Deciding to embark on a long journey can be a difficult decision, especially if you have never done it before. Planning on doing it alone, is just plain terrifying. But it’s terrifying like in the way you feel when your small car is clinking up a rickety roller coaster. It’s quieter than you imagined and you suddenly forget all the reasons you had used to convince yourself to get on in the first place. You feel a small panic start to manifest in your chest. If there was a way to stop and get out, you would. But then you look around and realize no one else is worried. So, you take a deep breath and wait for the drop.
The year before I applied to teach in Thailand, I had applied to teach English in France but had been rejected for the program. I remember feeling deflated and absolute sadness for weeks after I got my rejection email. I had so badly wanted to live abroad and after coming to terms with France, I still had this urge to get up and go. I was not content to put my desire to travel to the side just because one country didn’t want me. That’s why I started to look at Southeast Asia.
Because of the emotions I experienced after getting dumped by the French government, I never really doubted my decision to leave for Thailand while I was waiting for my drop. My family was excited for me, my boyfriend was excited for me and a lot of my friends wanted to plan a trip to visit before I even left. I had all the support in the world, which made applying for another teaching program that much easier. It was the reaction of loose acquaintances, very extended family and family friends that started to make me second guess my upcoming departure date.
I would tell them, excitedly, “I’m leaving for Thailand in a few months!” and I would only get concerned questions from them. “Are you sure that’s safe?” “Isn’t it dangerous there?” “Your boyfriend is going with you, right?” It might be important to note that I’m from the suburbs of Chicago, and currently live in the city of Chicago. I was getting these questions about my safety from people who lived in a city where it’s more likely to get robbed than it is to successfully hail a cab.
It’s normal for your parents to be worried about you all the time about everything. If I tell my mom I was out until 1 a.m. the night before, the first words out of her mouth are usually, “You really shouldn’t do that, that’s not safe.” But why was it that people I barely knew were suddenly so concerned for my safety? They don’t care when I’m out until 1 a.m. but they care that I’m traveling alone. It was enough to put that seed of doubt in my mind that I shouldn’t be doing it. Why?
In an article written for Thought Catalogue titled, “Why Women Should Travel Alone,” writer Koty Neelis says, “Solo male travelers are admired for their bravery and adventurous personality, and they’re encouraged to travel alone at a young age. Solo female travelers, however, are often met with judgment, concerned tones, and raised eyebrows.”
Once I got to Thailand and started talking to my fellow women travelers, I realized we all had pretty similar stories when it came to the everyday reaction about our plans. Kayla Armgardt, from Albuquerque, New Mexico was in my orientation group last November. We were placed in the same school and ended up living together, and this subject came up a lot between us. We both had boyfriends back home, and shared frustrations over those who questioned why in the world we would ever leave them. As if it was so insane that a woman should leave the comfort of a relationship in search of a challenge, of a different perspective, of learning to be alone and being okay with it.
Kayla said, “Right before I left to teach in Thailand, I ran into a family friend whose daughter had just left to teach abroad in Asia with her fiancée. I still vividly remember her wary, crinkled forehead as she expressed how brave I was to be going to Thailand all by myself. Yet the tone of her voice didn’t convey admiration for my strength, but rather a profound sense of anxiety for my decision. Looking back, the conversation really irked me. I thought to myself that I don’t need a man to always be by my side. Why does our society deem females as unfit solo travelers?”
Was it jealousy? Were these worried strangers realizing that they, themselves, do not have the emotional means to embark on such an adventure so they are putting their own insecurities onto me? Or, do I dare say, that their concern is just a mask for the kind of sexism we, as a society, have been conditioned to believe.
After contemplating these responses for months and months, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is no. People are always going to hate on what you do in life, whether it’s what kind of sandwich you eat for lunch or it’s the decision to drop everything to explore the world. The people who matter will be there to support you, but ultimately you should do what you want to do.
It was the memory of that constant itch and the immense sadness I felt when I found out I wasn’t going to France that drove me to get on the Thai roller coaster and stay on. A few times I felt that maybe I wasn’t making the right decision and maybe I shouldn’t go, but then I forced myself to remember how I felt after getting rejected the first time. Those feelings reaffirmed why I applied in the first place and that if I didn’t go, it would be a decision I would regret completely for the rest of my life.
Traveling alone gives you the chance to explore the world without the influence of people you already know. You will learn who you are without being around familiar faces and grow your independence.
Yes, as a woman traveling solo, you do need to take extra precautions. It would be nice if we, like men, didn’t have to worry about violence against women, but that’s not the world we live in. It is smart to have a set of guidelines for yourself to help keep you safe. This includes (but is not limited to):
Don’t post your location on social media while you are there.
Wait until you leave that café to post a pic with the geotag.
Don’t assume your hostel separates people by gender.
If you want to stay in a female-only room, ask if that option is available. Just because a hostel asks for your gender when you check in, doesn’t mean that information is for placing you in a room.
Remember, you don’t have to answer questions.
As women, we are trained to be polite in all circumstances, especially when meeting new people. But if a stranger is asking questions like, “who are you traveling with?” or “where are you staying?” you don’t have to answer. Get rid of the notion that you have to be nice.
As a woman who has traveled alone, I feel the need to help other women do the same. It was scary, exciting, lonely, enriching and a million other things at once, but most of all, it was the best experience of my life and I urge everyone, but especially women, to do it, too. Kayla Armgardt agrees, “If you are a female, thinking about traveling alone, stop thinking you are a female wanting to travel alone. You are a human being. And a human being with a hardy spirit and heart at that. It’s hard to travel alone regardless of who you are, so admire that you recognize the strength that lies within you!”