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For Women, Traveling Alone Can Be Easier Than You Think

Courtesy Beth Whitman
Beth Whitman at "Tiger's Nest," the affectionate nickname of a monastery in Bhutan.

 

In the middle of a 7,000-mile motorcycle trip from Seattle to Panama, Beth Whitman found herself stuck along the Guatemalan border. 

Other people flowed freely in both directions across the line between the two countries. But not Whitman. For some reason, the guards were not letting her into Guatemala.

And she was by herself.

"I sat for an hour, angry that they weren't letting me through with just a signature," she said. 

Traveling alone brings its own set of challenges. And the concerns can be magnified for women. Whitman lives in Seattle and edits the travel website Wanderlust and Lipstick. She leads tours to Asia and Africa among other places.

"Before that trip, people told me I was going to die, be raped, be thrown in a ditch -- all these horrific things," she said. "But I really knew if I treated people well, they were going to treat me well back."

So she tried being nice. She talked to the guards, and she bought them Coke. Soon, Whitman was released and allowed to cross the border.

Whitman says it worked because she was nice, but firm. She stood up for herself, but did so courteously, and calmly.

She also warns that it's easy to take that too far, and let courtesy get in the way of good judgement. Whitman says many women find themselves in difficult situations while traveling because they don't want to be seen as offending anyone.

"They didn't want to be seen as rude Americans, in particular," she said. "Even though their gut told them there's something wrong, they didn't want to appear rude or step out of a situation."

So while it's important to be nice, that needs to come with a dose of assertiveness, Whitman said. Be clear about your wishes. 

"What you have to do is kind of be their sister, be their daughter -- put it into some kind of context where it isn't sexual, but you're being friendly," she said. "For me, I said 'I'm meeting my husband in the next town.' And that, they got. They let me move forward."

Common sense is critical. Be aware of your surroundings, and don't wander into unfamiliar territory at night. Don't wander off with strangers, no matter how friendly they seem. But don't be afraid to travel, either. 

"We have been ingrained since a very early age that we can't do certain things," she said. "We're telling ourselves in our head, 'You can't do that.'"

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"Going Places" is KPLU's weekly exploration of travel topics. This week, travel expert and Earthbound Expeditions co-founder Matthew Brumley spoke with travel guide Beth Whitman, who has led co-ed and women-only tours to Asia and Africa, among other places. 

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.