Fear and Freedom: Reflections on Solo Travel as a Woman

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The best of traveling on my own

Traveling solo as a woman is the absolute best decision I have made for myself. I did my first solo trip when I had just turned 21 years old, after returning home from an internship in South Africa. I believe, solo traveling has the capacity to make or break you. Personally, it has forced me to be comfortable in the unknown as well making me more confident and assertive in what I believe in and want. Solo traveling as a woman has disproved and busted so many of my fears, prejudices and internalised definitions about myself and the world that doesn’t actually serve me.

Traveling on my own has in many ways set me free in how I identify and relate to myself. But it has also shown me how very gendered the world is. Solo traveling as a woman can in many ways be exhausting. For example, I have become hyper vigilant whenever interacting with authority like the local police or migration when traveling alone.

Too many times, the fear of rape has crossed my mind when I get stoped in the middle of the night by an officer who first takes my passport and then asks for my number in the same sentence. The abuse of power in this situation is completely ignored by the officer who sees no problem in asking for a bribe, a date and accusing me of a crime while cheekily asking for a kiss and if I have a local boyfriend yet.

More solo travel dilemmas: woman edition

While traveling in Mozambique, my time in Tofo was probably where I experienced the most limiting gender dynamics. So much so that I almost called this blog post ‘Two months in paradise: a hostile experience’. Here it wasn’t the police harassing me but the local boys and young men. April is during Tofo’s low tourist season and perhaps that can help explain the intensity and amount of unsolicited, quiet aggressive pursuits of  attention from what is locally known as “Beach boys”. 

The amount of attention, the demand to give, respond, finance, never ended in Tofo. It got exhausting to go out in the evenings because of the amount of No’s I had to say. And how firm I had to be. It’s not just that it takes a lot of energy to navigate, or that I am always having to police my impulse to not be rude, even when I should. It is the fact that underneath the gendering roles we play in the mundane, is the power dynamic of possible violence.

The term Beach boys is, often derogatorily, used to describe the group of young, local men who work or associate themselves with tourists. They either meet the tourists’ as instructors, guides or bartenders. Or they hang around on the beach trying to get lucky. Common trait is that they use their personal relationships with tourists for economic gain. Some people call it prostitution. Others call it capitalism and life. 

However you may define it, I hated it. It made me uncomfortable as there was nowhere I could exist there without being expected to fill that role. It also made me see how  deeply socially exploitative the tourism mechanisms can be. Had Tofo not been turned into the tourist destination it is today, who knows how these men and boys would choose to navigate the world. 

Story time: solo travel safety in Tofo

One night I got a call from another female traveler. We had met a few weeks earlier in Maputo and had decided to meet up when we were both in Tofo. “Julia I am so sorry to call you at this hour I just don’t know what to do!” 

The panic in her voice was evident. She tells me how she had wanted to ensure another tourist woman got home safe. The woman was way too drunk to go home alone when suddenly, the drunk girl’s supposed boyfriend shows up and wants to take her with him. My friend tells him no. She only knows that they’ve gone out on a few dates before but she doesn’t really know how close they actually are. The drunk girl in question is practically passed out at this point and can’t argue her case. The supposed boyfriend gets angry.

My friend continues. “I couldn’t do it Julia. She is so drunk and he is scary. But he got so  mad when I said I was taking her home. He said I should to watch myself here, that he knows eeeeveryone here…” The fear is present. I swear under my breath. Just a few hours earlier we had been dancing and drinking under the stars together and now she was filled with fear. She continued telling me how he had trailed behind them until the girlfriend’s hotel and how she now didn’t dare to walk back to her own hotel across town. There are no official taxis here and she just didn’t know what to do.

Even though it was late, I rushed to the owner of my hostel and explained the situation. She allowed me to borrow the hostel truck and one of the staff members to go look for my friend. After 15 minutes of driving out into the dark outskirts of Tofo, we find my friend carefully looking out from a gate. She is so grateful and relieved and cannot stop thanking me. 

We ride back to her hotel on the backside of the truck looking up at the stars. I take her hand, squeezing it tightly as she continues to apologise profusely for interrupting my night. Sitting safe on the truck she starts feeling like she turned something silly out of nothing. “Always call.” I look her dead in the eyes and say it again. “Don’t feel stupid. You’d feel really stupid if you were dead. Always call.” 

She nods, a bit baffled by my serious answer. But that is how I felt. After dropping her off at her hotel and waving goodnight it hits me, who would I call if I needed to? In South Africa I have a solid network of women who love me and who would drive out in the middle of nowhere if I needed it. Here, I am very much alone. 

Looking over at the driver, I am reminded again that I, in many ways, exist at the mercy of others. Especially when I travel. Coming from a hyper individual society, this insight is therapeutic on many levels but as a woman, it is terrifying at worst and limiting at least.

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