Apparently quitting my job to travel around the world for 13 months was stupid thing to do.
Not because I left my job in a bad economy.
Not because I drained my entire savings.
Not because I strained relationships with friends and family.
No, according to a majority of the 800+ people who commented on a recent article on nbcnews.com, I was stupid to travel around the world because I traveled solo. And I’m female. And American too.
Apparently the combination of these three factors – especially the first two – means that it’s a bad idea to leave your hometown, much less the country. And travel to second or third world countries with vastly different cultures and religions? Apparently you can’t be more stupid.
I hope you’re reading this, thinking how absurd that all sounds. That was certainly my feeling as I made the mistake of reading through over 800 comments regarding the recent murder of a New York mother, Sarai Sierra, in Istanbul. It’s a sad situation, don’t get me wrong, but reading the response from people and realizing that a significant proportion of Americans likely agree with many of the comments made me even sadder. Here’s a small sample:
“But for a woman to travel around alone, without a trustworthy local guide, is very reckless. …She should have had one or two local guides with her whenever leaving the hotel. They can translate, suggest sites to photograph, guide you to safe restaurants, etc.”
“Never travel alone to countries like that. Especially if you are a white female.”
“When you leave the US and are an American you are a TARGET.”
“So sad for the family, but what on earth would possess someone to travel to a Middle Eastern Country by themselves? Americans do not understand the cultures of these places. There are alot of people that have such hatred for Americans, and they have very little regard for women in these areas too. She should have taken her family on a vacation to a place that is not so dangerous. I would NEVER let my wife do something like this!”
“Turkey is a wonderful country, but traveling there alone, especially Istanbul, is just plain stupid! But traveling in that part of the world, especially if you’re an American woman by yourself is, again, STUPID!”
“Who in their right mind goes to a third world country by themselves? I, myself, would never go anywhere outside of the U.S. by myself. It’s too dangerous.”
“This is a reminder to our naive citizens that foreign lands are dangerous; especially countries dominated by muslims. You can not assume those places are as safe and secure as NY, Chicago , LA streets etc.”
You get the picture.
As I read through these comments, I realized how naïve I have been. Not because I spent 13 months traveling around the world by myself, but because I had no idea how ignorant and fearful so many Americans are. As much as friends and family didn’t always understand my desire to travel long-term, they never questioned my desire (or intelligence) in wanting to travel in general. My dad spent most of my childhood traveling for business, visiting places like Singapore, South Africa and Brazil. I have close friends who have been everywhere from Argentina to Cambodia to Morocco – many traveling solo. While I am careful when I travel and mindful of the risks, I have never thought of travel as dangerous.
I resisted the urge to reply to every single comment – to point out that Turkey is not a third world country, that Muslims as a group do not hate Americans, that the world outside the United States is not inherently dangerous and that women like me and my friends and poor Sarai Sierra are not stupid for traveling alone. I realized that such arguments would be falling on deaf ears.
But I also worry that those comments will scare some women away. I worry that the soon-to-be college graduate who’s planning a summer backpacking trip around Europe might now reconsider. I worry that the 45-year-old divorcee who just got her first passport might change her mind about heading to South America. I worry that the parents of the college sophomore who was going to study abroad in Asia might talk her out of it.
To those women, if you’re out there reading this, I say this:
The world is an amazing place, full of fascinating history, natural beauty, intriguing cultures and wonderfully good-hearted people. Did I feel safe traveling alone as a female? 100% yes. I probably felt more safe in many of the places I visited than I sometimes do in my adopted hometown of Chicago – and that includes the 3 weeks I spent in Turkey and week I spent in Istanbul. Moreover, I met so many incredibly friendly, wonderful people during my travels – people who were eager to help me, share their food with me and welcome me into their homes – in many cases, even more so because I was on my own.
The people I met in almost every country were far more hospitable than most I meet at home in the United States. They were also very welcoming of me as an American, curious to learn more about our country and for those who disagreed with our government’s policies, they were able to separate the American people from the American government.
As a result of my travels, I have learned about other cultures and developed a greater appreciation for the world around me. I have seen some of the most beautiful places on earth. I have made life-long friends and challenged myself in ways I never thought possible. I have grown as a person and learned lessons that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
So no, traveling solo isn’t stupid. If anything, it’s one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.