This past month my younger sister and I, two fresh-faced American university students, completed a 3 week backpacking trip throughout Europe by train.
It was fabulous and profound but the experience also opened my eyes to the challenges that commonly await women explorers. I am hardly the anxious worrywart who fears the various possibilities of terrible things happening once I step outside. But backpacking with my sister as two young women of foreign nationality did slightly curb my enthusiasm for independent, unaccompanied travel. After quite a few disturbing encounters with creepy strangers, I understood why my mother was on the verge of having a heart attack knowing that we were gallivanting through foreign locales by ourselves.
Sexism and misogyny have no national boundaries and the possibility of rape, abduction and trafficking is a very real threat in many women’s daily lives. As women are aware of this reality and lack the sheer physical size and force to fend off potential perpetrators, traveling alone is a much more daunting and burdensome task for women than it is for men. Women are the targets of ill intentions in many ways that men are not.
There were countless times when my sister and I had to move places because some guy was aggressively accosting us; there were also train rides where a man would stand outside to continually peer into our carriage with all girls. The worst encounter was on a train to Italy on which my sister and I were somehow the only passengers, when a sleazy trucker sat down in close proximity to us and started opening his pants. We had to get off and wait for another train after that one.
The consequence of traveling freely and unaccompanied by train was that I had no peace of mind for prolonged periods throughout our travels. As a very independent female who likes adventuring by herself, this is incredibly upsetting to me as it makes me feel like I am less entitled to enjoying my travels by default of being a woman. Although women will have to continue being much more vigilant in their journeys until the world becomes a much less threatening and sexist place, there are some things we all can do as bystanders to make traveling more comfortable for women we come into contact with en route.
If you are a woman:
- Invite other women to sit with you. After that episode with the Italian trucker, my sister and I intentionally sought out places to sit among other women because it inherently made us feel less vulnerable. Knowing this, I started being friendlier to fellow female travelers and offering them to sit with us. By sticking together, we can buffer one another from fear and anxiety. Also the ride is a lot more pleasant when the ladies in the carriage don’t make you feel like you are an intrusive annoyance to their company.
- It is okay to say no and/or walk away whenever you want to. If you are feeling uncomfortable, do not concern yourself with offending others or coming off as impolite. You are entitled to remove yourself from unpleasant situations and perceived threats without having to provide any explanation other than your gut feeling.
- Seek reliable sleeping arrangements so you can catch some shut-eye! There was a time when my sister and I spent a night in a mixed dorm at a hostel with just one other dude. The dude was fine but such scenarios are not the most reassuring when I want to get a relaxed, restful good night’s sleep. If you happen to get stuck alone with a guy in a mixed dorm, depending on how you feel, try explain the situation to the reception at the hostel and see if they can move you to a different room. Private rooms at hostels provide the most comfortable arrangement for the best prices.
- Personally, I try not to couchsurf by myself and if I do I seek out hosts who are women. I’m sure there are lots of great guys who are couchsurfing hosts with whom women have had positive experiences with. But I have more girlfriends than not who report being hit on by their couchsurfing host and if you happen to say no (which makes the person whose house you’re staying at sulky), it can really put a damper on your trip. Unless you really can’t afford another sleeping option or some guy has over 30 reviews that talk about how not creepy he is, I would recommend going into a hostel or hotel where you won’t be subjected to the whims of a person you just met.
If you are a man:
- Don’t sit by a woman who is sitting alone if you can help it. There were a few times when a man came to sit with my sister and me when we were by ourselves. Every time that happened I felt incredibly nervous that something could happen to us without any train authority in sight and it was impossible for me to catch any sleep during such times—which subsequently ruined my travels upon arrival the following day. It’s not that we deliberately assume you are a bad person. It’s just that as unaccompanied women in a foreign setting, your presence as a male stranger can make us very uneasy. Understanding this on your part would be greatly appreciated. (Insert “YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US!” meme)
- If the only seat available happens to be one next to a woman sitting alone, take steps not to make her uncomfortable (not that all women will automatically feel uncomfortable sitting next to a guy). Be courteous, be aware of your body language—don’t splay your legs out and get in her space—and please do not stare. There was a guy sitting next to me who kept visibly turning his head every 30 seconds to look at me and I wanted to shrink into my seat and disappear the entire ride. Even though you mean no harm, it’s harder for women to feel comfortable in public spaces and when traveling, they’re probably much more vigilant and alert. Be considerate, as not everyone can travel and move around in ways that you have always taken for granted.
- If you see another man possibly harassing a woman, it may be a good idea to intervene and confront him. My friend tells me she has been followed by strange men many times while traveling, and one time, some guys took her bags and started walking away with them. If you see a similar situation possibly unfolding, ask the woman if she is okay or whether these men are bothering her and if so, tell them off. Women don’t deserve to have such a hard time for trying to see the world, so don’t simply standby whenever you spot sexist behavior and/or harassment of women.