Traveling alone as a woman certainly poses its challenges. In many countries around the world being a woman means getting cat-called on the street, hit on by waiters and dodging honking moped motorists. But -- if they approach the endeavor with the right mindset and knowhow -- women will often find that traveling sans male counterpart presents few barriers.
While living in Paris, I made it a point to meet and befriend as many Parisians (read: as few English-speakers) as possible. On most nights, I could be found chatting up new friends in a café or resto in some obscure, non-touristy corner of the city. This unabashed willingness to explore new places and meet new people took some friends by surprise. Underneath their raised-eyebrows was a worry that I would stumble into the wrong bar or get caught up in the wrong crowd.
After all, I was almost always exploring the city alone.
Admittedly, my first boyfriend in Paris was a French waiter named Pascal. Pascal asked me out for drinks as he placed a generous glass of cabernet down on top of my tattered copy of The Sun Also Rises. I later learned that I had succumbed to the cliché of the American girl falling for the server that called her "beautiful" in his foreign tongue. But apart from falling into an all-too-common stereotype, my experiences with European men were rarely uncomfortable, let alone unpleasant. After all, had I not been interested in Pascal, a simple "non, merci," would have done the trick.
In his most recent article, Frugal Traveler columnist Seth Kugel explores "The Gender Gap in Travel." He interviews women ranging from other famous travel writers to Twitter fans gripped with wanderlust, asking them to share their thoughts on traveling the world as women. Of the women interviewed, many agreed that while it is obviously different traveling as a woman, most differences are not insurmountable. Ignore the passerby's come-ons. Affirmatively turn down the overzealous bus boy. "[S]trike a balance between trusting and foolish." Voila, problem solved.
What Seth Kugel fails to address are the many benefits that come to traveling as a woman. When stuck in the middle of the 2010 Greek riots, scared, overwhelmed, and unable to decipher a map, I was approached by an unsolicited, uniformed man who escorted me from the chaos.
I was wandering Roman alleyways alone in the wee hours of the morning, when a cop insisted that he drive me back to my hotel. Of course, there were also the less dramatic, more frequent occurrences, such as being unable to determine which metro or bus I needed. Help was always nearby.
When talking to a fellow male traveler about my ineptitude with maps, he asked how I managed to get around so well by myself.
"Just ask for help."
He, like so many of my friends in Paris, raised his eyebrows: "Well. I could never do that."
"Because, I'm a guy."
Some might say this sounds an awful lot like Damsel in Distress syndrome. I say, whatever keeps me from having to decode the Greek alphabet on the map's legend is fine by me.