Solo Female Travel & The Importance of Women-Only Spaces
Wandering along a winding road through Ulcinj, Montenegro in what I hoped was the right direction, I was only shouted at three times by men who wanted to ask me where I was from, why was I alone and where was I going, or to tell me they liked my tattoos or my hair. I ignored the men and focused on finding my destination.
This would not be the first time that a place was poorly labeled on my trip through the Balkans, so I was surprised to find a big, blatant sign reading “LADIES BEACH” marking a fork off the road into a pine forest. I padded my way down the path, the smell of pine surrounding me like armor and growing thicker as I trekked further from the road.
At the bottom of the path, an old woman welcomed me in Montenegrin from the comfort of her beach chair. “Zdravo.” I greeted her with one of the three local words I knew (the other two being “hvala” and “mačka” – “thank you” and “cat,” respectively). I made my way through the dozens of women sunbathing, reading, chatting, and sleeping until I found an open lounge chair on my own stretch of rock. The fresh pine air mingled with the smell of sulfuric waters, but it wasn’t this cleansing smell that made the air feel so light – it was the assurance that no matter how we looked or behaved, we would not be bothered.
The forceful demand for power is inherent in most masculinity, making any space that contains men a male-dominated space, regardless of how outnumbered men may be by women. Masculinity wouldn’t allow it any other way, whether the men carrying the power are conscious of it or not.
To surrender power is to surrender masculinity, and in a world where masculinity is the grand prize that determines a man’s worth, that power will not be given up easily.
Of course, I don’t believe that men wake up and make listicles of all the ways they can assert dominance over others that day while sipping their morning coffee. But I do believe that when men holler at a strange woman minding her own business on the other side of the road, they are attempting to assure themselves that they still hold power.
While being asked personal questions or having my physical appearance commented on by strange men is invasive and potentially frightening at worst, it’s an exhausting existence to live. Even in a group of women with only one man around, it only takes that one man to make the decision that our space, our bodies, and our autonomy are not really ours, and act in a way to remind us that in the eyes of many our lives are not our own.
Even on the days on which I’ve made it through 24 hours without incident of any kind, I am still always aware, always prepared for the possibility of a lewd comment, an unwanted touch, or worse. The world never lets me forget for long that I am a woman first, a person second.
It is nearly impossible to escape the male-dominated space, no matter how far and wide one travels. The travel industry rarely makes this any easier – female only dorms in hostels are often more expensive than co-ed dorms are, just to cite one example. While the cost difference for women-only spaces is usually relatively small, those dollars add up when you’re traveling long-term on a low budget.
After long days of carrying constant vigilance and defense mechanisms through foreign streets our families and friends have said are “too dangerous for you, a woman, to explore alone,” sometimes we just want a proper rest, the kind you can’t get until you’re able to put all that equipment down and stretch out your back.
Those of us who have been fortunate enough to do it know that solo female travel is not nearly as scary or dangerous as people who haven’t experienced it would lead one to believe. I never feel more unsafe in Montenegro, Turkey, eSwatini, or Vietnam than I do in my own home base of Brooklyn.
The issue of male-dominated space is not a reason to avoid solo travel as a woman. Male-dominated space is everywhere, both abroad and at home.
Fear-mongering about the danger of a place for women only encourages women to avoid exploration, but does not actually protect us from any danger. Women do not need to be scared into staying at home. We need more women-only spaces where we can decompress and have time not to be consciously or subconsciously alert to toxic masculinity.
I put down my book and stretched mačka-like on my lounge chair. As I grew comfortable enough to let down my guard, releasing the vigilance and survival tools I had been carrying for my entire post-puberty life, I felt myself letting go of anxiety, anger, and stress.
Legend has it that the sulphuric mineral water of Ladies Beach have the power to cure infertility, as well as other gynecological problems, respiratory issues, and skin disorders.
According to the local ritual, a woman must come to the beach accompanied by an older woman. She then undresses and walks several circles around a rock in the middle of one of the secretive sea caves. Finally, the woman must eat a boiled egg that she hopefully remembered to pack in her beach bag. I cannot speak to the truth of these legends, but it’s impossible to deny the powers of the emotional healing that occurs as you let go in a way normally denied to women and sink into Ladies Beach.
On the rock closest to the water, two women sat under a faded rainbow umbrella with two large buckets of mud between them. I watched as they slathered a steady stream of women head to toe and then instructed them to stand completely still in the sun to allow the mud to set before diving into the sea to wash it all away. The two women spoke no English, so since the mixture was not made of “cat” I could not find out what exactly was in the mud that they sculpted to my body when my turn came.
I listened to their chatter and the crash of waves on the rocky shore until I was fully seasoned and ready to cook. I stood nude and covered in mud with my feet hip distance apart and my arms held away from my sides on the middle of the rock in the heart of the beach. As the mud hardened to my skin, my insides melted with the peace of being so physically vulnerable and not needing to think about it.
When my transformation to stiff mud woman felt complete, I jumped off the rock into the healing sea.
The cold water comforted my well-sunned skin the way a cozy sweater soothes the shivering in winter bones. I broke the surface and washed the mud from my face. Women smiled at me as we swam and glided by each other. The language barrier was irrelevant. The dialect of safety and calm is universal. When the sunkiss faded and I grew too cold, I pulled myself back onto the rock and warmed my now velvety soft skin in the late afternoon sun.
All too soon the daylight melted into the horizon like strawberry ice cream. I packed up my book and my towel and waved goodbye to our sanctuary guard, still rooted to her folding chair. As I trekked through the forest and back up to the road, I felt renewed, refreshed, and ready to handle anything I’d face next as a solo female traveler.