SWF, Travelling Solo

“Just grab an Uber,” he said.

I was debating how to get from the airport to my hotel in Chennai the next day. I didn’t answer. It wasn’t worth the argument. But I knew I wouldn’t take an Uber.

It reminded me of the video that went around a few months ago, where the speaker asked the men in the audience what they did to avoid assault. Someone made a joke about not going to prison. Then the speaker asked the women, and the men got quieter and quieter as the list got longer and longer.

  • Don’t leave your drink unattended.
  • Hold your keys between your fingers in the parking garage.
  • Don’t take a room on the ground floor.
  • Don’t drink too much.
  • Watch what you wear.
  • … and so many, many more.

A lot of the concerns I have when travelling alone are common to any solo traveller, but there are definitely some that are gender specific.

I try not to become my fear, but some caution is warranted. I am older and I hope wiser, so if I am alone I would no longer go home with a stranger in a strange town, head to a party after the bar closed, hitchhike, change my plans to travel on the back of a motorcycle with someone I’d just met. Those led to great stories, but as someone pointed out, those stories are told by those who survive. The other stories are in the news.

At home I felt that my age gave me a certain invisibility, but I discovered in Egypt that where blonde hair is not common, it can cancel that protective shield. In the debrief from my tour in that country, every woman except one said they had felt uncomfortable at some point, and not one of the men had. But, as someone added, no more than she would in parts of her home city.

Gracious hosts in Dorndiel, Germany

In the hotel, I think twice about getting on an elevator with one man, or a group of men. That doesn’t mean I don’t do it, but I am aware. Walking alone down a street, when one man approaches, I will usually opt for not meeting their gaze, unless I feel that they are staring, and then I will meet the gaze assertively.

I dress more conservatively than I do at home. Even in the heat of India I carried a scarf to drape over my chest and shoulders. If I was by myself at the pool I would wear a coverup until I would actually swim, and once I even wore my wrap skirt over my bikini into the water.

I traveled alone to China when I was married, but somehow it was different, knowing that there was someone at home who would notice almost immediately if I disappeared. At friends’ request, on this trip I try to post at least one “I’m still alive” photo a day, but what could they do if the flow stopped? No one has the exact details of where I am, and who I’m with.

I don’t want to turn into a traveller who plays it safe, who take the limousine to their 5-star, Western chain hotel, and only speaks to the people there who look and sound like them. So: I stay overnight at the house of people in Germany whom I have never met before; I download Ola and call a tuk-tuk for a half hour trip to cook Madras curry in someone’s kitchen; I go up and talk to the band at break and am invited to a community dinner; I arrange to meet people in a restaurant or the British museum; I take the local transit or walk the 10 blocks instead of having the doorman flag a cab. I have made many new friends.

Learning to cook Madras curry with Jyrashree

And at the airport in Chennai? I went to the pre-paid taxi kiosk that the locals use. That gave me some assurance it was a registered taxi, and I paid a third the price of the hotel limousine.

I’m not foolish. But I do try to be brave.

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