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Dangers Of Traveling While Female

I wanted to be a fearless adventurer like my male heroes, but a voice kept warning me: Don't get yourself raped.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ Tomas Urbelionis

 
 
 
 

When I was younger, I wanted to travel like Patrick Leigh Fermor, who famously spent 1934 walking from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. I envisioned myself sporting leather satchels and lace-up boots, doffing Panama hats, spouting demotic Greek. I fantasized about riding horses through the Caucasus and letting falcons loose upon the Black Sea, about “living up in the mountains, dressed as a shepherd,” as Fermor had done. It was a fantasy cobbled together from all the books of all the travel writers I loved — the great writer-scholars of a certain generation, who saw the whole world as raw material: shifting, uncertain geography for them to shape and create anew in their words.

Then I turned 15, and traveled alone for the first time to Paris, a city I had once lived in, and which I knew well. I laid out maps. I made plans. I would bolt down every alleyway. I would say yes to every invitation. I would lay lilies at Oscar Wilde’s grave. I would sit at cafes in Montmartre until some itinerant, velvet-trousered poets came to scoop me up out of my innocence; they would take me with them to secret courtyards, up the stairs to hidden salons, and there we would drink absinthe and I would scribble down my experiences and then, at last, I would know what it meant to have an adventure.

I never had an adventure.

I was skittish, awkward, hardly capable of forming words to boys my own age, let alone 40-something men well-practiced in the art of knocking gawkish girls out of their comfort zone. I spent my week in Paris squirming out of conversations, stuttering out fake phone numbers, learning all too quickly to avoid those places where I might be considered a target. Cafe terraces, park benches, crosswalks of city streets. My desire for experience, for openness, for adventure, had been overpowered by a stronger imperative, one I had internalized without realizing it:  Don’t get yourself raped.

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Even today, my male friends look at me with confusion when I try to explain how powerful, how completely prevalent is don’t-get-yourself-raped in my everyday life. It’s the reason I get my keys out a good 10 minutes before I reach my apartment, keeping them between my fingers in case I need to use them as a weapon against an assailant. It’s the reason I take taxis instead of walking home alone late at night. It’s the reason I always walk in the middle of the road, steering well clear of alleyways or obscured corners.

But it’s the reason, too, for more subtle variations in behavior. I’m no longer 15, and I am far more capable of turning away aggressive strangers than I was that ill-fated summer, but as a travel writer, I am painfully conscious of how easy it is for a moment’s lapse to turn me from an observer – an all-seeing eye, freely taking in a Tbilisi hilltop or a Turkish terrace – into a target.

It’s the reason I turned down the recent invitation of a well-known Georgian writer to visit him at his winter home in the mountains. It’s the reason my heart starts pounding when the waiter in Tbilisi brings me a complimentary plate of baklava when I’ve only asked for a coffee. Not because I fear that this writer, or this waiter, will drag me into a darkened room and rape me. But rather because the social codes I have learned to fend off unwanted advances – abruptness, bordering on rudeness; the refusal of any special favors or gifts; the subtle avoidance of giving off the “wrong impression” – are diametrically opposed to the openness, the willingness to go anywhere and do anything, that form the genesis of every good travel story.