“Oh but of course, dont go there alone.” I stare at the woman in disbelief. She has just spent the last half hour regaling me with tales of her own adventures in South America several decades ago. She goes straight for the most dramatic details, the stories that are so fun to tell you forget how terrible they were to live through. Her eyes have lit up in the endearing way most people’s do when they recall their travelling adventures. I listen with interest and amusement, until her happy expression falls.She fixes me with a stern look. “No. I definitely wouldnt do it alone.” She nods her head, as though we are in agreement. I stare down at my empty coffee cup and wonder vaguely if there is a polite way to tell someone you are definitely going to disregard their unsolicited advice.
I’ve grown used to this kind of response. To telling people my plans to travel South America solo and patiently listening while they rattle off a list of all the things that could go wrong, or regurgitate the latest horror story they read about tourists getting mugged or contracting Zika. At first I would listen, allowing their doubts and fears to become my own. After several weeks of this, with my desire to escape only increasing, I was getting pretty sick of the negativity. “You have to do things that frighten you,” I would say to the latest family friend who was expressing their concern for my safety. “You cant live in fear.” More often than not I was met with that expression adults love to roll out when they disagree with someone younger than them; the half-pitying, half-amused raise of the eyebrow which suggests you are Just Too Young And Naïve To Understand The World.
My main issue with this is that I do not think I would get the same response if I were male. People do not question why a man would want to travel solo, because (mostly cis, straight, white) men are not taught to be afraid of public spaces in the way that women are. Women learn early on that to go out alone is to put their safety at risk. When we are told to be careful walking at night, to carry keys between our fingers and have male friends walk us home, what we are effectively being taught is that public spaces have not been built to accomodate us. That the outside world does not belong to us and we’d better scurry home quick before our reckless behaviour gets us attacked.
When I was 15 I sat and listened with burning jealousy as my older, male cousin told me stories of his travels. He made getting lost at night in dark alleyways in strange European towns sound glamorous. He told me about the time a friend of his ended up severely hurt after they were motorcycling down mountains in Vietnam and it still sounded like more fun than I could ever imagine. I was amazed that he’d actually been hitchiking like the characters in my favourite novel, On The Road. While I dreamed of travel in a vague way, he made it seem like a tangible reality. “I can’t wait to do all that,” I said, enviously. “Yeah… but you’d have to be more careful,” he began tentatively. I already knew what was coming. “Because you’re a girl.”
I know I’m a girl. I know girls are not expected to travel alone because the world is a fucked up place and most cultures have found a way to benefit from our continued oppression. But nothing is going to change if we meekly sit at home and wait to be given a pass of Guaranteed Safety TM before we venture out into the world. Just as I’m not going to stay at home on a Friday night fearful of having to make my way back from a bar alone, I’m not going to stay chained to my hometown simply because travelling alone carries more complications and insecurity than travelling with friends or a partner. The reality of life is that I could be attacked in my own town, hit by a car crossing the street I live on, or robbed in my own house. I could put my dreams of travelling on a shelf in my mind and resign myself to staying at home, yet not be any safer than wandering around South America on my lonesome. I refuse to let my life be governed by fear, and I refuse to ever let “because I’m a girl” stand in the way of anything I want to do.
The long and short of it is this: I’m going to do whatever I want. When I tell you what I’m doing, I don’t really care if you think it’s the worst idea since brexit (I went there, not sorry), keep it to yourself. Besides, it is generally considered impolite to tell someone their plans are terrible and their dreams impossible. I’m going to make my own decisions and, yes, probably my own mistakes, and I’m going to figure it out as I go along. Just like everyone else my age, whether they’re travelling, working, or standing in line at the job centre. I’m going to travel to every corner of the world I can find and I’m going to do it whether you pat me on the back and wish me well, or offload your own fears onto me. Your advice is not going to make me change my mind or turn me around. The most it’s going to do for me is give me a heightened sense of fear looming over me like a shadow as I go. Where will that fear get me? How will being suspicious of every new place and all the people in it broaden my mind? What will you achieve by making me anxious?
Stop teaching girls that they cannot have the same experiences as men. Stop reminding us to live within the limits laid out for us by society. Start teaching us to go out there and claim the space we deserve.
Stop telling us to be afraid.
Written by Isabella Millington edited by Bethany Naylor