Six years ago I knew where I was going when I arrived in Shanghai that afternoon. I knew my future for the upcoming four days. I figured it would be filled with exploring a new city, with sights, high rises and museums, and getting back on China time. I was right. I’d missed China a lot. It took me about two seconds to feel back at home as I boarded the Maglev train into the city and took it all in. I pushed my way through the subway crowds and navigated the alleyways of the old French concession as I found what became my home for over a week.
I had my first four days planned, but I had little plans after that. And now sitting here in the south of Vietnam, drinking my third milk coffee of the day, I’m doing that exact same thing.
I ended up travelling around for seven months after landing in Shanghai, and I felt like I accomplished more during that time than most periods in my life. I studied yoga. I started a blog and finally got a writing routine down. I checked off over 15 Chinese provinces and learned how to travel well, safely and mostly solo. I saw Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. I learned more about the countries I passed through than I’d expected to. I joined some writers meet-ups in small coffee shops with local expats. I even taught English for a little bit. I lived life five times over during my seven months. So now in Vietnam, I’m not scared. I’m not nervous or doubtful, because my resume makes me look somewhat of a hopeless wanderer. Yes, I am. I am, totally. I freak out every day. But, I choose to be hopeful.
Throughout my trip through China, I developed a routine. I made friends along the way and spent a bunch of days alone when my mind raced miles a minute. I stayed in places I liked and left places I hated. I took days off from travelling because real backpacking can be exhausting and rainy days watching Indiana Jones with people in your hostel is sometimes needed. It’s not all a beach vacation. I think I’ve had a total of five beach days throughout my years of backpacking.
As a woman on the road, I’ve had to make different choices than the men around me. I’ve taken different paths – sometimes by choice, sometimes for survival. I act differently when I’m travelling around with people. I don’t walk with purpose and fully focused. I can walk in zig-zag lines and twirl my hair as I wander in a line with other travellers. I can be much less cautious when I’m walking with another male traveller. Even if it’s just one, I can’t help but feel calmer. I don’t need to worry so much about when the sun will go down and how far I am from my bed. I don’t worry too much about venturing out too far. Don’t get me wrong – I do plenty of reckless wandering if I’m travelling solo for the day, but it’s just much more exhausting. I’ll usually be able to find so many more remote little places and cute spots tucked away in different corners if I’m by myself, but it’s draining day after day.
My days off are well-deserved. If that means sitting in a cafe for the afternoon writing a blog post or streaming an entire season of Friends while it rains outside – I’m fine with that.
No matter where I go, my presence always seems to stir a reaction in someone. I don’t want it to, but it does. “Travelling alone?” Sometimes it’s only a question from a person’s genuine curiosity, and other times it is code for if I’m available or not. Somewhere along the way, the lines got blurred between WOMAN ALONE and WOMAN UP FOR GRABS. Available for them? Clearly, I don’t have much of a choice. If a woman is alone, sometimes, it’s the men around her who still think they can make some choices on her behalf. I am more fortunate than most, but I am less fortunate than my male counterparts, who backpack the same places as me but don’t get asked by weird old men and some unsuspecting younger ones if they are travelling alone or not. They enter a world where women are at their disposal if they so desire them, and the benefit for a dude is that they can be kept company throughout their travels. For me, if I have someone by my side, I can relax a little. I don’t always need some company. Sometimes I just need a little protection.
I’ve met women on the road who travel with knives in their pockets. I’ve never done that. But I do feel safer when I’m walking with them.
Whenever I’m in a bookstore I find myself in the travel literature section (surprised?!). I scan through the book titles and author names. Still, in 2018, it’s mostly books filled with stories told by intrepid men who’ve journeyed to faraway places. And in all the travel books I’ve read by men – from Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux, Peter Hessler, to Pico Iyer – I’m yet to find a personal story about rape. And in MOST of the female travel memoirs I’ve read throughout the years, there’s at least one chapter in their books involving a personal rape story. Some tell it with more emotion than others. Some mention it very casually. But more often than not, it happens.
And when I venture off into lesser-known parts of this world, like Kyrgyzstan or a city in China’s Sichuan province, the solo travellers I meet and see on the streets are mostly women. Lots of people travel in packs, and lots of people wait to be in a couple to go somewhere away from home, but I can’t help but notice that secretly, the intrepid ones are the women, not the men that are selling at the bookstore.
The little table I’m sitting at with my coffee and computer as the sun goes down in Vietnam is in front of a cafe and restaurant run by a middle-aged Vietnamese woman. I’m the sole patron. Before stumbling upon this place I passed a coffee shop which is right next door, and it’s filled with only men. I’ve been noticing this a lot in Vietnam. I spent a few weeks in Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh City) and a lot of the cute, dimly-lit and authentic-looking Vietnamese-style coffee shops during the day were filled with mostly men. The women were on the street, selling spring rolls and rice paper. I never felt comfortable going into one of these cafes. I probably would have been allowed, but all the stares just wouldn’t have been worth it for me. So today, I gladly passed the popular coffee shop and am sitting here alone, as the woman running the place sweeps the front patio and her puppy runs around.
As I look at all the evidence I think that maybe we still have a long way to go. But, I choose to be hopeful.