“Go out in the woods, go out. If you don’t go out in the woods nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.”
~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés
About 25 years ago, Dutch adventurer and explorer Arita Baaijens quit her job, bought camels, wandered off into the desert alone and never looked back. When asked why she went alone, she said: “I wanted to disappear and experience the void.”
I’ve had a tiny taste of that delicious void. I walk alone a lot. I’ve walked alone through cities around the world: Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Paris, Italy, Barcelona, New York… When I arrive in a new place, I usually ditch public transport and opt to walk instead, to meander down streets, read in parks, turn down interesting alleyways on a whim. With a little bit of courage and a whole lot of curiosity, I explore the world by the power of my own two feet, and I’m happy and fit and free.
In Italy, I met up with another woman who loved to walk too, and together we hiked for weeks through the hills of Tuscany. We were two women alone in the big bad woods, improvising a place to sleep each night, to eat. On one occasion we were homeless at 10pm, walking from one fully booked hotel to another in the dark before we finally found a place to stay. We never felt we were in danger, never met a bad person. We trusted in our intellects and instincts. We explored Italy by the power of our own two feet, and we were happy and fit and free.
From there we travelled to India and walked 390 kilometres in the footsteps of Gandhi, carrying only a tiny can of pepper spray each in our pockets for protection. “You might get raped,” we were warned again and again, and while part of me questioned if this was a reckless idea, the larger, louder, more intuitive part of me repeated a mantra of Gandhi’s:
“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate but it is fear.”
For three weeks we walked along the dusty shoulders of Indian highways, past slums and farmlands, chaotic cities and empty fields. Every day, strangers welcomed us with head bobbles and made us chai, cooked us food, and offered us their own beds to sleep in. The pepper spray remained unused and was removed from our pockets to make room for gifts offered by new friends: good luck trinkets and mounds of fruit. And because we trusted in the goodness of humanity, we got to explore India by the power of our own two feet, and we were happy and fit and free.
Last week a young girl was murdered in a Melbourne park while walking alone. It’s horrendous news, and my heart breaks for her family. On the day that this happened, homicide squad detective Mick Hughes issued some words of warning for women: “I suggest to people, particularly females, they shouldn’t be alone in parks.” Former premier of Australia Jeff Kennett agreed with this sentiment, stating that women should not walk alone in poorly lit areas.
In reaction to this, a lot of women have fought back vehemently, saying, “The problem is men! Men should stop raping and killing, and then we can be safe!” And while yes, there is indeed a man behind this specific atrocity and others, pointing accusing fingers at all men is hateful and fearful and does nothing whatsoever to empower anyone. It only breeds more fear and hate. If “men” are the baddies then 50% of our population is a threat to us, and that kind of delusional thinking will suck your joy.
Let’s be clear: “men” are not dangerous.
Highly infrequent rogue psychopathic murderers are dangerous.
Patriarchal values are dangerous, too. Assumptions that all women are weak and vulnerable and all men just can’t help themselves from mauling women: those are harmful, erroneous belief systems that disempower women and enable aggressors. It’s not just men who perpetuate these beliefs either, they’re often spoken by women themselves when they warn one another, “It’s not safe to walk alone,” or, “You might get raped,” as they pass on myths of danger like old wives tales, stoking the fire of fear.
Occasionally terribly awful thing happen. A family is killed by a drunk driver. An elderly man takes a fatal tumble off his bed. A cyclist is run down by a turning truck. A young woman is murdered while walking alone in a park. This doesn’t mean that driving is unsafe, or beds or bicycles or walking alone. It means that occasionally terribly awful things happen.
For the last ten years, I’ve made a lifestyle out of pushing the boundaries of my own fears. I sailed the Pacific despite a phobia of deep water. I climbed Mount Kinabalu despite a fear of heights. I learned to dive despite the sharks. I walked through Italy and India despite the fear of being mauled. I did all of this for the sake of experiential learning, to test out my own hunch that the world isn’t as dangerous and hostile as it’s touted to be. Over and over again, I’ve come to the same conclusion: One must always exercise caution, and not all countries and places are safe, but, for the most part, humans are overwhelmingly kind and the world is overwhelmingly hospitable. Almost always, you are safe.
The statements made by authorities and others like it are a blow to every woman’s sense of freedom. They’re potent bundles of psychologically damaging paranoia wrapped up in the packaging of a thoughtful gift. Every time you tell a woman “It’s not safe for you,” and “Be careful, you’re a woman,” you’re undermining her. Telling her that she’s fragile. Stupid. Weak. Incapable. Rape-able.
This fear limits her growth and deteriorates her quality of life. Fear is her greatest enemy.
These warnings rob a woman of her right to be bold by accusing her of being stupid or careless should she venture outside of the white picket fence. They shrink the space in which she can feel safe to thrive within, trapping her, limiting her. They weaken her ability to hear her own intuition, to make her own intelligent judgment.
Should women walk alone? Should they walk alone through Italy and India and with headphones on and in a park and in the dark and any other place they choose to use their own smart brains to decide to walk within? Yes, yes, and fuck yes. Because they deserve to be able to disappear and experience the void.
Unlike detective Mick Hughes, I’m a woman who has sailed and walked and explored and climbed and adventured all around the world, and have met many other women along the way who have done the same thing. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but after all of my experiential learning, this is my advice for all women:
We were each born with the gift of instinct. Hone in on it. Listen carefully to it. Trust implicitly in it. Always be ready to save yourself. If someone gives you a bad feeling, get away. Now. Don’t wait for the world to change or become more fair before you do what you want to do; all we have to work with is how things are now. Make peace with it. Be brave in the face of it. While feeling peaceful, fight fiercely for equality. Learn to kick ass. Listen to your own judgment and exercise your own common sense, because you are smart and capable and strong and powerful. Be courageous and curious. Trust openly but attentively. Don’t be afraid, be a fucking warrior. Explore the world by the power of your own two feet.
Be happy and fit and free.
* * *
Some further reading for fine-tuning the distinction between irrational fear and genuine risk:
Fearless from NPR’s Invisibilia program
The Places that Scare You by Pema Chodron
The Fear Project by Jaimal Yogis
Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World by Rita Golden Gelman
Torre DeRoche is the author of two travel memoirs, Love with a Chance of Drowning (2013) and The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World (due out September 2017). She has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian Travel, The Sydney Morning Herald, Emirates, and two Lonely Planet anthologies.