I THOUGHT BEING A FEARLESS FEMALE TRAVELER MEANT I COULDN’T SHOW FEAR.
After I returned from Cuba, friends asked me how it was. Amazing, I said, and I meant it. I told them about the tumbledown houses and rattle of old cars. About dancing on the streets of Baracoa or hitching a ride on the back of an ox cart through the jungle. I also told them I found it hard to travel there as a single woman. And then I told them a story about what happened to me in a cab in Havana.
I have always defined myself as an adventurous female traveler. I first went backpacking at 17 years old around Central America, and I’ve since traveled to nearly 50 countries, often alone. Men have harassed me on the street and followed me home. A hotel owner in Guatemala once let himself into my room at night. I know I am lucky that nothing worse has happened. But the experience in Havana shook me, because I didn’t know how to bridge the gap between being an adventurous—read, fearless—female traveler and being afraid.
I had been in Cuba for over a month. I knew how to navigate the streets of the capital without a map and shout back good-humoredly in Spanish at the men who heckled me. After clubbing with some Cuban friends, I hailed a taxi around 2 a.m. I sat in the front because I get motion sickness and I like to practice Spanish. The taxi driver and I were chatting about life in Cuba, when he told me I was beautiful, and I felt the familiar clench of fear in my gut. I looked out the window. He asked if I wanted to see something, and I already knew he was holding his penis. My first response was to laugh, and then I told him to stop the car. But he didn’t. He started grabbing between my legs with one hand, while masturbating with the other, all—remarkably—without crashing.
I DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO BRIDGE THE GAP BETWEEN BEING AN ADVENTUROUS—READ, FEARLESS—FEMALE TRAVELER AND BEING AFRAID.
When I told my friends this story, I told it like any other travel anecdote, emphasizing the humor in the uncomfortable situations we find ourselves in while on the road. I wanted people to laugh with me, because that would normalize it. I didn’t describe it as sexual assault. If I called it assault, I would have to confront its impact on me.
Instead, I described how the car had no door handles on the inside—common among the tin can cabs of Cuba—so I had to manually open the window, painstakingly slowly, to reach through and open the door from the outside, staving off the taxi driver’s gropes at the same time. I didn’t feel in real danger until the taxi stopped, and suddenly we were on an empty street. He stood on one side of the car, and I, on the other, ready to run. Then he asked me for the $3 fare. I was dumbfounded, but I handed over $5 and waited for my change, because there’s no way I was giving this guy a tip. See how it’s almost funny?
There has been a well-documented rise in female solo travel over the past few years, and I celebrate it. But there is another older story that when women choose to travel alone, they’re placing themselves in danger. Gender violence happens everywhere, but the conversation changes once the experience takes places abroad. When I told people what happened in Cuba, they responded first with alarm, and then with criticism. I should not have been out at night alone. I should not have sat in the front seat.
A recent New York Times article, “Adventurous. Alone. Attacked.,” itemized violence against women traveling abroad over the past four years, including the horrifying killing of Carla Stefaniak by the security guard of her AirBnb in Costa Rica. It is an important piece of journalism, but reading it made me feel uncomfortable, because it perpetuated a narrative that solo travel is too dangerous for women, a narrative I’ve resisted throughout my career. But neither can I deny the reality of traveling alone as a woman. So where is the middle ground?
TRAVEL, LIKE MUCH OF THE REST OF THE WORLD, HAS ALWAYS BEEN DEFINED THROUGH A MALE LENS THAT VALUES BOLDNESS.
We tell stories in order to make sense of the world. I talked about what happened in Cuba because I was trying to make sense of it within my idea of what it means to be a traveler. I grew up on stories of adventure. As a kid, I read Bruce Chatwin, Bill Bryson, and Jack Kerouac. I remember the thrill of discovering Mary Wollstencraft’s 18th-century travel memoir, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. I reveled in her bravery to set off virtually alone (with just her maid and her infant daughter) at a time when it was near unthinkable for a woman to travel without the protection of a man.
I continue to seek out stories of female adventurers, but travel, like much of the rest of the world, has always been defined through a male lens that values boldness. I want to be brave, too. I often hear a voice in my head that says if a man can do it, dammit, so will I. I have hitchhiked at night with defiance, slept outside in a hammock in bandit-infested jungle, and knocked on the doors of private homes looking for a room to sleep when I found myself in a remote coastal village with no hostel. In order to claim the title of adventurer as my own, I have felt obliged to follow in men’s “fearless” footsteps. Perhaps that is why I struggle to make sense of experiences such as what happened to me in Cuba; it is not represented in those stories of adventure.
Media offers us two versions of solo female travel: the inspirational story as it exists on the pages of Eat, Pray, Love; or the story of women like Carla Stefaniak. As long as society’s view of female solo travel is informed by these two narratives, stories like mine, and so many others, don’t have a place in the travel world. And if that’s the case, we need to rewrite the script to recognize that these experiences might happen, but they should not hinder our right to roam the world alone. We need to create our own travel narratives, one in which we might not always be fearless, but we can certainly still be brave.