It was 3am on New Year’s Day, and fashion stylist Amanda Tan was on the way back to her Airbnb apartment in Brooklyn, New York City. The 28-year-old was alone, and already, a feeling of unease had settled on her during the ride back – not helped by her Uber driver’s revelation that he had once been knifed in the area.
But things were about to get worse.
As she was making her way up the stairs to her apartment, Amanda was stopped by three burly men smoking on the landing – outside another apartment where a party was clearly in progress. They asked her to join them. She protested, but they persisted. As she tried to move past them, they blocked her way.
Knowing she was outnumbered, and that there was no one else around to help her, she felt she had no choice but to give in. “I didn’t want to show them that I was afraid, or have to put up a struggle to run away [because of their size], so I thought the best way was to be cool and act like I was familiar with where I was,” she says.
Amanda recalls there were drugs at the party, and guests looked like they were wasted. “It was the dodgiest house I’d ever been in,” she said. Trying to stay calm, she bided her time till the men got distracted, and moved towards the kitchen. That was when she made a dash for the door, flung it open, and ran. She didn’t stop until she was safely back in her apartment, the door bolted shut behind her.
Potentially dangerous situations like the one Amanda found herself in might be considered unusual, but it’s not far-fetched to think they could happen – especially if you’re a woman travelling on your own.
Play by your own rules
Data from global home-sharing platform Airbnb shows that the number of Singapore women flying solo doubled between January 2016 and January this year – a trend mirrored elsewhere in Asia, in countries like Japan, South Korea and China.
The reasons for this increase vary. Budget travel, for one, makes it easier for women to take off any time and go anywhere. Some channel Cheryl Strayed (of Wild fame) or Elizabeth Gilbert (writer of the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love), and they do it at the crossroads of their lives – perhaps after a relationship ends, or at the start of a new job. Others see it as a way to catch up with old friends living elsewhere, make some new ones, or as an opportunity for some quality me time.
“I personally love getting lost because it takes me off the beaten path, and I get to experience a city as it is. But being lost could become stressful if the person you’re travelling with views it as a waste of time,” adds 28-year-old marketing planner Sham Tsz In.
But as much as these women tout the benefits of travelling solo, they make sure not to throw caution to the wind when it comes to their safety.
It starts with where to go. It’s always a calculated risk, but factors like the country’s safety record for tourists, and whether there’s a language barrier (in case you need to get help) matter – especially if it’s your first solo trip.
And it helps to choose places where you know you’ll have friends to rely on – both for occasional company and in case you need help. That would have come in handy for undergraduate Chuah Jin Yi, who went on a four-day solo driving holiday around Sardinia, Italy. A faulty GPS navigation system left the 23-year-old hopelessly lost deep in the countryside, in an area which was completely unfamiliar to her. To make matters worse, one of the tyres of her rental car went flat.
“The only life forms I could see were the sheep running around. It was scary because I was all alone,” recalls Jin Yi. Thankfully, despite a weak signal on her mobile phone, she managed to call emergency services, while an elderly man who happened to be passing by helped her change the car tyre and waited with her until help arrived.
On the way back to the city, Jin Yi finally cracked under the weight of the day’s stresses and from relief, and burst into tears. But she knew she was one of the lucky ones – that someone kind had helped her out in a tough situation. “I’m glad I challenged myself by travelling solo because it allowed me to test my courage. But I also learnt that I have to be more prepared and vigilant when renting a car in another country, where roads are unfamiliar and there might be different rules and regulations.”
Before taking the big leap, maybe stick to somewhere close to home to gain confidence. “For my first trip, I went to Japan, having heard from friends who had been there that the Japanese have high regard for good manners, and that the country is known for being one of the safest in Asia,” says 29-year-old project manager Melissa Wong.
If you’re travelling alone, don’t even think about skipping your research. Discussion forums like Reddit are useful troves of information for the solo traveller. “I used Reddit a lot during the research phase, especially for reviews of accommodation at hostels and Airbnbs,” says 29-year-old media freelancer Angel Yong, who planned a two month solo sojourn across Europe. She was open to making friends, but avoided hostels with a “party” reputation, because of the horror stories she had read online.
Reddit users also gave her good suggestions for staying safe. “Things like placing [extra] locks on doors wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise. On top of that, I brought two phones with me – in case one was stolen or went missing.”
It’s also wise to have someone back home keeping track of where you are, says Qin Yunquan, CEO of martial arts school Kapap Academy Singapore. “Update someone back home throughout the journey and let them know when they can expect to get check-ins from you.”
As someone who makes solo trips to the US and Malaysia, Yunquan says she cannot overemphasise the importance of being prepared. She points to innocuous items that women can buy, which double as self-defence tools. The Unbreakable Umbrella (which Kapap Academy distributes) can strike with the power of a steel pipe if brandished with the right amount of force. Or you can just go with a regular umbrella, as long as it’s got a sturdy handle. For those who prefer something more discreet, Kapap Academy has introduced classes that teach women how to use a “tactical pen” – which functions as a regular pen, but is designed with sharper points and weighs more, so that it can be used in self-defence.
Traveling without your squad forces you out of your comfort zone, and gives you the opportunity to chat up locals and get insider tips on the best places to go.
It’s how 26-year-old content specialist Abigail Kang likes her solo trips. “Mostly, I identify one or two things in a city that are definite must-dos, but my winning formula is to go to a bar and chat up either the barman or a local patron, and ask them for recommendations. I’ve wound up on some pretty fantastic little adventures that way,” she says.
Still, she doesn’t take chances when approaching strangers. One method she uses to determine if a person can be trusted is to gauge their reaction when she first speaks to them. If they look taken aback or surprised, she carries on with the conversation. “It’s always a good sign if their stranger-danger radar is stronger than mine,” she adds.
She also draws advice from non-fiction title The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence - which she’s found useful for her solo trips. The biggest takeaway? “There’s a tendency for women to not extricate themselves from potentially unsafe situations because of a need to be ‘polite’ in social situations. It’s always best to trust your own intuition and not suppress it for the sake of being kind or understanding.”
This story was first published in the June 2017 issue of Her World magazine.