pretty huge, but it’s actually tiny enough and you’ll come to know that. Don’t be scared to rely on strangers for help and advice, but be cautious always.
Then there’s me. If you ever (and I mean EVER) need any advice, words of encouragement or just somebody to moan to, send me a message. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Email – choose your poison and I promise I will listen, and I will help as much as you can. If you plan on coming to New Zealand and need a friendly face, for as long as I’m here I’d be happy to meet you.
You are not asking for danger
Please, don’t listen to the naysayers who won’t hesitate to tell you that travelling to India alone is asking to be raped, or going to Central America is asking to be kidnapped. These people have probably never ventured beyond a lads’ weekend in Maga and mostly see women as objects to be wolf-whistled and cat-called.
Naturally there are more precautions you need to take when travelling to foreign countries, to places where you’re not familiar with the customs, culture and expectations of you as a foreigner. But in travelling to India, that’s not announcing to the world that you’re open to the prospect of being sexually assaulted. In backpacking Latin America, that’s not inviting somebody to bundle you into the back of a car and whisk you off to become a slave to the drug trade in some back alley motor garage (I clearly watch too many action movies).
Simply in choosing to travel, you are not inviting danger into your life. You are not “asking for it“, whatever “it” may be.
In choosing to travel you are, in fact, opening yourself up to a life of adventure, a life of opportunity and new discoveries. You’re opening yourself to a world full of new places to explore and interesting people to meet. You are doing something that most people would only dream about!
Read up on the country’s cultures and customs before you go and do everything you can to respect them.
Don’t be confused in thinking that covering your shoulders in India is letting the patriarchy win. It’s not. Instead, it’s showing respect for a centuries old culture with traditions and beliefs that, as an outsider wanting to be welcomed into this new and exciting place, you need to adhere to. Feminism exists everywhere, but there are different ways of showing it.
Don’t be afraid to open yourself up to new experiences, new flavours and new people. The connections made on the road are part of what makes travel so great. Don’t restrict yourself to hanging around with your fellow backpackers. Ask your taxi driver how is day was, ask your waiter if he has any local recommendations, play catch with the little girl in the street.
These moments, these incidences, are what will turn a great trip into a life-changing trip. Don’t shy away from them.
Choosing to travel is not welcoming danger into your life, but it’s inevitable that danger is everywhere and you do need to be careful.
Take the same precautions you would at home, but add a few extra in to be safe, especially in the more “unsafe” countries out there.
Buddy up with a new hostel friend, avoid walking around late at night in an unfamiliar location and always let somebody know your plans. Keep your family updated on your life (bit rich coming from me, somebody who can’t even remember the last time I checked in with my stepdad!), let your friends back home know how you’re doing, start a blog if you want to.
You’re no more in danger travelling than you are in your own hometown – just try and remember that.
Your life will change
After your first solo travel experience, your life will never be the same.
Travelling alone is electrifying. It’s like a drug – after your first taste, you need more. You need to feel the adrenaline of facing new challenges alone pumping through your veins just one more time.
You’ll dream of dancing on the beaches of Costa Rica, watching the sun rise over the Taj Mahal, trekking with gorillas in Uganda and drinking fresh mint tea with a Moroccan market vendor.
Your pockets will forever be weighed down with loose change in currencies you’ll never use again, but you can’t get rid of because of the memories they hold.
Your feet will forever be restless, just itching to fly off and explore the unknown.
One adventure will never be enough and you’ll always crave more.
To the girls who want to travel…
You can do this. And what’s more, you deserve it.
You deserve for all of your dreams to come true. You deserve to be able to see the world and what’s more, to be safe while doing so. You deserve the right to travel alone and not be questioned. You deserve it.
The world is yours and it is waiting for you.
So please, go and grasp every opportunity as tight as you can. Buy that flight ticket, book that tour, rent that car and just drive to your heart’s content. If you’ve always wanted to hike the Inca Trail, just go. If camping in the Outback is your thing, Australia is waiting. If you want to go and see the orangutans in Borneo, make it happen.
Just promise me this – don’t ever let fear stop you from travelling. I know it’s terrifying. I know that the world can seem big, scary and full of darkness. I’ve been in your shoes before, I’ve felt the exact same way you have.
But I can promise you no matter what happens, you won’t ever regret taking that chance.