The sunburnt earth, a dusty red in the midday heat, taunted me. Dandelion weeds grew in the unlikeliest of places, nestled in the cracks of a cinder block wall, between the spokes of a long-retired bicycle wheel. I was squatting, making my own shade. Sobbing. In the town of Olinda, in northeast Brazil, I was halfway through a four-month, solo surfing exploration down the Central and South American coastline. I was frustrated, physically exhausted, and crumbling. I had just left the condo I intended to stay in for the duration of Carnival, the annual pre-Easter celebrations, because it didn’t feel right. My flatmates, fellow tourists, were simply too eager to party. My gut told me something bad was going to happen, and I wasn’t going to wait around to find out. Pacing at the local bus stop, I ferociously ripped out the dandelion weeds, fighting through tears. A group of glass-eyed teenage boys in neon Nike shirts eyed me, amused. It was at that moment that I realised everywhere in Olinda would be sold out for Carnival. I knew my host in Maceió, my next destination, was flexible, so I hoped to head there early. But I had no way of contacting him, no way of knowing if he was even there. So I waited and waited for a ride out of town. Except the bus out of town never came. It was Carnival, and the long-haul buses weren’t running. This was far from the surfing adventure I had imagined. A weepy mess, I realised I had unwittingly attached a huge amount of symbolism to my present condition; I seemed to lack some innate characteristic that this particular journey demanded. I was failing. And then the sun began to lower in the sky.
I was travelling with two surfboards, a duffel bag, three cameras, five lenses, and a laptop — over 200 pounds of gear. It was now dusk, and there was no place to go and no bus in sight. Was I foolish for travelling alone? Should I have just stayed home? No, I told myself, I belong here. Last month, the bodies of two Argentine backpackers, Marina Menegazzo, 21, and María José Coni, 22, were found stuffed in plastic bags and dumped on the beach in Montañita, on Ecuador’s Pacific coast. According to media reports, the two women were raped and killed by two men, who reportedly said they were going to help the women with accommodation. The news was heartbreaking. These women were seeing the world, and I’m certain, learning about themselves in the process. But the aftermath of their deaths was arguably even more tragic. The response that emerged on social media was upsetting, yet all too familiar: Menegazzo and Coni were blamed for their own murders. Many online commenters suggested that by travelling “alone” — without the company of men — the women had invited trouble. Paraguayan student Guadalupe Acosta responded to the victim-blaming by penning a Facebook post from the imagined perspective of Menegazzo and Coni as they were being raped and murdered. "But worse than death was the humiliation which came after," the post reads. As of March 23, it has been shared more than 730,000 times. Ricocheting through social media platforms, women worldwide have responded to the criticism and victim-shaming with #viajosola, or “I travel alone.” They have posted pictures, explaining why it’s necessary for them to see the world, and defending their right to explore without harassment or discrimination.
Violence against female travellers is a real problem, but telling women to always journey with a man or stay home isn’t the answer. There are bad people and dangerous situations everywhere in the world, and that includes at home. But there are also good, honest people in the most unlikely places. Like on a Brazilian street corner at sunset. The elderly woman tripped crossing the street. She managed to catch herself, but her groceries went tumbling. The languid local boys, who had been eyeing both my body and my stuff, now leapt off their scooters and motorbikes and pounced on the free food. Remarkably, I also sprang into action. I gathered up all the food, save for a couple of oranges, and returned it to the woman. I must have looked indecorous; all puffy eyes and sandy hair. She immediately kissed my forehead and motioned for me to grab my belongings. Her husband was cooking feijoada, a Brazilian bean stew, when we walked through the door. I ate three bowls of that stew, all the while silently shedding “what if” tears. What if those boys had acted, instead of just stared? There were six of them and one of me. What if that woman hadn’t invited me over? It was dark now. Those tears were unadulterated fear. They paralysed me for a couple of moments, but they didn’t stop me. They haven’t stopped me.
Traveling solo, I’ve lost myself and found myself scores of times. Every woman deserves that right.
I’ve wrestled with the culture of fear that keeps women from travelling alone. So has my mother. She constantly fields questions about my whereabouts and safety on the road, but knows it is a part of who I am. I frequently travel solo — and have for more than a decade — sometimes just for a few days, sometimes for a couple of weeks at a time, and it continues to be a struggle, a double standard. But for me, travelling solo is the essence of adventure. I sometimes lose my bearings on the road, an impossible feat in my carefully constructed comfort zone at home. I go from worrying about deadlines and iPhone updates to simply needing to find a bed for the night. I connect with people on a human-to-human level, something that’s not always possible with a man at my side. Travelling is at once simple and complex. On the road, finding food, shelter, and water isn’t always straightforward. But I’m a better version of myself. I understand my strengths, I want to problem-solve, I’m curious about the world and my place in it. I’ve navigated through treacherous situations — dangerous waves, precarious roads, shady people. But I DID IT. It wasn’t someone else, it was me, journeying on the road, by myself. Travelling solo, I’ve lost myself and found myself scores of times. Every woman deserves that right.