Amanda Machado is a writer who has traveled the world, spending much of that time living nomadically. The daughter of immigrants to the US, her travels have taken her around the world on a quest to explore identity and cultural heritage. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, Vox, Quartz, and Matador Network.
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Guidebooks and websites tend to give the same, tired, overly-generalized advice for female travelers: “Don’t walk alone at night,” “Be vigilant,” “Research gender norms beforehand.”
This kind of advice hardly helped when I actually spent long amounts of time traveling as a woman. My travels made me encounter so many specifically unique situations involving gender, most of which this advice left me unprepared to confront. Based on these experiences, here is a list of things I wish I had known before embarking on a trip as a female traveler.
1. Female products/vitamins/supplements aren’t necessarily always available abroad. Pack wisely.
No one wants to sacrifice precious luggage space to bags full of women’s products, but if you are particular about the products you use –particularly when traveling in less Westernized locations- this is crucial to consider.
In many developing countries, tampons are a rarity and generally only found in large pharmacies in larger cities. Extra strength, extra-long pads or pads with wings can also be difficult, particularly in rural areas. While hiking in Nepal, I once had to settle for panty liners because it was the only product available.
If these options make you uncomfortable, consider buying a lunapad and/or Diva Cup before you leave. These products can be used continuously over a year and take up little space in travel luggage, making them a perfect choice for longer trips.
Also, although Tylenol and basic pain-relieving medication is available almost anywhere, if you need a specific medication or supplement, it's best to pack before you leave.
During my trip, cranberry pills for the prevention of UTI’s and iron supplements for my anemia were difficult to find and incredibly expensive when I did. Think about what women’s health problems you normally encounter in the course of a year, and pack for these in advance.
2. Regardless of your relationship status, take the time to think about birth control.
Before traveling, a friend told me the story of how her mother had been raped while traveling alone in the Middle East in her 20’s. Luckily, her mother had packed Plan B, and was able to take control of any potential for pregnancy.
Before hearing this story, I had never considered this possibility, and had never even thought about how packing Plan B could become so necessary.
Several countries not only still have bans on abortion but also on emergency contraception. Regardless of what kind of sexual relationships you “plan” on having while on your trip, it’s important to research your options in advance. Packing emergency contraception in advance is a good idea.
It’s also important to note that many insurance companies only allow women to buy birth control for up to three months in advance. Before traveling, call your insurance company and make sure you can still receive birth control while you’re away, or can stock-up before leaving.
3. “Don’t walk alone at night” is obvious advice. But also know where women generally don’t go during the day.
Though travel tips always stress that women should avoid walking alone at night, it is also important to consider even more specifically the typical conduct of women on a daily basis.
Do women take taxis alone? Do they ride the subway? Do they fly alone? Do they go to bars? Do they buy liquor?
In Jordan, women became nervous when they saw me entering the men’s subway and instantly pushed me into the “Women Only” cart. In Egypt, I visited a hookah lounge in the middle of the afternoon with our group’s tour guide, and then realized I was the only woman there. On a plane ride to India, I was the only woman traveling without her husband or family.
In all these instances, the curious looks from locals made me feel uncomfortable and self-conscious. While this doesn’t mean I needed to necessarily change my behavior, knowing the expectations in advance could have at least made me more prepared for the reaction my choices would illicit, and made it easier to then decide whether it was worth it or not.
4. Research your rights in every country you visit, including ones where you even have only a layover.
Legal rights regarding issues like abortion, homosexuality, and others can vary drastically depending on the country you’re in.
It’s always best to research these issues before hand than land somewhere and get surprised.
Even with countries where you only have a layover during a flight, you should still briefly research your rights, just in case. For example, when researching flights to India, I was first enticed by a cheap ticket that included a layover in Saudia Arabia.
Thinking it was too good to be true, I did more research and discovered that some women had experienced problems with cancelled flights during that layover. Since Saudi Arabia prohibits women from leaving the airport alone or buying a visa without sponsorship of a husband or male family member, female travelers with cancelled flights remained stuck inside the airport, unable to leave.
Research reviews, reports, and message boards for women who have traveled to the areas you plan to visit, so you will know what to expect.
5. Approach the threat of sexual assault abroad with a balanced perspective.
There is little data available on the rate of sexual violence among female travelers. Neither the United Nations nor the U.S. State Department keeps track of these incidents.
What we do know: the World Health Organization estimates that about 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. The majority of these cases happen with someone the sexual assault survivor already knows.
That means that though the the threat of sexual assault while traveling is very real, the image of sexual assault as something done by strangers in a foreign place is inaccurate.
As female travelers, it’s important to be aware of risks, avoid the most-risky situations, and stay informed about how to protect ourselves.
However, it’s also important to not let dramatic media and pop culture portrayals of scare us into believing we’re necessarily safer back at home.
6. Ignore the stereotypes of female travelers. They are myths.
Don’t believe anybody who tells you that traveling alone as a woman means you are:
- Kind of crazy.
- A little slutty.
- Obviously going to experience a violent death.
- Not as accomplished as your other female friends who are married with children.
- Destined to be alone forever.
They’re all myths, and practically every other female traveler has heard them at least once before. The important thing is to be strong enough to disregard these stereotypes, have faith in your own truth, and travel anyway.
And if you’re feeling in need of more role models to help motivate you, remember these women from history and these women today whose lives prove that women don’t have to be any of the above to love traveling.
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Amanda Machado is a writer, content strategist and facilitator who lives and works around the world. After working in the San Francisco Bay Area as a Teach for America corps member, she spent fifteen months backpacking around the world. She's continued living nomadically ever since, posting up for a while in cities like Cape Town, South Africa and Havana, Cuba. She also helps develop writing content and facilitate workshops for educational nonprofits around the world. To learn more about Amanda, check out her Twitter - @amandaemachado0 or her website, www.amandaemachado.com
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