Few of us set out without a twinge of anxiety
Is anywhere in the world safe for female travellers? The headlines that followed the awful murder of Grace Millane in New Zealand last week certainly suggested not. However, it’s important to remember that murder by strangers is incredibly unusual. That holds true whatever the country, but murder of travellers and holidaymakers is so rare that the victims’ names are remembered. We are morbidly fascinated by killing, particularly of vulnerable young women; there must be more books and films with this as the main subject than any other. So it’s no wonder we are frightened when we find ourselves in a threatening situation.
The greatest danger for female travellers is road accidents and other mishaps, but few give a thought to this; instead the fear is of men. Dervla Murphy, in the Seventies, called it “homophobia”, a term she had coined herself, more accurately than the current meaning. She recommended turning the tables on men who appeared threatening and asking their help. Good advice. Women have the choice between acting confident and self-assured or vulnerable, which sometimes brings out the chivalry in foreign men. But their great advantage as travellers is undoubtedly the sisterhood that allows them to be welcomed into women’s homes, and to share some intimate aspects of other cultures.
Though statistics show that women are less likely to be attacked than men, there’s no denying that travelling alone takes courage, and few set out on a solo trip without a twinge of anxiety. It was for these travellers that I compiled the anthology
I selected the stories and revelled in the accounts of how everything turned out well despite their worst fears. Take Nicole Teufel, for example, an 18-year-old American who went to Russia on her own, mostly in defiance of her country’s prejudice. “I arrived trying to suppress my unconscious negativity towards Russians, but a minute in I had already failed. A man came up to me saying he was a taxi driver. I said no. He had the same cold face of every terrorist and kidnapper I was ever warned about.” In the end Nicole said yes, and “as my heart raced and I followed him out I heard every relative and friend of mine telling me to turn back … though there wasn’t a single reason not to trust him. I got in and waited to be driven to some far-off place and never heard of again.” Of course, the story ends happily. The taxi driver shows her the sights of Vladivostok, stops for photos, and finally makes sure that she gains entry into the hostel. “He was the kindest taxi driver I had ever known. And yet I had taken him to be a crook. I had a lot to learn.”
I look back on years of travel and remember similar situations. And I admit it – I was often afraid. One pivotal time was in Colombia when I found myself alone in a train compartment with a young soldier. It was dark outside and there was no escape from the carriage. My Spanish at that early stage of the trip was almost nonexistent and I was too wary to want to attempt conversation – something he was uncomfortably
Just me, the mountains, and the lake...