Never underestimate the power of the Open Mother Road. She will push you to your physical, spiritual, and psychological limits — then nudge you one step further. She will teach you to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. Communing with her has been the most formative experience of my life: I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Every woman should travel sola at some point in her life — be it a weekend escape or a year-long journey. But all too often, fear holds us back.
Fear of our safety.
Fear of getting lost.
Fear of being alone.
Women never really travel alone, however. We are constantly becoming someone’s daughter or little sister. As my Czech friend Marketa once put it: “We get looked after.” This was illustrated for me the afternoon I arrived in the town of Cesky Krumlov in the middle of a thunderstorm and — unbeknownst to me — a medieval “Festival of the Five-Petalled Rose.” The mobs of drenched travelers I met on my way toward the center of town warned me that every hostel, hotel, and pension had been booked for miles for months. Cold, wet, hungry, and lacking either a reservation or a back-up plan, I wondered what to do. Suddenly, the sky exploded and the rain became a downpour. I darted into a pension for cover. The clerk, a portly woman in her late 40s, looked up.
“No room!” she clipped.
“Could I just stand here until the rain stops?”
“Don’t you have anywhere else to go?” she demanded.
I shook my sopping head.
“Where are your friends?”
I shook my head again.
“You’re all alone?!”
When I nodded, she muttered something in Czech and grabbed the phone. After a few calls, she scribbled something on a sheet of paper and handed it to me. “I found you a room. Now hurry up and change out of those wet clothes!”
Indeed, single female travelers (SFT) elicit the empathy — and curiosity — of all walks of life. There is always extra shelter or food for one of us. That said, we do face a few obstacles on the road that our male equivalents do not — from basic safety to hygiene to being forced to abide by local social customs that we might find oppressive. The following are tips on how to deal with these challenges, gleaned from my own travels and those of other SFT I know.
1. What To Take. Pack only what you can carry for half a mile at a dead run. This is the golden rule of foreign correspondents and should be adopted by sola travelers as well. A good method is to lay out everything you think you’ll need, then pack up half of it and double the money. A few things I try to never leave home without: a versatile pocket knife, a strong piece of nylon rope, a flashlight (or better yet, a headlamp), a combination padlock, a rain poncho, blank paper, pens, a journal, condoms, and a LOT of tampons. Which leads us to Tip No. 2.
2. Feminine Hygiene. A friend of mine traveled the developing world for nearly two years with a single device — a menstrual cup — and swears it is one of the greatest contributions to womankind. You just insert the cup into your vagina and empty it a couple times a day. No strings, no wings! Another friend eliminates her menses altogether by taking Depo-Provera, a shot of progestin that can prevent ovulation for intervals of up to three months. Other SFT take along O.B.s or other non-applicator tampons, which take up half the space of regular tampons and won’t get tampered with by customs agents looking for drugs. (Twice — in Canada and Colombia — I sadly watched agents destroy my boxes of perfectly good tampons because I fit their pot-smuggler profile.)
I wish I could adopt one of these options but admittedly — they freak me out. So I just pack a hell of a lot of tampons — and not just any kind. Americans seem to be the only women of the world with heavy cycles: I have never once found a store overseas that carries my size (super absorbency triple plus). Super-flowing Sistas Take Note: don’t leave home without them!
3. Money Storage. Every traveler has their own proven method of keeping their money and valuables safe. Some sew little pockets on the insides of their clothes; others stash emergency bills and contact information into their bras or shoes. Throughout my travels around the Bloc, I kept a copy of my passport, a couple of traveler’s checks, and some money in a hidden waist belt, then stored the important stuff (passport, airline tickets, credit cards, bulk of money and traveler’s checks) in a hidden thigh pouch. Then one morning on a non-Bloc stop in Istanbul, I got tired of that annoying bulge around my belly and decided to ditch the waist belt and transfer everything into my thigh pouch. Naturally, that was the day disaster struck. (Read Tears from Turkey.) I now advocate “spreading the wealth” — leaving a little money everywhere, from your backpack to your person to beneath the mattress in your hotel (if it seems secure). If you are going somewhere theft is a serious problem (i.e. Colombia or Brazil), consider carrying a decoy money belt or purse — that is, something to hand over if you get mugged. I’ve met foreign correspondents who collect expired credit cards, IDs, and keys for this very purpose.
Before you go anywhere, leave behind a folder with your itinerary, contact information for any friends you might be visiting, and copies of your passport, visa, driver’s license, student ID, traveler’s checks, and credit cards with your parents or someone else you can count on. Also, try to memorize your passport, credit card number, 1-800 credit card replacement number, and pertinent contact information. Finally, what American Express says in their commercials is true. Their Istanbul office promptly replaced my traveler’s checks, advanced me money, and let me call my parents for free. Their hefty annual fee is a pain, but you can always cancel it when you return home. I’ll never leave home without it.
4. Male Repellent. One of the most challenging aspects of being a SFT is dealing with aggressive men. While women can be harassed anywhere in the world, the probability is higher in some places than others. I have personally found Russia and the former Soviet Union to be equivalent to the United States in terms of lurid looks and inappropriate comments. (I once got chased down a dark alley by drunk men in Moscow, but similar things have happened in America as well.) In China, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Viet Nam, I had no problems with men whatsoever, and would highly recommend this region to first time sola travelers. I was catcalled from many a street corner in Cuba, but this somehow didn’t bother me much — partly because the things they said were rather clever, partly because the men who called out were, well, hot. Though I hate to perpetuate stereotypes of a badly misunderstood area of the world, I must admit that my two weeks in the Middle East (Egypt and Turkey) intimidated me from further sola exploration there. In Istanbul, I was harassed unrelentingly, and many of my SFT friends have had similar experiences both there and throughout Morocco. If you decide to venture to this region sola, pack very conservative clothing, invest serious time in studying the local language and culture, and arrange to stay with families if possible.
Some women wear fake silver wedding bands and carry photos of hulky men they call husbands as a form of male repellent. This is an excellent idea, but I tend to focus more on learning a few key phrases in the local language. “I’m meeting my boyfriend in a minute. He is a lieutenant in the US Marines,” is a useful one, as is “Thanks so much for inviting me to your ______ with you. My husband — a martial arts instructor — will love to come.”
Guilt/humiliation is a good strategy for dealing with men who molest you on crowded buses or subways. Try saying loudly and firmly: “How would you like it if someone treated your sister like that?” or simply: “Shame on you!” Chances are, your fellow passengers will come to your rescue. (If you turn around and slug the guy, however, they likely will not.) In conservative/religious settings, you might also try quoting passages from the local holy book.
5. Safety. Lonely Planet is very good about pointing out safe places for women to stay in their guidebooks. As a general rule, pensions, homestays, bed and breakfasts, and hostels are far more “women friendly” than hotels or motels. If that is all you can find, however, abide by the following: use only a first initial when checking in. Request a room that is not on the main floor. Always take the elevator instead of the stairs. And never leave your key where someone can see your room number.
6. Haggle Like Crazy! Though it might seem intimidating at first, this can actually be one of the funnest aspects of traveling. In some countries — most memorably Egypt — I brought down prices by nearly 75 percent through aggressive — but polite — negotiation. A few rules: only haggle when you really want something. (It is bad form to haggle for the sake of haggling.) Decide on the object’s value to you before asking the price. If they say 40 and you are willing to pay 30, ask for 20 and allow yourself to be talked up to 30 in increments of 2 to 5. If the transaction doesn’t progress as you’d like or the starting price is truly unreasonable, try walking away. The price will likely drop another 10 to 20 percent — and if it doesn’t, you might have hit upon the retail sale value of the item. To nail that last 5 percent discount, try appealing to their civic sensibilities. Claiming to be an exchange student brought me drastic discounts in the Communist Bloc (although in Russia, they sometimes asked for proof). Identifying myself as a volunteer documentary-historian for a Web site for kids earned me free room, board, museum admission, and occasional car repairs throughout the United States.
Do keep in mind that no matter how good of a haggler you become, you will probably still get ripped off, just by virtue of being a foreigner. Consider it your way of revitalizing the local economy.
7. What To Wear. This can be the hardest aspect of being a woman on the road: conforming to local gender roles/social customs. Although foreign female travelers might be forgiven/excused for pushing the limits of local dress codes, it is simply disrespectful to wear tank tops and shorts in more conservative societies (especially the Middle East). Breaking these codes will also make you a target of sexual harassment, as my friend Kandy and I discovered during our Spring Break vacation in Egypt while we were exchange students in Moscow. Envisioning luxurious sunbathing on the Red Sea, we packed little more than bikinis, cut-offs, and mini-skirts. That outfit worked in Hrygada, a beach town that primarily caters to Novie Russkie tourists, but it was a nightmare in Cairo. We eventually had to join a group of Russian male tourists to ward off the advances (and in turn got hit on by them).
As for dress codes in the Communist Bloc, it depends on the area. Big city Eastern Europeans take style seriously: my mud brown corduroys, ripped jeans, and hiking boots made me feel like an androgynous pauper there. I also found that former Soviet women are not afraid of a little color. If you don’t wear make-up, be prepared to feel washed-out amidst the turquoise eye-shadow and Pepto-Bismal pink blush. Georgia and the Central Asian republics (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, etc.) tend to dress conservatively in the countryside (long skirts and kerchiefs or scarves), but downright outrageously in the cities (mini-skirts and spiked heels).
If possible, spend some time flipping through magazines and renting contemporary movies from your destination country and pack accordingly. Do try to resist the temptation of going totally “native” with local traditional dress, however, no matter how fabulous it might be. It will be considered disrespectful if you wear it incorrectly (which, when you’re talking about six yards of sari, is easy to do). After living in China for nine months, I worked up the nerve to wear a traditional qipao to a banquet. My colleagues seemed to appreciate it, but I definitely got some funny looks from those who didn’t know me (all of whom were wearing Western cocktail dresses). I tend to be overly sensitive about these sorts of things, but there is a fine line between admiring local culture and exoticizing it. If you are going to a wedding or ceremony and your local friends throw you a sarong, though, by all means wear it!
8. Shitting Pretty. You take a fairly substantial gastrointestinal risk when you travel abroad, particularly in the “developing world.” There are many rules on how to keep out of harm’s way (i.e. “Cook it, wash it, peel it, or forget it”) and I’ve seen them carried out to the extreme. One girl in my Moscow dorm painstakingly peeled the skin off everything — including mushrooms — before sauteeing them; a guy used bottled water for everything — including washing his face. I, meanwhile, ate absolutely everything in Russia, and when I got tired of boiling my drinking water, I slurped straight from the tap. Never did I have a problem, and this gave me something of an attitude. (My stomach is made of steel!)
So when I arrived in Beijing, I started sampling every dumpling, stir fry, and chick-on-a-stick in sight. Once again, I had no problem, and my ego grew. I became downright fearless, snacking on everything from sea slugs to yak penis stew (neither of which I’d recommend). Then a colleague invited me out for Mongolian hotpot one evening. This meal consists of dangling raw vegetables and assorted meats into a boiling caldron with a pair of chopsticks until cooked, then dunking into spicy sauces before eating. Divine. My problem was that the caldron burned the hell out of my fingers, so I didn’t let my raw chicken, fish, and lamb bits cook long enough. I threw up three times that night, and around 2 a.m., the cramping began. It came in the form of contractions that literally caused me to sit up in bed and scream. Like giving birth. To Satan. That morning, a friend escorted me to the hospital. Diagnosing me with “Beijing Belly,” the doctor prescribed some funky black pills (which I never took) and lots of Sprite (which I did). He told me to return if the cramping hadn’t subsided within 24 hours. Amazingly, at precisely 2 a.m. the following day, it did.
So that was pretty bad, but the street stalls of Thailand are what truly ruined my intestinal chamber. Though I made an effort to eat only at the busiest stalls, like you’re supposed to, I absorbed something there that hasn’t left in the past five years. I’ll spare you the gory details, but please take note: if your stool suddenly turns yellow (or bloody, or has pus in it) seek medical attention immediately.
Here are the tips I plan to abide by from here on out: Avoid salads and other raw vegetables, unpasteurized products (like milk and yogurt), iced drinks, cold meat and cheese platters in Soviet-era hotels (where it’s probably been sitting out for hours), shell fish, and milk or cream in your coffee or tea. When choosing a restaurant, try to check out the bathroom first: if the Board of Health would condemn it, the same probably goes for its kitchen too. Give your body time to adjust to local spices before hitting the street stalls — and only patron the busiest ones when you do. If you wind up somewhere even remotely sketchy, go vegetarian — or at the very least, avoid chicken and fish, as it goes bad fast. In many restaurants in China, you can actually ask your waitress to grab the aquatic creature of your choice straight from its aquarium and bonk it on the head in front of you. (That’s hard to watch, but at least you’ll know it’s fresh.) If you do get sick, drink 7-Up or Sprite and monitor your stool. If you eat Mongolian hotpot, toss all the food inside the caldron at once, let it cook a good five minutes, then slowly fish it out with your chopsticks, veggies first, chicken last. And always chew your Chinese broccoli very carefully: you might choke if it comes up later.
9. Tears Work. I hate to recommend that women rely on their perceived fragility or weakness to get by, but in my experience, occasions arise when this is the most effective approach. There is just something about a lonely foreign woman crying that opens the doors, wallets, and hearts of the people of this planet. It is how I got all of my critical documents replaced in Istanbul in record time, without penalty or rush fees. (Read Tears From Turkey for details.) It is how my friend Daphne evaded costly traffic violations across Africa and literally stopped a departing airplane in Angola. Use only as a last reserve, but if you’re going to do it — go full throttle. If you’re trying to avoid an exorbitant fine, jail sentence, or getting thrown off the Trans-Siberian train in the middle of the night for not having your papers in order (which happens….), think: Oscar. Drop to your knees. Convulse. Make such a scene, passersby get involved. If the situation is truly critical, consider fainting (but only if you’ve gotten enough sympathetic people involved that your oppressor/ bureaucrat can’t just toss your body off the train!).
Another strategy is pretending to get sick. I once read of an elderly expat in China who never left home without his Chinese doctor’s business card. Whenever his cabbies turned kamikaze (which happens…..), he would hand it to him with an ominous “I suffer from severe heart failure, particularly when driving through hutong at 90 miles an hour like this. If I have a heart attack, just drop me off here.” The cabbies instantly came to screeching halts. That’s genius — although younger travelers may have a harder time pulling it off. If you really need your taxi to slow down, try shouting “I’m getting carsick!” and heaving.
SFT should utilize extreme caution when resorting to their feminine guiles. I have only done it in extremely public places, like Customs at the airport, in cultures where it is very accepted, like South America. Never to put yourself in a situation where a male could call your flirtatious bluff.
10. Return The Good Sister Karma. Spread the love. Be nice to female travelers you encounter at home, and try to help out your local sisters abroad. Make it a point to support female artisans, vendors, tour guides, and taxi drivers wherever you wander. Your money will almost certainly go where it is needed most.