I have travelled to many countries alone in the last couple of years: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mozambique, South Africa, UAE, Tanzania, Russia and right now I’m in Vietnam. I’ve experienced different reactions to my single status, and encountered challenges of varying degrees, from having to explain to bewildered locals why I don’t have husband and children, to sexism in all its forms. Including harassment, verbal abuse and physical assault from locals, and by fellow tourists. For example:
- When in India, I was swarmed by a group of men at a club in Goa because apparently being unmarried there is an open invite to be accosted. (Top tip, put a ring on your wedding finger and this won’t happen).
- In Malawi at the Lake of Stars festival this summer, I was cat-called by a local man in the parking lot on the way home and when I didn’t reply, got called a slut and told to ‘F off back to my own country’ as he clearly didn’t take rejection, or may lack of interest well.
- And another story from this week towards the end of the post.
Sadly it’s not just the guys, there seems to be a distinct lack of sisterhood too. Most of my stories of being ripped off with things like wildly incorrect change (when the local currency is in millions and my little brain can’t do the math quick enough) or having my possessions stolen has so far, only been done to me by women.
My status as a mid 30’s (ish), successful, career orientated and very much unattached woman, in London is common place. There are tribes of us who haven’t yet found ‘the one’ and made the choice not to settle for anything less than what we really want, not have children, or wait until we are ready. We have no dependants, so get to enjoy the fruits of our labour ourselves on expensive holidays and handbags and spend our time doing the things we really want to do, without being held back by other people who rely on us emotionally or for food and shelter. For those of us who have fully embraced this, we are literally living our best lives. But how we see ourselves is quite often not how others react to us. And when you’re abroad, the concept of being single and travelling alone is completely lost on some cultures. For example, on the bus to the rice terraces of Sa Pa a few days ago, we stopped off to get something to eat at a service station and a local woman travelling with her young daughter struck up a conversation with me and was telling me she was taking her daughter to see relatives. In her Vietnamese broken English, she asked me if the girl behind me was my daughter… I turned around to see the tall blonde 20 year old-ish back packer and was stunned to think she could think this young woman was my child! Then it dawned on me.. I am actually old enough to be her mother. I replied politely no, and that I was travelling alone. And for the millionth time, endured having to explain my life choices.
Thinking about it, back ‘home-home’, where I grew up, some of my school friends are now in fact the parents of adult humans. According to Facebook, some have even recently sent theirs off to university! The friends I made later in life have started their grown-up careers later, and the last few years have been a series of weddings and births to celebrate. Sometimes not being on same path yet can make you doubt yourself or that you’re being left behind, God knows I’ve felt that way sometimes. But in my experience, it’s not all a bed of roses For each woman I know who is blissfully happy having found real love and joy in a relationship/ having babies, I can think of another example of someone who is miserable. As I’m not in a rush to settle down (unless I happen upon the man of my dreams, maybe I might meet him on my travels this time?) I am choosing to make the most of it, and do all the things I dreamed of, including travelling the world!
I made a list of some of the pro’s and con’s of being 37, single and travelling solo.
- Being able to travel the world at the stage of life when you actually have enough money to enjoy yourself.
- Absolute freedom to do whatever you want, when you want with who you want.
- The opportunity to take inward journeys on every escape, learning more about yourself and exploring your interests.
- Doing the wildly adventurous things you can’t do at home for the first time (a couple of my include becoming a qualified diver, shark cage diving and trekking across the wilds of Africa on horseback).
- Feeling liberated as you manage to navigate set backs and travel challenges completely independently.
- Meeting new and diverse people and experiencing things that you you wouldn’t have dreamed of doing if you were travelling with others (Which also means much more interesting travel stories).
- Not having to wait for the bathroom, be judged for how long it takes you to get ready or EVER have to put up with snoring 😴 (Unless you stay in a hostel, but I thats another story).
- There’s no getting away from the fact you are less safe travelling alone.
- It’s much more expensive to stay in hotels, some of which even penalise your single-dom by charging a single supplement!
- Sometimes you’ll experience something incredible like an unbelievably beautiful sunset, or crazy moment that you couldn’t even make up, and think it would be nice to have shared that with someone else.
- You have to put up with the endless questions about travelling alone, being single and dealing with thinly veiled insincere ‘good on you’s from coupled up people.
- You get hassled by men in the street, in bars, in hotels, at the pool, on beaches… generally anywhere.
- Or dismissed entirely by men in countries where women are not equally valued.
- Oh, and there’s no one to help you carry your bags when you’re tired 😆.
Elsewhere in the world I wouldn’t get to choose the life I am leading now for cultural reasons. Marriage might be a given, arranged on my behalf, done when girls are as young as 12, and my only raison d’être would be to cook, clean and raise children. On my journeys so far, I have met and talked to women particularly in Africa and India where this is the case for them. They marvelled at the freedom of choice, and were often perplexed by my independence and self-made financial status. Just last week, my female trekking guide in the countryside of Vietnam, Mimi, who comes from the Black Hamong Tribe, was telling me about the fact that the first son inherits the land of the family, and his bride would have to leave her home to live with him and the rest of his clan, and fulfil her role in life.. to become a baby making servant to the whole household, for the rest of her days! (or until her future son moves his new wife in).
So being born a white woman in western society clearly has major advantages over 90% of the world, but I feel I have to point out some major inequality in how a ‘single’ relationship status is viewed depending on one’s gender in the other 10%.
Imagine a successful, well off guy in his late 30’s/ early 40’s. What connotations does that image have for you? What would you imagine his life to be like? Probably you’re imagining the ‘man-about-town’, having fun, enjoying life before they commit to one person, probably having lots of hot sex with younger women (or men, or both if that’s his preference), waiting to meet the one who ticks all the boxes so they finally ‘give in’ and settle down. Being a single man is all very socially acceptable in Western society and by all accounts, a blast! Let’s think of the same situation for a successful woman. I bet one of the first things you think about, is her reproductive age and feel a little sorry for her. She probably worked too hard and missed her chance at ‘happiness’? Or must be a little desperate to meet a man by now. And if she is having lots of hot sex, then she mustn’t be the type of girl who is going to attract the right kind of man, right?
But why is the same situation viewed so differently?
There’s probably some unconscious bias in there due to programming, and it got me thinking about where this originates from. We could start with the English language. Single men in their 30’s are known as bachelors, which sounds fun, free and glamorous. Where as women are called spinsters! Yes spinsters! Could there be a more juxtaposed parallel antonym? The etymology of the word comes from the pre Industrial Age, from the word ‘spinners’ as women past the prime age of marriage would usually end up spinning wool until they died alone and destitute as they had nothing better to do. And since this time, we still haven’t found a better alternative word to describe free women!
When I announced I was heading off to Africa solo, friends and family raised their concerns about my safety travelling alone. I know they all have the best intentions at heart but can you really imagine the reverse situation where Steve tells his friends and family the same thing?
Steve: ‘So, yes I’ve decided to take myself off on a journey of self discovery, I’m going to travel Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania this summer and then backpack around Vietnam and Cambodia over winter’
Friend: ‘But Steve, aren’t you worried about travelling alone? You really must be careful, there are a lot of strange women about, and I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you. Promise me you’ll be careful and not take any risks?’
The reality, due to us being the fairer sex, the likelihood of Steve not being able to fight off a women is pretty low, but it doesn’t seem right to have such double standards. And yes, women have to be vigilant, as we have recently been reminded by the news. The appalling tragedy of British 21 year old, Grace Milane who was found murdered in New Zealand (which is thought to be one of the safest countries to travel solo as a female) after a date with a local man.
I think you have probably gathered, I am the kind of woman who isn’t going to settle for someone I don’t really want to get something I do (a family one day). But finding someone you like these days, isn’t easy using the traditional approach of chance meeting, it just doesn’t seem to happen that way for many people anymore. For single girls in the millennial dating world, this often means resorting to ‘the apps’ like Tinder and Bumble. And actually dating, with decisions reduced to being based on a couple of pictures and max 200 characters of text. I am so bored of being asked ‘how’s things going on the man front?’ like I’m fighting in a war to secure my future happiness by finding a man, and my dating life is the frontline. (Although having just written that, finding love in London, to quote Pat Benatar, is rather like a battlefield). But I’m even more bored of going on dates which within 5 minutes I know I am not attracted to the person with whom I share little in common or opposed world views. (Once I dated a guy with the most amazing hair and abs only to find out he was right wing and his likes included Donald Trump! Oh so disappointing).
I’d rather be single for the rest of my life than with the wrong guy. I thought, perhaps being on location based apps whilst travelling could be a really great idea? After all, any single guys out here must themselves be adventurous and love to travel, which are two major boxes that need to be ticked for me. However, something happened to me a few days ago that I think you should know about if you’re single and on the dating scene, and especially if you are solo abroad.
I had arrived in Hanoi, and although tired from jet lag, on my second night decided to take myself out for a wander around the Ho Hoan Kim Lake area, which on weekends is a no vehicle zone and comes to life with live music, market stalls and an abundance of pretty lights. I’d been doing my usual thing of adding what I was doing to my Instagram story, and tagging the location in the picture with the odd hashtag.
The day before I had received some slightly odd DM’s on Insta from a German guy, commenting on the story saying ‘I was stood next to you last night, I have the same picture’ which I hadn’t replied to, and then consequentially another asking if I’d like to meet.
Again, I didn’t reply and on reflection should have used the block function there and then. But didn’t.
As I was walking leisurely around the lake on this balmy evening, I’d just snapped a picture of the beautiful Red Bridge, lit up with a thousand red star like twinkling lights, and received one final message in reply to my story which made my skin crawl. ‘I gave you a blue heart like, why have you not replied?’ It dawned on me, that the dude had ‘super-liked’ me on the dating app and because I had linked my public Instagram page to the app, he had followed me, and as such was seeing my stories and knew where I was in each moment.
As I made that connection I sat down on a bench, in a dark quiet spot overlooking the bridge and immediately tried to disconnect my Instagram from the dating app and felt a little nauseous at my stupidity for not being wise to this digital danger. But what happened next was a big surprise.
As I stood up to walk on around the lake and saw the same guy was walking towards me… I tried to avoid eye contact but there was only one way out of where I was stood in a semi-secluded space, and felt my body spring into high alert, viscerally aware of the potential threat. I had a million thoughts rushing through my mind, and knew I had to get out of there to avoid him, but couldn’t think fast enough, what should I say? Am I in danger? Could it possibly just be a co-incidence?
My stalker advanced.
I met him head on and as I pushed past, smelled the stench of alcohol and sweat. He said pleadingly ‘hey, I saw you were here and thought it would be a nice surprise for you!’ Close to tears as he followed me, I strode back into the open space, and surrounded by people felt safe to give him a piece of my mind.
In the light of day, he looked pitiful, scraggly and drunk. I raged with a tirade of abuse about the invasion of privacy, his stalking behaviour and how I was going to report him. But as he looked back at me, I saw a guy lacking boundaries, spurred on by booze to take a chance to meet a girl he fancied. Not a monster intent on hurting me. But who knows. He could have been someone insidious.
This stark lesson has made me really question my digital life. As having a public Instagram and posting stories in real time exposes us all to the very real dangers of predatory people at home as well as abroad. Safe to say I have unlinked my dating and social accounts, and when I am alone will not be posting specific locations in real-time, but how far should I go to stay safe?
Is my plan to use location based apps to perhaps meet a potential suitor a dangerous one full stop? Should I be less adventurous and not take the motorbike ride along the Hai Van Pass with a stranger? Is being alone in the Dark Cave a bad idea? Should I fly instead of taking the sleeper train? Should I rethink staying in a mixed dorm in Singapore? Should I play it safe and spend my time away completely sober?
I don’t want the fact that violence, rapists and murderers exist to define my life experience, but if something bad happens to you, the last thing you want to feel like is it is your own fault (which it isn’t by the way). There are sensible things one can do to reduce the risk, but you will never know what another persons motivations are until its too late. If someone hurts you, it’s entirely on them.
I made the decision to ride the motorbike, swim in the caves, carry on taking public transport and stay in the dorms, but I haven’t made up my mind about dating. I have the offer of dinner in Hoi An tonight, ironically with a guy called Steve, who is 38, from London and a digital nomad software developer. I don’t know if I am going to meet him. But I can’t help thinking, could choosing not to, mean I miss out on the chance to meet the worldly travel fan man of my dreams?
****update****I did meet Steve, but instead of dinner, I suggested a group cooking class the next day. This was a great idea for a safe first date abroad, but sadly he wasn’t the one for me. Next stop, Saigon!
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