Personal essay: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of solitary travel

Jake Moore /Staff

(12. 4 feet 8 inches. Excited and curious.)

“This is a Manhattan-bound E express train. The next stop is …”

Although I’d probably heard this iteration thousands of times, this was the first time I truly listened. I was Henry Hudson and the NYC subway map was my compass to aid in my exploration of independence. As a young child ecstatically embarking on my journey of this great city, I was finally satiating my longing for the whoosh of wind the speeding train launched as it churned its tiny wheels at as fast as 55 miles per hour. Stepping into the metal tube crowded with professionals, performers and the public, I felt as if I had graduated from a child strapped in the backseat of the car to being ready to take control of the steering wheel.

With no parental figure hovering over me, I was at my liberty to travel anywhere my heart desired. After school was always an adventure. Would I travel to midtown to catch a glimpse of the Empire State Building or would I head to Flushing, an enclave of Asian eateries in Queens, for chicken kabobs and boba? When I got lost, strangers would offer insightful advice, polite conversation and directions. At age 12, the world provided generosity, kindness and guidance. I accepted it wholeheartedly, naively awaiting an independent future filled with only grand experiences.

(14. 5 feet. Curious and anxious.)

“Make sure you always travel in groups. Make sure no one is following you.

Should we just cancel the trip altogether?”

As I packed my bags for a weekend trip to Boston with two other friends, the worried voices of my parents resounded in my mind. At the time, I thought their worries were merely typical of overprotective parents but didn’t require any serious caution. But the seed had been planted. They never blatantly informed me of the threats the world posed vocally, but I could see the stress and sorrows of reality stamped into the wrinkles lining their forehead.

As I wandered the streets of Boston, I remained adventurous and curious about the monumental statues dedicated to the explorers and leaders of our past. The strangers who approached me were genuinely curious about where I was from and my plans in their city. I had even encountered an alumna from my high school who told me stories of her high school days and her experience.

My Henry Hudson spirit had to be curbed for the comfort of my parent’s psyche as they advised me to avoid walks at night, strangers and a long list of possible dangerous scenarios. At age 14, the world still remained my playground, and its people my playmates, but now I was strapped in knee pads, elbow pads and helmets that limited my mobility.

(16. 5 feet 2 inches. Anxious and scared.)

“You’ll have to wait until we’re done with the experiment so we can walk you to the train station.”

As an ambitious young adolescent determined to weasel my way through the cracks of the white-collar professional adult world, I sought out internships and opportunities intended for a more mature group. During my internship at the radiation oncology laboratory at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, I experienced a taste of the research microcosm of late-night experimentations leading to a two-hour-long commute on the subway from Brooklyn to Queens during the pitch black surroundings at 3 a.m.

As a young child ecstatically embarking on my journey of this great city, I was finally satiating my longing for the whoosh of wind the speeding train launched as it churned its tiny wheels at as fast as 55 miles per hour.

I sighed in resentment as I watched my male counterparts come and go freely at the laboratory while I had to wait for my mentor to walk me to the train station during late hours. I would then have to wait at the train station for my dad to drive me back home, even though the walk home would only be 10 minutes. When I could, I loved walking home in the dark from the train station. It was peaceful and silent — as if I were the only one witnessing the city falling asleep. I would cross the train overpass and look out beyond the gate to see the city skyline sparkling in the backdrop. But now, being chauffeured back home was not an issue my dad was willing to negotiate. It was as if I was regressing back into a child with limitations to my travel rights alone. I had to be escorted. I had to wait. I had to take precautions and plan accordingly based on the setting of the sun. I abhorred the idea of being a damsel in distress waiting for my male companions to be my bodyguards. It was unnecessary, until it wasn’t.

It was the slap in the face I needed to fully transition from the childlike naivete I had held onto.

It was 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday in June 2013.

I stood waiting for a friend in front of a pharmacy. I was wearing a pink romper and dark brown suede wedges. As I leaned against the wall checking my phone, I noticed an older man carrying groceries pass by. I looked up and smiled (as I do with passing strangers), a friendly mannerism. Ten minutes passed and the same man was back pacing back and forth in front of me. I assumed he was lost. He stared. I looked away. He approached. I looked up.

He asked if I knew Chinese. As an eager person excited to utilize my knowledge of Chinese, I quickly nodded my head. I asked if he was lost. He then asked if I was single. My heart pounded so loudly I could hear it in the midst of passersby in heated conversations. My voice was caught in my throat. My gut sank with dread and fearful anticipation as I recognized this pattern to be the very one I saw in the movies depicting young naive girls as prey. I could not reconcile the fact that this was real and happening.

I was 16. He could’ve well been twice my age. Why wasn’t anyone around us intervening? I was trapped with the pharmacy wall behind me and his looming presence in front of me. He didn’t care that I was underage. He didn’t care that I was cowering in fear and disgust. I didn’t respond. Not in English. Not in Chinese. Not emotionally. Not physically.

Strangers were no longer the safe haven I sought when I had been lost. They were no longer the kind souls that offered directions and advice to the younger version of myself.

At that moment I was disturbed, yet the clarity of reality became ever so apparent. There’s always that one defining moment in life where the “real world” actually becomes applicable to the present. No longer was I anticipating the moment I’d become an adult. This experience catapulted me straight into the heart of what it means to be a young woman traveling alone in the real world.

I did not have the same privileges and rights as a man traveling alone. I was physically free to travel as I pleased, but I was mentally arrested by the fears society had ingrained through years of taunting dangers, premeditated traveling schedules, and the constant reminder of the self-cautionary actions necessary to avoid becoming a statistic. Growing up didn’t mean the independence and exploration I longed for at age 12. Growing up meant my Henry Hudson spirit of late-night adventures had to die unless I was accompanied by a male figure ensuring my safety. At age 16, the world offered a new perspective, disrupting the blissful oblivion I could never regain.

(18. 5 feet 3 inches. Scared and angry.)

As a full-blown adult with my experiences of solitary travel in New York City, I felt equipped to conquer the obstacles of traveling alone.

Thus arose a spontaneous trip to Los Angeles with minimal planning and a lack of knowledge of the location. What could possibly go wrong?

As I entered the Airbnb with my traveling companion, my roommate from school, I expected to settle down and plan for the next destination to tour. So did 10 other strangers. We were living with them: 10 strangers in one apartment for three days. This was a scene right out of a murder mystery. We were going to die. The worst part of all: We couldn’t drive, which was a necessity in LA.

Low on spirits and cash, we took the choice of action least conventional of all to seek a tour guide. We knew that the Internet provided a pandora’s box full of supply and demand. An integral part of that box? Tinder. In this day and age, Tinder is the most convenient method of matching with a viable candidate of interest for dating. Using my understanding of the male mind, I figured dates in LA would most definitely involve a vehicle, a little-too-eager male, and a fishing hook loaded with bait piquing interest. Who would turn down a potential date with two females with a strange request?

Whipping out our phones, we began our fervent quest for a driver. Adjusting our parameters, indicating our situation, and offering no compensation, we began swiping away on the hunt for a driver on Tinder. I had no high expectations, but nothing could be worse than our current situation. Desperation and anxiety was at an all-time high as we navigated our way through LA. I was ready with my sharp tools of precaution, wariness and suspicion.

We surprisingly found many potential drivers through Tinder who were willing to show us around LA with “no expectations,” or so they said. Finding a genuine match among matches with underlying implications of methods of payment other than cash for their driving services was the real challenge. We sealed our fate with a match who seemed genuine and willing to offer his assistance to help improve the quality of our vacation in LA. Like any rational New Yorker with a distaste for interactions with strangers, I remained paranoid and doubtful.

During our first interactions, I tried to read him using the skills from my unhealthy obsession with “Criminal Minds,” psychology articles and two years of psychology classes. He wasn’t bothered by the fact that we both situated ourselves in the backseat rather than having one of us sit in the front seat. He apologized for not knowing the road to Griffith’s Observatory and apologized for LA’s traffic, which he had no control over. He inquired briefly about our personal lives and remained discussing topics relating to LA instead. He never hesitated when responding to our questions, relaying an honest reply. I was skeptical, but as the conversation about college, life and travel filled the empty, awkward silence, I lowered my guard.

It’s quite ironic that a dating app notorious for an easy access to a good time was where we found a friend in a hopeless place. Tinder, which usually caters to the souls of lonely individuals seeking a romantic relationship, eventually led to the highlight of our dreadful experience in LA. Not only did we explore Griffith’s Observatory and a delicious ramen shop but also the depths of human generosity bestowed upon strangers. He was an anomaly, that was for sure. But, he offered the same familiar, genuine kindness of a stranger that I thought ceased to exist after a certain age.

At the end of the trip on the bus ride back to Berkeley, I fell into a deep sleep as the stress and anxiety left my body. I could finally rest after three days of uncomfortable stress-ridden naps. But my blissful relaxing sleep was cut short.

There was a hand on my leg. It was probably a mistake. I closed my eyes and forced myself to rest, but the sinking feeling of dread was irrevocably present calling for my attention. I pretended to be asleep and I observed. It was no mistake. Just when I had regained my faith in strangers.

It seems quite silly that in this progressive age, women are still limited in our freedom and liberty to travel carefreely as men do. We are riddled with fear and anxiety that curbs our choices of time to travel, clothing options and premeditated preparations in case of assault. The climbing rates of solo female travelers are rapidly increasing with 66 percent of females traveling without a partner in their lifetimes. At the same time, 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime,” according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network Organization. With the steep rates of sexual assault and harassment against women and the ever-growing rates of solitary travel among women, these statistics do not instill a sense of safety.

Volunteering with the Peace Corps had been a dream of mine, but after hearing the experiences of female travelers in third-world countries, I was put off. Women there are more sexually objectified and portrayed as property than women of first-world countries. In March 2013, a female British tourist jumped off a balcony in Agra, India, to escape assault from a hotel owner. Stories such as this are not uncommon among young female travelers in foreign countries. All I wish to do is peacefully take a walk alone at night without being fearful and on guard all the time.

If I ever have a daughter, I must ask myself at what point do I tell her that the world she believes to be a magical place can be filled with such harm? When do I penetrate her sphere of innocence, her excitement about traversing all the world has to offer with the harsh reality of inequality? If I do not tell her, she will find out on her own.


Contact Nelly Lin at [email protected]