After I Was Raped, I Couldn't Even Leave the House - Now, I Travel the World Solo
This story first appeared on World Hum.
Women often ask me if I’m afraid of getting raped when I travel solo. The answer is yes. I am. I am terrified of being raped.
But it’s a more complicated answer than simply yes. I was raped in my late 20s by a man I barely knew. He broke into my apartment and raped and tortured me for days, leaving me severely injured and in shock. I barely survived it. Afterward, even people close to me asked what I had been wearing, or what I done to encourage him. Of course, I had done nothing at all, but this seemed to make little difference in the minds of some people.
Afterward, I shut down almost entirely. I stopped eating. My body seemed to fall apart. I hallucinated constantly that my rapist was in the room with me, and my only respite was sleep. I lived in a state of half aliveness, just breathing.
Then one day I picked up a book in the house where I was staying: Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” On the cover was a bird in cage, and I felt like that bird. I read it over and over again. Here was someone who understood how I felt. Understood that I was too raw and numb to leave the house. Understood silence, chatter, madness.
Angelou had written more than a book. She came to life before me, and now she sat at the edge of my bed, stroking my hair. Slowly, over months, I began to feel better. I began to shower again. I cut my hair. I changed the bed sheets. I ate. I dreamed. But finally one day I left that house and went out into the world again, still hurting but knowing that it was time.
It’s been more than 16 years since the rape. Talking about it often feels like an exercise in powerlessness: Everyone has an opinion and strangely there is often little room for my own. But here is my opinion: Rape was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and I wish that it had not happened at all. But because it did, I have to use it as best I can. If I couldn’t make something good come out of it, I think I would have never left that bed, and would have slowly starved to death.
The rape made me tougher. It forced me to think harder about who I was as a woman and what I wanted as a woman. It made me reach even deeper in the fight for myself. It meant a daily practice of overcoming for years: nightmares, recoiling from touch, folded. It made me draw on a courage that I did not know I had.
Traveling solo as a woman is an act of independence and courage. It says, I can be here, despite what you may think. I am free to go where I want to go and experience more of this life than you may believe I should. It’s not for the fainthearted. It’s for the Joan of Arcs, the warrior goddesses, the Valkyries. When I started traveling solo, I was so afraid I could hardly sleep, scarcely able to enjoy myself.
Even though I travel alone much more comfortably now than I did 10 years ago, I still have fear. I still have doubt. I still ache for the ease of a tour, a perfectly planned vacation with a guide, no decisions, minimal risk. That ache is small, however. Because to have the richly varied and adventurous experiences I seek, I need to travel alone. It is only in traveling alone that a strange partnership is forged within me: a balance of vulnerability and power.
Of course, I’ve had my share of danger, of close calls, of almosts, while traveling solo. There was time I was locked in a Honduran border patrol office and the official took off his clothes, telling me that he was going to rape me. And the time I was on a crowded Calcutta street and a group of men groped me. And the time a Colombian taxi driver refused to let me out of his cab and drove me around for hours, talking dirty to me. And the time I discovered my hotel room in Bangladesh was full of peepholes and I had been watched for months. And the time an Englishman, the husband of a dear friend, offered to take me on a day tour of London and instead took me to a hotel and held my wrists so tight he bruised them. And the time along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail in Spain that a man forced himself on me, trying to kiss me, holding my arms down as two other men laughed. And the time in Bihar that I couldn’t stand being cooped up anymore in the compound with the women, so I went on a walk and found myself surrounded by a crowd of angry men who wanted to teach me a lesson because I had wandered out without a headscarf.
I have so many more stories: countless leers, jeers, stares, fondles, and lingering touches I had not asked for. And I’ve always done whatever I needed to do at the time to escape: Smiled. Prayed. Yelled. Pushed. Fought. Whenever possible, I tried to search for the humanity in each man, and in doing so, help him to see mine. When I saw that the Honduran border patrol officer was actually going to rape me, I knelt in front of him and prayed the rosary in Spanish. When the Colombian taxi driver would not let me out of his cab, I asked to see pictures of his children and encouraged him to tell me his life story. Other times, I fled the scene so fast I barely touched the earth. Shaking and angry, I’d wonder if I should go home and stop traveling. Sometimes I’ve locked myself in my hotel room for days, too afraid to go out again. But when the hurt passes, I open the door and go out, into the city, into the village. I am a fighter, I am doing battle. I refuse to miss out on what is extraordinary, what is beautiful, what is important.
So many articles have been written for the woman who’s preparing to travel solo. They’re full of advice: how to dress, how to walk, how to wear your hair, how to ask for directions, how to take a train. Where to sit, where to eat, where to go and not go. I’m not going to write any of that here. It’s obvious to me that when I travel, I’m going somewhere else—a place with customs and beliefs to keep in mind, rules to break and rules to follow. I don’t like some rules, but I believe I’m changing things for the better—for women everywhere—just by going.
This, for me, is my greatest achievement: I can get on plane and go anywhere on Earth and have a marvelous time. Sure, every time I land, I am terrified. Yet slowly the fear takes leave of me and I take on the colors and patterns of a new place. I’m not limited by my fear of rape, of having been raped, of wondering if I’ll be raped again. I try to encourage women to just go, to take charge of their own experience of the world. I’m calling the world out, I’m calling that rapist out, I’m calling men out, I’m calling women out. I’m saying, I am here.
This is my tribute to Maya Angelou, a truth-teller, a soothsayer, a woman whose words got me out of bed and out the door and into the world.
This is my answer to all the questions I get about traveling solo as a woman.
This is my #YesAllWomen.