The first time I travelled on my own, I was a strong-headed ex-teenager who thought that knowing the streets of Singapore was enough to make my own way anywhere. Rubbishing the concerns of anxious family and friends, I set off into the wild, with zero fear and a ridiculous and completely unwarranted amount of travel confidence.
“Let them try,” I boldly declared to anyone who cautioned me of the wicked ways of the world. I was ready to take on the globe, and woe betide any man or woman who stood in my way. But then, to use words of The Libertines, a little girl hit out at the world and the world hit back – a lot fucking harder.
Within a couple of weeks, I was robbed twice, had an outrageous reaction to malaria pills mixed with too much alcohol and often woke to find myself covered in bruises I till this day cannot explain. I see now that on the streets of Phnom Penh, I reeked of privilege and comparative wealth – a potent combination when you’re alone, unknowing and defenceless.
Following the sort of baptism of fire you don’t tell mum and dad about, you learn, and you learn fast.
DON’T OVERCOMPENSATE WITH OVERCONFIDENCE
I wish it wasn’t this way (and I still wait for the day when this isn’t the case) but overconfidence in a place you’re uncomfortable in – especially in a young woman – is an asshole magnet.
Worse still, for many predators, it’s an invitation to take you down a notch. In the eyes of a potential assailant or a hopeful thief, overcompensation in an unfamiliar surrounding screams loud and clear that you’re new in town and ambitiously trying to take on the world. All well and good when you’re with friends or in a place you know – in a new and foreign setting, the ‘chin up, shoulders back, strut like you own the streets’ plan doesn’t go down so well.
Wherever you are in the world, the truth of it is, some men just can’t handle that sort of confidence; the worst of them decide to teach you a lesson. Unless you’re an actually trained fighter (and sometimes even then, it pains to say) no number of kickboxing classes or Krav Maga defence moves can change the fact the most men are larger and/or stronger than you.
“Bring it on, I do Muay Thai!” you cry in protest. “That’s cute,” says the 6 foot 2 creep whose got his eye on you.
Instead, get comfortable with being on your own – something easily done in more familiar environments. Work on finding a balance between being the uncertain new kid on the block, and being overconfident in your adventures. Knowing when to ask for help, or when to leave a threatening situation, is important in your ventures as a solo female wanderer. Rather than being optimistically fearless, find a place where you’re cautious but comfortable, aware but adventurous. And always trust your gut – if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, change your surroundings, or find someone to connect with.
FIND OTHER FEMALES
In the event that you feel unsafe, don’t be afraid to approach another female. In some cases, it might do you well to find a couple, or a group of people. Remember that every other solo travelling female knows what you’re going through, and even if you set off alone, there’s power in numbers.
Whether you’re alone in a dimly lit street or partying solo in a club, never be afraid to find someone to stick with you, even for a little bit. One day you might be the girl who another solo female approaches, and as many instances have proved, the sisterhood is a powerful and international collective that, by being female, you’re already a member of. Using it is not a weakness, it’s empowering and can help you as much as it might one day help someone else.
Tempting as it may be to let loose and go wild in a new city, take some time to get acquainted with how the place operates. Are there lots of other women around after dark? Do the streets get uncomfortably quiet after a certain time? Are there certain areas you should avoid altogether?
Beyond doing your research in advance, know yourself and how much you can drink when you’re alone. Again, I wish going all out and having fun wasn’t a vulnerability, and I cannot say it enough: the victim is never to blame, ever. But holding onto your drink at all times, knowing when to call it a night and keeping in mind that the substances you’re tempted to try might put the uninitiated in danger is key. You don’t want to be the girl staggering down the street alone, half-drunk and tripping balls. Keep your wits about you and save the heavy partying for a time when you know you’re in good, safe and reliable company.
Should you, despite your best attempts, find yourself staggering down a dark street alone anyway, it’s best to know the street you’re on. In the safe light of day, take your time and explore the places you might spend your evenings. Know your way back to your hostel, remember the route, and pick out places along the way that you can use as a landmark, or as a place to stop and recalibrate.
Almost ten years after my first solo adventure, I keep these tips in mind every time I travel alone. Perhaps the most important of them is this: once you’ve found your place in any city, be the person others can approach. We can’t change the conditions and general safety of every city we go to, but we can do what our utmost to make the travel scene more welcoming to every girl on her first trip out into the world.