Why I won't let fear block me from the intoxicating delights of travelling alone as a woman

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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A few weeks ago, two young Argentine women travelling across South America found themselves in a situation familiar to almost every backpacker: they had run out of money.

Doing as many had done before them, they reached out to their friends for help, and were soon put in touch with two men who could offer them a place to sleep for the night.

Before morning, José Maria Coni, 22, and Marina Menegazzo, 21, had both been raped and brutally murdered. Their bodies, stuffed into plastic bags, were later discovered dumped on a nearby beach.

Sadly, it took only a matter of days after news of the murders broke for the free-for-all we call the Internet to light up with a spate of typically misogynistic remarks. Rather than condemn the men responsible for taking two young lives, the public appeared to blame the women for travelling alone with a series of questions.

After all, why did their parents allow these women to travel alone? What were they wearing when they were attacked? And, really, what did they expect from such reckless pursuit of adventure?

I wish I could say I was surprised at the speed with which people began shamelessly heaping blame on the young victims, but I wasn’t. For women, this is a tale as old as time: those who fall victim to men are repeatedly subjected to the automatic assumption that they brought it on themselves.

What did surprise me, though, was the ease with which women travelling alone was linked to danger.

As a 27-year-old woman who has spent plenty of time travelling alone, I’ve never felt myself to be at a heightened risk compared to fellow men travelling.

And I’m not alone: in the days after the young women were attacked, Paraguayan student Guadalupe Acosta took to Facebook to defend solo female travel. Her passionate post, shared over 730,000 times, has sparked a movement on social media of women speaking out on their right to travel to whichever country they wish without the accompaniment of men.

Within a day of the post going live, the hashtag #viajosola – Spanish for 'I travel alone' – was trending on Twitter, with brilliantly defiant women speaking out on their right to travel solo. "Backpacking solo in Colombia was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life," wrote one. "It's our world to explore too," wrote another.

Personally, I can remember very clearly the first time I travelled alone. I was five years old and my mother put me on a plane headed for Qatar, a seven-hour long journey that would reunite me with my father who was working in the Middle East at the time.

Of course, as a minor, I was accompanied on the journey by a friendly air hostess, but she was a stranger to me: my five-year-old self still felt like a brave and intrepid explorer heading out into the unknown, even if I was wearing a giant lanyard with my name and address printed on it and refused to let go of my beloved toy rabbit. 

The bubbles of excitement I felt on that journey were addictive and, after a childhood involving a number of similar independent trips, I finally switched my L-plates for a backpack at the age of 18 and ventured as far as I could go, to work as a barmaid in Sydney.

While my parents were supportive of my decision, they feared for me in a way I doubt they would for a son, with my mum still lamenting the 'grey hairs' my travels gave her.

Regardless, I spent the next year working and travelling my way around Australia, South East Asia, Indonesia and China. The sense of freedom I got from finally being able to make my own decisions was intoxicating: I chose where to eat, who I spent my time with and which country to journey to next.

Travelling alone is truly liberating and something I believe everyone should be able to experience at least once in their lives, regardless of their sex. There are no statistics to say that female tourists are more at risk than males, and yet solo female travellers are often given grave warnings about where they shouldn’t travel alone.

‘Be careful’ was a phrase I heard many times during my trip, whereas men travelling to the same areas would readily be given tips and advice on the best places to go.

But why should women be offered a shrunken version of the map to explore when we hold the same passports as men? Violence against women is present in every country in the world, including here in the UK, but that shouldn’t instill a sense of fear within us.

While random and tragic, the deaths of the two Argentine backpackers shouldn't hold us back from exploring whichever corner of the globe we choose.

I faced a number of dangers on my travels, from being mugged to chased down the street by a man on a motorbike, but I don’t believe ownership of a penis would have made these situations easier to handle.

Equally, I don’t believe being accompanied by someone with a penis would have made these situations easier to handle.

I have walked the Great Wall of China, haggled with vendors in a Cambodian street market and swum with sharks on the Barrier Reef, all without the help or assistance of men, and the experience was all the better for it.

Of course I took safety precautions, as any traveller would, but I didn’t employ special measures because I am a woman.

Travelling alone helped regrow my confidence, boost my self-esteem and broaden my horizons in ways that I would never have imagined. I met people who I would never have talked to had I not been alone and made a handful of treasured, lifelong friends.

So I salute the women taking to Twitter to share their experiences of #viajosola, and I urge you to go out and do the same.

Image: courtesy of author


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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter