After travelling solo on and off for the last 20 years, I've recently thought back to the moment I realised being a woman meant, for other people, being at risk.
The idea of a woman travelling the world alone conjures up so many fears and anxieties in other people, that we can so easily take those negative emotions and project them onto ourselves.
For me, this was the first and most stark lesson I learned before setting out on my first solo trip at age 19. My plan wasn't anything remarkable in terms of travel, a year backpacking and working around Australia with a few weeks exploring the islands of the South Pacific. It seemed like a pretty big challenge to me, at the time, and it was in lots of ways. But mostly I was excited about exploring those far flung places and the challenges I would no doubt encounter and have to overcome, alone, for the first time in my (young) adult life.
When I began telling people about my plans, it was only then that I began to doubt myself. Responses varied from, at best, “wow how brave!” to at worst “that's so reckless, think of your safety” and “you won't know anyone, what if you get in an accident and there is no-one there to help you”. There was an implied vulnerability about me in almost every response. These reactions struck fear into me where there was only natural apprehension before. They came at me even where there was no evidence whatsoever that I was any more stupid, reckless and therefore “vulnerable” than any man planning a solo adventure. It didn't matter that I was reasonably bright, resourceful and street smart. My femininity, it appeared, was my downfall.
This was also the first time I felt, viscerally, the perceived difference between me and a man my own age, and the thing I wish I'd known then which I know now is that, none of it was true. I was not reckless. I wasn't naive. And I wasn't brave, not really. You don't need bravery to travel. After all what is so brave about the act of booking a flight or train ticket or applying for a visa. It takes minutes and is ludicrously simple these days. But what I believe every potential independent traveller needs, regardless of their sex, is resolve. If you have decided to do it, then you will. Other obstacles such as financial constraints will be overcome if you know you're getting on that flight in a few weeks. It's getting to that mental state that can seem like a challenge. Uniquely so, if you're a woman.
Even though I was always going to do my trip, I definitely felt my resolve start to waiver when those fearful scenarios were planted in my imagination. What if I do end up dehydrated and alone in the Outback, delirious with fatigue, chased by dingoes and eventually eaten by them? Or, perhaps more realistically, what if I get mugged? Who's going to help me? The truth of the matter was, I didn't know who would help. If anyone would help. But what would happen if I got mugged in London, where I was hanging out nearly every weekend at that age? I never thought about it, and even if I had, it wouldn't have stopped me from visiting the city. So really, what was the difference?
And what I merely suspected back then, but have since learned to be true is that the dangers of exploring unfamiliar places don't really differ that much to exploring places you know well. The likelihood of you being attacked in London may well be as likely, or even less likely, in the city or town you are planning to visit. It's recognising that life itself is fraught with danger if you look at it that way. For everyone, man and woman. It is no different when you travel.
The other important lesson I've learned is not to fall into the trap of feeling, because a place is unfamiliar, you won't be able to figure things out. We are all much more able to handle unforeseen circumstances than we might think. Since my first foray into independent solo travel I've found myself being chased through the Sumatran jungle by an angry orangutan (she gave up), had a creepy guy I met at a bar in Santa Fe knock on my door all night (he eventually went away) and rode a motorbike up a steep mountain road in Queensland in the middle of the night, going way faster than I thought I could handle (I could). The point is, I was fine. That hike through the jungle was one of the most challenging and rewarding I've had, that night the creepy guy was at my door was during a road trip through New Mexico which turned out to be my favourite of all the US states, and that motorbike ride ended with me on a mountain top looking at a sky so full of stars I couldn't take them all in. In short, yes there will be dangers and risks but everywhere has its own set of dangers and risks. The best thing you can do to prepare yourself is do enough research before you arrive to feel comfortable, and know your physical limits, always. You're far more likely to come to harm on the road or in the sea than anywhere else.
But back to now, before you've left and when you're still trying to reach that illusive, resolute state of mind. These are the two most important lessons I've learned.
Don't listen to the people who have never done it. Listen to the women who have. They are your tribe and they know the truth of it.
Above all, just go. A good dose of self induced fatalism will force you away from your comfort zone to experience places, cultures and people you would never encounter otherwise. This is the prize. And it's the best of them all.
So if you've always dreamt of hiking in the Pyrenees or photographing Rio or watching the sun rise over the temples of Bagan, the two most useful words to have in mind when you book your flight is “fuck it”. Travelling solo as a woman is much like being a woman at home – people will always believe, consciously or not, that your womanhood is your vulnerability. It's nonsense. Be smart, be cautious only when you really need to be. But above all, be someone who travels.