Yesterday I came across the NYT’s compiled take on the ever-enduring question of how to travel safely by yourself as a young woman. Some of it I think is useful and invariably true: it helps to dress like a local to some degree and furthermore to know the local mores. For example, in many parts of Japan, tattoos are taboo and can get you kicked out of an onsen or any place with shared showers. Similarly, if you are traveling in a more conservative country, it will save you a lot of hassle to keep your shoulders covered and, in some cases, your knees as well.
I also think the article does well to suggest having an itinerary, but not so much because without one you “risk wandering into areas where you shouldn’t go.” Having at least one destination when you walk out the door will lead you to a specific neighborhood and give you a point of reference for the day. Depending on how big the city is, this is an easy way to explore different neighborhoods without ending up lost or overwhelmed because you’re trying to cover too much. Ultimately, your time will dictate how leisurely you can plan, but in general, having destinations is crucial to – at the very least – not appearing lost, and I’d hope, to opening up the landscape piece by piece.
Moving on —
Practically everything else in the NYT article struck me as patently unachievable and even undesirable for any young woman who’s not traveling with a big budget or cushy savings. Splurge on my hotel? HA! I’ve never booked a hotel as a solo female traveler. For one, if I can afford to splurge, I don’t enjoy doing so on things I can’t enjoy with other people. And for two, I actually like meeting people from the place and prefer to stay with someone who is local, or if all else fails meet a fellow traveler in a hostel. This leads me to my first addendum to the NYT article, and what follows is a handful of tips that I hope will be a bit more realistic for the younger traveling woman.
- Meet and hang out with locals. Honestly, this is probably the single most important thing you can do for your safety (and your enjoyment). By hanging with someone who is familiar with the place, you will not worry so much about stumbling into a shady alley or a bad restaurant. A lot of people are averse to couchsurfing but I almost always find my way back to couchsurfing when I’m traveling alone. Even if you’re not comfortable crashing at someone’s place, you can always join one of the organized activities or meet up with someone who shares your interests for a reliably noncommital coffee. Keyword search is key. Don’t be afraid to use it. (I often try my luck with “queer” or “lgbt” which, in many places, drastically narrows the options to people I’m more likely to feel comfortable around).
- Always have your route figured out before you leave the coveted wifi at your hotel / hostel / homestay. Depending on where, and for how long, you’re traveling, chances are you won’t have internet on your phone. As noted earlier, it’s nice to have at least one solid destination when you leave your home base and 2 or 3 ideas for things in the neighborhood to do after. Whether you’re walking or taking transit, always look up the map beforehand. Even if Google Maps can’t connect to the internet while you’re out, GPS will still be creepily, accurately tracking you. So pull up the exact route, take screenshots if you are nervous of accidentally clicking something within the app, and check back periodically to see if your blue dot is on course.
- Try to avoid accepting things from men. This is not the NYT so I can keep it 100. To make things easier for yourself, try to very politely decline things men offer you — a drink, food, ride, anything. Of course, this is a broad generalization, and the appropriate thing to do may vary somewhat based on local custom. A quick-ish anecdote: A couple of years ago, I was on a bus from Cairo to a smaller, more rural city in the south of Egypt called Aswan. The bus was packed.
The gentleman seated next to me took out a weathered bottle filled with some kind of sugary orange drink and offered me some. I knew only the barest of Arabic so I used a lot of gestures to communicate that I was extremely grateful for the offer – a couple of slight head bows, a gentle double hand wave, a big smile – but no thank you. He smiled back, gave a brief head nod, and held the drink out a centimeter further in my direction. I repeated; he answered.
After two or three rounds of this, I did some quick calculus. I could: A. keep doing this exercise till I had carpal tunnel in my neck, B. very slowly redirect my attention to the monotonous desert landscape rolling by, or C. accept the beverage. I’m the kind of person who does the things people say not to do when you’re traveling alone in an unfamiliar place. So I accepted the drink. I took what I hope was a very discreetly small sip and handed it back, thanking him very much. He then took several gulps which of course was my official cue that I was not on the verge of death.
I share this story to highlight a time when it made sense to accept an offer from a strange man. In fact, after accepting multiple bottles of water, cups of tea, and paper cones of chickpeas on a sixteen hour train ride from Aswan back to Cairo, I realized that in Egypt, offering people things — however random or small — is a common gesture of welcome. Even if you only take the tiniest sample of whatever is offered, it is better than risking offense or being profoundly rude by declining.
That said, avoid it unless you are truly getting to know a person. Otherwise, accepting things from random men can, as most of us already know, lead to other unwanted advances. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t socialize with men you don’t know. I’ve met and stayed with people of various genders when I’ve traveled and have had positive experiences with some who identify as men. The nub is to just keep aware that to accept something from a man can mean different things in different cultures — with some differences less apparent than others.