Dangers of Solo Travel But Why It’s Worth It

Dangers of Solo Travel But Why It’s Worth It

Warning: This Post is… Intense

Yesterday, I shared on Facebook Leah McLennan’s article “Why I’ll never stop traveling solo” which was written in response to the rape and murder of two Argentine female travelers in Ecuador earlier this month.  I didn’t follow the actual incident closely at the time because I stay away from depressing news but basically  Maria Coni, 22, and Marina Menegazzo, 21, did something many travelers do. When running low on money in Ecuador, they reached out to their friends for help with accommodation and were put in touch with two men who offered them a place for the night. When one woman resisted the advances of a drunk host, he hit her over the head and she was instantly killed.  The next morning, both women were found dead in garbage bags on a beach.

Apparently, this event caused the Internet to erupt in discussions about solo female travel (even though these girls were traveling together) and caused many people to conclude that these women were to blame for traveling alone, or their parents were to blame for letting them travel alone, or other ridiculous accusations placed in all the wrong places.  Of course, this caused female travelers to respond speaking out against violence against women and victim blaming, with the use of #viajosola (I travel alone) hashtag trending on Twitter and a poem written by Guadalope Acosta from the perspective of the victims, (translated from Spanish)

“Yesterday I was killed… But worse than death, was the humiliation that followed. From the moment they found my inert dead body nobody asked where the son of a bitch that ended my dreams, my hopes and my life was.  No, instead they started asking me useless questions… What clothes were you wearing? Why were you alone? Why would a woman travel alone?  They questioned my parents for giving me wings, for letting me be independent, like any human being. They told them we were surely on drugs and were asking for it, that we must’ve done something, that they should have looked after us… By doing what I wanted to do, I got what I deserved for not being submissive, not wanting to stay at home, for investing my own money in my dreams. For that and more, I was sentenced”. 

As someone who has traveling extensively alone in dangerous countries, couchsurfed and spent time alone with probably hundreds of “strangers”, it’s pretty heart wrenching to read something like this because it could have easily happened to me, if God and my family’s rosaries weren’t keeping me safe.  Obviously, what’s even worse than thinking that I could be dead is thinking that if it did happen to me, people would blame me for being stupid or my parents for being irresponsible.

Queen of the Starfish in San Blas, Panama

Queen of the Starfish in San Blas, Panama

Why I’ll never stop traveling solo

Leah McLennan, the Australian solo traveler whose article alerted me to all this, came to a few relevant conclusions in her article, “Why I’ll never stop traveling solo” but I want to add my two cents and take it one step further.  She writes that she’s been in a few sketchy situations before but fortunately, “Fortunately, I can easily recount these travel stories as none of them turned into an assault.”  She concludes that the good experiences outweigh the bad and

“Ultimately, there’s no one secret to staying safe while travelling, it’s a process of being wise, planning ahead, conducting thorough research and keenly listening to your instincts.
While random and shocking, the murder of the two Argentine backpackers should not hold us back from living life to the fullest and exploring whichever part of the globe we choose.”

She also announces, “I have decided I will not let these negative experiences keep me at home. Besides, violence against women is present in every country in the world, including here in Australia.” I agree with all this but want to come clean about what happened to me in Kenya because, while this is true, I believe there’s even more to it.

Queen of an Albanian feast, thanks to a generous couch surfer

Queen of an Albanian feast, thanks to a generous couch surfer

My experiences traveling alone

“By leaving our safety net, we have thrown our souls upon the wind, exposing ourselves to all the fears and dangers that we sought to protect each other from, and in doing so, we have made ourselves available to experience things that… border on the magical” -Wanderlust, Elisabeth Eaves

Part of the scariest, but also most magical, part of really traveling is how vulnerable it makes you.  You’re in a foreign country by yourself, potentially surrounded by unfamiliar languages, different customs, different values and if you’re a blond and blue eyed, there’s practically a neon sign floating distinguishing you as a foreigner, someone who doesn’t belong.  Whether you want to find a place to eat that won’t give you food poisoning, or want to be safely transported from Point A to Point B, or want a safe place to spend the night and you’re in some random, non-touristy place, you’re often at the mercy of complete strangers.  999 out of 1000 times, I’ve been lucky to have been welcomed into local homes, experienced incredible generosity with home cooked meals, intimate conversation and experiences that would have never been possible if I stayed on a tourist bus.  And these are the reasons I travel.  I haven’t been to 60 countries because I want to visit hundreds of museums, thousands of churches and dozens of ruins.  I have been to 60 countries because I want to see what life is really like around the world, and because I love realizing how despite superficial divisions, all humans are the same: everyone just wants to be happy, loved and safe even the process looks different.

Exploring a temple in Aswan, Egypt

Exploring a temple in Aswan, Egypt

Traveling as a single female, I’ve definitely run into some issues and some potentially sketchy situations.  Egypt was certainly a place I wouldn’t travel alone again as I discussed in this interview, “Is Egypt Safe For Travelers?“.  I traveled after the Egyptian Revolution so tourism was dramatically reduced.  In a lot of places, I was the only visitor and I ran into issues with temple guards taking me into remote places and trying to kiss me, taxi drivers trying to make out with me and so much harassment on the street.  This picture came from my first day in Egypt and sure you can say, “She’s wearing a tank top in a Muslim country!  She was asking for it”  I quickly realized that I needed to cover up as much as possible, wearing long sleeves, knee length pants, scarves over my hair and sunglasses for the rest of my trip.  Prior to this trip, when I learned about women in burkas, I thought, “why do they let men dictate what they wear like that?!?”.  But during my short time in Egypt, I was practically begging for a burka.  And a pair of sunglasses to wear under a burka because hiding was infinitely more appealing than being drooled over, whistled at and grabbed like a piece of raw meat.  But unlike the women who live in Egypt and have to deal with this on a daily basis, all I had to do was hop on a plane and I was free again.

Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor, Montenegro

I’ve also encountered some close calls.  I went to touristy spot about a 30 minute bus ride from Kotor, Montenegro then was waiting for the bus back for about an hour when a young guy offered me a ride.  He didn’t speak much English but made it clear that he was heading back to town.  Part of the reason I came back to the Balkans is that my friend and I had an amazing time in Albania, mostly because of the generous people who gave us dozens of free ice creams and free rides.  Slightly into the drive, I interpreted this guy’s hand motions as, “Have you been down to the beach to go swimming yet?”.  I mimed back, “It’s November.  It’s too cool to go swimming”.  He seemed to say, “You’re silly.  You can’t come to Kotor and not go swimming!”.  So he pulled over, and we descended the rocky incline to a bit of beach close to the road, but the steep hill meant that it was hidden by passing cars.  When we got down there, he started pulling at my clothes and making it clear that he wanted to have sex.  I scrambled up the hill to the closest bus stop and fortunately, I was fine but I knew that the situation could have been a lot worse.  I’ve done plenty of rideshares using Blablacar in Europe but it’s part of the reason I won’t hitchhike by myself.

Hanging out with the men who could have kidnapped me in Georgia.

Hanging out with the men who could have kidnapped me in Georgia.

In Georgia, I was trying to find the train to Yerevan but no one spoke English.  An old man tried to help me, despite not speaking great English.  Based on my intuition, I felt like he had good intentions and even though he and two young men ended up taking me to a random lake, this was a case where my intuition was right, I was safe the whole time and it turned into a funny story (which you can read here).  But still, I allowed myself to be lured to a remote unknown location with three men, a giant knife (for the watermelon but still) and alcohol.

Obviously, I’ve run into situations were people tried to kiss me but I said no and they respected that, but overall, I’ve been remarkably lucky to have run into minimal significant issues.  That changed in Kenya.  For my first few nights in Nairobi, I stayed in the “Nariobi hood” with a couch surfer whose profile was shamelessly self-promotional about how important safety is and how well he treats single women.  This boasting set off a red flag but he had 30 positive references so I decided to ignore my sense of uneasiness.  The first day with him was great… he set me up in my own private room in his flat and we ate goat meat at a local pub (I temporarily suspended my vegetarianism for this Kenyan speciality) and it was cool to experience local vibes in his non-touristy neighborhood.  The second day, he asked to borrow some money but he paid me back that afternoon.  But then his brother asked to borrow money from me, and I was starting to feel uncomfortable so I made arrangements to leave the city the next day.  My host said he could drive me to the bus station but said I needed to pay him some money for gas in advance.  Once again, I felt uncomfortable but I did, and felt good about leaving the next day.  Sure enough, that evening he broke into my room at 3 AM reeking of alcohol demanding more money because his friend was hospitalized and needed money for surgery.  In a choice between paying money and being safe, I always chose the latter because you can always make more money but I was starting to be in a borderline panic about leaving this place as soon as possible.  But when you’re in the Nairobi hood, you can’t exactly run out the door and find guaranteed safety.

My escape plan was one that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with but it seemed infinitely better than my current situation.  This guy messaged me on couch surfing and lived at a nearby village.  He only had one reference but he was an economics major and seemed super enthusiastic and charismatic.  I knew I had a research Skype meeting in a couple days so I was skeptical about the internet connection in his village and his lack of references.  But he reassured me that there was internet and I knew couch surfing wasn’t big in Kenya and as a new member, he probably didn’t have the chance to meet many people.  I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach about going there but was so desperate to get out of the house in Nairobi that I proceeded with the plan.

Our first day was great.  His village was beautiful.  We munched on sugar cane from the garden.  His brother had been working in Canada so it was fun to talk to him about his experiences close to my home.  His mom was amazing and cooked the most delicious meal.  While I was in the same room as my host, I had my own bed and the first night everything was fine.  The next morning, he tried to kiss me, I said no and he started acting weird.  We were supposed to hike a mountain but instead he made some weird excuse about helping his cousin and left me alone in his house for like 7 hours.  Later, he came back drunk to find me in bed, listening to music and quite unhappy about the situation, also because he lied about good internet in the village so I told him I was planning to go back to Nairobi the next morning for my Skype meeting and because I felt like he lied about a lot of things to get me to his village then he abandoned me for the day.  It’s still a bit difficult to remember that night because it was quite unpleasant but basically, he forced himself on me, multiple times, without a condom.  I fought it a bit, and thought about trying to find his mom or brother or something, but he just made me feel so worthless that I just kind of laid there, trying to block out what was happening and I clearly remember a weird out-of-body feeling, probably some embedded self-preservation technique, an emotional disconnectedness and thinking “this is worse than being dead”.

Reunited with friends in Italy.

Reunited with friends in Italy.

The next morning, I scrambled out of the room, leaving my iPod and a bunch of things and made his brother drive me to the bus station.  I contacted a friend, who had met another couch surfer in Nairobi, and fortunately he let me stay with him in his nice house in an ex-pat neighborhood.  The whole 6-hour bus ride I was an absolute mess, my stomach in knots, I kept shaking, emitted spontaneous noises that sounded like I was being strangled.  I was worried about getting AIDS and I immediately blamed myself for going there, for not fighting it harder and a billion other ridiculous things.  My previous texts revealed that I was requesting his help last minute because of a traumatic experience and I was visibly shaken.  He listened to my tale, without judgement and provided the perfect calm, reassuring presence that I needed.  He called his doctor friend and arranged for me to visit a clinic the next day to get tested, a primary concern of mine.  I booked flights to Italy because even though I knew I was in a safe place with this host, my body was in full on panic mode and I couldn’t even breathe properly until I landed in Rome.  Coincidentally, two of my good friends from home were in Rome the same day so I was able to spend a day with them.  Italy’s sunny skies, good food and nice people made what happened to me in Kenya seem like a nightmare, almost not real.  I continued traveling for another month and a half, and mostly felt like I put it behind me and didn’t tell anyone what happened, especially not my family because I didn’t want them to “freak out”.

Alone at home in Connecticut.

Alone at home in Connecticut.

While travel provides a lot of pleasant distractions, coming home and sitting alone in my parent’s house meant that I had to spend a lot of time alone with my thoughts, including what happened in Kenya.  At certain points, feelings of panic started to resurrect at random times and when, I felt on the verge of a mental breakdown, I told a few people, mostly out of necessity.  But still, I mostly kept quiet, because its not something you can easily bring up in causal conversation especially when most of my friends back home were getting engaged, planning weddings and buying houses.  And partially, I think it was because I blamed myself and I didn’t want anyone to tell me I deserved it.  But in the few people that I confided in (which you can count on one hand), one had gone through something similar and others knew people who had (in America, not while traveling).  These things don’t just happen in Africa.  They happen in America.  And they happen often.  They happen to strong, independent females who look blonde and smiley and look like they are perpetually on vacation.

 Purpose of This Post

I guess the purpose of this post is two-fold.  First, yes, solo travel as a female can be dangerous.  Life is dangerous.  Traveling, really traveling, is definitely not all palm trees and rainbows and things that go perfectly all the time.  Yes, you need to be careful and not blindly put yourself in danger and always have three back up plans lined up and ready to go.  But (1) you don’t have to be in a foreign country or an unfamiliar place for these things to happen (2) For every bad person, there’s a billion amazing nice people who are willing to help complete strangers, like you.  And, once again, being a middle class American, I could book a flight and largely leave this situation behind, although the scars remain.  I heard awful stories of what African women put up with everyday.  Kenyan guys who invite girls to their homes, and make their wives pretend to be their sister as they date this new person.  And that’s nothing.  Statutory rape in Swaziland that makes it have the highest AIDS rates in the world.  Genital mutilation in Tanzania.  This is why it was so hard to me to move to New Zealand and pretend to feel passionate about fixing physics classes, when all of this stuff is happening each day.  I don’t want to go back to Africa because I think I can fix it.  I want to go back because these women inspire me.  Ever since the rape, I’ve just felt really empty, unhappy and disillusioned where as these women can smile for children they might not have wanted and be strong as they suffer from diseases that were forced upon them.  So travel is important to help you realize how lucky you are, and be inspired by people who are in much worse situations than yourself and still so strong, still so open, still so generous.  I had something in common with these women who suffered, but I felt completely disconnected from people I found in New Zealand, who at first glance, seemed oblivious and too happy and clueless.

The second reason is that I’ve realized that being alive and not living is worse than dying.  I think being stopped in my tracks with a lupus flare and having arthritis as an 18 year-old made me realize that breathing, when you can’t do the things you want to, isn’t enough to have a satisfying life.  I’d rather die early and be fully alive for each day I have on this planet then be paralyzed by fear or be content with a subpar life.  Confessing what happened to be in Kenya is one move I’m making to help me be happy and free again.  It can help make me a better boxer but I’m not going to let it make me feel isolated and alone.  Keeping the story bottled up inside started to eat away at me, and once I read about the Ecuador incident, I knew I couldn’t be silent anymore.  Eric Weiner, one of my favorite authors, wrote an article Bhutan’s Dark Secret to Happiness where he potentially attributes Bhutan being one of the happiest places on earth to its citizens meditating on death five times a day.  Things become less scary when you think about them.

“I realised thinking about death doesn’t depress me. It makes me seize the moment and see things I might not ordinarily see.  My best advice: go there. Think the unthinkable, the thing that scares you to think about several times a day.” -Linda Leaming, A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan About Living, Loving and Waking Up¸

By keeping this incident to myself, it was allowing to hold power over me, something that caused me to be humiliated, embarrassed and ashamed of.  It was promoting this cycle of self blame that emerged after the incident in Ecuador.  But speaking out allows me to talk about something important even though I have to spend most of my week uselessly feeling like an expensive desk decoration in Auckland.   I just hope that sometime soon, I can do more.  In the meantime, I’m going to keep traveling because there’s more to life than having an unbroken, perfect life in a safe little bubble.  And yes, it’s great to travel in a group if you have a good group to travel with but that’s not the answer either.  But parting advice is definitely listen to your intuition.  When I’ve ran into bad situations, it is because I’ve ignored the red flags and nagging feelings of uneasiness.

Jumping for joy in Bali- awesome travel buddies from my summer in Singapore.

Jumping for joy in Bali- awesome travel buddies from my summer in Singapore.

Song of the Moment: Not Every Man Lives by Jason Aldean & Fix You by Coldplay (I used to listen to this song on repeat when I was sick in college)

Book of the Moment: The Born Frees: Writing with the Girls of Gugulethu by Kimerbly Burge (about a creative writing course for women in a township of South Africa)

If something similar happens to you: I hope it doesn’t but if you have a problem while traveling using couch surfing, be sure to report the issue so other people aren’t also endangered.  Also, the HIV virus takes time to produce the antibodies that are detected by common tests so make sure to get tested repeatedly, including at least four weeks, and at least three months, after the incident.  “HIV rapid tests measure antibodies and antigens in the blood stream and, while 85% of people produce antibodies four weeks after exposure, the other small proportion of 15% take up to three months.  Because of this potential delay, also known as the ‘window period’ we always recommend a retest at the three month mark.”

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2 Comments

  1. H-A-B
    Jun 27, 2016

    What a nicely written blog Katie! Thank you for sharing your travel experiences.

    As a solo traveler and a womens self defense instructor I’d like to share a tip of my own which I hope your female readers will read, remember, and share with many other women and girls far and wide.

    I have been teaching Krav Maga to women and girls for over 5 years and we teach a very effective technique which I feel should should be in every woman and girls arsenal. We are a women only event, run by women, for women, and there is an extremely effective technique what we teach to women of all ages, which I feel we should all share as far and wide as possible.

    The technique is the “groin grab” self defense technique which is to be used against a male attacker, which is now taught in many womens self defense classes, and there is actually a little trick to it…

    To execute this technique, you’re going to take your hand and quickly grasp between the attackers thighs underhand. Its going to feel like you’re “cradling” the testicles. Quickly grab hold of, or snatch the testicles and dig your fingertips into the fragile skin BEHIND the scrotum. Then, once you have a good grip, you turn your hand into a vice, with your fingers digging inwards, around the back and over the top of the testicles. If you do it right, you should feel the testes INSIDE your hand which is holding the scrotum. You want, whenever possible, to hook your fingers over and around at least one testicle. One of them is enough.

    Then, with your hands in a claw and your fingertips latched around the testes, you turn your hand sharply, as though you were turning a doorknob. Simultaneously, squeeze hard and pull the testicles away from his body as fast and as hard as you can. DO NOT LET GO OF THEM. This is very important. What happens then, is that your assailant usually screams out in pain and then tries to grab the wrist of your hand holding him in a futile attempt to try to get you to release him. DON’T. He then quickly loses one of the natural advantages he usually has over us (his strength) within a matter of seconds. Vomiting, curling over, collapsing and convulsing is common. Shock and unconsciousness can set in within 8 seconds. If he initially starts to fight back then you tuck your head in and keep squeezing his testicles until he faints. This only takes a matter of seconds. When he collapses, which he will, you get away to safety as quickly as possible and call for help.

    It’s never too late to perform this technique at any stage of an attack, and that even includes the option of reaching down if he’s on top of you, but it is easiest to do when the testicles are exposed and closest to you where you can grab hold of them. I’ve actually met several women in my life who have fought off their attackers in this way and one did it when her attacker was on top of her and raping her at the point he lost control. Don’t ever hold back. Some women scream while they are doing this, and some women think of a loved one being harmed to help overcome any bad feelings of hurting someone else even if they are being hurt themselves. Do whatever you have to do if you feel it helps.

    If done properly, and done with enough force, this technique can even lead to the testicles rupturing. It’s actually easier to do than most women believe, and just about all of us have the capability to injure an attackers testicles in this way – whether we are young girls still of school age, or whether we are great grandmothers. We, as women, have no part of our bodies as vulnerable as a mans testicles. After all, if you think about it testicles are just small objects of extreme vulnerability to pain squishiness wrapped in a delicate layer of skin which offers them no protection at all from this kind of counterattack by a woman. Most importantly, this fact holds true no matter what size your attacker is, nor how strong he is. And no matter how angry he is, and how much he’s threatened what he’s going to do to you, he’s going to drop. Don’t let anyone (usually men who are very uncomfortable with thoughts of women beating them in combat) try to convince you otherwise.

    I once worked with a group of Somali women who informed me that grandmothers, mothers, and daughters between generations shared this powerful method of fighting off men. They even have a name for it in Somalia and they call the move “Qworegoys”. They were surprised that women in the West didn’t seem to share this information as much as they expected, and even more surprised that most women didn’t even seem aware of this technique.

    I know that this advice would have been a difficult read for many women, but our lives are worth far more than a rapists testicles and we should be prepared to do whatever it takes to get away to safety. Please help to share this advice with as many other women and girls in any way you can. It could one day be a life saver.

    • Katie
      Jul 3, 2016

      Wow! Thanks Helen! I took one Krav Maga class but we didn’t learn this. But I think it is incredibly important for women to have some tricks up her sleeve to defend herself and this sounds like an effective strategy. That’s amazing that you worked with Somali women… I bet that was an incredible experience. Thanks for reading!