A murder. A female. A backpacker. A reason why women shouldn’t travel solo?
“Can you try and talk Jane out of travelling to Thailand?” my mum begged my uncle. There’d been a British backpacker killed there only a few months before.
“Absolutely not! She’ll get far more life experience going away. I think it’s a great idea.”
Two weeks later, aged 21, I slung my backpack over my shoulder, clutched my suncream in one hand and a Lonely Planet in the other. Little did any of us know it’d be seven years before I’d return to Britain.
“Are you coming home for Christmas?” friends asked.
I was languishing on a Thai beach with other backpackers. Waves licked the white sand and I bobbed my feet to the background chill-out music. It was probably 5 degrees and raining back home. I figured I’d just stay here a little longer…
I never envisaged I’d be away seven years, and as with most things in the travelling sphere, it just happened. I fell in love and that was that. It was my longest relationship and my most beloved one. We had a bond so strong that it made others envious. I’d fallen in love with travelling.
I’ve since spent more than 13 years with this partner and there are no signs of us splitting up. Together, we’ve hitched our way round New Zealand, hiked solo in the Andes, volunteered in the Amazon jungle, spent a snowy January in the Himalayas and slept in caves in Oz.
There are a million reasons why I’d suggest women (and men), young and old, go it alone.
Here are just a few:
• Everything you do is your decision, you can be as indecisive as you like, which if you’re anything like me, is about six times per second
• Go as slow or as face-paced as the mood takes you
• No need to compromise
• It’ll make you more confident in many aspects of life
• You’ll return with far less naivety
• You’ll meet waaaay more people travelling solo than with someone else
• You won’t have any arguments – no ‘I thought you had the key!’ moments (actually, that’s not true, I just have to shout at myself every time I forget it)
• You might just appreciate everything about Britain (I do) from the NHS to women’s rights
If you’re unsure about going alone, here are a few stories and top tips for women travelling solo.
“We bought these rings because they were on offer,” a Swedish girl beamed at me, “our tuk tuk driver took us to a shop and we were so lucky that it was a tax-free day.”
“You are kidding, right?” I laughed.
I’d just arrived in Thailand but I could smell the scam, and the fake 24-karat gold, a mile away.
I’d met another girl who had refused to buy anything in another magical ‘tax-free jewellery’ shop she was taken to. “So the tuk tuk driver dumped me in the middle of nowhere,” she said angrily.
I didn’t know where the middle of nowhere was in Bangkok because there is nowhere in the middle of nowhere in that city. It has population of 16 million people, you are always going to be somewhere.
I looked at her quizzically, “How come you got in the tuk tuk in the first place?”
“It was only 10 baht for a two-hour-long sight-seeing trip.”
“And you didn’t think that was a bit weird?”
“No, but obviously I do now!”
“How did you get back?”
“I got a taxi.”
I smiled, “I hope you got him to put the meter on!”
“Oh, no. Should he have?”
This girl needed a lesson in travel survival techniques. Luckily she’d just met a savvy Scouser to help her out.
Tips for solo women travellers 1: If a deal sounds too good to be true, it is.
Scams happen everywhere, even in your own city. If a deal sounds unreal, too good to be true or just plain fishy, say no thank you and walk away. If you feel pressured into buying something or going somewhere you don’t want to, say that you’re meeting your brother or father (often works better than the fake boyfriend/husband) and don’t get drawn any further into the conversation. Then walk away.
Tips for solo women travellers 2: Dealing with Taxis
• Find out from your accommodation if it’s OK to catch a taxi off the street. In Bangkok, for example, I always hailed one myself (I never took tuk tuks) but in certain parts of Peru I’d get the hostel staff to call me one.
• All taxis should have a taxi licence number and driver ID and you can ask to see it.
• Sit in the back seat.
• Ask the driver to put the meter on.
• Pretend you know where you’re going by saying things like, “I love this part of [city].” Tell the driver you’re meeting friends who live in the city at the end destination.
• If you want to feel at ease, you can always grab a quick photo of the taxi licence plate and send it to a friend. Just let them know you’ve arrived safely or they’ll start to worry.
• Have a conversation if you can speak the language or he can speak English – it passes the time faster, but be vague with personal details such as who you’re travelling with (or lie), how many places you’ve travelled to (it’ll make you sound like a rich bitch and possibly worth robbing, and that goes for when you’re not in a taxi, too).
Tips for solo women travellers 3: Where’s your husband?
I’ve given so many answers to this question, I could write a book on this alone. Many of my responses, however, are sarcastic. Pick and choose your moments with them:
• He’s in my backpack. I killed him. (Said with a smile, or not, depending on my mood. Probably best not to say it at border control.)
• He’s standing over there watching you.
• Damn! I knew I’d forgotten something. (Then ignore him and walk away.)
• He’s with my three teenage sons just over there.
• I’m not with my husband. I’m meeting my father and/or four brothers in five minutes.
• I’m gay. And I hate men.
• He’s buying a machete in the market as a souvenir. Maybe he could take your finger as well. (OK, so I’ve never actually used this but I think I will next time.)
• DON’T SAY: “Well he’s certainly not standing in front of me” or you’ll bruise his ego and all hell might just break loose. Trust me, I’ve said it.
Tips for solo women travellers 4: Never say where you’re staying
• If local men ask you where you’re staying, simply lie or just say the general location.
• Find out the name of another hotel / hostel etc and say you’re staying there. Preferably somewhere not close to your real accommodation and not somewhere super expensive.
• Read my top tips for solo female campers.
Tips for solo women travellers 5: Trust your gut instinct
• This is actually my TOP TIP for solo women travellers – listen to your gut instinct. You know when a situation doesn’t feel right, when a guy is hitting on you, when you feel uncomfortable. Don’t allow that to escalate, act on it instantly. I also know this is easier said than done (read my next story), that sometimes we know the situation is wrong but we feel we will rock the boat if we do something about it. From experience, just get yourself out of the situation before it even becomes one. As women, we know what it’s like for men to make us feel uncomfortable, you just need to know how to look after yourself and to realise you are strong and yes, you can go solo.
Tips for solo women travellers 6: Dealing with Harassment
The bus in San Jose, Costa Rica, was half empty when the man sat down right next to me. I instantly felt uneasy and should have moved, but I didn’t. The next thing I knew, my long skirt had been moved up and a hand was stroking my thigh. For a second I was stunned into silence, was this really happening? When his disgusting little paws confirmed it was, fury erupted. I slapped his hand and shouted so loud that the Man on the Moon must have heard the commotion. The creep leapt off the bus at the next stop but the worst part was the reaction of the women nearby: “Was he a thief? Did he steal anything?”
“No! He was touching me!” They simply laughed. I wasn’t sure who had incensed me more.
You know when a situation doesn’t feel right, when a guy is hitting on you, when you feel uncomfortable. Don’t allow it to escalate, make excuses and walk away or shout out loud.
Here are some ways you can try and deal with harassment.
If the man/men are trying to sell you something:
• Say no thank you or you’ll think about it and you might return later, then walk away;
• Simply shake your head ‘no’ with a quick smile so you’re not drawn into a conversation and keep walking;
• Feign deafness, look straight ahead and walk on by. They often get bored when you do this, after shouting a few insults at you.
If you’re sitting down and an unwanted guy starts up a conversation try one of these:
• Be polite but short with your answers (yes, no etc) so you’re not drawn into a conversation;
• Just get up and walk away;
• Say you’re meeting your brother or father (or both and they’re huge and burley!);
• Pretend you don’t speak the language they’re talking to you in;
• Feign deafness;
• I personally wouldn’t get my headphones or phone out and pretend to have a conversation on it as that is showing your wealth and, especially in South America, is showing you have something worth nicking.
If you’re being followed:
• There are a few ways to deal with this including screaming, running or confrontation (or all three). It really depends on the situation, I have personally confronted the man and then walked away. Other women have shouted or screamed which has alerted people nearby. And others are kick-ass in self defence.
• DEET mosquito spray is also a good weapon to spray in an attacker’s eyes if you need to. Or buy pepper spray if you can get hold of it abroad.
If a man gropes you:
• Public shaming is the best way for it to stop, providing people are around you. You can grab his hand and shout, “Whose groping little hand does this belong to?” Obviously they may have no idea what you’re saying so you may need to simplify it or learn it in the local lingo! (It’ll work on the London Underground, though, which to be honest is where you’re more likely to be groped.)
• Use your knee to get him where it hurts or slam your elbows back if he grabs you from behind. Then run. Fast.
• Self-defence classes will help or watching YouTube videos for some basic tactics.
In all honesty, in 10 years I have met a handful of women who have felt seriously threatened or have been attacked while travelling. Learn about the culture, about women in that country and sharpen your wits – naivety is not your friend.
The most violent attack I’ve witnessed was actually in Salford, Britain, where I helped a male victim who’d just been whacked with a plank of wood with nails in it. His skull had been fractured but thankfully he made a full recovery.
And a few more obvious ones…
• Obviously don’t go around wearing clothes that are culturally insensitive or ones that will make life far more difficult for you. Western women are portrayed as easy and wearing super short shorts or skimpy tops in some countries isn’t going to help you. I’m obviously all for ‘women should be respected’ but you also have to respect the country and culture you’re in, too.
• Learn to scowl like a pro. I have honed and perfected what I call the Scouse Snarl. It actually terrifies me if I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. When I do that face walking down the street, even the most aggressive stall vendors often move out of the way for me!
• Last but not least, take a torch out with you. If it’s dark, you’ll need one.
If you’re a parent, all I can say is please do not stop/begrudge your daughter or son from going travelling. Teach them some initiative if you’re concerned. It was the best decision I ever made and I can’t imagine my life having not travelled.