Despite hearing glowing stories about visits to Myanmar (formerly called Burma) from friends, it was with some trepidation and a significant sense of adventure that I booked the ticket for my brother and I from Copenhagen to Myanmar’s former capital, Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Most articles about Myanmar right now either focus on the drug trade/Golden Triangle, armed conflict in several of the remote regions, or gush about the importance of, “visiting Myanmar before it’s ruined”.
Frankly, we didn’t know what to expect. Was it going to be dangerous? Was it going to be massively under-developed? Was there any tourist infrastructure at all? Would the visa process be a nightmare? Would we need armed guards to guide us around the country or military minders ala North Korea? Were food poisoning and feces stained walls surrounding filthy squattypotties lurking around every corner?
As usual, it was ignorant pigswill.
Myanmar is spectacular and the sooner you can visit the better. The people are wonderful. The tourist circle; Yangon to Bagan to Mandalay to Inle Lake and back to Yangon could not be safer. The food is decent. The culture is vibrant. The tourist infrastructure is rapidly evolving (perhaps too rapidly). Getting around isn’t difficult. It’s relatively affordable. The historical, natural and cultural beauty is spectacular.…
Among independent travelers under 35, a majority of those taking to the road are women. This often surprises people because our narrative surrounding female travel is one which is almost unavoidably linked with the dangers, risks and fears both real and imagined that go with travel. Every travel blogger who has spent any time engaged in conversations around travel or travel safety will have had to address and discuss the topic of female safety on the road. Similarly, every time there is a violent attack or high profile assault against a female traveler, or travelers, our assumptions and fears about female travel – particularly solo travel – are confirmed with a wave of articles and news coverage.
As a feminist, I’m a strong believer that conversations about sexual assault, sexual health and sexuality are an essential part of our narrative and a core topic that we must tackle and discuss more openly. As a man, I’m also acutely aware that the world I exist in, is a world that makes it difficult for me to fully understand the trials, risks, concerns and daily tribulations that women face. However, this also is often extended to mean that outside of general affirmation with whatever narrative is being put forward by women, I’m not allowed to weigh in on the topic or to offer my own critical voice. In recent months, I’ve mentioned the topic outlined in this post in talks with other travelers and the response has been extremely mixed and skeptical.
Despite this, I believe that a core aspect of the travel+sexual assault+women’s safety discussion is missing: context. I view this as an extension of the overall safety discussion tied to travel/solo travel. After all, when I look at and discuss travel, I also have to tackle the fears, particularly among Americans, that the world they’ll be exploring beyond America’s borders is much more dangerous and unsafe than the US. I have to work to educate people that the United States, and the city of Phoenix where I come from, are often far more dangerous than most of the destinations travelers might seek to explore and highlight that in many ways the individual who embarks on a reasonably well-thought out trip, even alone, is very likely more safe than an individual living and working within one of America’s great cities on a daily basis.
“That is part of what irks me about this discussion: being “alone” is not the issue. Travel abroad is not the issue. The issue is treatment of women. And we should be using this media spotlight to as a springboard to discussing how we can fix it.”
To this end, I grow increasingly more confident that the narrative we have about women, travel, solo travel and sexual assault needs to change. Not because there is not a profound and utterly heartbreaking risk of women facing sexual assault while traveling, but because that risk is very likely on par with, or potentially even lower than, what they would be experiencing if they did not travel. Which, to more explicitly state my belief, is that women traveling is no less risky and may even be safer than women going about their daily routine.
Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to concretely say if this assumption is founded, or unfounded, in no small part because we know so little about sexual assault and because we lack any aggregate research on the reach and proliferation of sexual assault and harassment. We do know that certain cultures have significantly higher levels of sexual harassment and others significantly higher levels of sexual assault. But we do not know if female travelers status as a cultural outside, makes them more or less susceptible. We also often neglect or misportray the sources of sexual assault because they are, to put it bluntly, complex and quite uncomfortable. One key element though that often re-surfaces is the tragic reality that a large portion of sexual assaults are not random attacks on a street or in a bar. They come from people who know the victim and are often perpetrated by individuals with whom the individual is or has engaged in a relationship with.
So, before I we get to far into the conversation, let’s look at what we do know pulled from some of the few global-facing sources.
Recent global prevalence figures indicate that about 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
Most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide, almost one third (30%) of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner.
Globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner.
Situations of conflict, post conflict and displacement may exacerbate existing violence, such as by intimate partners, and present additional forms of violence against women.
Between 15% of women in Japan and 71% of women in Ethiopia reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime
Between 0.3–11.5% of women reported sexual violence by someone other than a partner since the age of 15 years
The first sexual experience for many women was reported as forced – 17% of women in rural Tanzania, 24% in rural Peru, and 30% in rural Bangladesh reported that their first sexual experience was forced
Women and girls are the vast majority of victims: nearly 1 in 5 women – or nearly 22 million – have been raped in their lifetimes .1 Men and boys, however, are also at risk: 1 in 71 men – or almost 1.6 million – have been raped during their lives.
Women of all races are targeted, but some are more vulnerable than others: 33.5% of multiracial women have been raped, as have 27% of American Indian and Alaska Native women, compared to 15% of Hispanic, 22% of Black, and 19% of White women.
Most victims know their assailants.
The vast majority (nearly 98%) of perpetrators are male.
Young people are especially at risk: nearly half of female survivors were raped before they were 18, and over one-quarter of male survivors were raped before they were 10. College students are particularly vulnerable: 1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted while in college.
Repeat victimization is common: over a third of women who were raped as minors were also raped as adults.
The majority of rape and sexual assault victims are young – between the ages of 16 and 24. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 80% of female victims were raped before they turned 25, and almost half were raped before they were 18.11 Among men, 28% were raped before they were 10.12
College students are especially at risk: 1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted while in college.
So, what can we draw from this? How can it flavor how we discuss female independent and solo travel? To me it re-affirms that as both a culture and as a civilization we have a heart-breaking and utterly unnecessary problem we’ve yet to properly face. One that is pervasive, destructive, and reaches into all aspects of the globe. It re-affirms that women live their daily lives going out of their way to keep themselves safe and working within the confines of social and geographic geographies to navigate their daily lives safely (eg: this piece). But, what it also indicates, to me at least, is that contrary to the social narrative that has existed for more than a century, solo and independent female travel does not increase the risk of assault and sexual violence. It also re-affirms my growing suspicion that it actually reduces these risks by eliminating some of the most-common offenders – the people women know.
Female fearfulness is a cultural construct, instituted and maintained by
both men and women in the interests of the dominant, male group. The
myth of female victimhood is emphasised in order to keep women under
control, so that they plan their activities, remain in view, tell where they
are going, how they are getting there, when they will be home
– Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman, pp. 355
Of course, there are confounding and complicating factors. The alcohol, bar, and at times drug-infused nature of the hostel scene fosters an environment that is not unlike that on college campuses – a hotbed for sexual assault. The widely differing cultural and sexual norms also create situations where added risks may arise. But, I think that we can discuss these as considerations that factor into independent and solo travel, without continuing to foster a sense of fear and intimidation that keeps women from striking out and exploring the world at large or leaves them constrained to desperately seeking for travel companions – male or otherwise – who can accompany them, often at the cost of rich and rewarding experiences while likely adding only minimal added safety – if any at all.
At the end of the day, I’ve seen the devastating impact of sexual and physical assaults. It is never simple. It is never deserved. It is never justified. It is long lasting. It is horrifying. It is rarely talked about and it is profoundly shameful that for as far as we have advanced as a species we continue to struggle with the simplest of things: a common respect for each other and each other’s bodies. This post is about furthering that discussion and making sure that we seek to change the way we discuss travel in the context of sexual assault, harassment, and violence.
So, moving forward, what will my answer be when asked if it’s safe for women to travel solo or in pairs? It won’t be the standard simple yes. It’ll be yes, it is, at least in comparison to staying at home. That key point of differentiation saddens me in and of itself, but is, I believe, a likelihood it’s long past time we accepted.
P.S. – In the time between when I wrote this post and published it, this article, “Why is travelling alone still considered a risky, frivolous pursuit for women?” at the Guardian was published. It’s a great write up by Laura Bates that also covers similar aspects of this issue.
I swallowed hard with an expression that was no doubt a mixture of delight and annoyance as I suppressed that small lump clawing its way up into my throat as the airplane descended the final few thousand feet before bouncing down onto the runway. The view out the window was unusual. What I had initially thought to be part of the city’s sprawl clarified into a veritable armada of dozens of merchant vessels all anchored in line, waiting their turn to traverse the Bosphorus.
Before long the thick rubber tires of the Turkish Airways flight were rumbling along the tarmac soon to be replaced by the high pitched squeak of my shoes on the polished marble tiles of Ataturk International Airport. Laden with my front and back packs – in total weighing just under 15kg – I wound my way through the airport’s serpentine complex of tunnels, halls, and checkpoints in search of the metro. It was relatively late. My flight landed just after 9:30PM. Darkness had long since fallen. I was experiencing that familiar feeling of slight anxiety over finding my way to my hostel, at night, through one of the world’s largest cities. As usual, I hadn’t bothered to pick up a guide book or a map. I softly chided myself and wondered – as I often do – if it had been a mistake. No time to dwell, I eventually found a metro map and paused just long enough to trace my route and take a photo on my phone. With a map to reference it was time to take the escalator down and into the nearly abandoned metro station.
I didn’t know what to expect. In a conversation earlier on the flight I’d learned that contrary to the 8-13 million person population I had expected via Wikipedia, the locals all placed the actual figure closer to 19/20 Million. Nearly double the size. Guides, tweets, and other travelers had warned me that locals were friendly, but could also be obnoxiously pushy sales people and were prone to running scams. I had a mental image of the Hollywood versions of the markets in Morocco or Mumbai, filled with in-your-face sales people, large throngs of humanity and more pick-pockets than tourists. I was on my guard. Shoulders rolled forward. Thumbs stuck in my front pockets. I didn’t expect trouble, but I was also dead set on making sure I didn’t find any.
As I waited for the train on the largely deserted platform, I repeatedly checked the map trying to figure out which side would take me in the right direction. Most metro systems are similar, but there are always subtle differences that take a while to figure out. Is it a zone system or does it work on a per-line ticket basis? Does the train stop at midnight or run 24 hours? How are the signs laid out? Do they announce stops on the train or do you have to watch each station carefully? As I worked to figure out each of these key pieces of information, I eventually approached a lone man standing near me and asked to confirm that I was in the right spot, for the right line, in the correct direction.
Luckily he spoke English and was eager to strike up a conversation while we waited, answering my questions and gesturing that we should sit down. The seats were in one of the darker parts of the station, towards the end of the metro line’s tracks. He chatted away cheerfully and asked me questions about my visit. He seemed friendly and open. I wasn’t. I was cautious and guarded, though still striving to be friendly. But, I followed him the 10 steps or so to the benches and then stood making sure I had an easy route out and away if I needed it. I didn’t. As we chatted more and I got a better read on him, I grew more comfortable and eventually sat down – still paying close attention to my surroundings.
Eventually the metro arrived and we boarded. He asked me again where I was going and I gave him the general station and route suggested to me by the hostel. He asked what hostel. I told him I didn’t remember. My notes said to transfer a few stations in. He suggested taking the metro with him to the end of the line, then walking about 150 meters to the tram and mentioned it would cut about 20 minutes off my trip. I glanced at the metro map. Both seemed to make sense. He had been helpful and friendly so far – so I agreed.
We chatted about travel, women, and a taste of politics. All the while I stared out the windows taking in a late night view of Istanbul’s strange mishmash of modern, semi-modern, and ancient architecture. While my concern over being robbed or mugged had subsided he seemed a bit too friendly and too helpful. In retrospect, I have to say my perception and reality had been poisoned by the stories I had heard before my trip that biased my expectations. My new concern was that he’d approach me for money or a tip in exchange for helping me get where I was going. An annoying routine I’ve run into all over the globe. So, with this concern in mind, as we reached the end of the metro line, and he offered to show me along to the tram station/my hostel if I needed help I resisted saying I was fine and could find it/didn’t want to be an inconvenience.
He insisted on walking me to the tram station at the very least, told me we were in his neighborhood and asked if I wanted to get any food or a beer. I thank him and told him I’d eaten and needed to check into my hostel as soon as possible, as it was already nearly 11:30PM. As we walked through the snow he gave me his number and told me to give him a call if I had any issues or wanted to connect for a tour around the city.
As we came up on the street tram he explained how it worked. I expected that this was when he’d hit me up for some sort of tip, as he asked me one more time if I was comfortable finding my way the last leg to the hostel. I nodded and thanked him graciously for all his help and the delightful conversation, and then fumbled in my pocket for one of the tram tokens I’d purchased at the airport. Before I could find it, and to my complete shock and surprise, he pulled out his metro pass and swiped it for me, and motioned for me to enter. I was stunned. Not only had I not been hassled and hit up for money, my first encounter with a local was friendly, engaging, and helpful in every way. I was grinning from ear to ear.
This wonderful experience confirmed once again why it is important to always travel with an open mind…to be friendly to the people you meet and evaluate each situation on its own merits. For my part, I’ll strive to pay his kindness forward and return the favor as I see other travelers struggling or in need of a helping hand. Remember, you always hear horror stores about a destination, its people, or the experiences you might expect to encounter but, the reality is often vastly different. For many of us, the nature of our experiences is based on a self-fulfilling prophesy. Choose to give people the opportunity to surprise you, and quite often they will in wonderful ways.
The remainder of my trip to my hostel was uneventful. I arrived a bit after midnight with a smile on my face and with my perception of what to expect from the Turks completely re-set and re-framed. Despite the snow falling outside, my mood was as bright as a summer day. Istanbul and adventure called…but first, I needed a good night’s rest.
You’re itching to take a trip. You’ve got the money saved up, or at least you are ready to start saving for it, have a general idea where you really want to go, when you can go, and are almost all set. Yet, you’re stuck. You’re missing one of the key pieces of the equation – someone to travel with.
While I’m a huge advocate of solo-travel and I encourage you all to explore it, this post isn’t about that. It’s designed for those whose trip revolves around finding a travel partner. My goal is to help you inadvertently avoid ruining your adventure and quite possibly valuable friendships in the process.
Consider this…How many College roommate situations work out well? The answer…some…probably fewer than 60%. The good news is that when they do work out, they have the potential to cement friendships and craft them into lifelong relationships. From the get-go I encourage you to think of traveling with a travel partner the same way. You’re going to live together for the duration of the trip, hang out together, eat together and be in a plethora of emotionally-charged situations.
The following are the 6 key things you need to be aware of when planning a joint trip.
1. Travel Experience
As a casual weekend hiker would you enter an Ironman contest with a Veteran Ironman contestant? Probably not. Why? Because your goals, experience, conditioning and approach are fundamentally different. This is an important lesson when picking a travel partner. While not an exact science, travelers can be broken down into three easy categories: Novice, Intermediate and Expert travelers.
When trying to find a travel partner it initially appears to make sense that novice travelers should seek out expert travelers as companions. It’s like having a guide, but better – right? Frankly, the answer is no, it’s a bad idea. It is not related to some sort of elitism, but rather because expert travelers tend to be at a very different place with their desired experiences and goals. Travel for a Novice traveler is flush with brand new experiences, even on the most basic levels. These are the things that make travel terrifying but also add fantastic depth to it. The Novice traveler is far more inclined to want (and need!) to see every museum, every major historical landmark, and to stop at major tourist destinations. For most, they’re at a stage that mirrors a child’s love and lust for discovery.
Now, consider pairing that individual with someone who has already gone through that phase. They’ve not only seen many of the major cathedrals and architectural wonders but have probably done tens if not hundreds of museums… often including the main museums in England, France and Greece which house the lion’s share of the world’s wonders. For many of these experienced travelers the experience has shifted from observation to immersion. They’re still setting a fast pace at times but their approach is usually more haphazard and they may not go out of their way for pure-novelty experiences. They also typically travel slower, are on tighter budgets, and relate very differently to their environment.
The intermediate traveler? A combination of the two – somewhere in the middle as they transition from wide-eyed novice to storied veteran.
2. Travel Style
While similar to #1, travel style is an essential factor when planning a trip. It’s important to keep in mind that travel style varies depending on country/destination and tends to evolve over time. Take a few minutes to sit down and really think about what your travel style is (or might be). Do you enjoy well-organized trips or spontaneous wandering? Do you prefer to be active in the mornings or the afternoons? Camping, Couchsurfing, Hostels or Hotels? What is more important: An afternoon spent exploring a niche museum or one spent sitting at a small cafe reading a book?
Money. It ruins friendships, marriages, and can make or break a trip. For most of us travel is a leisure expense. Something we have to save up for, which is optional, and tends to be a budgetary increase over our day-to-day budget. Beyond that though, most of us have widely varied spending habits. When preparing for a trip figuring out your budget and what classifies as an acceptable quality of life while on the road is an essential part of trip preparation. Far less talked about, however, is the importance of making sure your budget and financial means line up with those of the person you’re looking at traveling with. They seldom do. Which is why setting a budget, which you both intend to stick to, is essential.
What happens if you miss a train or get stuck paying 2x what you budgeted for a hotel room? While it may be within what you can afford, can your travel partner? Or, how do you plan to divide up your expenses? You and your travel partner have both budgeted $100/day. Great! But, you’re not done – how much of that will go to accommodation, food, beer and/or entertainment costs? Do your budgets and values coincide?
4. Fresh Air
Agree before the trip starts to spend some time apart. When traveling it’s not uncommon to spend nearly every waking (and dreaming) moment together. As time passes that becomes more and more of a challenge even for the best of friends and lets face it, your travel partner may not be your best friend.
Before you leave have a conversation about working in free days where you both split up and spend the day doing your own thing. I’d suggest working in one every week and a half or so but it will depend widely on how well you travel together. What’s important is that you recognize when you need space and are able to take it without any hurt feelings.
5. Timing and Commitment
Two rules tend to shape the lead up to a trip. People are flaky and life happens. You’ve planned a trip, started saving, found a travel partner, and then a month before the trip, you learn they either haven’t saved up the money they planned to, have made other plans, or chickened out. Now you’re without a travel partner, the prices of airfare have gone up, and you’re left high and dry.
Remember, actions speak louder than words. Don’t let your desperation to find a travel partner or eagerness to travel with someone cripple or kill your trip. Set firm deadlines for ticket purchases and get your potential travel partner financially invested as quickly as possible. The easiest way to make a trip “real” is to purchase your airline tickets. While this isn’t 100%, it will improve the follow-through rate and weed out people who are saying yes but would otherwise flake out later down the road.
If they can’t or won’t commit within a reasonable time period, it’s time to move on and find someone else. At the end of the day this is your trip and you’re responsible for making it happen. Set yourself up to succeed, not fail.
6. Numbers Games
Remember the old saying, The More the Merrier? When it comes to travel, it’s bullshit. The larger the group, the more difficult and frustrating the trip will be. That’s a simple fact. As a general rule of thumb more than 3 people should never travel together for more than a week (unless part of an organized tour). Remember that even adding one person triples all 5 of the factors outlined in this post.
Have I seen groups do it with more? You bet. Did they survive the trip in one piece and as one group? Sometimes. Did any make it through without significant frustration at some point or another? No.
Make It Happen!
Now get out there and get your feet on the road! Hopefully this post has helped prepare you for your next adventure. If you’d like a little extra help keep in mind my two resource sites: The Ultimate Packing List and The Travel Resource List. Have a tip, question or suggestion of your own? Maybe even a story to share? Post it in a comment!
The city of Flores is an unusually picturesque city. Situated on a small island in the middle of lake Peten Itza, Flores is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. The causeway connects Flores to the two surrounding towns which are home to most of the area’s population. The two neighboring towns are Santa Elena and San Benito both of which sit along the shores of Lake Peten Itza and service Flores.
The island of Flores is an odd oasis. Still concretely Guatemalan, the island has evolved into a tourist oasis. Cleaner, more secure, and significantly more upscale than Santa Elena and San Benito, Flores is home to a wealth of hotels, restaurants, small stores, internet cafe’s and nick-knack shops. Roughly circular in nature, the island offers an incredible 360 degree view of the lake and surrounding towns, jungles and neighboring islands.
Unlike most small islands its size, Flores sits on top of a relatively tall hill. The hill itself is mostly invisible, submerged under hundreds of years of development, modification and cultivation. The city has a large outer loop road which wraps around the waterfront and then a series of internal rings in smaller circles which are bisected by cobble stone streets on a gentle incline which point towards the city park and Cathedral which rest on the flattened top of the hill in the center of the island.
The mainland is home to the airport as well as a large series of semi-permanent outdoor market streets. The most interesting of which was a long market street which features a ramshackle collection of street side fruit and vegetable vendors. The sheer amount of produce was incredible. The photo above showcases one stand and is representative of the 30-50 similar stands which were set up side-by-side along the street.
For those feeling inquisitive it’s possible to fork off of the main drag, which serves as the produce street, onto one of several smaller mixed goods streets. These are a seething mass of humanity, clutter, smells and small motorcycle Taxi’s called Tuk-Tuks. As an Argentinian girl from the hostel and I made our way through the market, we paused periodically to enjoy the vibrant pulse of the marketplace.
Though the market seemed safe enough, the always visible military and security personnel standing on every other street corner with automatic weapons or sawed off machine guns at the ready, were a vivid reminder of the economic and political turmoil currently plaguing the region.
Though the market itself had a fairly visible security presence, it paled in comparison to the amount of security, police and military personnel on the Island of Flores. In many ways the police presence left me feeling as though I was in an island fortress in the midst of some sort of great turmoil. Stores of any significant size and even some restaurants had armed security guards. At night the police were out in force – some 10+ motorcycle officers, each heavily armed with extended clips clearly visible.
At one point I came across an armored truck making its rounds while replenishing the local ATMs. Most of the places I’ve traveled in the past, armored truck guards are…lazy. They meander in, meander out and while somewhat diligent are not overly concerned. Not so in Flores. The guards were out of the truck, shotguns in hand, eyes sharp as they hustled in to the ATM, re-filled it, then with a jump to their step made their way back out and back into their armored truck.
Despite the general sense of added vigilance and the silent threat of violence and crime – my experience was entirely positive. The people were friendly and helpful. The city safe. The weather beautiful.
As the Argentinian and I finished our exploration of the island we hopped in a Tuk Tuk and for less than $1 USD a piece were shuttled back out to the Island. The Tuk Tuk was a fun adventure. Though I barely fit, it offered a fun view of the city as we wound through traffic, small back streets, and then eventually made our way out to Flores. All the while our driver was on his cellphone, driving one handed, except of course, when gesturing at other drivers or honking a horn in hello.
Once back on the island it was time to relax, eat, and then settle in for a bit of socializing in the common area. The hostel – Los Amigos – offered one of the most pleasant atmosphere’s Ive ever found in a hostel. The entire common area was decorated with lush vegetation, hanging ornaments, or books.
The hostel itself had as much space dedicated to the gardens and plant life as to beds and human comforts. From swinging rope chairs and vegan food options to a TV documentary zone the place oozed a relaxed hippy culture. In addition to the local owners, the hostel was also home to two dogs, an Albino bunny rabbit and a parrot. All of which had a free run of the hostel.
If you find yourself in Guatemala and are considering a trip to Tikal, Flores is a must!
My stay was entirely too short. With new years fast approaching, I found a direct bus from Flores to Chetumal (the border between Belize and Mexico). After confirming that the colectivo was a tourist bus, I booked my ticket and prepared for what promised to be a full day of travel. You see, Guatemala and Mexico don’t connect directly in the north. The only option was to back track from Flores to San Ignacio, then into Belize towards Belize City before turning north and striking up to Chetumal on the border. The trip took about 7 hours. From Chetumal I had to wait an hour or two due to full buses (I was traveling on the 31st) before transferring to a 1st class bus to Playa del Carmen. Nervous that I’d arrive late and lose my hostel/miss new years, I sent a hasty e-mail from the bus station, telling Hostel de lay Playa in Playa del Carmen that I was still coming and to save my new years reservation. After three more hours on the bus I arrived – with only an hour and a half to spare – at 10:30PM. I splashed some water on my face, checked in…and set out to welcome 2010….but that is a story for tomorrow!