Fear is the curse of the solo woman traveller

Don't let being scared keep you from making amazing human connections. They're the first prize of travelling, writes Hilary Bradt

03 March 2019 - 00:04
By Hilary Bradt
The writer tells the tale of a solo female being afraid of a taxi driver in Vladivostok, Russia.
Image: russiaknowledge.com The writer tells the tale of a solo female being afraid of a taxi driver in Vladivostok, Russia.

Is anywhere in the world safe for female travellers? The headlines that followed the awful murder of Grace Millane in New Zealand in December certainly suggested not.

However, it's important to remember that murder by strangers is incredibly unusual.

That holds true whatever the country, but the murder of travellers and holidaymakers is so rare that the victims' names are remembered.

We are morbidly fascinated by killing, particularly of vulnerable young women - there must be more books and films with this as the main subject than any other. So it's no wonder we are frightened when we find ourselves in a threatening situation.

The greatest danger for female travellers is road accidents and other mishaps, but few give a thought to this. Instead, the fear is of men

The greatest danger for female travellers is road accidents and other mishaps, but few give a thought to this. Instead, the fear is of men. Dervla Murphy, in the '70s, called it "homophobia", a term she had coined herself, more accurately than the current meaning.

She recommended turning the tables on men who appeared threatening and asking their help. Good advice.

Women have the choice between acting confident and self-assured or vulnerable, which sometimes brings out the chivalry in foreign men.

But their great advantage as travellers is undoubtedly the sisterhood that allows them to be welcomed into women's homes, and to share some intimate aspects of other cultures.

Though statistics show that women are less likely to be attacked than men, there's no denying that travelling alone takes courage, and few set out on a solo trip without a twinge of anxiety. It was for these travellers that I compiled the anthology Roam Alone: Inspiring Tales by Reluctant Solo Travellers.

I selected the stories and revelled in the accounts of how everything turned out well despite their worst fears.

Take Nicole Teufel, for example, an 18-year-old American who went to Russia on her own, mostly in defiance of her country's prejudice.

"I arrived trying to suppress my unconscious negativity towards Russians, but a minute in I had already failed. A man came up to me saying he was a taxi driver. I said no. He had the same cold face of every terrorist and kidnapper I had ever been warned about."

In the end Nicole said yes, and "as my heart raced and I followed him out I heard every relative and friend of mine telling me to turn back ... though there wasn't a single reason not to trust him. I got in and waited to be driven to some far-off place and never heard of again."

Of course, the story ends happily. The taxi driver shows her the sights of Vladivostok, stops for photos, and finally makes sure she gains entry into the hostel.

"He was the kindest taxi driver I had ever known. And I had taken him to be a crook"

I look back on years of travel and recall similar situations. I was often afraid.

One time was in Colombia when I found myself alone in a train compartment with a young soldier. My Spanish was almost nonexistent and I was too wary to want to attempt conversation - something he was uncomfortably eager to do. Then the train stopped and the lights went out.

The cover of Bradt's anthology.
Image: Supplied The cover of Bradt's anthology.

Sitting in darkness, my heart thumping, I sought to distract him and pointed out the fireflies dancing outside the window. He muttered something, opened the carriage door and jumped onto the track. I couldn't imagine what he was doing and my anxiety increased.

Then he reappeared, beaming with delight, with his scarf over his cap, which he whisked away to release a dozen fireflies. My fear dissolved into laughter, the lights came back on, the train started to move, and I spent the rest of my journey with my Spanish dictionary achieving a conversation of sorts. When it was time to disembark we shook hands warmly.

He won't have known what a turning point that was for me. I had learnt the importance of trust, and it stood me in good stead over the next 40 years or so. More than the beauty of the Andes, the appeal of wildlife, and the fascination of museums and great buildings, it is the kindness of strangers that has made travel such a rewarding part of my life. - The Sunday Telegraph

• Bradt is the founder of Bradt Travel Guides