Reflections on Solo Female Travel6 min read

On International Women’s Day, exactly a month after I began my current trip through Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, I am taking myself out to a lush breakfast in Istanbul. Over çay and an assortment of fresh, beautifully colored foods, let me reflect on what it can, in the less-than-fantastic-moments, be like to travel as a woman on her own.

Istanbul's Blue Mosque
View from Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia, looking out towards the Blue Mosque

Solo female travel: a fundamentally different experience?

During my current trip, my male travel companion, with whom I traveled for two weeks and who is also mainly used to solo travel, told me he was unable to understand my compulsion to figure out both accommodation and local transportation ahead of travelling. He remarked: the best thing that could happen to you would be is to have no place to sleep and stay at the station or on the street. What I realized then was that not only did we have fundamentally different concepts of how to travel well, but also a completely different set of experiences and fears.

Yes, he told me he had spent time in South America and Cuba sleeping on the streets, because accommodation was too expensive or simply because he had not found any place to stay. I looked at him with complete incomprehension. The closest I’ve come to spending the night on the street are the nights I spent at airports to catch early flights. In Gdansk’s neon-lit airport hall, I wasn’t letting myself fall asleep, constantly aware of a drunk Polish guy who spent hours talking at, rather than with me, bringing me a coffee against my wishes, trying to cover me with his jacket, and repeatedly offering me sandwiches his mother made rather than leaving me alone.

The town of Göreme in Cappadocia, Turkey
The town of Göreme in Cappadocia, Turkey

What kind of traveler are you?

The question really is what kind of a traveler you are. I’ve heard of (and highly respect) women who can be fearless, sleep on the streets, and hitchhike on their own. In Baku, I met a girl who was hitchhiking alone through the Caucasus and Iran without a phone, backpack, or money. This is admirable and, I think, very brave. However, it is also not me. When my phone broke last summer when I was in Sarajevo, I enjoyed indulging in the thought that I could continue on without one. When I realized, days later, that not only could I not find my way without Google Maps (admittedly a skill one should acquire), I also understood that I rely on my phone for a feeling of safety. Knowing I can not only locate where I am, but also communicate this location, I realized that while plugging in may keep you from being fully present, it is also, for me, necessary to feel like I’m not alone in environments that can sometimes feel hostile and dangerous.

Tblisi sea, Georgia
Tblisi sea, Georgia

I have never encountered a situation in which I felt my safety fundamentally threatened (which I realize speaks to my luck). Instead, I’ve been in so many situations in which I feel like I’m thinking five steps ahead, scoping out the potential dangers and trying to plan how I could react to different situations that could come up.

Reassured by my pocket knife

I want to share a recent anecdote: two hours outside of Baku one can find the mud volcanoes of Qobustan, a barren landscape in which natural gas causes liquid mud to “bubble.” This place is reachable only by tour or by taxi, you need a knowledgeable person who is familiar with the volcanoes’ location. I took public transportation as far as possible and then switched to a taxi. My driver, in his fifties, spoke only Azeri and Russian, so our communication was limited. We spent around three hours together, mostly driving in his old Lada to the prehistorical petroglyphs and the volcanoes. I only realized how uncomfortable I actually felt once we reached the volcanoes and the other tourist groups had departed, leaving us alone. The driver beckoned to me to follow him to another volcano further away. The moment I realized that I was aware of and reassured by my pocket knife in my jacket, I realized something was off.

Qobustan mud volcanoes, Azerbaijan
Qobustan mud volcanoes, Azerbaijan

When ‘nothing’ happens

Of course, ultimately nothing happened. “Nothing” includes him stroking my leg, trying to hold my hand, even kissing my cheek. I have photos with him in front of the mud volcanoes, in which we’re embracing and smiling. Looking at those pictures afterwards, I became angry at myself. I had let him go further than was comfortable for me, being sure to constantly smile and laugh at things he said and did. I was aiming to please the man I was paying for a service, wanting to be seen in a particular way by him and promising myself certain benefits from the whole thing. By the time I realized this during our drive, I concluded I was too far gone to now act differently. Stuck with a man with whom I couldn’t communicate, in a remote location in which there were no crowds to seek anonymity’s protection in, and whom I relied on bringing me back safely, I felt like I had to play along. My relief in the bus back to Baku was intense, and with it my feelings of guilt and anger directed at both him and myself.

When I experience someone’s friendliness, I need to assume it is because I’m a woman.

And this is what strikes me most: as a solo female traveler, I often rely on being a more-or-less young woman to receive people’s help. When I’m lost or don’t know where to go, a smile usually gets you far. But: I feel like I’m being helped or otherwise gain benefits only because of my gender. I’ve talked to guys travelling solo who’ve had people be incredibly helpful to them. The difference is that they don’t need to reflect whether they’re being helped because they’re men, they can assume the help they receive is due to people’s kindness. When I experience someone’s friendliness, I need to assume it is because I’m a woman.

Ulterior motives

Another anecdote: in the last hostel I stayed at, a guy and I were getting along well. We had nice conversations and I felt comfortable around him. Over beers the last night I stayed there, he suddenly started telling me how much he liked me, how he felt he knew me and how he would like to travel with me. I reacted untypically and became openly agitated and angry, but nevertheless still unable to say what I really wanted, which was how dare he express these feelings towards me when I hadn’t solicited them.

Shahidlar Monument, Baku
Shahidlar Monument, Baku, Azerbaijan

What’s wrong with these men? They don’t know what it means to have a reciprocal relationship, to share feelings and emotions after they have developed in tandem. They not only don’t understand how to read another person, but they are, contrary to their statements, truthfully uninterested in those they claim to be otherwise. We exist as objects and only in our relation to them, we are not asked what we want or what we feel, not considered in any kind of statements or decision-making. Why these “relationships” are so anger-inducing is because they are about us only on the surface. We exist in these men’s minds as some superficial character, and the way they treat this figurative version of us causes discord when we hear their description of their ideas of who we supposedly are.

I need to think a few steps ahead and watch where things could head, and make sure that I brake them in time if it is not what I want.

My “friend” reacted to my anger confusedly. Now the guy with whom I had spent a few hours over the last three days, was saying how he never thought I could be so angry or violent. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Since then, I have become mired in my frustration because I realize that, as a straight woman, dealing with straight men can never be neutral ground: I have to assume that I’m having nice conversation not because we are two intelligent people wanting to discuss and compare our views, but because there is an ulterior motive. I need to think a few steps ahead and watch where things could head, and make sure that I brake them in time if it is not what I want.

Old bath house, Sheki, Azerbaijan
Old bath houses in Sheki, Azerbaijan

Questioning people’s kindness

This, in the end, is my experience as a solo female traveler. Be aware to the point of wariness, plan ahead, and question people’s kindness. Still, always put forwards a gentle smile, and you’ll be sure to go far. What it would be like to travel without overthinking, without worry, being completely present in the moment? What would it be like to be actually listened to, to have an open conversation partner who is willing to listen to experiences and fears concerning safety, even though and maybe even because you never had to experience them yourself, to reflect on how you may unintentionally be perpetuating the problem?

As amazing as I’m sure fearless travel can be, it is not for me, because I won’t be able to forget my impediment: a woman on her own; someone who, while trying to get the most of her travels, will sometimes get overwhelmed by her anxiety, worry more than may be objectively necessary, and know that wariness will be ever-present. Enjoying the sun shining in on one of the first spring days in the fascinating and excessively beautiful city of Istanbul, I am stuck between the exuberant excitement of travelling and my accumulated fatigue.

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