This week’s post will be less of an optimistic one than usual, but I wanted to write about this to spread awareness about the instances that many people don’t see (nor really talk about) when it comes to travel. While travel comes with plenty of joyous and memorable experiences, there’s also a dark side to it that often gets swept under the rug.
One of these instances is about how women get treated while traveling, especially solo. I am a woman in my late twenties, and after almost eight years of traveling myself, I can tell you that I’ve come across instances of aggression from men, both physically and verbally. And while I do not liken the behavior of these few unsavory folks to reflect the entirety of men, these moments have made me very distrustful of them, to the point that if I get approached (and innocuously so), I am immediately on guard.
I have spoken to other solo female travelers, and I haven’t met one who didn’t have at least one negative encounter while on the road. It’s unfortunate that, while gender equality has improved over the years, there are still these loathsome people in the world who make it their job to put the so-called “weaker sex” down. But I will say that, through these experiences, I’ve learned to be hyper-aware of my surroundings and look for an escape plan whenever I travel. It’s a huge lesson to be learned, and it has helped make my subsequent trips safer.
Here are some recounts I’ve experienced traveling solo as a woman. These stories might be a bit disturbing to some, so proceed with caution. Hopefully as we bring more recognition to this dark side of travel, we can improve the safety and health of women who want to go out and explore the world.
Feeling Unsafe as a Solo Female Traveler (My Experience)
1. Istanbul, Turkey (June 2019)
After a whirlwind week of traveling all over Turkey, I made it back to Istanbul for an additional three nights in town. I was actually traveling with my friend “M,” but unfortunately, she fell sick on the second day, so I ended up exploring Istanbul by myself. I decided to head over to Taksim Square to explore the other side of the city, so I took the tram over.
About two stops before getting off, I got up from my seat to prepare to soon disembark when I made the most-fleeting eye contact with a Turkish man, who was sitting near the door. I am talking a millisecond long, yet despite myself looking away, I noticed in the corner of my eye he was still staring, and I had a bad feeling about this. I prayed that he did not get off at the same stop as I did…
…and he did. Shit. Next thing I did was pull out my phone and pretended to text someone while staying rooted on the tram platform, all at once keeping the man within my peripheries. The man stood across the platform, waiting for me to start walking so that he could follow. Yet, I remained still, continuing to fake text on my phone. This standstill lasted maybe 10 seconds, but it felt so long, and I was scared what would happen if he were to approach closer…
After those few seconds, he apparently took the hint and walked away. I booked it soon after that, speed-walking to my destination and glancing behind my shoulder a couple of times to make sure he didn’t follow back. Although it was a brief encounter, it shook me up a little, but fortunately, I didn’t have any other instances like that during the rest of my time in Istanbul.
2. Caen, France (February 2016)
I actually did not travel solo on this trip; I was with my female friend “N,” but the verbal assaults were targeted towards me. It was about 20h00 and already dark when we arrived at the Caen train station: it was our meeting point for our BlaBlaCar driver, who would be taking us to Le Mont St-Michel. We were walking right outside the station entrance when we passed a group of three men who were loitering there, and they saw us and began following us.
“Hey, la chinoise (Chinese girl), hey, hey. Speak to us. Hello, do you hear us? Hey, hey…” the men catcalled. I am Asian, and my friend “N” is white, so they were only targeting me. They were only a few footsteps behind us, and they followed us for at least 50 metres before they left us alone. Those 50 metres, short as it was, felt like an eternity. Each step I was terrified for my life, wondering if these men were going to jump us. Thankfully, they didn’t, but the whole ordeal left me shaken up– even “N’s” attempts to comfort me afterwards couldn’t completely assuage me.
Not only were the men’s words an assault on my womanhood, but also on my race. It makes me absolutely angry that someone would attack both the so-called “weaker sex” and the “weaker race.” I would have similar experiences on racism on my travels later on, but that’s for another post.
3. Romania (February 2019)
After a day spent in the city of Sibiu, I hopped on the late afternoon train back to Brașov. It would be a two-and-a-half hour ride back, so I chose a window seat (there weren’t assigned seats) to get comfortable in. Passengers came and went throughout the ride, from schoolchildren to workers getting on and off after a long day at school or work.
It was about two-thirds of the way into the ride that an older, rather-disheveled man embarked the train with his grocery caddy and sat across the aisle from where I was seated. At first, I didn’t think much about it, but then as passengers alighted from the train and we were one of the few left, I started to get uneasy.
The man glanced at me several times, and then he moved to sit RIGHT. NEXT. TO. ME. Mind you, I was at the window seat, so I was literally trapped. He didn’t do anything, except make a few more glances at me, and I was seriously afraid for my life. I immediately got up and booked it to another compartment, as far away from him as possible, to find another seat and otherwise hide from this stranger. I still had about 45 minutes before I reached my stop, and it couldn’t hurry soon enough.
By moving to another compartment and seat, I also hoped that the man thought I’d already disembark and would leave me alone. But NOPE. A few minutes after I sat in another compartment, the man made his way over and found me! Again, he sat across from me, pretending to be nonchalant, but he was scaring the hell out of me. Once again, I headed to another compartment in order to find another seat, and to pretend that I’d already gotten off the train. Thankfully after that, I didn’t see him anymore.
I had no idea what this man’s intentions were for sitting near/next to me, let alone follow me, throughout the train. I’m very glad he didn’t do anything to me, but still, it was a bizarre and frightening experience. He seemed to be the homeless/drunkard type, so maybe he wasn’t mentally there and decided to target me as a foreigner. Being alone with him on basically an empty train was scary, but I was fortunate that there wasn’t assigned seating and that I could move around whenever I got uncomfortable. Seriously, it was such a stressful situation to be in…
4. Marrakesh, Morocco (May 2017)
I wrote about this in this post, so I’ll spare you the details here. Long story short, I got lost wandering the medina and foolishly decided to trust a young, Moroccan man who couldn’t speak much English (or French) to guide me back to the main square. He physically assaulted me in a quiet courtyard, stole my bag and phone, and took off.
By some miracle, I managed to chase him down (with the help of a community!), get my stuff back, and get him arrested. It was first and only time riding in a police van to the police station to file a report, and it was absolutely satisfying to see the thief puke his guts out in fear and ultimately spend the night in jail. Revenge was way too sweet…
This incident was the craziest I’ve ever encountered in all of my travels, and to this day I still can’t believe it actually happened, let alone how well it turned out in the end. I wouldn’t choose to repeat it, by any means, but since getting mugged, I’ve definitely learned to trust my instincts even more and avoid getting myself into situations like that.
5. Krakow, Poland (April 2017)
Poland is one of my favorite countries I’ve visited in Europe, and I actually felt super safe visiting the places I went to. However, I did have one incident that, while not necessarily threatening, made me uncomfortable. It was in Krakow, my last stop of my 10-day visit throughout the country: I spent five nights in town, and I wanted to try out a bar mleczny (milk bar) that are known to sell cheap, Polish food. I went out to one for lunch, got my food, and sat to enjoy it all.
While having my feast of a meal (I’d ordered a lot), an older, Polish man shuffles into the restaurant. He looked disheveled and homeless, and he was puttering around the restaurant, acting kind of strange. I was a bit confused to what he was doing, and was wondering if he was going to order anything at all…
The man approached me as I was having flaki (tripe soup), stood next to me, and said nothing. I was confounded and getting increasingly uncomfortable as he kept standing and staring. I continued to have my soup, pretending he wasn’t there. He then started mumbling something in Polish that I couldn’t understand, and he pointed to some pierogis on my plate, and said, “[incomprehensible words] pierogi [more incomprehensible words].” I think he wanted some of my food, but I wasn’t going to give him any, because 1) it was my meal, and I paid for it, and 2) he made me extremely uncomfortable.
Fortunately, he shuffled away, and I could enjoy the rest of my meal in peace. I actually felt kind of bad for him, because he looked homeless; I literally saw snot running down his nose when he was talking to me. Again, I wasn’t in danger, but I did feel very uneasy, as I was obviously targeted for being a young foreigner. I mean, he didn’t bother the burly Polish men having their meal a few tables away, nor did he harass the stoutly, middle-aged woman reading her newspaper at the table adjacent to me. I hope that he’s in a better place today, so that he could leave visitors like myself alone!
Have you encountered similar incidents as a solo female traveler? Let me know, if you’re comfortable. By bringing such stories to light, it raises awareness for female travelers out there, to know that we’ve all come across situations like these and aren’t alone in the discomfort and fear of being targeted for our gender. As travel continues reopening, it’s all the more important to look after ourselves whenever we’re out on the road.
Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful (and safe) day!