Don’t Tell Me Not to Travel Alone
I recently booked a return flight to South America. I’m flying in and out of Peru, but the country I am most anticipating is Colombia – and no, not for the reasons you’re assuming. I want to trek through the Amazon jungle in the same country as I can lie on a sugary-white Caribbean beach. I want to salsa in vibrant cities and drink a hot cup of coffee freshly brewed from the best beans in the world. I want to explore a country that isn’t on the well-trodden backpacker path, because experience tells me that these are the countries that will last in my mind most vividly after the fact. I am, in a word, excited.
So excited, that I haven’t stopped raving about it to my friends.
I live in a small country town, and my closest friend here is my neighbour’s son. My neighbour is well-intentioned, but he is from another time. He openly yearns for the “good old days” when women stayed inside the home and couldn’t open a bank account without a man’s permission. When I moved into the little block of flats he is the landlord of, he gave me the easiest car space to park in, explicitly because I’m a “young girl.” He is anti-abortion. We get along, but he has taken it upon himself to act as my personal guardian and boundary-setter while I’m here, despite the fact that I am well into my twenties and that we have no relationship beyond landlord-tenant. There is nothing I can do that is not his business. Seemingly, he thinks I am too stupid to accomplish basic tasks myself, or that if I can’t do something there’s no need for me to learn how, because men should be doing it for me.
Naturally, when he learned I was planning to travel to Colombia, he was unable to keep his opinions to himself.
“Frances, I hear you’re planning on travelling soon!” he began. I responded enthusiastically and we talked harmlessly for a few sentences. Then he arranged his face into an expression of pious condescension and plunged in with what he had clearly opened the conversation to tell me. In the tone of a parent telling an over-enthusiastic child that they aren’t allowed to stay up with the adults after dinner, he said, “Now, I don’t think you should travel to Colombia alone.”
The following is obviously not an exact transcript of his reasons why, but the gist was, “I know you’re excited, little girl, but what you don’t seem to realise is that the world is dangerous! Bad things can happen to you in a place like Colombia. You are very sweet, but you don’t know about the world. I do. Let me fulfil my role to protect you, because I am equipped to do that, and you are not equipped to protect yourself.”
My heart started pounding. However, I tried to tell myself he didn’t mean any harm, gritted my teeth, and replied, as brightly as I could manage, “Well, it’s my decision!” That was the end of it – for about a week. Then he brought it up again, with a new routine about how he was just worried about me. I have no doubt he’ll get a few more repetitions in before I finally get on that plane.
This is a man who, to the best of my knowledge, has never left the country, while I have spent over a year of my life, added up, backpacking overseas, much of it alone.
This is also a man who has never experienced the world as a woman, while I, obviously but importantly, have.
Does he really think that I’ve gotten to the age of 24 without cottoning on to the fact that the world is dangerous for me? That I need him to explain that to me?
Of course travelling to Colombia alone would be dangerous. Travelling anywhere alone as a woman is dangerous. Doing just about anything as a woman is dangerous. Statistics and news stories and personal experiences that are seared into our memories tell us that we always have to have our guard up, that we always have to be careful. If I lived my life with the goal of avoiding situations where evidence tells me my body may not be mine to control, I would be forced to avoid parties, clubs, university, relationships, family and family friends, high school, church. Yes, hostels and foreign streets, too.
It’s true that on my very first night as a backpacker, as a fresh-faced and naive 18-year-old in Europe, I experienced the sickening feeling of having my vagina grabbed without my consent. It’s also true, though, that I have experienced that feeling in Australia, the receiving end of the choices of Australian men. I have friends who have experienced much worse, in environments people like my neighbour would think were much safer than travelling alone. At Australian parties and in their own Australian homes.
I know that Colombia is going to be more dangerous than an Australian country town. But wherever they are, women learn, whether they want to or not, how to take calculated risks in order to live their lives with richness and colour, in spite of danger. I made a decision, at some point in the last few years, that I wouldn’t limit myself because of gender-based fear. Every woman makes that decision, or the opposite decision, to varying degrees. It is impossible not to make it. So the fact that this man dared to tell me, in the patronising manner of a seasoned adult who really does feel terrible about spoiling my fun, that I shouldn’t travel alone, is insulting in the extreme.
He undoubtedly had good intentions, but the fact is, good intentions or not, these little discouragements masquerading as concerns can have a tangible effect on a young solo traveller. They can chip away at your fuck-it-let’s-just-throw-caution-to-the-wind-and-go bravery and make you doubt your plans and your capabilities. They can get inside your head. I’ve travelled enough now to ignore the naysayers, but if you’re a woman planning your first trip, please make sure you ignore the naysayers too. I’m not going to tell you that nothing bad will happen to you or that there aren’t any risks involved, because that definitely isn’t the case. Only that, if there are people in your life like my neighbour, that think you should limit yourself in order to be safe and proper, remember that they only know the world from their own perspective and experiences, not yours. Make sure your decision is your decision, and that your assessment of whether or not you can do this isn’t hindered by ill-advised outside opinion. Or at least make that outside opinion mine: you can and should do this, so get on that plane.
Cover by Christian Gertenbach