The Women Going it Alone

A couple of weeks ago, I was doing research for a university assignment and I decided to look at solo female travellers. I was a bit worried to begin with, since I didn’t really know anyone who had done it. On the advice of my fiance, I decided to give Reddit a try. He told me that it was a really active community and that I’d probably find someone there who would be willing to give me at least a couple of sentences.

I couldn’t have imagined the response that I actually got. 

I received well over twenty replies to my plea for solo female travellers, and every single one was so eager to talk to me and gave me such good answers and stories about their travels. I’d like to take this time to say thank you so much to every single person. 

handwritten-thankyou

In the article, I wasn’t able to include everyone’s answers (word counts are annoying sometimes) but I still wanted to share what I was able to write. All of these women are inspirational to me, since I was always too afraid to travel alone. So they are my role models and heroes for this week – and it’s why it’s taken two weeks to get this post up.

Here’s the article, I hope that you like it, ladies!

“Wear as few petticoats as possible… Grey is the best colour, or heather mixture tweed, which does not show dust or mud stains, and yet cannot lose its colour under a hot sun.”

This was the advice given to women who were travelling in the 19th century by L.C. Davidson in her book “Hints to Lady Travellers”. Women of that time were treated like china dolls – too big a bump and they’ll break.

19th century female travellers visiting the Sphinx in Egypt.

19th century female travellers visiting the Sphinx in Egypt.

This is not the 19th century, and it’s becoming more common for women to choose to see the world alone. In a survey by booking.com, half of British women said they’re more likely to travel alone now than they were five years ago. However, women travelling solo get a hard time from those around them.

“I was initially worried about going. I had a panic attack at work after the millionth person said “Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re going by yourself!” It was really divided. Many people cheered me on, others told me I was brave. Then others told me I would be attacked and that it’s not safe. That really wears you down after hearing it for so long.”

Liana Penney is from New Zealand and travelled through South America on her own. Many women are put off travelling alone after having experiences like hers. There’s a stigma around solo female travel that makes it seem foolhardy and dangerous. In February 2013, Sarai Sierra – an American mother-of-two – was found murdered in Turkey, where she had been travelling alone. Solo travel for women was scrutinised by the media.

Sarai Sierra was murdered in Turkey, while working on her photography.

Sarai Sierra was murdered in Turkey, while working on her photography.

However, while researching Sierra’s murder, I began reading the comments left on NBC’s online coverage and it said more about perceptions of solo female travel than the story itself.

It’s not hard to understand why some women would be put off travelling alone when just talking about it raises concerns, not only about cultures abroad, but the culture we live in at home. Many solo female travel bloggers defended their community, such as Christine Gilbert from Almost Fearless  and Jodi Ettenberg for Legal Nomads. The problem a lot of people had with the comments made about this story is that the blame is fixed upon Sarai Sierra – not the people who killed her. It propagates the concept of rape culture and victim blaming that is prominent in western society. On the Rick Steves travel site, one of the pieces of advice given to women is

“Wear a real or fake wedding ring, and carry a picture of a real or fake husband. There’s no need to tell men

You shouldn't have to say that you're with a man to protect yourself.

You shouldn’t have to say that you’re with a man to protect yourself.

that you’re travelling alone, or whether you’re actually married or single. Lie unhesitatingly. You’re travelling with your husband. He’s waiting for you at the hotel. He’s a professional wrestler who retired from the sport for psychological reasons.”

One of the most concerning things about this is that women are treated as fair game unless they ‘belong’ to a man.

Lisa Eldridge is a professional travel blogger and enthusiastic solo traveller.  When I asked her about staying safe, she said

“Not all strangers are dangerous, and people that I have met on the bus have turned out to be great friends. Saying that you’re meeting your boyfriend can be just as effective as wearing a wedding ring, which doesn’t deter men in some countries anyway. The world isn’t as scary as what we’re led to believe and some countries can be more dangerous.”

Despite the view that travelling alone as a woman is too dangerous, it was extremely easy to find women who wanted to talk to me about their experiences. I received just under twenty responses and every single one had the same thing to say: travelling alone is definitely worthwhile, and they would recommend it to anyone. The first thing that Anita Bright from Portland, Oregon said to me was

“It always feels indulgent to get to speak about personal experiences, so I am grateful for the chance. Thanks for asking! Those around me are a bit worn out at listening to me tell story upon story, so this feels like a gift.”

The solo female travel community is proud and supportive, and deciding to travel despite the opinions of others. All of these women have impressive resumes in terms of countries they have visited. They have been to every corner of the globe and all of them want to keep going. Emily from the US is 24 and has only been travelling alone for three weeks but finished her interview with this

“I would definitely recommend it. I am already much more confident. The solitude gives me time to reflect. I am constantly forced out of my bubble of security. Most people I have met have been really interesting and fun. Anyway, in just a few weeks, it has definitely changed my life for the better.”

Ida Pfeiffer

It’s 1846. Britain is under the reign of Queen Victoria. The Industrial Revolution is in full swing. Young children are forced to work in mines and in factories. It’ll be a year before Emily Bronte publishes Wuthering Heights and longer still before Charles Darwin publishes some interesting ideas about evolution.

It was in 1846 that Ida Pfeiffer decided she would travel the world. 

Ida Pfeiffer

Ida Pfeiffer

Alone.

Ida Pfeiffer was born 14 October 1797, to a wealthy merchant and had six brothers. Her father encouraged her in her love of sports and gave her the education normally only reserved for men. She didn’t like girls’ clothes much either.

Her rebellion went further than just that. After Napoleon conquered Vienna in 1809, French troops were staying in Ida’s home but she hated foreign occupation. She protested by turning her back on Napoleon as he rode past. 

She married young, to lawyer Dr. Mark Anton Pfeiffer. It wasn’t until their sons were grown up that Ida could consider travelling. Her first trip took her to Turkey, Palestine, Egypt and Italy. She decided to travel to the ‘Holy Land’ since she felt her family would object to that the least. 

In 1846, she set out on a journey that would make her the first woman to travel round the world solo. She visited Brazil, Chile, Tahiti, China, India – where her only belongings were a leather pouch for water, a small pan, salt, bread and rice – Persia (now Iran), Turkey and Greece. The trip took her two years to complete. During this time Ida joined a camel caravan and travelled across Iraqi for 300 miles. 

"The Story of Ida Pfeiffer and her Travels in Many Lands"

“The Story of Ida Pfeiffer and her Travels in Many Lands”

As if one journey round the world wasn’t enough, she did it again in 1851. This time her route took her through England, South Africa, Southeast Asia, Borneo, Sumatra, Australia, America, Peru, Ecuador, the Republic of New Granada (now Colombia and Panama). While in Sumatra, Ida became one of the first outsiders to make contact with the Batak tribe, who were known cannibals.

Ida cemented her status as a rock star after her trip to Madagascar 1857. She was received by Queen Ranavalona I but became caught up in a plot to overthrow the government with some other Europeans. The locals who were discovered were all executed but the Europeans got off lightly – they were expelled from the island.

All of Ida’s adventures were published as novels in Austria and were translated into seven different languages. Despite all of her successes, the Royal Geographical Society of London refused to accept her as a member because she was a woman.

Sadly, it was on the return journey from Madagascar that Ida Pfeiffer caught the disease that would kill her.

Ida’s journey puts to bed some widely spread myths about solo female travellers today, like: “It can’t be done, it’s too dangerous, it’s just stupid.” 

Be brave!

Be brave!

There are other myths like women should wear a fake wedding ring wherever they go or that they should cover up their whole body at all times while they travel, otherwise advances they get from men are their own fault, but those ones get me riled up enough that  I may revisit them and dedicate a whole post to them alone… 

Solo travel can be extremely rewarding and will definitely change who you are. Visiting other cultures can only be a good thing, not to mention all the amazing food and new friends. 

If you are a lovely lady considering travelling solo, then have a look at Girl About the GlobeYoung Adventuress or Adventurous Kate. These are all great blogs and they’re definitely worth a read.

Malala Yousifzai

A man steps onto a busy school bus. He looks around the rows of seats and asks

“Which one of you is Malala? Speak up, otherwise I will shoot you all.”

This is the moment the Taliban in Pakistan believed they were silencing a voice, when really they were strengthening one. Malala was only 15 when she was shot, but she hasn’t let it stop her going on to become an influential activist for women’s education across the world.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai

Malala was born 12 July 1997 and lived in Swat Valley, Pakistan. From an early age she was enthusiastic about school. At aged 12, she wrote a blog for BBC, explaining what it was like to be a girl trying to school under Taliban rule. She wrote about being afraid of breaking edicts set by the Taliban; dwindling numbers of her friends continuing to go to school; and being surrounded by the noise of mortars.

Soon after, Malala appeared on TV, advocating for female education. A documentary about her and her father was made by the New York Times. In 2011, she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

It was as she gained more recognition that Malala’s actions started getting dangerous. She started receiving death threats from the Taliban. It was on 9 October 2012, that Malala was shot in the head. The bullet went through her face, damaging the left side of her brain, then went through her shoulder until the bullet was dangerously near her spinal cord.

The attack on Malala met outrage from the rest of the world. Angelina Jolie wrote a really good article about trying to explain what happened to her children. Offers of treatment for Malala came from all over the world. She was treated in Pakistan and in then in England. 

Education in Pakistan

Amazingly, she didn’t suffer any brain damage and doctors were able to restore her hearing. 

Despite everything she went through, Malala is now an activist for women’s education. She’s met world leaders and addressed the UN. She and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, set up The Malala Fund, which helps support women’s education across the globe.

On 10 October 2014, it was announced that she was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Not all girls have the right to an education, so it’s amazing to see a woman who’s so young stand up for people who can’t do it for themselves. No one can describe Malala’s determination better than herself

“All I want is an education, I am afraid of no one.”