Ah, sister – so you’re heading out on an epic Latin American journey – all on your own! Sola, solita! Your family and friends have all questioned you: But is it safe?
It is, indeed, much safer than many would think. You only have to – well, yes – take a few precautions – just as you would have to at home. Or as they say in Colombia: No dar papaya. (Don’t give papaya –or don’t make yourself a mark.)
I’ve been doing it since 1988, and besides a few irritating moments, I’ve had nary a problem. Let me show you some of the ropes of 10 Things to Know When Traveling Sola.
(And yes, men, some of these can be useful for you, too!)
Leave the Hollywood Stereotype Behind
With my years of traveling in Latin America, I have noticed how prevalent Hollywood movies and TV shows are in this region. And I have often wondered if, perhaps, the way women are portrayed in many movies don’t influence how men think foreign women are. (Hey, we all know Hollywood is in the U.S. – but who can tell one fair-skinned foreigner from the other, right?)
Think about how Hollywood portrays women: How they dress, how they behave. Rather loose – as if ready to jump into bed with anything that moves.
Dress and act anti-Hollywood.
Speaking of stereotypes …
We have all heard how macho Latinos are.
But let us take a step back and look at our own societies with a critical eye.
First off – how shocked were your family and friends when you announced you would be going alone – as a woman – to Latin America? (Would they have said the same to a male relative or friend?)
Can a woman walk alone at night? Can she go to a nightclub alone? How are the figures of sexual / physical / spousal / mate abuse against female as compared to the male population in your home country? How many businesses are owned by women? What is the custom of keeping one’s birth surname upon marriage? How about the “glass ceiling” and pay equality? Just how much equal rights do women really have where you come from?
And that’s the first realization we must admit: Even in our enlightened societies, machoism exists – and affects our daily lives. It just wears a different face.
When you are packing your bags, don’t forget to toss in your workplace and street savvy women skills!
Placing the Attitudes in Context
It is so true that with each generation, women’s rights have gotten better. At times, it seems to me that younger people, though, have no idea how far we have come.
So I always urge them:
Have a heart-to-heart talk with your Mother, your Grandmother, your Aunts, and other older women relatives or friends about what it was like for women back in the day. Get the low-down about how it was for them growing up and coming into womanhood. What could a woman do? What could she not? Where could she go? Where not?
To give you an idea of what it was like when I was growing up, it wasn’t until I was in sixth grade that we could where pants to school (but no jeans or corduroys). When my older sister was in high school, teachers were still measuring skirts. (No more than 14 inches off the ground!) You had to be careful riding a bike so you didn’t rip your hymen. (And not use tampons, either, for the same reason!)
And in the adult world, a married woman couldn’t practice a profession using her maiden name (a restriction that would exist until well into the 1980s) – let alone enter many professions. A woman couldn’t get her own credit card. A married woman couldn’t get birth control without her husband’s permission.
In many areas of Latin America, women’s lives are just as they were 30 or 40 years ago in our own societies.
And as you are a woman in that society (albeit temporarily), you will be expected to behave as such.
Have a Heart-to-Heart with the Women You Meet
Wherever you go, talk with the women you meet. (And you will meet plenty, as many inns, shops and market stalls in Latin America are run by women!) Visit women’s centers – and volunteer in one.
Ask local women about the customs where you are, what you should know about dress and behavior. Ask about their lives, what it’s like for women in their society. Tell them about what life is like for you in your society.
Speak from the heart. Help to create bridges of understanding between our societies.
There is no better way for you to learn about women’s struggles where you are traveling. As well, it can assure them that you aren’t a stereotypical Hollywood character out after their men – and can provide you with an important support network should something happen to you.
"When in Rome …."
Take a look at the women in Latin America and take a cue from them. How are they dressing? Where do they go – and not go?
Sleeveless shirts may be seen as risqué. In some areas, women still use shorts and t-shirt to swim instead of bathing suits. Do women wear shorts in public? (Heads up, men – this is true, too, for the male sex!)
Where do “decent” women NOT go, especially alone or in a group of other women? There is still much prejudice against women entering bars, discos or pool halls.
Additionally, keep in mind that even informal chitchat with a man might be interpreted as a sexual invitation.
And then there’s the old joke about how Latin men want to party with the whore, but marry the Virgin (I would say Madonna – but then she might be confused with Madonna Louise Ciccone, who you definitely do not want to emulate if you want to avoid provoking the Hollywood-inspired dreams of local men).
You will undoubtedly be considered an oddity out traveling on your own, without a (male) companion. So, a few disguises might be in order.
If the topic comes up, you can always say that your “husband” is waiting for you. (“Oh, there he is. Excuse me, please,” and walk away). A wedding ring can also be part of your ensemble.
Another good “disguise” is to wear a cross or a Star of David (which many Christians in Latin America wear). Truly – it is amazing how differently people will receive you if they see one. They will seem to consider you to be a “good girl.” (Honestly – I have field tested this one.)
Whatever jewelry you might wear, though, keep it simple and inexpensive. (After all, you don’t want to attract thieves with a diamond-studded, gold cross!)
Handling the Attitudes
It’s been said many, many a time: Ignore it. Ignore the cat calls, the whistles. Look straight ahead and keep walking. Move away.
But if it gets too aggressive, do not hesitate to use your voice forcefully – and LOUD. Probably the best word to learn in Spanish is, Déjeme! Leave me alone! This will usually stop any assault and draw others’ attention.
(And – as the mother and daughter in Mexico City answered our question as to how they handle the infamous grope sessions on the rush hour subway: The daughter picked up her spike-heeled shoe, and the mother pulled a very long hat pin from her purse. Enough said.)
Watch What You Take!
(Men – listen up to this piece of advice, too!)
I know, I know – you are on vacation and you want to have a good time.
But you might want to consider, just for this short while of your trip, to moderate your liquor and drug intake. You are already a likely target for theft (you’re a foreigner, after all – and with that territory comes the belief you must be rich!) and you should keep your wits about you as much as possible. You don’t want to dar papaya.
It will not only help to protect you from possible theft, but also possible “on-the-spot fines” from law enforcement. Or prevent an occurrence as had happened to the U.S. Olympic swim team in Rio.
If you do have a drink out in a restaurant, nightclub, casino or elsewhere, always make sure that bottles are opened in your presence. Keep your hand over your glass or bottle, to prevent someone from slipping a drug into it. Never leave your drink unattended.
In the realm of personal matters, women, keep the following in mind:
Tampons are extremely expensive in Latin America (seriously, over $3 for a box of eight) and virtually non-existent outside of the big cities. Consider packing your own supply, or using an alternative method for your menstrual flow (like a cup – or, as local women use, sanitary napkins).
Likewise, birth control is difficult to find outside of large cities.
If you believe you may have sexual relations during your trip, pack some condoms in your first aid kit. Always use protection to prevent an unwanted pregnancy or disease. (I know at least three women who were HIV infected from their holiday “adventures.”)
Another annoyance is yeast infections. With a high sugar diet (even in fruit juices!) coupled with tight clothes and the heat and humidity, it is no wonder sometimes travelers come down with a good case of candida. To minimize your chances of developing one, watch your sugar intake, and wear loose clothing and cotton underwear.
Older Women Travelers
Ah – the joys of being an older woman traveler!
First, there is the respect Latin American societies still show to their elders. And if you don’t want an imaginary “husband” hanging in the shadows, you can say you are a widow.
Atop that, there are no tampons to have to be hauling around. Do take extra care with protecting yourself with sexual relations. (But r