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Women Traveling Alone: The Risks And The Danger

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The man stood 10 feet below, blocking the path and staring at me. Running up the mountain would be futile. I was terrified, but had no other option: I had to pass him. I would do it quickly and confidently. I took a deep breath and walked down the trail, but as I passed he grabbed my arm and twisted it. I screamed out and fell to the ground, where he kept me from moving. In that moment of contact all I could think was: “I am about to be raped.” He separated himself from me to remove his pants, giving me the moment I needed to pull out my pepper spray and pocketknife. Before I thought to use either weapon, I rolled onto my feet and started running away, tripping over my water bottle, phone and other items that were left behind. Sometimes people will praise me for getting away, but nothing that happened in those two, maybe three minutes was a choice: it was an entirely instinctive, adrenaline-based reaction.

With pepper spray in one hand and my knife in the other, I ran. He chased after me, but I did not look back. When I started running, he was pulling his pants back up. I had a head start. I looked down at my hiking boots as I jumped between rocks, trying not to sprain an ankle, and thought of his sandals. “You can outrun him,” I told myself. I turned my head and saw his shadow through the fog. He was still chasing me.

“Get yourself together,” I told myself out loud, “Don’t f**king cry. Don’t be such a baby. Just keep running. You can cry later.” I kept hoping I would find somebody, but the path was barren. It seemed like everybody had descended before the clouds rolled in.

Finally the man gave up, but I still didn’t feel safe. Who else might be on this mountain? Does he know a shortcut to ambush the trail further ahead? I did not stop running for an hour and a half, continuing to yell at myself: “Don’t cry, just get off the mountain.” Eventually I came upon an Australian couple hiking with a guide. I managed to blurt out, “Can I walk with you?” before bursting into tears.

This experience changed my perspective. I got angry. We live in a world where my friend, Ted can hike a well-marked path on his own, but I cannot. The threat of rape became a reality. I felt like an idiot for going on a hike alone. I needed to accept that I was oppressed by my gender, that I had very little control and that taking risks is a privilege not all of us have.

Every society asks women to monitor their actions instead of demanding that men change their behavior. I was not surprised, but I was hurt, when the first question the Australian couple asked me was “Wasn’t there somebody you could have hiked with?” I did not think what happened was my fault, but I also realized that my desire to deconstruct patriarchy did not mean I could separate myself from the system.

When we got to the bottom I answered a lot of questions: Why didn’t you use the pepper-spray when he attacked you? Why were you hiking alone? Why didn’t you stab him? Why didn’t you stop right away to tell somebody? In my head I was screaming: this is what it means to blame a victim, guys.

After several weeks living in Dharamsala, I felt comfortable. I felt safe. When a friend told me I should take a day hike alone on a busy path, I didn’t think twice. What I learned from that experience was this: always think three times. I looked back to that motorcycle ride. That was so stupid! He could have taken me anywhere. He could have murdered me. But now, almost three years later, I have the memory of overlooking a mountainous Indian countryside while speeding down a narrow path on the backseat of a motorcycle. I am happy I have that, but I doubt I will ever trust another stranger the way I trusted him.

Women should take risks. Women should travel alone. It is not fair for us to live in constant fear, nor should we. However, we must also accept and adapt to the reality of wherever we travel, rather than challenging preexisting and culturally specific gender binaries we cannot control.

A month after the hike I left Dharamsala to travel alone again. I still took risks, but I took smaller, safer risks. I became very cautious: once in Haridwar I spent a whole day in my hotel room after the concierge barked that only sluts travel alone. But still, of course, I persevered I traveled alone on a train. I walked the streets of Delhi alone during the day, and took rickshaw and taxi rides by myself. I meditated in Rishikesh. I slept in the Golden Temple of Amritsar, and danced on the border of India and Pakistan; for the most part, I felt happy and safe doing these things, but somehow, everything had changed.

You can read more from Alison Vingiano on her blog.

Feature image via.

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  • Jessica Ellen

    This was awesome – and really reasonated with how I feel when I’m travelling – that balance of travelling solo (which I love) and keeping yourself safe. There’s a few things I look back on and wonder if it was the best choice but some of my most memorable travelling experiences happened that way. I guess it’s about trusting your instincts and, like you say, taking smaller, calculated risks.

  • Hilary June

    I have been travelling and living in different countries for a year now. I ran away at 19 and did multiple solo overseas trips in my teens. The first reaction I get from people when they find out I’m alone is “wow, you’re so brave!” And that has kind of annoyed me.

    I have met about 50 other solo (mostly young 20-27) female travellers in all my time travelling and only 2 solo male travellers. (An American in Amsterdam who was living in Spain, and one in Salzburg. That is it.)

    I have had no problems, I’m not “fearful” of travelling alone, but I am prepared. It sucks that I have to think about the fact that my body attracts unwanted attention and that just talking to a man is often percieved as an “invitation”. It sucks that I have to carry weapons for my own safety and it sucks my family has to worry. But I would absolutely recommend travelling solo, it has been an amazing journey so far with no end in sight.

    But I wish people wouldn’t look at me in such a ‘wow, how unusual of you, a pretty white girl travelling alone with just a backpack!’ when in reality, that is not at all unusual or exceptionally “brave”.

    I’ve always wanted to go to India … your article has only increased that desire. The point of travelling is to experience the world, and other cultures. And other cultures view women as inferior – still! Experiencing that will only fuel my fire and give insight. Can’t wait to be there!

  • Swathi Narumanchi

    Hi Alison,

    I know that to sympathize is futile now, but you do have my empathy. I live in India, and I love my country, but yes, it is NOT s safe place which encourages people to have faith and belief in a fellow country person.

    People here, man or woman, have their share of insecurities. It is a nation whose leaders are selfish and misguided, youth disillusioned and old who have seen everything.

    This is not a snake charmer country or any such thing, we have well educated people too. But it’s the character that matters, the ingrained sensibilities. India is a nation of oppressed women. Where women are almost always never thought equal.

    Hope you have better experiences on your other travels !

    Swathi Narumanchi

  • Akilah Hughes

    This post was so real and riveting. I think Ali should be one of your regularly featured authors. Her perspective speaks to all women and I felt that this advice was great. So glad she was open and candid with her experience.

  • Emma Van Looy

    This is a very brave and raw post which I have found inspiring and insightful all rolled into one! Well done for writing this – I’m sure many women will appreciate this piece, as I have done.

  • Bre Short

    This article has come at a perfect time for me. I’m debating travelling alone this summer in Ireland. I want to spend 4 weeks in Dublin to take dance classes and experience the arts scene because I feel drawn to the work of the dance companies in that city. My friends don’t have the time or money to do this trip, and part of the reason I was to do it is to experience a different kind of independence, to not be on someone else’s schedule for once. It is a shame, I’ve realized, that women have to be so cautious with our adventures. Like you said, being able to travel alone is a privilege that not everyone shares. Doing this is important to me though, and it’s reassuring to read that you still encourage solo travel even after your experience in India. Thanks for the article :)

    • Natalie Singleton

      Last summer, I also spent some time in Dublin. It is great! I did take some risks like walking by myself at night and exploring new places during the day, but I don’t regret anything I did there. The arts scene is truly incredible. I recommend the Abbey Theatre

    • Hilary June

      Yes! Absolutely do it. That sounds like it would be a great experience for you. Solo travel just makes you more who you are.

  • Lindsey Martin

    I am currently studying away in Morocco and I cannot tell you how true the statement that men and women are not equal in their abilities to travel alone in this world freely is. I cannot leave my college campus without men yelling at me, pulling over and asking me to get in their cars, and the constant staring. In Marrakech a group of men tried to grab me and my friends as we were walking with one of my guy friends. We had to literally tear our arms away from them. It’s been extremely annoying having to rely on men to do anything off of my college campus, and if I do go off campus I have to bring at least 3 other girls with me. But in the end I’m glad that I’m here and I have the opportunity to live in such a beautiful country for 4 months. In the end I think it makes me stronger as a woman. I’m now not afraid to stand up for myself and tell people that I’m not going to be walked all over. It’s empowering and belittling at the exact same time. I hope everyone gets a chance to travel abroad and see how intense, amazing, wonderful, and terrifying traveling alone as a woman can be. I’m so glad that this post was written. I really appreciated the fact that she was so open about her experiences and frustrations!

  • Lys Santamaria

    Thank you for this great and insightful article – very vivid and moving. I just wish the title of this piece was worded to both caution AND inspire women – not just to create fear. Solo travel is a beautiful thing and taking risks is a part of our shared human experience.

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