By Angela Serednicki
Image courtesy of Nasir Khan via Flickr.
Her mother warned her about the rickshaw drivers in India.
It was only the first week of Teresa MacLellan’s solo trip when she realized how risky it can be to travel alone in a country that is known for its inequality and violence against women.
MacLellan sat in the passenger seat of the rickshaw she hired and watched crowds of people mill about the dusty streets of the ancient and holy city Varanasi. Suddenly, the rickshaw stopped, and a man MacLellan did not know climbed into the small vehicle. The stories her mom told her about some rickshaw drivers in India kidnapping and raping female tourists flashed through her mind.
“I had a very bad gut feeling about him. My instincts told me I had to make him leave,” MacLellan says.
She told the driver that she had paid for the ride and the other man had to get off the rickshaw. The driver became angry and refused to listen to MacLellan’s demands.
MacLellan continued to insist that the other man leave, and after a few tense minutes, the man finally stepped out of the rickshaw. It was one of the only few times where she felt that her safety was at jeopardy during her solo-trips abroad.
“You think that something bad is going to happen,” she says, “but it most-likely won’t.”
Solo-female travel came under scrutiny after a woman from Staten Island disappeared on her trip to Istanbul, Turkey. This past January, Sarai Sierra was found dead – killed after she refused to kiss a man high on paint thinners. It was her first time overseas. Sierra’s original plans were to travel to Turkey with a friend, but she decided to go alone after her friend had to cancel due to financial issues.
American and Turkish officials set off a widely publicized search for Sierra after she stopped contacting her husband and family back home. Ziya Tasali pled guilty to Sierra’s murder. He turned himself in, claiming he didn’t know she was a foreigner until he heard reports of a missing American tourist.
“I felt safe when I went to Istanbul,” says Sarah D’Souza, a seasoned solo traveler who has visited Cambodia, Dubai, India, Germany, Poland, Singapore and China by herself. D’Souza says she prefers to travel alone because she enjoys the freedom and doesn’t want to wait to explore the world.
“When you travel by yourself, you have your own time to do what you want, when you want,” she says. “You never have to negotiate.”
Through her travels in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, D’Souza has learned that solo-female travellers need to be diligent, however.
“I would definitely feel safer if I could travel alone as a male, but I travel in foreign countries the same way I would commute in Toronto,” she says. D’Souza always calls a cab when she needs to go somewhere alone at night and won’t wear anything that might attract unwanted attention.
The Canadian Consular Service offers the same, practical safety advice to travellers that most people already use in their everyday lives: lock your doors at night, don’t go into secluded areas and never disclose personal information to people you don’t know or trust.
“The truth is that women face greater obstacles, especially when travelling alone,” the federal government states in its 2011 Foreign Affairs pamphlet for women travellers.
The pamphlet even instructs women to wear fake wedding rings when they travel, as in some countries married women have a higher status than unmarried women. Evelyn Hannon, 73, travels by herself and continues to practice this advice. She keeps a picture of a very big man in her wallet, and tells people that he is her son.
“Never tell anyone you’re single. I’m not married and I don’t have any kids, but it’s important to note that you have men who are keeping a watch on you when you’re in a different country,” Hannon says.
As the CEO of Journeywoman.com, the largest online travel source for women, Hannon said it’s important to research the country you are planning to visit and model how the women of that country dress and act once you’re there.
Women who want to travel by themselves should start off with a short trip to a city in their own country to get a feeling for what it’s like to be in a new place without anyone you know. Hannon advises women to visit Amsterdam, Holland for their first international solo-trip because of the city’s simple transportation system and long history of female equality.
“Avoid countries where women have to cover themselves,” she says, assuring that it’s nothing against the culture, but that it’s much more dangerous for a solo female traveler to visit a place where women don’t have equal rights.
Hannon said that it is best for first time solo-travellers to stick to English speaking countries such as England, Ireland and Scotland. She then encourages women to visit European countries such as France, where there is a language barrier, but there are still many English speakers and English translations if needed.
“Traveling is an absolutely mind-blowing experience,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to do it alone.” M