RU Abroad with Zahra: Travelling Alone as a Woman

Ola! Sadly, that was my entire Portuguese vocabulary I just used for you guys… Moving on, some of you already know me because of my work with RU Student Life as a storyteller but in case you don’t, my name is Zahra, I’m starting my third year at Ryerson in RTA (Media Production)  and I’m incredibly excited to share my adventures in Brazil with you through #RUAbroad!

I’ve been lucky enough to have gotten a chance to do an internship in Franca, BRAZIL for 6 weeks this summer with the AIESEC organization at Ryerson. I thought that if I’m going to go all the way to South America on a 14-hour plane ride, it would be a sin to not catch a sunset at Copacabana Beach in Rio De Janeiro. Therefore, I planned an extra week to spontaneously explore Rio and Iguazu Falls before my internship starts. I’m embarking on this… wait for it… ALONE!

*The aligned gasp of society causes a vacuum-like black hole we all get sucked into*

I’ve worked extremely hard this summer in order to finance my trip, and as soon as the mention of my travelling alone arises, mantras of “are you sure?” echo, and my gears are at a grind. But, I can’t blame them, just look at the books and movies surrounding this matter. When a male protagonist travels, it is for “self-discovery” and “adventure”, or completing a “noble quest”; but when women travel by themselves, it’s usually for the sake of love. God forbid she learns a thing or two about herself during the process.

Travelling internationally into foreign lands is dangerous whether you are a man or woman, or a mixed group for that matter. Still, you have to take chances or you will never have the opportunity to see our beautiful planet. To prepare accordingly is the best you can do. However, when an incident occurs while a woman travels solo, the blame is directly put on her for going alone in the first place, as if she was asking for it (like so many other narratives in our society). Stupid and outdated gender roles should not define an individual’s geographical placement or opportunity for self-growth. Here are some reasons why I believe travelling alone as a woman is badass and freaking awesome:

There is always room for one more

The more the merrier is not always true when the crew at the hostel has only one space in their car. It can be easier to slip into a group and make new friends when you’re on your own. Plus, if you are a woman, people are more likely to think you small and adjustable, even if you do got a booty and thighs, like yours truly. It’s sometimes easier to merge into an already formed group when you’re on your own – fellow travellers likely have an extra spot at the table at the hostel, or are looking for one more to book a day trip with to get a deal.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Travelling is a phenomenon that leaves you with the freedom of being whomever you please. If you are an introvert in your city, you may decide to explore your wild side. Your confidence level will literally take a Redbull shot and you will learn to fend for yourself. You have no problem getting around on your own in Toronto so you never have to ask, but just admitting you’re lost in Istanbul and stopping a local for directions is a step. I haven’t learned to cook or do laundry myself because my mama spoiled me (thanks, mom <3). But now, I’m itching to attempt both of these survival skills when I’m on my own soon in Brazil for almost 2 months.

You a strong woman who don’t need no man

I’ve noticed, whenever I’ve travelled with male company, incidences of “let’s not go here, it’s too dangerous/inappropriate for girls” unconsciously seep through. I mean, I love my male family and friends and all, but sometimes the “you’re a little girl” spiel really holds me back from certain ventures. In Jerusalem, we went to the dead sea and I was in an a hijab (a Muslim woman’s religious head covering). Here, culture would persuade a female to not jump into the water with male company around. But I did so anyways; there was no way I was going to miss a chance to float in salty water without even having to lift a muscle to swim. Contrastingly, another time, on a cruise on the Nile River in Cairo, I didn’t quite take the bull by the horns. As the men got up and danced to fierce belly dancing tunes on the boat, I was left to sit and watch because it would be deemed inappropriate to dance together. I only refrained because we were in larger setting and I would not want to upset the locals by any means. Yes, you should seize opportunities, but it is a lot more important to respect the cultural norms of your destinations.

People look out for you more

Maybe this is true for every solo traveler, but locals and other group travellers tend to keep that extra eye out for you on tours and during meals. I remember sitting alone for lunch in Iraq once and a really sweet Pakistani couple jumped at the chance to sit with me (and pretty much adopt me). Every step of the way in the city or on the bus, they would do an extra head count to see if I was present and make sure to put in the effort to share all of their snacks with me.

Free stuff is good too I guess

This is true in every city, to be honest. I can’t tell you amount of times I’ve got to skip the Timmies line on campus because I’m a girl. So, it’s human rule that this repeat internationally as well. There are also better travel and hotel deals out there if you’re going alone, just do your research before hand.

Then again…

Now, take everything I said and throw it in the same black hole as the gasps. The reality is that travelling alone is dangerous for women. Unfortunately, there are people out there who target single, foreign women. We have to constantly check where the taxi driver is going even though we are unfamiliar with the roads abroad ourselves; we have to watch our drinks or finish it in one go at the bar; and we feel the need to take a buddy to the washroom, “just in case.” Real talk: men do have the upper hand on traveling solo, like everything thing else in societies still rooted in patriarchy.

Nonetheless, this does not mean we should be afraid to travel as women, or shy away from embracing our gender. The high points I listed are only light side effects of solo travels, or just being a woman – because society still roots us as the weaker sex. Now, is it fair that we get these benefits as women travelling alone? Sure, probably not. Then again, the “crazy” notion that women are people and that people like to travel is, well, not so crazy. Too often, instead of shaming and focusing on the people who takes advantage of a woman travelling alone, we like to scare her with links to the best pepper spray brands before she even steps on the plane (true story). So, if I’m taking all this negative safety nonsense on my personal journey, a few small perks don’t even compare to the bigger picture. I’d trade these little things for the respect of a man, any day. Just something to think about, I guess.

Now, for more cute mainstream travel pictures in convenient squares, follow me on Instagram and stick around for some Brazilian fun!

Also, add RUSL (rustudentlife) on snapchat for a live feed from Rio in the coming week!

If all of this still doesn’t phase you, check out this video of my friend Jasmin’s amazing semester abroad in Singapore and feel inspired to take the travellers plunge yourself as well.

See you on the other side, Ryerson!