If you’ve been following travel news at all–or, perhaps, just news in general–I’m sure you heard about Sarai Sierra, a young American mother traveling alone in Istanbul who went missing and was later found on the side of the road, half naked, bludgeoned to death. My heart broke when I heard the news. I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Sarai’s story hits close to home for a lot of women who travel, solo or otherwise. Safety is always a concern when venturing out into the world, or even out your front door. For me, it hit especially close. While living in Amman, Jordan during my junior year of college, I too ended up on the side of the road, half naked and beaten, after a taxi driver abducted and sexually assaulted me. But I was alive–and extremely lucky.
However, my story drew much of the same criticism Sarai’s has–namely, what was I possibly thinking traveling alone as a woman–and in, of all places, the Middle East?? Why would I dare step foot in that cab by myself?? I mean, when you think about it, wasn’t I simply asking for something bad to happen??
(But wait–don’t these things happen everywhere? Heck, the year after I got back to LA from Jordan, there was a taxi cab serial rapist wandering the streets, and then there was another one the year later. Just food for thought.)
I have relived that day enough in my head in the last five years to know, bottom line, that the cab driver that did that to me (and who, by the way, was never found) was a psychopath. And I refuse–yes, refuse–to blame myself for what happened. Are there ways I could have changed the situation? Maybe. But let’s save that for a later time….
Sarai’s story is, of course, different than mine, but in the weeks following her death the media thoroughly questioned her travel skills, travel motives, and general preparedness. After all, if we could somehow blame her for what happened, wouldn’t we all feel better knowing that it would never happen to us? At the end of the day, though, it’s looking like it was a random homeless man who killed her while she was out taking photographs, and not the shady acts the media was originally reporting. Whelp, guess we all have to be on our toes again.
I’m not going to play the twisted game of debating what she did or didn’t do right; in travel, as in life, there really are no rules. Bad things happen to prepared people. Bad things happen everywhere. In broad daylight. In “safe” places. To vigilant people. In foreign countries. In your hometown.
Basically, if you’re willing to travel, then you are hopefully willing to understand that you are taking risks. Just like you take risks when you get into a car, or step out your front door, or drink a super hot beverage. Now, I don’t mean to make light of the potential danger–there is nothing that scares me more than the possibility of getting attacked again–but if we, as women (or human beings for that matter) allow ourselves to be controlled by our fears, then how will we ever grow? How will we live? And how we will see the world if we can’t find a travel partner—or don’t want to.
More than contemplating Sarai’s specific story, what it seems the news has done is light up an already existing discussion about women’s solo travel. On one side, we’ve got the downright chauvinistic view that women shouldn’t be “allowed” or “let” into the world alone, considering all the inherent dangers.
And then, of course, are the myriad of world travelers, both women and men (but mostly women), who indignantly respond by insisting on the safety of solo travel—although, alarmingly, some of these writers venture into the territory that women who have bad things happen to them abroad were somehow setting themselves up for it through less-than-perfect travel habits (travel habits that these “travel experts” would never let get them in trouble).
I find myself somewhere in the middle–leaning heavily toward the latter opinion, although with less certainty. I’m having trouble dealing with the very black and white pro-solo travel responses (i.e. “I am a woman that has traveled solo to ___ countries in the last ___ years, and because I am so vigilant and well-traveled, I have never had an incident.”). Don’t even get me started on the responses that question a women’s right to leave the country alone. Those people just need to get out more.
Here’s what I think is really missing from the conversation: There are very few travelers out there (women or men, really) speaking up who have had bad things happen to them–and still travel. And I know you are out there. I know you are out there because after I shared my story years ago, I had an inbox full of travelers who had similar stories. I even have a pen-pal now, who had an eerily similar story to mine (except in Nigeria)–and still travels often.
This conversation needs voices saying “Hey, something bad happened to me, and I survived, and the world is still worth seeing!”
It needs voices admitting from experience that no amount of preparedness can eliminate the possibility of harm. It needs voices acknowledging that as a woman, you are unfortunately a target—not just abroad, but everywhere–and when you are a foreign woman, there are certain stereotypes attached to you, and you will get even more crap directed your way.
And then these voices need to quickly turn around and loudly shout that we may live in a world where women have to take precautions all the time, but we also live in a world where kindness abounds and beauty explodes from the most unlikely places and there is so much value in seeing the different ways that everyone lives and breathes and loves that it is so worth learning that life is not always safe (because you will eventually learn that anyway).
Ultimately, if traveling alone is not a risk you want to take–then don’t take it. I personally haven’t traveled alone that much since being attacked (although that’s partially because I have a job that takes me to destinations with a camera crew, and a family that loves to travel). Truth is, it’s not travel alone that freaks me out after getting assaulted, but just being alone in general, and that’s something that hopefully time (and therapy) will fix. That said, I look forward to one day buying a ticket, packing a bag, and heading out that door alone with confidence, vigilance, and the understanding that bad things may happen–and loving the adventure of it all.
I will finish by telling you this: When something really terrible happened to me, I had more good people step forward to help me than I could have ever imagined. People I had never met, who didn’t speak my language, men and women, that wanted nothing more than to make right what was wrong. And when I think about travel, those good, kind, amazing people overshadow that one bad, awful human being. And that is how I would rather conider the world around me.