The traveler’s paradox: Traveling alone as a woman

Mikaela Raphael/Staff

There’s an air of romanticism inherent in the act of “adventure.” It’s Odysseus. Jules Verne. Jack Kerouac. Chris McCandless. Generations of men, admired adventure writers, have had us yearning for the open road. Yet there’s a reality of traveling alone as a woman that is often inferred and rarely recorded. In traveling, I aim to live through the people I meet along the way. I am there to observe. I am there to learn. But it’s more complicated than that.

Aug. 16

Berkeley, California

My friends are beginning their junior years at UC Berkeley. I have the means to travel after months of working long summer hours in an Alaskan processing plant and a successful photography season. My Judaism, coupled with an innate need to follow in the footsteps of the female photojournalists I idolize, leads me to book a plane ticket headed east. I leave with a backpack and a rough outline of the following months: the Middle east, a short stay in Europe to visit study abroad friends, then somewhere else for a month or more. I decide to travel alone. My parents ask me if I will be safe. I lie, and I say yes. I don’t care. I need to go. I withdraw from UC Berkeley. After 15 years of consecutive schooling, I can’t do it anymore. I once read a David Foster Wallace quote about fire and irrational decisions that resonated. I feel like I’m living in the top story of a burning building. I know there is no chance I will leave unhurt. I will be burned alive or I will jump. I jump.

Sept. 18

Jerusalem, Israel

At the bus stop, I strike up a conversation with Abraham, an overweight middle-aged man in black-rimmed glasses. “You’re not from around here,” he says. “You’re Australian!” “No, American,” I say. He seems elated with this small fact. It’s Shabbat, and per tradition, Jerusalem has completely shut down. I was on my way to a nearby hostel in search for a bed and food for the night. We talk for a while. He is a high school history teacher and seems nice enough. He invites me upstairs for Shabbat dinner with his family. I agree and go upstairs. There is no family. He proceeds to declare that we are destined to “make love” right there on his couch. I decline and leave, and I sprint down four flights of stairs. He yells at me from the balcony. I don’t hear what he says. I am running. I call my friend and tell her the story. She tells me that it is my fault. She tells me that I shouldn’t have gone inside.

Oct. 1

Israel-Jordan border

I spend the day hitchhiking from Mitzpe Ramon, a small town in the Negev, to the Eilat border crossing. I arrive at the border and a Jordanian officer refuses to return my luggage until I tell him whether I am married.

Oct. 1

Aqaba, Jordan

Nabil and I meet for the first time. He’s 15 years my senior and — as I later concluded — a full-time tour guide and part-time smuggler of illegal goods across the Saudi border. He is amazed by my photography and takes me to his village to “make photos.” I don’t correct his English — the idea of “making” photos sits better than “taking” them. I feel like an artist.

Oct. 4

Wadi Rum, Jordan

While driving through the desert at night to photograph the stars, Nabil and I hit a rock. He had been drinking. “It’s the desert!” He argued. “So what if I’m drinking? What are we going to hit?” A rock, apparently. We have to wait until morning to find help. Neither of us has flashlights and we fear the scorpions that roam the desert night. We speak of our lives before. He tells me about his past wives. I feel so young with his arms wrapped around me. I love feeling small. The sexual tension throws me off. He kisses me. We spend the night together.

Oct. 12

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Nabil and I spend the day exploring Wadi Rum. He shows me the caves where he spent his childhood. We run around naked and warm from the desert sun. He warns me of walking outside of the caves because camel shepherds use high-powered binoculars and he wouldn’t want us to be spotted. We dress and make Maqloobeh, a Palestinian “upside down” dish. We eat it between the frames of the old stables and joke about politics.

Oct. 14

Aqaba, Jordan

Nabil does not come home until late, and when he does he reeks of alcohol. His shirt is torn. He declares that his ex-wife is a “money-hungry whore.” He tells me that he will fix things but that I may have to sit tight because he will be in jail for a few days.

He tells me about his past wives. I feel so young with his arms wrapped around me. I love feeling small. The sexual tension throws me off.

Oct. 15

Aqaba, Jordan

Nabil does not go to jail but returns home, again smelling of alcohol. I don’t know what kind. He takes a sledgehammer to the wall declaring, “I never liked this wall anyways. We don’t need it.” We spent the next two days “expanding the kitchen.”

Oct. 16

Aqaba, Jordan

The new wall is not going according to plan, so we hire local Egyptian day laborers. I help out. Wearing my Ninja Turtle shirt and running shorts, an outfit I would not leave the house in, I go to mix cement. Hands deep in cement one of the men comes close. I assume he is trying to communicate something. He lurches forward and attempts to kiss me. I don’t tell Nabil out of fear of his reaction. Nabil throws a chair at the same man for breaking a lamp.

Oct. 19

Wadi Rum, Desert

Nabil declares that I am no longer allowed in the room if I am not completely covered. In bed,  he jokes that he is a jealous man and wants to be the only one to enjoy me. He is not joking. He yells at me for wearing a “too-short” dress earlier when I ran to catch the dogs that hurt the neighborhood children. I tell him that I don’t want to sleep with him anymore.

Oct. 20

Aqaba, Jordan

I lose all enjoyment from our relationship and contemplate methods to end it. That night, I unevenly mix orange juice and vodka without realizing. I black out for the first time in my life and am told in the morning that we slept together.

Oct. 21

Aqaba, Jordan

I buy my plane ticket to Cairo to leave within the week.

Oct. 22

Wadi Rum, Jordan

I sit across from Nabil in the back of his ‘03 white Toyota pickup. “Look at me,” he says. “You love me. You know it. Look at me, this is important. You’re just a silly little girl. You came here to destroy me but you can’t leave because you fell in love.” I am tired. I am worn. I am lost and broken. But I am certainly not in love with Nabil. He is not the first man who has looked into my eyes and attributed me with a set of feelings that are not mine.

Oct. 23

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Nabil’s friends come to visit. It is my last night in Jordan. Nabil leaves to show the friends the caves. One of the friends stays. He is young, attractive and my age. He does not speak English, but we kiss as soon as Nabil leaves. The friend forces himself upon me. I say no. He doesn’t speak English, but I’ve gleaned that he understands no. He doesn’t listen. “Please, please, please,” he says, begging with another word he knows. It’s quick. I shower with water from a ceramic jug. Nabil returns, and I attempt to sleep, but the friend walks to my bed and tries to hold my hand. I pretend that I am asleep. I am wide awake and I do not sleep that night.

Oct. 24

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Nabil drives me to where the taxi is supposed to pick me up. He tells me that he can “smell (the friend) on me” and angrily asks if we slept together. I lie, but I also don’t believe that there was ever a “we.” Content with my answer, Nabil throws himself at me for what he calls “one last goodbye.” I firmly say no and leave his car for the taxi. I get into the taxi, and the driver does not speak English. Through sign language — simulating putting on and taking off a ring on his left ring finger — he asks if I am married. I am a feminist. I believe that lying reinforces the idea that I am property. I do not lie. I say, “no.” I fall asleep in the front seat of the cab. I wake up to the driver putting my fingers into his mouth. I yell at him. I cannot get out of the cab — I have no where else to go. He kisses me. I no longer feel threatened, just tired. I still feel the friend from the night before on top of me. We stop for gas and I move to the back of the cab and fall asleep. I wake up and we are at a residential house surrounded by a large metal gate. We are not at the airport. I go inside thinking that it is a rest stop for the taxi company. I now think that is a brothel. There are six rooms that all look the same. There are photos of women on the walls. He goes to a dresser and pulls out lingerie, throwing it at me with a smile. I scream at him to drive me to the airport. He shrinks in shame. I get to the airport and call my friends in California. I tell them about the cab driver and the friend but I do not tell them about Nabil. I feel the need to tell as many people as I can. It helps make the moment a story and not my own memory. I delete all the photos on my camera.

Oct. 24

Cairo, Egypt

I spend my first hours in Egypt looking for emergency contraceptive options. I find the right pills but the wrong dosage. I take 50 in the hotel bathroom.

Oct. 25

Cairo, Egypt

I befriend a group of travel agents, and we spend the night sailing down the river Nile on a felucca. One of them does not speak English but the other translates. I am called “unconventionally beautiful” as I smoke a cigarette on the bow of the boat. I swim alongside the boat and feel alive.

Oct. 27

Luxor, Egypt

I have my phone confiscated because I am “taking pictures.” I am not taking pictures. I am checking the time. The man says I will have to pay a $70 fine. I offer him $25 to not turn my phone in. He accepts. He points to my tongue ring. He stretches out his hand to touch it. I grab my phone and leave.

Oct. 31

Athens, Greece

I arrive on a layover in Greece. No one is looking at me. Everyone is well-dressed and skinny. I am just another dirty traveler in a Ninja Turtle shirt.

Nov. 14

Kikuyu, Kenya

I take a position assisting with family tracing and reintegration work for children in shelters. I take a late-night bus, a matatu, from Waithaka to Kikuyu. Five drunk men — about my age — board. One of them flirts with me and I play along. Their friends call them dirty in Swahili. I’ve been practicing my Swahili, and they don’t know I understand what they’re saying. They grab my ass as I squeeze my way between the seats to leave.

Through sign language — simulating putting on and taking off a ring on his left ring finger — he asks if I am married. I am a feminist. I believe that lying reinforces the idea that I am property. I do not lie. I say, “no.”

Nov. 20

Eastern Kenya

I am on assignment, searching for the family of a girl who was abducted in Nairobi. I have been traveling the entire day. My male coworker and I book a room at a hotel above a bar for $4 a night. The door doesn’t lock. My coworker leaves in the morning to grab breakfast, and a man walks into my room. We just stare at each other. I feel like he is just interested in me. I am interested in him. We are both animals in a cage.

Dec. 8

Berkeley, California

I return to Berkeley and as I am walking back to my co-op, I see a man who one night told me that “I’m not like other girls” and then attempted to force me to drink most of a bottle of rum. He is at his fraternity, laughing and drinking beer with his friends.

Feb. 17

Berkeley, California

I get brunch with two old friends. I remember that one of them had been to Jordan. I asked her about her experience. She tells me that my experience in the taxi resonates with her. I don’t mention the rest of my story.


I’ve been home for five months now. I am back in school. It’s going all right. It may seem odd, but I am eager to travel alone again. When I was alone, I was always OK with being so. To this day, I only felt truly scared while I was abroad twice: The experiences were completely unrelated to my interactions with the men who attempted to prey on me. In February, I received a message from a young Danish girl asking me for advice. She was planning on assisting Nabil with his guide services and had found my information from a review I had written on an online form before things got bad. I was wary of what to tell her. I don’t want to tell her things just to scare her, but I also do not want to lie to her. I told her that she had to stand up for herself at all costs. I even suggested buying a fake wedding ring and never switching her story, even to people she trusted. This is something I would have never suggested before.

I tell her about something I call the “traveler’s paradox.” As a single traveler, we are left having no choice but to trust strangers — everyone is a stranger. People would tell me to be a “safe traveler” — but I’m not sure what they meant by this. Of course, I try to be safe, but when you’re alone in a foreign country, an inherently “unsafe” action, sometimes being “safe” doesn’t cut it. You’ve got to stay open and ready because it’s your only real option. A lot of the times, during my time away, I wasn’t the person I wanted to be. I was too cautious of respecting other people and their cultures that I didn’t respect myself.

When I talk about it, I am uneasy, but my mind has adopted a dissociation from the experiences — I forget that they are my own. I casually share anecdotes with friends and often, they don’t know how to react. I don’t mean for it to be alarming, I don’t tell them because it is particularly emotionally wrenching for me, it’s just part of my life. People don’t like to hear the bad parts. They see what I share on social media, and it’s good enough for them. They like the cute stories about riding camels to bribe police officers or how watching the sun rise over the Valley of the Kings was one of the most inspiring moments of my life. I came back home a bit more broken, but in rebuilding my perspective, I use my experiences to glue my jagged edges together, filling in the missing pieces with what I’ve learned, what I am learning. Today, people ask me what the most important lesson I learned abroad was. I tell them that I’ve finally been able to see my relationship with men for what it is. I can now fully craft my identity as a woman around my experiences. I’m forever growing into the person that I want to someday be.

Contact Mikaela Raphael at [email protected]