The Not-so-curious Case of the Single Woman Traveler
By Namita Kulkarni on May 1, 2014
While I’m the last person to find it at all ‘curious’ that a woman would travel alone, I’ve been at the receiving end of a lot of curious, even baffled, looks for gladly pulling off the apparent double whammy of being a single female and travelling alone. I’ve been regarded as a strange aberration by a good number of random strangers, who thought I was perfectly normal and hunky-dory up until the point where it came up in conversation that I was “travelling alone”, for a month no less. And no, I did not have to travel back in time a few centuries to find these unsuspecting souls, who I had unwittingly shocked the living daylights out of. I met them on my recent trip to Bali, of all radical places in the world for a woman to travel alone. Its female-friendly reputation and low crime rate aside, hadn’t it pretty much turned into Single-Woman-Traveler Central overnight a long time ago, after a certain Ms. Gilbert (Respect) wrote her wildly successful memoir? Of all places on the planet, I’d expected that this is where a woman travelling alone would be seen as de riguer, a cliché worn thin by now, with maybe even a few classic jokes of its own – anything but a shocker.
So there’s the baffled look followed by “Oh, a girl/woman travelling alone, on your own for a month! How does it feel?” Sounding totally mature, I go “It’s AWEsome!” Another baffled look later, I get that classic raised-eyebrows-downturned-mouth slow nodding accompanied by “You’re very bold, it’s so brave of you”. Done with such heart-felt candor, I can almost hear a backtrack of resounding applause from inside their head, while I wonder if this moment warrants a grand speech I forgot to prepare. On some level, I’m totally enjoying this newly discovered shock value I didn’t know I had, but I’m too cool to let that show. Compelled by some honest humility, I attempt to demystify my jaw-dropping bravery, with “Well, I grew up in India …”. Which is to say, I have a black belt in badassery and street smarts from growing up dodging street sexual harrassment (physical and verbal) every time I stepped out. And shutting down chauvinism, patriarchy and misogyny every time they reared their ugly heads (a lot!) in workplaces, colleges, social interactions and homes. And retaining my sanity through it all. So if they are going to be baffled by my bravery, they might as well be so for the right reasons – not for “travelling alone in Bali”, which in all seriousness sounds like a tiara made of rainbows compared to life in India as a female. Sure it’s a big bad world but that’s as true in your backyard as anywhere else. And to my mind, the dangers/hurdles that one faces and punches through as a woman in India (street sexual harassment, attacks on women for being women, deep-seated misogyny, sexism, patriarchy, you get the drift) are hardly less threatening than the dangers that travel exposes me to. In fact, I felt way safer on an Indonesian party island full of variously (even ingeniously) intoxicated strangers from everywhere (Gili Trawangan, you have my heart) than I do in broad daylight in my upmarket neighbourhood in Bombay.
So yes, that kind of stranger-certified assurance of my “boldness” will always seem misplaced and a tad archaic. Makes me wonder if they’ve been living under a rock all this while. What else are they going to be amazed by? The fact that I have a bank account in my name with money I earned, that I voted last week (for a woman!), and that if I marry someday it won’t involve an exchange of goats and cows? Maybe they should follow me around with a camera one of these days and capture an entire 24-hour series of amazements nonchalantly performed by me, one after the other, all in the casual course of my daily life. And if the mood hits me, I’ll even throw in a freebie karaoke performance of ‘I will survive’ for them, while their archaic heads reel.
And here’s an irony which seems to have completely escaped them. Given that the no.1 danger to women – globally, historically and statistically – is men, and that most crimes against women are committed by men known to the victim/survivor, shouldn’t it stand to reason that a woman is actually safer travelling alone than with a man? (The no. 1 danger to men? Good old heart disease. Though I’m glad to know a lot of women who could change that in a day if they wished and gladly claim that dubious honour just to level the field, but that’s another story).
With a little probing into those astonished minds, I gleaned that what astonished them is the sheer autonomy exercised by a woman when she deems herself capable and deserving of a solo travel adventure, confident in her ability to take care of herself in unfamiliar surroundings, and happy as a clam to have her own desirable self for company. No external validation or permission slip or honeymoon package required. That’s where the shock and awe set in.
To test the sexism underlying the conversation, I decided to swap the genders in it. Talking to this Swede rapper guy I met at the festival, the moment he let it slip that he was – hold your breath – travelling alone – I went “Whoaaa!!! Damnnn!!! What’s that like!!!” Striving to hit the same pitch of amazement as I had by then grown accustomed to hearing. My reaction, if I’m at all emotionally astute, stopped just short of appalling him and questioning his self-belief and sanity, while he must have wondered why I’d suddenly and inexplicably gone from normal to unhinged. Bewildered by my undue bewilderment, yet politely trying to hide it, he said that he did have two friends with him on the first leg of his trip, but now he was getting around by himself just fine and that it was no big deal really. I nodded knowingly at him, the words ‘no big deal really’ striking a deep chord within me. When I ran into him the next day I let it slip that I was travelling alone too. Which perplexed him no end. My recent undue bewilderment now looked even more ridiculously ‘undue’. Highly bemused, he insisted on an explanation for my reaction. I joked that I had deep-seated double standards that perhaps needed a rethink. A few shared laughs later, I asked him what he had thought when I had reacted that way. With a slew of eloquent profanity (perhaps a Swede thing, or more a 25-year-old hip-hop rapper thing, or both), he said that my bewilderment seemed to have carried a lot of unfounded judgment and presumption about him. Quite the deja vu for me! My little feminist social experiment had worked and no men had been harmed in the process. I should do this more often, I remember thinking.
I’m going to take a wild guess here that it would very much puzzle and amuse any man – being marveled at for bravery, for a task that essentially involved buying himself flight tickets, getting a visa or two, maybe having a rough plan (or not), being of reasonably sound mind (or at least able to fake it, like most people I know), and then just showing up and putting himself out there without self-destructing at any point. With a basic instinct for self-preservation, like all living beings everywhere. Brave guy, eh?
And for the record, women have been exploring the world on their own for centuries, even to the furthest places and under the most treacherous conditions, as this inspiring animation points out, in all of 4 minutes: http://ed.ted.com/lessons/the-contributions-of-female-explorers-courtney-stephens.
I don’t know about you, but I know how I want to react the next time I meet a man travelling by himself.