Traveling alone: the risks and rewards

(Photo by #ViajoSola)

The automatic doors to the motel swish open. The desk clerk looks up at me. My overstuffed backpack pushes me forward. I can feel my credit card that I have stuffed in my shoe poking against the side of my foot. My ponytail is caught under the backpack, causing my smile to have a wince of pain. The clerk’s eyes shift behind me, waiting to see who I am traveling with, but it is just me. I am alone.

While traveling, I keep pepper spray in my car’s middle consul. I hide my money in four different spots, in case I get robbed. I always walk with a sense of confidence and purpose, so I don’t look lost. I put a ring on my left ring finger to avoid unwanted attention from men. I always let family know where I will be. As a lone female traveler, I must always have a sense of awareness.

This February, two young female backpackers from Argentina were off traveling the world, this time to Ecuador. Pictures on their social media show them exploring, carrying their backpacks. It sounds like something I could see myself doing.

According to the Buenos Aires Herald, the Ecuadorian state prosecutor said the girls ran out of money and contacted a friend of a friend for help with lodging. A few days later, their bodies were found. After an intense investigation, authorities arrested two men accused of the murders.

This article was not the first time I had seen the concern for lone female travelers.

“Oh, honey, the world is no place to travel alone. I don’t think you should go on this trip by yourself. It’s a scary world out there and people are crazy,” said my grandmother when I told her I was driving to New Mexico, from Tucson, by myself for a long weekend.

I have heard concerns of traveling alone from my friends, family and even the government.

So far in 2016, the U.S. Department of State has issued 20 travel alerts and warnings. According to the department, a travel warning is issued “when we want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all. Warning might include unstable government, civil war, ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks.” Some places with travel warnings currently are Turkey, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria and Israel.

On the U.S. Department of State’s website, you can click on specific countries to learn about the dangers in them. In Italy, the warnings include terrorist threats, earthquakes, volcanic activity, politically motivated violence, demonstrations and crime. In Australia the warnings are for terrorist attacks, demonstrations, crime and scams.

In 2013 to 2014, according to reports collected by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs, 962 U.S. citizens died traveling overseas. Vehicle-involved accidents, the top killer, caused 25 percent of the deaths. The second highest cause of death was homicide, at 20 percent.

The cause of deaths to the reported 962 U.S. Citizens who died while traveling overseas, and in Mexico and Canada, in 2013. *Note these are the reported deaths, but there are deaths each year that g unreported to the U.S. Department of State
The cause of deaths to the reported 962 U.S. Citizens who died while traveling overseas, and in Mexico and Canada, in 2013.
*Note these are the reported deaths, but there are deaths each year that go unreported to the U.S. Department of State

While I admittedly was shocked that homicide contributes to 20 percent of deaths to U.S. tourists abroad, something we have to keep in mind is that the amount of people who are reported to have died while traveling is minuscule compared to the amount of people who travel overseas., which gathers data from the U.S International Air Travel Statistics Program, said 61,596,800 people traveled overseas in 2013. Fewer than 1 percent of those travelers were killed abroad.

After the two Argentinian backpackers were murdered, a movement started on social media. Female travelers posted pictures of themselves on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram traveling alone with #ViajoSola or “I travel alone.”

Me, hiking through the Swiss Alps with another female companion.
Me, hiking through the Swiss Alps with another female companion.

Why do I continue to travel? The best way I can sum it up is with a single memory. While backpacking alone through the quaint surfing town of Cascais in Portugal, all I could think was, “What are you doing?” I could not read a map, I did not speak Portuguese and I had no phone. Was I stupid for putting myself in this situation? Was it worth the uncertainty I felt to see this small town?

After hours of exploring this foreign place, I came to an opening lined with jagged black cliffs that dropped off into the Atlantic Ocean. I could taste the salty air. Drops of water hit my legs as the waves beat the rocks. I watched waves form and surfers chase after them. I observed the struggle the surfers went through to pursue a wave.

The view from the cliffs of Cascais, Portugal. In the distance are the small dots of surfers.
The view from the cliffs of Cascais, Portugal. In the distance are the small dots of surfers.

I soaked in the sun, listening to the sounds encompassing me. And for just a minute, nothing mattered. I was disconnected from the world. I was lost and by myself in a foreign country and it was OK. I was free.

The warnings I have heard have not stopped me from climbing the Eiffel Tower, hiking the Grand Canyon, surfing off the coast of Portugal, observing the petroglyphs of Arizona or exploring the sights of Rome — all alone. What would I gain from staying home and not seeing the world?

Me with my back pack strapped onto me as I travel through Pisa.
Me with my backpack as I travel through Pisa.

I have a much higher chance of dying from disease, car accident or natural disaster. Those rates don’t vastly change, whether I’m home or traveling.

All I can do while traveling is simply be prepared.

Whether a female or male, alone or in a group, it is important to be aware of your surroundings and use common sense. Uneasy and dangerous situations can be avoided with common sense. Don’t walk down dark alleyways at night. Don’t stay at a strangers home. Always let someone know where you are.

And then there are extra safety cautions you can take: Carry pepper spray (if it’s legal in the country you are in), a pocket knife (if that makes you feel safe), or let yourself be your weapon (take self-defense classes).

Use safety apps on your phone that allow friends and family to track where you are, or report an emergency to a nearby police station at the push of a button.

Stay knowledgeable on the area you are in, read the news and familiarize yourself with the culture. Sign up for updates of any alerts in your area.

Don’t keep your money in one spot. Stuff a few bills in your shoe along with the number for the U.S. embassy or an emergency contact in case you run into trouble.

Travel teaches us so much, not only about the world, but also about ourselves.  What makes people nervous about travel is the uncertainty that comes with it.  To fully understand, we must experience it. Discovery is the thrill.

Sara Cline is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at saracline@email.arizona.e

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