The Alhambra is incandescent, regal, lit up far below where I stand on the Sacromonte, surrounded by gypsies’ caves and listening to the distant howl of stray dogs in the valleys. “And that’s the end of the tour,” says our guide. The group quickly disperses and I am left alone in the square, under a low-hanging, sinister moon. I start walking – 30 minutes down the streets and alleyways of Granada, Spain, curving snake-like into each other. It’s 10 o’ clock at night and I am terrified.
For most of my gap year in 2016, I travelled Europe without daring to ‘fly solo’. I had heard the horror stories – the assaults, rapes, kidnappings, disappearances. I had been incessantly warned by friends and relatives. “Don’t go out at night. Avoid quiet places. Always travel in a group.” And wherever I went, I saw people look at and speak to solo female travellers with concern, surprise, even disapproval. “You’re travelling alone? Are you sure that’s safe?”
Growing up, I always believed – an unspoken, unchallenged truth of my existence – that there are inherent dangers in being female. I could not fearlessly walk through life, do those everyday things men seem to take for granted: taking the train alone after dark, even jogging or cycling by myself. “For your safety ”. “There aren’t enough people on that road”. “There are too many trees there”. “Didn’t you hear that story?” “Why would you put yourself in danger?”
‘Your gender’, whispered the media stories, the police reports, the anecdotes of tragedy, ‘is an inescapable weakness’.
Then came the media headline after the murder of Masa Vukotic in the same park where I had walked and biked with family friends throughout my childhood. “‘Females shouldn’t be alone in parks’, detective inspector says.” It was only then that I began to question this narrative of events: perpetually skewed against women, turned upside down, back to front.
Why was it her fault – our collective faults as females? Why this mandate to women ‘should not’? Why the R-rated fairy tales for adult women, every graphic, gratuitous detail designed to frighten us into passivity: ‘The big bad wolf in the woods’? Why, on the other hand, the half-articulated warnings, ‘You don’t know what might be there,’ dripping with menace? We are in the 21st century, past the age of chaperones, living in a society that happily sells the message of gender equality – and yet, a female cannot walk safely in a park by herself.
So was this to be our fate? Cowed by fear; weighed down by the ludicrous responsibility of having to prevent others from targeting us. Never to walk in a park alone, never to have the independence to choose where, how long or when to walk. Never to sit and watch the sunset and take your time doing it, without your brother wanting to go home, or your friend nattering in your ear. It was unthinkable, unfeasible. The alternative? To take a risk in the face of everything we are told.
So in defiance of everything I knew, I started to travel solo– first taking day-trips and hiking without my friends, and then spending a week in summer travelling across Europe alone. It was a series of baby steps to some; but to me –who had avoided the park for months after Masa Vukotic’s murder, for whom a walk around the neighbourhood towards dusk carried unspeakable anxiety – it was a leap of faith.
I can’t ever forget the moment I boarded that train out of Lisbon, where my friend and I parted– when I was alone for the first time. The exhilaration and the utter sense of freedom that struck me left me breathless. I saw everything through new eyes, learned the art and joy of travelling solo. Where I used to avoid solitude like a disease and saw it as a mark of my social failure and vulnerability as a woman – I now grew to love it. One night, at a restaurant in Edinburgh filled with couples, I realised that even the act of eating alone didn’t frighten me anymore. I didn’t need a companion to validate me socially, to protect me. I didn’t need a mobile phone or a book to look busy. I didn’t even need that time-honoured trick of putting my jacket on the opposite chair to make people believe I was with friends. For the first time in my life, I was comfortable being alone.
But fear still stalked me down every street even in broad daylight. The sheer thought “What if?” “What if I disappear?” “What if I am attacked?” would stop me when I was wandering alone on a quiet country road, halfway up a mountain on a solo hike, or on a bus at 1am, its headlights slicing through the darkness. More than once I seriously considered turning back, catching a flight home, ending this mad foray into the unknown. I never did, and each time I moved on to a new city, the fear receded a little and my courage grew a little more.
As I climbed mountains, visited palaces, wandered cities, basked in the kindness of perfect strangers, I was encouraged by the growing number of female solo travellers I met, and the messages from my friends who were soloing in Russia, Northern Africa and Eastern Europe.
My friend sent me a picture of her riding camels in Morocco, her shadow etched into the dunes. She told me stories of getting lost in the labyrinths of Istanbul and being rescued by locals who gave her a lift on their motorbike.
Another friend hitchhiked over the border between Bosnia and Croatia, then walked three hours over hills and through forests because buses had stopped running. She loved solo travelling because it gave her complete autonomy: moments of exquisite, uninterrupted aloneness that we rarely experience in a society of cliques, cocktail nights and competitive socialising.
But solo travelling isn’t always as euphoric as it sounds. There were days when I was unwell, on my period, or simply exhausted, when I wanted to cry on someone’s shoulder, or needed a friend who could give me tissues, pads, Panadol, hugs. There were times when I was sick of my own company, hours on end where I longed to talk to someone but there was no one around. I learned to wait out those days, to accept and cherish both the spontaneity and brevity of friendships formed between travellers. I learned that solo travellers are never completely isolated; that just as some people can be treacherous, malicious, hostile, others are unexpectedly kind, friendly and generous.
There is no tried and tested formula for women travelling alone. There is no guarantee of safety because risk is associated with everything we do in life. There are things we can do to protect ourselves, but these are things that every traveller can and should do. These are not lessons to be taught to women in the wake of tragedy; not fail-safe solutions that shift the focus and responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim.
Retrospectively, I would not choose to walk alone at 10 pm again, but the question of personal judgment is never clear-cut. We can’t fully know the circumstances, calculate the risks or judge the outcome for every other traveller faced with the same choice (or lack thereof) in the moment.
I would therefore describe solo travelling as a calculated risk that is well-worth taking. Travel writer and blogger Kristin Addis from “Be My Travel Muse” writes: “Travelling alone is all about trusting your intuition, behaving abroad as you would at home.” She advises fellow travellers to “talk to the locals at your guesthouse about what you should watch out for, and practice common sense.” Staying in well-lit areas at night or walking in groups, if possible, are common-sense things I personally tried to do when travelling.
My friend’s top tip was to act like a local (as much as you can), to avoid looking like a lost and clueless tourist, and to always walk purposefully as if you know where you’re going (even if you don’t).
I love the idea of “walking purposefully” in particular – not just in the literal but also the metaphorical sense. We solo-travel for many purposes: maybe to discover something about ourselves, to grow in confidence as I did, planning transport links and navigating alone.
Maybe it is an act of subversion, defying the archaic yet enduring belief that women should not travel unchaperoned, rewriting the account of events where females are innately susceptible and blamed for our ‘poor choices’.
Maybe it is advocacy for a new norm where women can walk in parks safely, where the sight of a solo female traveller becomes commonplace rather than exceptional.
Or maybe we do it for the sheer fun and adventure: the sensation that you get while crossing borders, flying through airspace, looking down from a mountain, that, in the words of Virginia Woolf: “As a woman, [our] country is the whole world.”