A few days ago, I was sitting at the Starbucks on Avenue de les Gobelines, feeling guilty for being at Starbucks, but overjoyed to have reliable wifi. After sending off a few dozen emails, checking days worth of nonsense I’d missed on twitter, and making sure all of my pictures had received plenty of likes on Facebook and Instagram, I stumbled across a few articles that actually turned out to be worthwhile.
I started following @couchsurfing on twitter before I left. It’s a great place to find travel tips and interesting and inspiring stories. But the best thing I’ve found so far is the hash tag, #WeGoSolo, and the slew of associated articles and pictures of relatively young, independent women, who love to travel the world–alone.
Before I left for Paris, I received a variety of feedback from friends, family, acquaintances–practically everyone I met had an opinion on this trip I’d been planning. A lot of people talked about how much fun I would have and how much I’d learn. Of course, there were the usual questions, too: “Aren’t you scared?” Obviously. “Your parents are letting you do this?” I didn’t exactly need permission, but apparently. “Wouldn’t you feel better if there was a guy with you?” Uh…depends on the guy? “You’re really going all alone!? I couldn’t do that…”
I got a lot of contradictory feedback from the same sources. Mostly women my age agreed that it sounded exciting, but they thought I was a few bananas short of a bunch for wanting to do this on my own. In fact, when I first arrived in Paris, I agreed with them. I was scared and lonely, and I would have loved to see even the most annoying face from home, as long as it was familiar. Luckily, one particularly strong female friend and traveler was able to talk me out of a jetlagged panic attack via iMessage. “This is normal. Let yourself be scared and lonely for a while. It will get better.” Thanks, K. You were right.
Shortly after that conversation, my constant nausea, fatigue, and Franco-phobia disappeared. About a week after I’d found a comfortable groove of writing in museums and eating baguette, I found the We Go Solo Movement on Twitter. After the rape and murder of two female travelers in New Dehli, the movement appeared to support women who travel the world by themselves. The movement fights against viewpoints like “Those girls shouldn’t have been out alone,” and “They should have stayed at home.” It’s true, caution and common sense can be the difference between life and death–but that’s true for anyone, anywhere. The real issue is not women traveling unaccompanied, it is violence against women. WeGoSolo rallies behind women who want to travel the world, and refuse to be deterred by the threat of violence.
I read articles by two women, one who went backpacking through the Middle East, and one who freight-hops and hitchhikes across the US for most of the year. Compared to these adventurers, my measly trek across Western Europe seemed safer than a family vacation to Martha’s Vineyard. These writers shared some stories about close-calls with danger, and how important it is to trust your gut in order to avoid disaster. However, both women reiterated that so many common travel tips like this one are valuable for both men and women. Being a solo traveler of any gender puts you at risk, and it’s important to be careful. But being a woman, you also have some distinct advantages.
One woman talked about how traveling alone in India meant that she was invited into family circles of women, where men who were not family members were not permitted. In addition, because she was independent, she was invited to smoke cigars and discuss politics with men, a privilege generally not offered to women. The cultural differences here in France and Ireland are not that gender-specific, but I have discovered a few distinct advantages to being a girl on my own.
1. Women eat less. It’s not very romantic, and it doesn’t reveal any deep cultural discoveries, but it’s true. Having seen the way my brother and cousins eat, I don’t think there is any way they could have done this trip on my budget. A baguette and some cheese-about 2€-can last me an entire day. Plus a cup of coffee in the morning and sharing some wine or beer at night, I can eat quite well on just 5€ or 6€ per day.
2. We’re smaller, we fit in more places. When we were in Ireland, Natalie and I got the opportunity to go with our host, his friend, and his 2-year-old son, surfing in Bundoran (That’s real surfing, not couchsurfing). If we had been just a little taller or wider, we could not have fit in the backseat of Kiko’s tiny sedan, packed to the roof with surfing and baby gear.
3. Couchsurfing. This is an interesting one. All the time, even fellow travelers-male and female- ask me, “How can you stay with a complete stranger? Isn’t it scary?” The answer is no, it’s not. Think about it. Couchsurfing is an organization of hosts and surfers who find each other online, and the host opens up his or her home to the surfer. Most of my hosts have even given me their keys while they go to work for the day. Who is taking the bigger risk here? Me, the surfer, who has registered with this host online and told her friends and family where she is, or the host, who invites a stranger into their home? If I were to ever felt uncomfortable couchsurfing (which I have not) it would be unbelievably simple for me to grab my duffel bag and go find another place to stay. The hosts are taking the much bigger risk, making their home and possessions accessible to strangers. A lot of hosts I’ve met prefer to take their chances on women. Apparently, women are less likely to be armed robbers or something.
4. Chivalry is not dead. This is not exclusive to travelers, but everywhere I have been I have noticed people willing to help women struggling with baby strollers in stairs, or offer their metro seats up to tired-looking older women. Opening doors, carrying suitcases, and letting a girl go first in the queue at the grocery store, people have been unbelievably kind.
5. Families with children. Now, I’m not sure if this is just because I like kids, or because people are more willing to trust a clean-cut looking girl with their offspring, but I’ve gotten to know a lot of youngsters since I’ve been here. From Kiko’s little boy, Borick, to an American family’s 18-month old I met at a park, parents have been surprisingly willing to say “Can you watch him for a minute?” “Sure, I’d love to. Nice to meet you, by the way.”
That’s all I can come up with by the way, and the cafe I’m sitting at is switching their menus from breakfast to lunch, so I should probably stop taking up the table. Ill post the links to those other articles when I get the chance!