Solo Travel in a Dangerous World
Disclaimer: Sometimes when writing about the world of travel, one must make a few generalizations. Take everything you read in this post with a grain of salt, as I do not mean any offense. I merely am passing on my (admittedly out-of-date) opinions on an issue that I find pretty relevant to my life today. I wouldn’t be traveling to these places if I didn’t think they were fascinating, dynamic, and educational places to visit!
It surprises people that I – a 100 pound vegetarian girl – traveled for three and a half months on my own. Aside from the usual concerns about loneliness (unfounded, as it turns out), most of the queries regarded safety. Family friends express their dismay that my parents would let me venture out into this cold, treacherous world on my own. After all, “Don’t you worry that something will happen?”
My parents first assure them that they did not “let” me do anything – I’m an adult with my own bank account and a great deal of common sense, and they trusted that I wouldn’t get into too much trouble. Nevertheless, my mother told me afterwards that she prayed every day for my safety, and it probably made them feel better that I stayed with friends almost everywhere I went and made sure to check in with them when leaving and arriving in every country.
But with the upsurge of violence occurring all over the world – from the rape terror in Delhi to the accidental shooting on Koh Phangan to the armed robbery in San Jose – the fact that global travel inherently involves some risk is becoming evermore prominent.
Safety: The Past and the Present
Yes, I’m buying pepper spray – my last canister was unfortunately left in Seattle when I realized I forgot to pack it in my check-in and definitely couldn’t bring it on carry-on. But, as I berated myself last time I went on a big trip, I also forgot once again to sign up for Krav Maga or self defense courses with enough time to actually learn anything. Add to that the fact that I’ve completely vegged out in the past month, never picking up a racquet or even going for a walk with my mom. As a result, I’m getting weak – I can feel it in my back, and my doctor advises I do a series of back exercises to correct and alleviate the pain that comes from my ever-so-slight scoliosis. Carrying a backpack that I could live in (and pretty much have) probably aggravated the problem.
I’ve been reading a lot of stories of rape and assault, and a good number of those are coming from Berkeley and San Francisco. I make Michal walk practically to my house every time I go over to his, and yet I’m planning to travel around India alone? And this is all coming off of a three month solo tour around Europe?
Somehow, despite the concerns of pickpocketing and violence in Europe, I felt for the most part safe and undetected. Carrying a huge backpack was a huge tip off, to be sure, and in many parts of the continent, my brown skin revealed me quite clearly to not be a native to the area. But a Westerner’s arrogance about relative wealth definitely played a role in casting a (perhaps false) veil of safety around me. If I looked to be of average or below-average income, robbing me wouldn’t be as fruitful as burglarizing a house – though to be honest, being a techie-traveler probably also made me a lot more paranoid about keeping an eye on my belongings.
.. And the Future: Staying Safe in the South, Solo
India will be the first country in which traveling alone is actually viewed as strange, or even alarming. Though the distances will not be so great, common attitudes regarding young, single females still maintain that it’s unusual for a woman to cross state lines accompanied only by a 12 kilogram backpack. India is definitely modernizing, and I don’t begrudge it for its customs; but considering my Voyage will first take me through the more traditional South India, I have to recognize that there are certain rules of social etiquette that cannot be ignored without attracting unwanted attention.
I have friends and family at every port, so transportation innercity isn’t a concern (or so I think now – plans aren’t so solidified), but there’s still a part of me that hates long solo bus/train rides – partially for the boredom, and partially for the safety. I would feel the same way in Thailand, or Cambodia, or even Turkey, so before everyone raises their voices to drown out my concerns, know that I only single out the Motherland because India is the only country on this leg of the Voyage during which I’ll be traveling alone. Aside from the initial ride from the airport to our Bangkok hostel, and then back to the airport to greet Jens, I will be accompanied by a strong, capable giant (at least compared to me) throughout the rest of the journey. I won’t be abandoning the Spidey Sense that kept me safe all throughout Europe, but it definitely is comforting to know that Jens will be with me as I navigate these new places and cultures.
Maybe part of my concern stems from the fact that I’m in a strange position as an ABCD (American Born Confused Desi). I’ll be expected to behave in a certain way, which is completely understandable. But I won’t know the subtleties of what that means, because I grew up as a bit of a free-spirited wild child even amongst Americans. I think I’m pretty respectful, but I do believe that there are serious problems in Indian patriarchy and government structures, and voicing my opinions about these subjects contradicts my pledge to honor and respect the culture, warts and all. It’s a bit of a double-bind, and one I’ve found to be much easier to communicate with other American-born Indians, but it’s more arrogance to assume that I have any authority to be telling another world how to think.
I should note: true Westerners moving through India might even have it a bit easier than ABCDs. Since I don’t speak Hindi, and my Telugu is atrocious, I’m kind of an embarrassment to myself and my culture. But most people won’t assume that straight off – they might expect that I was brought up somewhere other than India, but not that I have failed as an Indian outright. Obvious foreigners receive the benefit of English, straight off the bat, but I will have to awkwardly request English menus and repeatedly remind people that, sorry, I don’t speak Hindi/ Telugu/ Tamil/ Kannada. Foreigners are also given somewhat of a free pass, as long as they show they’re trying. But Indians are expected to adhere to all social customs, lest we be pegged as spoilt or rude. It takes some getting used to, and it’s a sensitive subject for many – in fact, I’ve probably offended someone already.
What I’m realizing more often is that it’s a luxury to be disconnected from the culture, but to show an interest in it. However, this varies from country to country, continent to continent. Europe’s opinion towards tourists is oftentimes extremely different than Asia’s – for one, Europe’s neverending flow of tourists has given Europeans (primarily the French, let’s be honest) undue license to judge foreigners and their attempts to blend in, whereas Asia’s relatively recent entry onto the global tourism front has insulated it a bit against the exhaustion of adapting to a Western palette. Plus, Asian culture still remains “exotic” enough that tourists seek to adjust to it, rather than the other way around; this allows foreign tourists an almost adorable quality that wouldn’t be accepted of tourists of the same ethnicity.
Of course, I’m talking about certain types of tourists – there are still douche-bags who seek Thai women for unsavory activities, and who internationally besmirch their country’s name – and certain regions of certain countries. I haven’t been everywhere, and I’m generalizing extensively, but I just wanted to nail down this point: I’m not sure if traveling alone in a country where I could presumably blend in would be better or worse than sticking out like a sore thumb. But the answer to this question is about to be answered in just over a week, so whether I like it or not, I’m going to become the guinea pig to my very own experiment. I’ll update this blog and let you know how it goes.