What’s it like to be a female solo traveler?

I’ve taken a number of solo trips in my life, both on roadtrips in the U.S. and through China, Japan, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Colombia.

In China I worked and when I wasn’t working I stayed in hostels.  In Japan I slept on overnight buses and Couchsurfed.  I also Couchsurfed in the U.S., Jamaica, Colombia, and Costa Rica. I also stayed in a hostel for a couple nights in Jamaica and Costa Rica when I couldn’t find a host.

So while I’ve traveled alone as a female, it is not the typical experience of most who are traveling primarily for work and staying in hotels.

It was lonely.  I met amazing people, but the memories were lonely.  I was engaged and married most of the time I was traveling as a single woman and I always begrudged the loneliness of those experiences. I felt like I had two lives and that the duality would never be solidifed into a single timeline – a single life.

But I would rather have had the duality than to have never traveled at all.  The loneliness doesn’t compare to the ache of wanderlust.

So I went. Over and over and over again.

I know the question that everyone wonders. They wonder because I have two X chromosomes.  The world will get me. It will eat me alive.  Right? Wrong.

The world took care of me.  I let it.

Women are generally fearful. We’ve been conditioned. In other countries, it is even more pronounced.  When you travel as a woman, you must interact with men constantly.  They are the primary Couchsurfing hosts and the primary users of hostels and other forms of alternative travel. In many countries, they hold most of the public facing jobs, especially in transportation and travel.

Cultures are different and the way women, especially western women, are perceived can lead to lots of misunderstandings.

The world still took care of me. I let it.

In China, I stayed in a hostel and met a guy from Tunisia. We trekked around together.  He was a Muslim. Maybe the first Muslim I ever hung out with. My family is Jewish.  We talked and enjoyed the Bund together.  We communed as travelers and discussed our differences and our similarities and remarked how strange it was to be doing it so far from both our homes.

In Japan, I Couchsurfed with a guy in Kyoto who bought my overnight ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto. He never met me. I paid him when I arrived.  I met two other Couchsurfers while staying at his house.  He wasn’t all there, but he was a decent human and I met my Dutch twin there.  We cruised Kyoto and chatted with him at night.

In Jamaica, my host was in Kingston.  Her children’s father and a friend picked me up in Montego Bay – the other side of the island.  They took me to exchange money.  Hundreds of dollars.  They gave me a warm Red Stripe and took me to their house to pick something up. I waited in the car outside.  We went on a tour of Montego Bay. They told me what their lives were like. We talked. We communed. I thought this could go really wrong.  Instead it went right.  They dropped me off at a locals bus and negotiated the rate for me.  I listened to the chatter of Patois for a few hours until the bus dropped me off at an intersection in the ghettos of Kingston.

My host picked me up in a cab from the middle of the street.  She took me home and introduced me to her kids and her mother and the rest of the extended family.  She had a room and shared a bathroom. The room had a queen size bed and a twin.  They gave me the twin and the five of them shared the queen.  The ants shared our food and the mosquitos shared our blood.  I taught the kids Uno and left the cards for them.  She taught me about giving everything when you have nothing and I left my heart for her.

kids2

With her kids before they went to school on the day I left.
Back in Montego Bay, I stayed at a hostel for a couple nights.  Walked to the locals beach and swam with them. The water is the same as in the water at the resorts – and it’s free.  There are children and people who have just left or are one their way to a job. I met a guy who sold weed.  I bought a bottle of Jamaican rum and we hung out at the beach all night.  I hadn’t smoked in years.Paranoia   sunk in and thoughts of him drowning me in the beautiful crystal blue ocean began to swirl in my head.  I got up quickly and he said relax, I’m not going to hurt you.  I’m not sure if I felt something or if it was just the weed.  He could have hurt me.  He didn’t. I’m pretty sure it was just the weed.

In Costa Rica, I got on a bus in San Jose. Jaco bound. Stayed with a single guy. He had bunk beds.  He offered a massage. I declined.  He took me zip lining instead.  We had fun.  Ate with his friends. Swam in the pool of the resort he managed.

Met another local at a beach cafe.  Took him up on the offer to have a tour.  He assumed that meant a tour of his bedroom, too. I declined and walked back quickly from the deserted area of the beach.  No, I didn’t want to hold hands. Yes, I was sure I was married. Yes, I was sure I wasn’t interested in sleeping with him. He got the point. We parted ways immediately.  They’re not all just being friendly.  Looking for more.  Be direct, firm, but spare feelings. Leave safe.

In Colombia, stayed with someone working for the Austrian Embassy. Met a female Couchsurfer in Orlando and we traveled together. We traveled with him and his boyfriend to a friend’s beach house in the north. Planes and buses.

The Couchsurfer and I took another bus to a smaller town to surf.  Stayed at the host’s parents’ house.  Went out drinking.  She and I slept in different rooms. Woke up to his dog on my bed and him rubbing my shin to wake me up.  Asking if I was sure I was married. Asking if I wanted more. No, no thank you.  His friend did the same thing to her.  She was a six foot tall curvy lesbian. He wasn’t much bigger than me. We laughed them both off together the next day and didn’t drink the next night.  His mom made us breakfast. We went horseback riding in the jungle and ate at a house by the side of the road with no electricity.  We had to take pictures of our food with the flash on to see what we were eating.  The candlelight wasn’t bright enough to make it out. It was chicken leg with masa.

In the U.S. I stayed with a dozen hosts.  Men and women.  Rideshared back from NYC with a Croatian who had been living in Italy for 20 years.  The ride was tough and we didn’t get along well, but I was safe.

In summary, when interacting with men in the capacity that I did as a single woman far from home, there was almost always a demonstrated interest.  A direct, firm, non-embarrassing no was enough to redirect the interaction or dismiss interest altogether.  Same goes for street harassment, catcalling, and benign reaches for the transient other with the two protruding X chromosomes.

No, I don’t want to be saved.

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