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How travelling alone empowers us
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I'm reading
How travelling alone empowers us
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I'm reading
How travelling alone empowers us
Pass it on
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Articles
1 December 2017

How travelling alone empowers us

There is nothing like boarding an overnight bus, hiking the countryside or rocking-up somewhere remote and exciting on your own to make you feel like a badass lady.

Written by Amandine Thomas

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Growing up, I never thought I would be a traveller—my family didn’t go on holidays, except when crossing the Mediterranean by boat from Corsica to visit family on the mainland. I didn’t catch my first flight until I was 21 and genuinely believed, well into my late teens, that travelling would most likely never be a part of my life. I had resigned myself to never setting foot outside of Europe—after all, you can’t be what you can’t see, and there were no fearless voyagers in the small country communities I grew up in.

Besides, as a girl, the world at large had always been reflected to me with threatening overtones. I was taught from the youngest age to fear being alone in the streets—the stories of men in white vans prowling the city, of young women kidnapped by their taxi drivers or stalked through public transport were told and re-told by friends and family alike. And although I have always had a strong independent streak and a keen sense of adventure, their warnings about strangers in dark alleys stayed on my mind, their fears only growing more dire, first as I left for boarding school at 14, then when I moved to Paris alone at 17. I packed my suitcases full of pre-cooked meals, warm clothing and nervous advice I am pretty sure my younger brother did not receive upon leaving home. At a time when cell-phones hadn’t yet become popular, my mother thought I had been abducted twice on the train journey back from boarding school. It turned out the trains had only been delayed, yet the most likely explanation, in her mind, for why I hadn’t turned up at the train station as usual was that something had happened to me. Later, I remember trying to pass for a boy as I stood in a gloomy Parisian metro station, late at night (nothing romantic here, you can take my word for it)—my hoodie pulled down on my eyes and my skirt buried in my bag, swapped for a pair of train-appropriate pants—feeling utterly out of place.

Photograph of Amandine’s travels

People’s fears weren’t entirely unfounded, of course. I have been followed, groped, intimidated, catcalled and so on—the usual sad string of events that women are subjected to when they dare stepping into the public space alone. These incidents, while often brushed away as insignificant, reinforced my beliefs that the world not only wasn’t safe for me, but that I didn’t belong out there—like I might be somehow trespassing.

It wasn’t until one of my high school friends received a youth travel grant, when we were 18, that I realised travelling overseas solo as a young female was actually possible. I felt completely in awe of my friend, a small, long-haired brunette who pocketed the grant money and proceeded to spend the summer travelling from France to Romania, hitch-hiking and couchsurfing along the way. The questions I asked her once she returned were tainted with the same fears I had internalised growing up: Wasn’t she scared, travelling alone? Hitch-hiking? Wasn’t it a bit dangerous to walk through Istanbul, a huge, rambling, overwhelming city, completely on her own? Was it really wise to couchsurf with male hosts?

Although she openly acknowledged that she had been scared at times, she exuded the kind of confidence that I still find, to this day, immensely inspiring in other women. Hearing about her experience was more empowering that I could have guessed at the time, and opened my mind to a world of possibility. Suddenly the idea of travel didn’t seem quite as out of reach as I had imagined, especially as more and more of my female friends demonstrated the same fearlessness; studying abroad for a semester or two, backpacking in Asia or cycling through Norway.

While it took me a few years to join these women on the road, my first solo trip shattered the limitations I had placed upon myself. Suddenly I was alone in China, unable to speak the language, having to orient myself in a completely foreign environment, deciphering trains and bus itineraries, fending off scammers and getting lost in cities so big the shear number of humans walking down the street is enough to overwhelm you before you even get anywhere.

Photograph of Amandine’s travels

Of course things went wrong—many things, everywhere—including being tricked into jumping on the back of a motorcycle by a random guy impersonating an employee of my hostel, and ending up on the other side of the city, completely lost and convinced I was being kidnapped. Or having to get rid of a creep who, having found my number on Gumtree while I was looking for short-term accommodation in a new city, called me every day for a week to whisper about my feet while playing porn in the background. Recently, as I boarded a plane alone, a drunk man in his sixties spent the entire flight hinting—not very subtly—at how much he would enjoy sitting between me and the young woman who shared our row. He called us “pretty girls” and chuckled while we stared ahead, stone-faced and silent.

However, the truth is, I have never felt stronger, freer or more empowered than when I walk the streets of a new city, alone. There is something liberating in facing (and sometimes overcoming) such ingrained patterns, and in asserting myself in places I would have previously dreaded to inhabit. Of course, as a cis white woman, it is easier for me to do so, and I am grateful for that privilege—I have never been faced with racism or xenophobia as others might have. Still, I do get a thrill when I successfully negotiate a situation where my gender could get in the way, whether it be managing to make myself heard when others would speak in my place, or reassessing boundaries when they are disregarded. And of course there is nothing like boarding an overnight bus, hiking the countryside or rocking-up somewhere remote and exciting on your own to make you feel like a badass lady.

Photograph of Amandine’s travels

Many incidents, some insignificant, some terrifying, happened everywhere I have ever travelled alone. But wonderful adventures and chance meetings, transformative experiences and moments of pure freedom have made up for it. I have met more amazing people than I have encountered creeps. I have been praised more than I have been abused. I have been empowered rather than intimidated. And while I have never been able to fully shake off the ingrained habits that make me change to the other side of the road when a rowdy group of men walk in my direction, I have learnt that I belong in the world just as much as they do; that although I am a woman, and will most likely be faced by challenges inherent to my gender (and to those who identify with it), I can still go forth and explore, learn, grow; that every time I step out into the world, it becomes easier to feel welcome in the spaces I briefly inhabit. I have realised that overcoming the challenges I encounter while travelling alone was the best gift I could have given myself—it boosted my confidence enough to partially drown the narrative that has been holding women back, always.

Amandine Thomas

Amandine is a French illustrator and graphic designer, who travelled her way to Australia a few years ago and somehow never made it back. When not strapped to a backpack, she is busy designing the next issue of Dumbo Feather. The rest of the time she writes and illustrates books for little human beings—and contributes to a number of European and Australian publications.

Feature image by Amandine Thomas

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