Dangers of Being a Female Traveler and Valuing Caution

August 29, 2013 Kristance Harlow

Tara Isabella Burton wrote a beautiful piece for Salon called the “Dangers of traveling while female” in which she accurately describes the inner monologue of the female traveler. She recounts not only her own experience, but mine as well. To be a savvy female traveler is to be constantly aware, consistently suspicious, and sometimes abruptly rude. I too know that I am an intruder in the public space in many places that I travel, following my own “internal set of rules” I always stay in female only dorms or opt for a single room in hostels. I don’t go out to bars at night alone. I make it a point to look like I know where I’m going, unconsciously aware that looking lost is more likely to get me approached by strangers. When I was younger I was so nervous that I rushed through Delhi and ended the trip with almost no pictures of the city. As much as my feminist education and social beliefs tell me that society ought to teach not to rape rather than how to not be raped, I take steps that I have been conditioned to believe will help keep me safe.

I have always looked up to strong female adventurers, both real and imagined. I longed to be a real life Lara Croft or Sydney Fox. If only I could tap into the international acclaim of Gertrude Bell or the wild jaunts of Isabella Bird. Sure, I’ve thrown caution to the wind more than a few times but never have I allowed myself to get lost in my adventurous desires.  Adventure, wild tales, taking chances, saying yes, couch surfing, living on a dime, taking odd jobs…constant movement. The constant movement that is so celebrated in travel writing does not capture the beauty of life in the places you’re visiting. Taking a page from coyote-vs-roadrunner and passing through a city in a rush can be fun and I’ve done it many times, trying to see as much as possible in a short amount of time. If your favorite travel writers always do that and only provide you with the tourist perspective on a location then you’ve lost the point of travel. Traveling ought not to be only about putting pins on a map to say “I’ve been there, I’ve been there, I’ve been there.” Being a real traveler, a real global thinker, is to become intimate with a place.

Christmas dinner cooked  by my friend’s grandmother in Poland.

When I tell people about the places I’ve been, and the leaps of faith I’ve taken in moving around the world, they think I must be crazy and ballsy. That I’m a risk taker and live life on the edge. I really don’t, I don’t long for the adrenaline rush, I don’t say yes to risky proposals, heights make me nervous, and I am too shy to successful secure a lot of odd jobs in different countries. I simply don’t see the world as an inherently dangerous entity, I value learning new ways of life and find comfort in being the foreigner. I am constantly learning, listening, and laughing as I make my way around the world. My travel experiences naturally initiated me into a way of travel that reconciles the need to stay safe with the desire to really get to know a location. Unable to afford luxury travel and too nervous to become a solo backpacker I stay with friends and family or I move places. I have only visited four countries where that was not the case (Germany, France, Northern Ireland, and Estonia) and I was only in each of those countries for a short amount of time.

At the nunnery in India.

What I most love about Burton’s article is that she talks about the importance of the female travel experience, that the different world a female traveler might see is no less important than the seemingly perilous trips of our male counterparts. Perhaps I never joined a pub crawl in Dublin or accepted a stranger’s invitation to dinner, but I did see an inner part of life in many of the places I’ve been. I’ve sang and danced silly songs with young Tibetan Buddhist nuns, eaten meals with a darling grandmother in Poland, learned to cook vegetarian meals on a farm in Ireland, was welcomed into a train berth by a young family in India, and shared intimate and honest moments with female friends in Britain.

With Sonny the shoe shiner and his brother.
Even in the field of travel writing, the standards for writing are defined by guidelines that were constructed on an exclusionary foundation. Travel writing is a space in which the writer can be personal and expressive. It allows the pulsating interactive relationships of class, race, ethnicity, nationality, and gender to be candidly experienced and expressed. We must find more value in the way of the slow traveler, the cautious traveler, the oft female traveler. I am researching my way around the world, I am digging through the rubble, I am an archaeologist on the move. Although I’m a trained archaeologist, I am no Lara Croft, no female Indiana Jones. I’m not kicking anyone’s ass and I’m not involved in sordid affairs or mixed up in international espionage. But I have stories to tell, stories a different kind of traveler may never experience: getting motherly advice from a bilingual waitress in Washington, DC; making friends with beggar girls in Agra, India; befriending a boy shoe shiner in Manali, India and hearing his optimistic perspective on life; having an old woman in the Himalayas hold my face in her callused hands and tell me in Tibetan that I was beautiful; or going to a strip club in Oregon, making friends with the strippers and when they take me to hang out with them on their break I end up helping one girl figure out how to go back to college.
Durham, England, UK where I studied for my Masters from 2010 to 2011.
Sure I can provide insight into locations, I have a favorites list for every place I’ve been and insider knowledge on multiple cities around the world. With my research skills I can even tell you the best place to stay, the cheapest but most delicious restaurant, and the top five sights for places I’ve never even been. Want to know how to get a visa for a country? I’ve got you covered. But what I really want to tell you is this: that people around the world are beautiful, cultural diversity is the real spice of life, and moving slowly is the most authentic way to understand the people and cultures of el mundo.
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  1. Rose L on August 29, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    Even 2 females together can be dangerous. You do have to be alert and wary. It is sad that the world is not completely safe, especially for Americans in some countries. But immersion can be very good in really getting the feel of a place.

  2. mplanck on August 29, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Whoops! Poor editing! Should be…a philosophy worthy of emulation!

  3. mplanck on August 29, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    Another beautifully written post! Your perspective on life and the human connection with individuals of other cultures expresses a philosophy of being worthy of emulation. As a grandmother, I am reassured to know that you can travel widely, safely, being aware of the stratas and nuances of other societies. An archeologist not only of artifacts but of humanity…

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