My tribute video to Argentine duo female travel Maria Jose Coni and Marina Menegazzo popped out of Facebook memories and I feared to click it again. I was afraid I will have to relive the day the world woke up to the horrific truth about the realities of solo female travel safety.
I clicked the video and after a few minutes, I found myself browsing different articles about safety for solo female travelers but on the first two result pages, only pieces by US-born female travel bloggers appeared. I never saw anyone from the Asian or the Middle Eastern regions. Not even Europeans.
Before you type anything, I want to clarify that this is not a battle of regions but it somehow gave me a realization that having different upbringing and cultures we grew up in really makes a difference. Okay, you’re racing your eyebrows again — this is not a stereotype. We do have a culture we grew up in. Based on experience, I believe we made our own culture when we traveled. Our horizon widened. We have this view that whenever culture, race or gender is brought up, the voracious “politically correct” person in us roars.
But we somehow need to talk about that. Hailing from Asia, I have observed many different levels of solo female travel safety because of how we look. Big thanks to the flock of Chinese and Japanese people traveling, Asians like me are just a bunch of tourists who most vendors lure to their shops. Personally, I never felt threatened and I believe my ethnicity is one of the big factors that make me safe.
More often than not, I will be mistaken for being Chinese, Japanese or even Thai. When I speak, I’ll be Hawaiian. The way people from the other side of the globe understand Asian culture is really puzzling for me. When I first visited Morocco in 2013, I was greeted with “ni hao” in every corner of the souk. If I didn’t respond, they would shout “annyeonghaseyo.” If I continue ignoring them, “kon’nichiwa” will be next. If I walk away, they will, too. It was quite funny how it’s always a guessing game when it comes to Asians.
A German traveler whom I met in Peru once asked me how I am able to identify Asians correctly. He said for most parts of the world, Asians are all the same. I stopped and thought about how to answer this question and I never really discovered how I am able to know which is which. I think we just know.
Another observation is how people approach Asians — it’s always in a gentler manner. I even had greetings in dumb English. Some bow. Others even put their hands in a praying position, an imitation of the Thai greeting. It’s as if we are treated like delicate beings because of our very gentle and polite culture. Respect and good manners are the main ingredients in Asian etiquette, thus, we receive the same.
As always, I am not speaking for everyone. Writing this is a way for me to process how and why I was never harmed while traveling the world. I wonder if others think their race is a factor, too. Whenever I get the question “how do you keep safe on the road,” I honestly don’t know what to say. For me, safety is subjective. It is personal. There will never be a formula on how solo female travel can be 100% safe. Aside from my ethnicity, I did observe a lot of stereotypes that the world is following when it comes to a woman traveling by herself.
The media as a tool to heighten and discourage solo female travel safety
I read Liz Gilbert’s ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ during my first year studying in Italy, about 8 years ago. My internship required me to travel a lot between Rome, Florence, and Milan (where I lived) and that was something I thought I could do at the age of 21. You see, I was living with my aunt and is still kind of treated like a baby. Unlike the West, most Asian households don’t really regard 21 as an age to be on your own, let alone in another country that is far away from yours.
But I did it. And in those train journeys, I dreamt of being like Liz: fearless, alone, hungry for a new language, and of course, a woman. That time, I never really labeled myself as a woman. I was a girl studying abroad, far away from her home who was just starting to understand how the world works.
After a few years, I re-watched the movie and realized the different message the movie was subliminally sending. It just came to me. When a woman embarks on a journey, it is labeled wreckless, dramatic, and 100% unsure. But if it’s a movie about a man traveling (look at Motorcycle Diaries with Che Guevara played by Gael Garcia Bernal), it is adventurous, life-changing and filled with the unknown. The unknown in Liz’s adventure is scary while Che’s unknown is reachable. Liz was running away from a failed marriage while Che is going on an adventure just because.
I don’t know if I want my nephews or my future children be encouraged by the gender assignments the media has silently ingrained in us. But there is one exemption from none other than Dora the Explorer, where exploring rainforests and sailing through the sea is not impossible for a girl with a backpack. Dora always reaches her destination without drama or fear.
I grew up in a household where there were more boys than girls. We are 5 children and 3 are boys. All our close cousins have more brothers, too. When we were young, we, the girls, were asked to have perfect grades in school while our brothers had the liberty to play outside while we are doing our best to study. We were told to always look pretty while the boys will have food stains on their clothes and mud on their faces from playing outside. It was okay for them to look like that but when it was us, girls, it suddenly becomes not okay.
We were stopped from playing sipa, touching runner, teks, labanang gagamba (spider fighting). We can only stay inside and dress our Sailormoon paper dolls. We have full knowledge of all these so-called “boy games.” We even know the rules and yet we barely experienced playing it.
When a young girl gets in a physical and petty fight in school, they will be severely punished. When young boys do it, they will get a pat on the back because “it’s cool.” Boys are also often exempted from house chores because girls are the ones who are supposed to wash the dishes.
When our grandparents give us gifts, us, girls, were not allowed to take the green and blue toys because they were for our brothers. We can only take the pink and yellow ones. Red is even for negotiation. When my boy classmate wanted a pink shirt for Christmas, everyone laughed at him, including me. It was us who made our children ignorant – to even consider the gender assignment.
Today, many women are scared to take risks (or even ask for a raise at work). We had perfect grades in school but we easily give up. I really really don’t want to say this because my brothers and my cousins are the love of my life but honestly, us girls in the family are more equipped in many things.
Young girls should be allowed to go on monkey bars, to have blue and green toys; that they will be accepted no matter what because if we make girls feel that their genders have assignments, then we will not break the cycle of gender prejudice. We will continue to “fight for women’s rights” in the next 100 years. It won’t stop unless WE stop it. There shouldn’t be any gender assignments.
My mother was a single parent when I was growing up and that actually changed how I feel about being a woman in this age. What she achieved has impacted me greatly. Growing up, I said, I want to be like my mom but I’ m not even half of who she is. I can’t imagine us having the same life because I am now 31 and still without children. Our experiences will never be the same but she is a woman I truly admire even if I can’t even be half like her.
I did, however, promise myself that this inspiration from my mom would lead to somewhere. As someone who has an online presence, I try my best to be someone who’s encouraging women to remove gender assignments. There are many layers of women empowerment on social media and somehow, a lot of us can’t still find that level we are fighting for. For now, being a woman is freedom for me. And freedom, if you come to think of it, has no gender.
Freedom has no gender: the unending debate about how we dress (or even how we look like)
My friend Jaejun from South Korea writes to me: “You’re right. I have never traveled by myself and most of the women I know have.”
I looked around and visit the times when my brothers, at the age of 35, still ask me to book flight tickets and accommodations for them. Their reason is that I am more equipped because I travel a lot. I thought that was just normal because they’re my brothers, I should help them, right? But it slowly came to me that my brothers never traveled by themselves. It has always been with a group or their girlfriends. The girls in my family were always the ones who are adventure-thrilling and have done solo female travel at least once.
There was this one time that I traveled with my brothers in Thailand and they were all questioning the way I dress. That it looks unsafe. I ignored it the first and second time but I got arrogant on the third time. I bragged about how I am able to travel by myself and them boys can’t. I dropped the bomb by saying I planned all our trips and they did nothing. I articulated they don’t have a right to question what I wear and that I should not be threatened about my outfit.
That time, I felt the need to act superior because this issue about women’s clothing when traveling is just so annoying, especially if you’re getting it from your brothers — the brothers whom I expect to support and respect my feminism. I wanted them to badly fall in line on how I see my freedom as a woman.
At the beginning of my travels abroad, I always used my roots as a reference. Growing up in a devoted Catholic country is where I got the habit of scrutinizing my outfit when traveling. I always pack according to the destination. Culturally, out of respect, this is the right thing to do. Until I spent some time in the Middle East. Morocco was the biggest shock for me. I saw European girls in shorts and spaghetti straps. In Amman, I hang out with local girls wearing skinny jeans and cropped tops. In India, I walked around with a sleeveless top. In these moments, I felt that the more women wear what they want, the more society gets used to it.
I always envy men when they pack. They don’t need to think about these things. No matter what men wear, they are always acceptable.
But why does harassment always come to the picture when we talk about women traveling when we all know bad things can happen to anyone? I know a few men who’ve been robbed and assaulted while traveling. But we don’t talk about it because it’s only a big deal when it happens to a woman. I am damned about the image of women as weak creatures but I never hated men for it. Believe me, 80% of my friends are men and they also agree that a woman’s clothing should not be a reason to be assaulted, to be raped, to be catcalled.
Our gender should never be part of the conversation. Think about your sisters, your girl cousins, your mothers — you’d want them to go out there and travel without fear, right? Then be the first one to stop blaming them for what they wear. Women are smart and will dress accordingly. Come on, you’ve seen how much time it takes women to dress up for a party. Wearing the appropriate clothes when traveling is not a problem for them, too. But don’t scrutinize women for their wardrobe and threaten them that something bad will happen because of their outfit. This just sounds so wrong to me.
On the actual dangers of solo female travel: is it about pure luck?
The most common phrase I get from readers of this blog: “is it safe to travel in (insert country here)?”
While there are places where I didn’t feel unsafe, I don’t believe women are only at risk in certain countries like India and the Middle East. I wrote a listicle about the best cities to visit for solo female travelers and received a comment from a reader:
“I have admired you for years until I read your article in this magazine at a train station in Poland. I thought you would never label places safe. That it is subjective. That it is personal. I am so disappointed that you think there are safe and unsafe cities for women when in fact you are one of the people who encouraged me to just go if it feels right.”
My jaw dropped. I wrote this article for a big magazine for extra exposure in print but I never really thought I’d lose my values with it. I forgot what I believe in just because I wanted to be published outside of this blog. I knew structures of magazines like this are different and that it is 100% unrealistic. They only publish what people want to hear and I agreed to that. They only think about how an article will sell and this listicle is honestly one of the shittiest pieces I wrote in my life. I’m not proud of it.
Not one city in India is on that list. Even before I came to India, I already had a very strong argument that this country is unsafe and that I should never travel there alone. Until I did. I did social work for a non-profit organization for women in New Delhi, the Indian capital that everyone avoids. The trip preparation included shit tons of online reading. I never really do research when going to another country but for India, I strongly felt I needed to.
Headlines about rape and sexual assault flooded the 100+ tabs open on my browser. I was instantly filled with discouragement and fear from carefully reading all the articles. I doubted to continue the trip but there was a part of me that really wanted to go. Whenever I have these thoughts, I always look for a local I know. Someone I trust. Someone I would take his/her word for.
Suresh, my Indian friend whom I bonded with at the Argentina-Uruguay borders was the person to talk to. When I met him, he was being denied entry at the Argentine border. They said he cannot apply for a visa there and that he had to go back to India to do it. I was pretty much in the same situation so this drew me to him. He was very persistent and kept insisting he will not go all the way back to India just to apply for a visa. That it was his right to be given a visa at the border. In the end, he was granted one. I copied his ways all the way and I admired him for that.
“Trisha, India has a lot of bad press but which country doesn’t? You were in Mexico and Colombia where the headlines say very unsafe because of the drug cartels. You were in Morocco, Senegal and Western Sahara where the militarized borders scream war in the news. I don’t think I can help you decide but go back to all those places you visited that were labeled unsafe. Did something bad happen to you?”
I was hoping he’d say “Go to India. It’s safe. Do not listen to the news.” His stamp of approval is very valuable to me. It will be the push I need. But he didn’t. Instead, he asked me to re-visit those memories in Colombia and Mexico where I felt nothing but home. In Morocco, Senegal and Western Sahara – places and cultures I really enjoyed.
And so I went to India and did my social work for women. Of course, you can never avoid the stares and the random snaps of you from their smartphones but I never felt I was going to be harmed. The Indian people were so good to me I began to plan my second trip. And I did, not just twice, always came back.
From then on, I never believed there are unsafe places. I lived in the so-called war-torn country of Israel where the best days of my life happened. I traveled by land to Jordan and Egypt without feeling unsafe. I stayed in these countries long enough to conclude that it is not the places we go to that will harm us. It is a matter of giving a place a chance. You will be surprised by how positively overwhelming it is to experience than to read the news.
In the past, I also received queries if I ever visit places like Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq. 22-year old Trisha would say no because even without the news, we know that the war situation in these places is severe. We’d never bet on it.
Last month, I saw this video from Kaka, a friend from Hong Kong who’s been to Syria recently. I got too excited to see her in Aleppo so I asked her a lot of questions. First, she addressed my amusement about her traveling in Syria. I literally replied “WOW” to all of her messages. It really is wowable.
She gave me a Syrian contact in case I want to visit this year but with that contact was a note: “Trisha, many people read your blog but you must understand that at this point in time, Syria is not for everyone. It is only for experienced travelers. If you ever decide to come, I hope you will make this clear in your posts, as I know you would.”
I kept remembering that and my excitement about visiting Syria grew even more. I am happy that she thinks I am an experienced traveler but after being so comfortable in Asia in the past year, my confidence in my travel experience level is not good enough for me. I want to deserve the pleasure of visiting Syria as one of the few. In order to get to that, I need to prepare myself. Now is not the right time. The many recent changes in my life are the reasons why my courage doesn’t roar. At least not yet. I will go to Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc but I need to be ready for it, not for anyone but for myself.
And this is where, over and over again, “safety is subjective” comes in. It all depends on our experiences and our level of courage. I can’t tell you India is safe as I know a lot of girls who didn’t feel the same way I did. Nor Morocco, Senegal, Western Sahara, which many of my friends have been to but were paranoid during the trip. There is no one who will answer for your safety but you. Your qualifications of a “safe place” is not up to me or any news outlet.
Many bad things happen out there even in your hometown. I traveled for years and when I came back to the Philippines, I never felt so unsafe in my life. It was pretty weird how I felt that way because that’s where I am from. I should not be paranoid about my “home” but I did, and I still do.
This is something none of us have any control of. Whenever you are trying the gage your next destination’s safety level, think about how you feel about it: if it feels wrong, don’t go. If it feels right, then it will fit.
There are supportive and loving people, too.
Of course, there are people who understand that we, women can travel alone. I am very fortunate to have a supportive and loving mother who never threatened me. I don’t even remember it being mentioned in our home. I grew up with 2 gay uncles (my mom’s brothers) so gender is pretty much not an issue in our household.
I was allowed to do whatever I want. I played football for most of my formative years and I never heard my mom say this sport is only for boys. At a very young age, I left to travel the world. Though I knew my mom was very heartbroken about me not finishing University, in exchange for traveling the world, she let me go with all her heart. Before I left, she only had one request: I can never ask any financial support from her. Not even a cent. She always supported me morally and have expressed her love wherever I chose to be in the world. Cutting the financial tie was something I did understand and has pushed me to fend for myself.
On social events, my mom always finds herself caught up in awkward conversations with your peers.
“Where is your daughter again?”
“She’s now in Colombia.”
“Is she fine?”
“What do you mean? Of course, she’s fine.”
“You know. That….”
“No, I don’t know what you mean by ‘that’….”
That person meant the drug cartels which I never really felt when I was in Colombia. People tiptoe around my mom when it comes to me because they don’t understand how I am allowed to go on my own. Sometimes I really think they make my mother paranoid. I don’t teach my mom what to say to her friends but she manages to go out of the awkwardness this ignorant world throws at her. She did, however, say something when Afghanistan and Syria came up:
“I know you want to be Christiane Amanpour and I support that. But please, be safe and always remember you have family and friends who will be heartbroken if something bad happens to you.”
I thought about that really hard and realized there are people who love and care for me; that I should be aware of my choices, particularly with my chosen destinations. I remembered I wasn’t alone when I started this journey. I was sent off properly by family and friends – there were even a party and a tribute video for me! The love and support I received from my family and friends through the year have been so overwhelming. I wouldn’t have made it without them.
It is quite surprising how people I meet on the road react when I tell them my story. Some raise their eyebrows: “what are you doing in this side of the world, so far away from your home?” When they say this to me in Latin America, I realize that where I am from, the Philippines is very very very far. There’s a 14-hour timezone difference! And yet, I am there, answering their questions with: “I am here traveling just because.” I cannot be bothered to explain how I got there. Or why I am there. Or why I’m not home. Wherever I am, that’s my home.
50% of the people I come across understand that. There are a few who gives me a pat on the back once they knew I was traveling alone. I got so many wows from strangers and that kept me going.
With this, I urge you to surround yourself with people who will support no matter what you want to do in life. I believe having a great community is one of the key factors in leading a good life. Run away as far as possible from people who are discouraging you. Delete your peers who think your idea of traveling solo is crazy. Keep those who believe you can do it because they will contribute a big chunk of courage to your journey.
I wrote about how I was able to pull off solo female travel during my formative years and these are some of the most notable techniques that I still find effective up to now:
- When a man looks at me disgustingly, I walk like a boy and put a cigarette on my mouth because it allegedly takes power from them. I noticed that the tougher you look, the more that people run away from you.
- Pretend that you are on the phone. Okay, a lot of times, I was shaking like crazy and couldn’t get a word out of my mouth but I am a big talker and can definitely pretend I am talking to someone. Say things like “I’m on my way there now,” “I’m walking now at blah blah.” In your conversations, always put strong words like “now,” “going there,” etc. Make it appear that you are going to meet someone and that fake person on the phone knows where you are at this very moment.
- Don’t always tell the truth. Not to the nice people you met but of course, to those people, you don’t feel connected to but are forced to sit down and have drinks with because that is the current situation you are in. Remember, you don’t always have to divulge all the information about your life when they are asking you a question, especially if you are not comfortable. You don’t have to say you’re alone, you don’t have to say where you are staying – you are totally in control of what information to share.
However, if you are comfortable with the people you are with, of course, you don’t have to lie. Remember that first-time solo female travel will earn you friends – maybe even friends for life. That’s what happened to me and up to now, the idea of meeting people who will be your friends forever while traveling still amazes me.
If you want to read the full post, click here.