Safe Sisterly Sojourns
More and more women are travelling on their own now – but the obvious dangers are as real as ever. Polly Curtis looks at keeping out of trouble in places were the girl power phenomenon hasn't yet reached.
There's nothing so liberating as waking up in the morning and deciding to go somewhere different because you fancy it. It's something I can look back on and be proud of and think – I did that!' So says Eleanor Conway, aged 21, of her first lone travelling experience in Thailand last summer.
But with the recent scare stories in the press, is it really safe for women to travel alone?
The answer is yes, providing you remember that, just as England has its Yorkshire Rippers, every country has its loons.
Loons aside, the lone woman's biggest hassle on the road is likely to be curiosity. In countries where the only discussion of glass ceilings involves which woman will be cleaning them, you might well be the closest many have come to a Western Woman – and the embodiment of Western Woman for many are such fine representatives of our culture as Pamela Anderson or Jennifer Anniston, who appear on TV right round the world.
But as the world gets smaller and travelling trails better-defined, attitudes change, making many destinations safer for lone women.
Ellie McKinlay from Norwich spent a year in Morocco studying Arabic. She found that men and women in Morocco still have very specific roles, but, as Ellie recalls, 'The men I met made a distinction between Western women and Moroccan women. They won't be prejudiced against you because you smoke or drink or go out, because they see you in a different context'.
The problems lone women face are as diverse as the countries they visit. Gina Matthews travelled alone through Southern Africa over the summer. As a British woman of West Indian descent, she found the interest she aroused was intensified because she was a foreign woman, but also a black one travelling alone.
'I wasn't African, I wasn't American, so you could see people thinking "What are you? A black woman, travelling alone? You must be up for it."'
Gina's advice for lone female travellers is this: 'If you ever feel threatened, your best safety net is to appeal to another woman for help – it'll come with less ulterior motives.' Another source of good advice is from other women travellers who've been wherever you're going.
When travelling in the East or in third-world countries, expect attention – you're a novelty. Being sensitive to the attitudes of culture you're in, and being sensible, is key to developing an instinct for danger. Decide for yourself how to reconcile your own values with those of the country you're visiting, but see yourself as a visitor and show respect accordingly – burning your bra in Afghanistan is clearly not a good idea.
Being aware of local dress codes is, obviously, another way of avoiding any trouble. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust gives a country-by-country guide to dress codes, and a few handy tips. If you find yourself in a dodgy situation, take Gina's advice: look for a woman and scream blue murder.
My own advice, after tackling the myth of machismo in South America at the tender age of 18 is this: for every one person who'll try to harm you, there are a thousand who'll help you; the trick is distinguishing between the two types