Traveling solo: A Lesson in Privilege and Feminism

By Kiana Duncan

The writer is a senior journalism student who has had the benefit of the CCI Semester in Florence (fall 2016) and is now studying abroad on her own in Prague as part of the CCI-Anglo American University partnership. She will blog periodically from Prague for CCI Global.

I was extremely excited for a solo weekend in Berlin. I’d already had one other solo trip to the sweet, quiet Swiss town of Interlaken. On that trip, I had a scheduled itinerary on a bus tour, and I was traveling with the relative safety of a tour group. The only crime to worry about in that cozy Swiss city was the highway robbery of an exchange rate.

But now I was eager to design my own schedule and to spend some quality time alone. I love traveling, and I took pride in the thought that this trip would give me new skills I could use for the rest of my life and help me grow as a person. I’d wanted to do a similar trip last time I studied abroad, but hadn’t felt quite ready yet.

I was also always raised to be headstrong, independent, and self-reliant. Society also reinforces these ideas, often under the banner of feminism.. . For a very long time, I thought self-reliance and independence were  enough. But I have learned that the problem with this operating philosophy is that it makes us feel like we are somehow responsible when misogyny or marginalization happen to us -- as if we could somehow prevent catcalling or even assault if we are simply brave enough or strong enough. Like many other women, I found myself at a crossroads between being terrified by the harsh realities of of the world and wanting to explore everything I can.

It wasn’t just those familiar worries like losing my passport or not speaking much German that left my stomach uneasy and my guard up. Being a female traveling on your own has its own issues beyond missing a bus or getting lost.

My stress headache was pounding by time I left my building. Partially because of lack of sleep— conveniently, cheap bus rides will cost you comfort.  My bus left at 1:00 a.m. and arrived in Berlin around 6:00 a.m. I'd triple-checked everything, but between forgetting to look up my metro stop before I left and my general anxiety, I was in need of a pep talk by time I reached the railway station.

Alone...and Vulnerable

I knew the fastest way up to the bus platform was a rusty, closed-off winding set of stairs in the parking lot. A friend and I had opted for the better-lit, yet longer way around the building last time, but I was worried I didn't have time for that, nor the energy this late to figure out how to cross the busy highway. The first thing that struck me was how bad the staircase  smelled. It was dark and dingy, and I wasn't completely sure it would take me to the right place. I began a light jog up, suitcase in hand. I looked up just in time to see a pair of bare feet on the cold, metal platform. I completely stopped in my tracks. This was everything I had been warned about, from my parents, from my school, from every website I ever read about traveling alone. I was alone, in the middle of the night, in a dark, enclosed space with a homeless man, not to mention carrying several hundred dollars’ worth of camera and laptop equipment. No one could hear me or see me. (However, if my parents ask, I went with 20 of my closest friends and we held hands the entire time to keep from getting lost.)

I froze. Should I turn back? Should I say something?

While I was scared, it occurred to me we were both incredibly vulnerable. I don't want to compare the two experiences, because of course I had the money to be traveling for the weekend and he didn't have anywhere to sleep except a cold staircase. But we were both scared. And we were both just hoping to get by without anyone bothering us. He flinched when we first made eye contact, and I took a deep breath and continued up the stairs. Why did I assume he was likely to hurt me?

The night continued in a series of odd events, including waiting for an hour in the cold until the extremely late bus pulled up, helping a crying drunk woman find a bus back to Vienna and watching people root through  the trash cans on the street. I found myself extremely grateful for a Colombian man who was waiting with us. It’s hard to explain in a situation where no one really speaks the same language, but he did understand his privilege in the situation, and that his presence alone could prevent confrontations. I remembered my Green Dot training fondly while I watched him take control of most of these situations, whether it meant engaging the crying woman in conversation or standing closer to us when homeless men rooted through the trash for half-eaten sandwiches, and especially when pushing a drunk man on his way down the street while the two other women and I sat a little closer together on a bench.

Between the cold and the strange night, I climbed on the bus feeling hyper-aware, and for the first time in my life, instantly falling asleep to the sound of quiet chatter in more languages than I could count.

Daylight brought a better feeling of safety and a relatively normal and wonderful weekend full of new experiences and museum trips.

There were moments that scared me though, and I feel these are important to talk about. There were things I could not do that a man most certainly could. Berlin is a beautiful, yet rough, city. Navigating public transportation and new neighborhoods required almost always evaluating my safety. Homeless people approached me on several occasions, a man followed me for at least a block to ask me for 30 cents, I was subject to catcalling every day and groups of men would harass me in passing (I mean, they were speaking German, but I doubt they were asking me for brunch recommendations). I gave myself many pep talks while walking back to my hostel from the metro after dark.

These situations are not uncommon, and nearly every woman has been made to feel unsafe at some point in her life.

New Lessons in Independence

And yet there are so many benefits to traveling alone. I navigated a massive public transportation system every day, found fantastic museums and restaurants I would never have considered with a group, and fit so much into each and every day. I created my own schedule and had a very introspective experience. I did things that maybe most people wouldn’t on a trip alone, like writing or reading in a cafe, or taking an hour to drink a good coffee and people watch. I learned about all the different things I could accomplish on my own and felt so empowered. I caught buses on time and made important mistakes that I learned from. I chose where to have dinner, what to see and what time I wanted to wake up and go to bed. I learned what I was capable of and found the courage to ask a lot of questions when I was confused. Most important, I learned a lot about privilege.

Traveling alone often leaves us with the mindset that we need to handle everything on our own, and while this is a useful skill, it's not realistic. It's an unfortunate truth that having a man stand beside me makes me statistically less likely to be assaulted or even approached late at night. It's called delegating -- and it can be extremely useful. Green Dot training helped me realize that this can be a good way to defuse a bad situation. I’ve come a long way from the girl who thought being stubbornly reckless was synonymous with being adventurous, or who thought that the way to avoid situations was to never leave your apartment. I don’t need to be “independent enough” to handle every single situation on my own, and here’s why:

When society normalizes a man yelling at me on the street, it’s not on me to be “brave enough” or “good enough” to tough it out. Simply put, it’s not okay for someone to do that.  We are justified in being scared, but as many fiercely independent women find out, it’s also okay to not have to take on every situation completely by ourselves. We aren’t chicken to order room service if we are staying in a high-crime area. It doesn’t make us anti-feminist to want to stay in a well-lit area, and choking up or feeling tears in your eyes when we are re scared for our life isn’t cowardice. It’s brave to go out and expose yourself to these elements, taking a chance on how you will be treated, but it’s just as brave to delegate situations you aren’t comfortable in, or to leave when you don’t feel safe at a bar. It’s not right that we are made to feel unsafe sometimes, but it’s also not right to beat ourselves up because we think we should have been braver or stronger. Being and feeling independent is enough, but knowing that it also means you don’t have to do it all alone is vital. You can be independent while delegating a situation, and you can be courageous when refusing a drink.

When a woman goes out alone in a new city at night, we need to think about more than what we want for dinner (although I do think about that a decent amount). It’s not even a matter of “find a safer way to do it,” or “just don’t go out alone.” While it’s not mine or any woman’s fault, the thousands of incidents that happen over a weekend in cities all over the world are a reminder of what can happen if I am not alert and on my guard. I do not have the privilege of giving people the benefit of the doubt, I do not have the privilege of stopping to help someone late at night, and at times, even making eye contact was seen as an invitation for men to yell at me on the street.

Misogyny restricts  what I am physically capable of doing. Plans as simple as visiting the Jewish Museum in the evening, or walking around to find dinner at night, required careful  thought and consideration, and when it eventually turned dark (as early as 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. ), my main goal was getting home as quickly as possible. If I’d had friends along, it would have been a different situation, but I no longer had the privilege of  stopping to take pictures, or ducking  into an interesting bookstore on a whim. I went the long way around buildings to be somewhere well-lit, walked quickly and didn’t make eye contact with anyone.

It also gave me insight into shared vulnerability and the diversity of experiences in marginalized groups. I’ve never had to sleep outside, but I’ve also never walked alone at night feeling completely comfortable. I am certain that just as I do not want to be yelled at on the street, a homeless person does not want to ask me for change or sleep on a cold staircase in October.

I saw some women walking around in neighborhoods at night, but not many. I’m sure if I lived there or had been  there longer, I would start to be more comfortable. I’m not certain that something would have happened, but that’s where the issue comes in. This doesn’t happen to every woman in every situation, but it happens often enough that we have to think twice before doing something a man might have no hesitation doing.

Here’s the thing about privilege -- there are many privileges I have, and some I don’t. I don’t need to feel guilty about the privilege I do have, as long as I use it to advocate for issues and speak for others who don’t have that same privilege. I am white, I live in a developed country, I come from a middle-class family, I’ve had the opportunity to travel, along with a lot of other things. However, statistics aren’t on my side in cases of assault, rape, and murder. The more we talk about experiences like this, the less we normalize harassment and misogyny. There are a lot of us in the world who feel unsafe and vulnerable because of our lack of privilege -- the important thing is that we discuss our experiences and make them known, that we don’t keep quiet, that we don’t feel embarrassed or blame ourselves when incidents happen.

With this in mind, I will definitely be planning more solo trips. It’s a good exercise in being independent, open, and most importantly, it illuminates the commonality of the human experience.