What are you afraid of? My top three fears are:
2) Losing someone I love
3) Being trapped
We all have our fears and one would assume that fear does not know religion, race, nationality or gender. What about the fear of travel? I have been wondering why women from some countries find traveling alone scarier than others. How do you explain the difference between the responses of two Uber drivers’ to my love for travelling?
The first I met in New York and he was taking me to the airport. From my accent and destination, he gathered I was a tourist and asked me, “Where to next?” I said “Miami, and then I don’t know…” After a 10-minute conversation on where I have been that year, he commented, “That is so cool, you are like a globe trotter, a free spirit.”
About 10 months and six countries after that Uber ride, I got to bore another Uber driver with my travel tales – this time in Kuala Lumpur. At the end of our chat, he asked about my age, religion, and nationality, after which he responded: “Wow, how do your parents let you travel even though they are Muslims? Also, you are like a boy, you went to all those places without anyone… you are not a ‘normal’ girl!” He said it all with a shocked smile. I did not take offence; in him, I heard my father’s worried voice, my neighbour’s judgment, and the stereotypes that are common in my home country of Turkey.
It took me all the way back to my first trip alone and reminded me all the girls I have met on the rooftops of hostels, the queues at temple entrances, and more on the road. I cherished those women and the stories they told me. I loved one of the girls’ stories about eating a cockroach to overcome her fear – so much so, I actually told it to a guy whom I liked, as if it was my own experience. I’m not proud of it, but it did happen.
These women came from various corners of the world but as I scratched my memory and recalled their tales, I realised that none of the ones I met were from Asia. Of course Asian women travel, a lot of us travel, and we do travel a lot…but why, does it seem, that there’s not as many of us out there trotting the globe on their own?
There are, of course, obvious factors like the countries’ economic situations and whether a society is more savings- or spending-driven, but I will leave those aside for now and focus on my own experience. As a Turkish woman who grew up in the eastern part of Turkey, I had my fair share of being told what to do and not to do. I obeyed them as much as I could and may have even judged someone who did not, as I did not know any better then.
The first time I traveled abroad was with my mum. We went to Tunisia. We pre-booked tours, met the coolest retired couples, and had lots of rice with saffron. When I came back, I was so excited to share my experiences with my friends. One of them told me his father found it odd that my father let my mum and I travel alone. Wasn’t he worried what other people would say, he asked.
I went to my mum and asked her, “Aren’t you worried what others would say we travel two women alone? We shouldn’t go without brother or father next time!” A strong kid with a will to stand up against peer pressure, I clearly was not.
Years later, Turkish singer Nil Karaibrahimgil became the target of so much love and hate right after she released her music video for The Free Girl. Everyone was singing the song and talking about her. It featured a girl with a backpack hitchhiking her way around Turkey. It wasn’t an unusual thing to see, considering Turkey’s many touristic attractions but she was Turkish. We were all used to helping backpackers who asked for direction, with our broken English, but this was different. People commented on that video, they said horrific things like “I hope she hitchhikes my car so she knows what is coming” and “She’s not Turkish nor Muslim”.
As I scrolled through the comments, I read between the lines. The messages were clear: Women should not travel alone. It is not safe…She is too young, she should grow up and get married then she can travel with her husband…Isn’t she too old for that kind of adventure? She is going to end up embarrassing her children…Well, she went to that country alone, what did you think was going to happen?… At least go with a guy friend or your brother so we know you are safe. We trust you but we don’t trust the others.
We’ve all heard at least one of them at some point in our lives, and there probably is truth in all of them. We’ve heard from our parents because they were worried; we’ve heard from that old neighbour who also commented how wrong it was for girls to play football – he was not worried, he just needed a time machine. We’ve even heard it from our best friends about how we shouldn’t visit a particular country if we do not want to be victims of unsavoury activities.
I loved how it seemed I was the one making the decision to become a victim for simply booking a flight ticket.
There is danger in every country, in every place you have not been yet. If we are so scared of things that might happen, we wouldn’t even be able to go get that snack we have been craving for from the store just two blocks down.
I, too, did not believe that I could just grab a backpack and go. I thought I would lose something and end up in a flood of tears. Well, I was right; I did lose a lot of things and cried a lot, but it was all worth it at the end. I’ve cried in airports, bus stations, hostels, in the middle of the streets, and at restaurants. But the more I cried, the more confident I got. It’s similar to that feeling when you ride a bike or skate for the first time and you’re terrified of falling. Once you fall, you realise it’s not that painful.
I remember crying in the suburbs of Ahmedabad, India for losing my money to catch the train home. I cried my eyes out. I cried so hard, many people stopped looking at me; they were embarrassed. After 30 minutes or so, I started laughing at myself. I am positive I freaked out a couple of kids with my rapid transition between crying and laughing as I started to see the comedy in my situation. There must be a way out, I just needed to find it. I went home the next day, safe and sound, and more confident than I was ever before.
I’m not saying that there is no danger in travelling alone or that it will always end in laughter but then again, is anyone completely safe even in their own home or countries? I have travelled to extremely poor countries yet got my bag stolen in a fancy area in Milan, Italy. I had to sit through a sexual assault tutorial my mum made me attend before I went to India and when I came back to Istanbul, I was nearly assaulted with my mum in her house. That was when the tutorial came handy.
This is life. We can let it scare and scar us, or we can take it on as a challenge and see how terrifying it can get. We can avoid the risks as much as we know, we can keep a pepper spray in our bags, we can opt for morning trains over night buses. What we cannot do is let fear or what the neighbours might say decide our next destination – only the ticket prices or inspiration we got from that one book we read some time ago.
By Özge Elif Özer
This article originally appeared on Zafigo, a travel guide for women travellers in Asia and the Middle East, and is republished with permission.