And traveling solo is an act of defiance against the world that hates women
Traveling in Bagan, Myanmar, alone. My morning driver hands me off to another driver, his uncle, or so he says. I’m confused as we’d come to be friends the day before…and I’d asked for him for the whole day for temple tours, but shrug it off as one of those travel quirks you have to roll with.
It isn’t until I’m at a remote temple, with no other tourists around, that I start to wonder if something more is going on. There is another man there, lurking. My driver introduces us, says he is his friend, and an artist. He has that loose, comfortable look that men with confidence sometimes have. Torn jeans, nice shirt. He smiles and we shake hands, and his English is very good. But as my driver leads the way behind the temple, the artist is right behind me.
“Are you following us?” I say, more out of a nervous need to let him know I know he is there. I laugh. I hate that I laugh. It’s my default when I am uncomfortable. A coping mechanism.
The driver switch. The remote location. The “artist” following us. My gut is telling me something is wrong.
And my internal monologue goes something like this, “You’re always telling people to trust their gut. Yet here you are not trusting your gut.”
The driver turns the corner of the building, kicking up dust and disappearing into the shadow of the morning sun, with the “artist” behind me.
And I wonder if this is it. Whether this is the moment I get robbed, or gang raped or murdered. So many people have warned me for so long, so many people fear for me as I go–even after all these years of going and returning unscathed. As someone who travels alone a lot, one comes to wonder whether it is a foregone conclusion that one–or all of these–at some point, are going to happen.
My vagina is my greatest liability. And as a woman who travels solo, I’m acting in defiance against the world that hates women. Because fear is often the most effective tool to control a population, and I refuse to play a supporting role in the fear factory.
In Marrakech, my gorgeous, blonde, statuesque German friend and I get catcalls from the leering shop owners, “How many camels?” One shouts from the food stands. Another whispers, “I make love slow and gentle…”
We are surrounded by tagine and snail soup and roasted goat heads, but we are the meat at this market.
Staying home is not safe either.
At home, a family friend, Ed, has followed me down to the basement and watches me as I do laundry. He is probably age 40.
“You are so sexy,” he says.
I am 12.
Later, he has come over to the house when my parents are gone, wants to play tag. He tackles us too hard into the piles of leaves, touches us too much, me and my little sisters. Afterward, I see him spooning my sister in front of the television.
I am queasy and scared and beg my siblings to join me in telling our parents. My hands are shaking.
We never see him again.
At the office, a member of senior management gapes at my breasts openly as he assigns me an article to ghost write for him. He’s the same leader I saw grab a coworker’s butt at an after-work fundraising event for the Boy Scouts. The same who comes into our department’s office, makes lewd jokes and puts his arm around women, too close…too close. All of my alarm bells are going off and HR says maybe I’m not a culture fit. They are right…it sickens me to think of my words suffocating under his name.
Shortly thereafter I quit.
And I travel.
In rainy Stockholm, I take a stool at the tiny bar in a burger place, of all things. It is Barrels, located in Gamla Stan, and it’s packed with travelers. The windows are steaming up, the crowd is chatty, high energy, and it occurs to me that almost everyone the world over loves a good burger and beer.
They have IPAs, and like most things in the Nordic countries, everything on the menu is expensive. But burgers are my unlikely touchstone when I’ve grown tired of the food of other nations and just need something familiar and comforting. And so I order a burger and fries and a beer. And a man enters, sits beside me. He is tall and blonde and striking. The stools are close. He orders food and a beer too and we get to talking about IPAs and life and things that matter, which is so incredibly rare. There’s no small talk. I don’t even get his name. He is from Norway, and his accent is enchanting. And he believes that you must experience the pain of heartbreak to truly appreciate love. And I’m in the other camp–having grown up in the Midwest I have seen this seemingly Scandinavian philosophy pass through generations, this sense that one must suffer to know joy. And I argue that one does not need winter to appreciate spring. But, the longer we talk, the more I come around to his perspective. The more I want to. How lovely it is to meet a man who has been broken but can see the beauty in it.
And he suggests we share an IPA, which seems smart, because they are really, really expensive and splitting one allows us to sample without the deep financial commitment. And so we order one, and another. And I’ve fallen in travel love with him, which is to say that I might imagine pulling him into one of Stockholm’s shadowy doorways, away from the rain but not the delicious sound and smell of it. But instead, I thank him, slide off my stool, walk back to my hostel with my heart beating fast, and text my husband about him.
It is one of the few cases where my vagina was not my greatest liability. Rather, the tall, handsome Norwegian was.
It is the condition of the solo female traveler that we must, at all times, be aware of our surroundings. We must listen for footsteps behind us. Carry pepper spray. Tuck our keys between our fingers so they can serve as a weapon. Take self-defense classes. Avoid dark alleyways and questionable neighborhoods. Don’t drink too much or take other mind-altering substances. Never trust…be paranoid. Travel only to the countries deemed safe for women. Call or text when you get there. Don’t wear anything too short or revealing. Never accept a ride or a drink from a stranger. Don’t hitchhike, ever. Use a fake name. Wear a fake wedding ring. Don’t smile at strangers. Lock the door behind you.
Even better: don’t travel; stay home. Work the job. Take the harassment. Choke it down, play the game so you can climb the ladder and make half the money he does.
These are not the rules I have written.
They are products of the fear factory. They have been written for all of us women, promising this playbook will lead to our happiest, safest life. And while it’s good to be smart, do to your research, and take care with your safety, it’s vital that we as solo female travelers never stop traveling.
To refuse to be afraid is our greatest act of solidarity and defiance.
I turn the corner of the crumbling Buddhist temple, and my driver pauses and turns around. We are in the shade of a sprawling Acacia. The artist kneels down and unfurls a package, wrapped in newspaper. One by one, he carefully, proudly shows me his watercolor paintings.
“Which do you like?” He says. “I will give you the friendship price.”
And I choose the one with the hot air balloons, which I will ride in the next day over this mysterious land of temples and pagodas at sunrise. And I wonder what the poor people who are afraid are doing.
This post is dedicated with love to all of my sisters in the world who are healing from trauma. May your travels strengthen you for the journey.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning features, food and travel writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog, she applies her worldview to her business, Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications, providing powerful storytelling to her clients.
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