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Is the future of travel female?

Travelling alone is often a get-out-of-jail-free card for a woman — a reprieve from the routines and responsibilities of domestic life — and depending on where women are in the world, there are threats, both overt and subtle. Women need to trust their radars that have been assimilating this information and analysing it since childhood, writes Shahnaz Habib.
Last Updated : 06 July 2024, 21:04 IST

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“Be careful,” the cobbler on Rue Ben Abdessadak told me. I had stopped by to get a new lining for my shoes. When he heard I was visiting Tangier alone, he immediately started advising me. “Put your backpack in front of you. Don’t take your wallet out. This town is full of bad people.”

“The men here,” the young woman in the argan oil shop told me, “are the worst. Come here if you need anything. I will be here till 9 pm every night.” Tangier definitely has a reputation. Back when it was an International Zone, governed by an uneasy alliance of Western colonial powers eager to maintain their vested interest in Africa, the city had become a haven for scruffy writers and artists, from Burroughs to Choukri. But that’s pretty recent history, considering that Tangier was also home to Ibn Battuta who was born in 1304. Ibn Battuta was a one-man International Zone — over the course of his life, he travelled from China to Mali. Today, this North African city is in the middle of a rehabilitation. The recently built Tanger-Med, one of the largest industrial ports in the world, has brought in a lot of foreign investment. Business is booming and the streets are getting cleaner. Tangier is well on its way to becoming the kind of clean, hip city where tourism thrives, where you can watch the sun set over Spain while drinking kombucha.

Still, the security guard at the Ibn Battuta Museum tells me, “after sunset, the streets are… different.” The strangest thing is, each invocation of danger makes me feel a bit more safe. Every person I meet in Tangier seems hospitable and open-hearted. Their advice about their dangerous city only renders it even more friendly.

Travelling alone is full of strange ironies such as this one. Here, I am in Tangier by myself, after two weeks of travelling around Morocco with a larger group. And yet on my first day alone, I talked with more strangers than in the last two weeks. Travelling alone often means asking questions, starting conversations, and needing help. It is an act of independence that also forces one to reckon with interdependence. There is no true self-sufficiency — we need each other.

Then there’s the encounter between safety and danger, especially while travelling alone as a woman. Of course, it is dangerous — but it is the kind of danger I am used to. It is a danger that follows women everywhere.

Depending on where we are in the world, it can be overt or subtle. Our radars have been assimilating this information and analysing it since childhood. I am not dismissing the very real threats that women face while travelling alone. I am also aware of the ways that money can buy safety — some dangers melt away when you can take a taxi instead of waiting around for a bus or when you can escape into an air-conditioned bougie shop or cafe.

Nevertheless, the dangers women face when travelling alone are all too similar to the dangers we face at home. Sitting on a bench in the Petit Socco in Tangier with a lunch sandwich, when I noticed a man making lewd gestures, I didn’t feel so much threatened as bored. This man has no idea what a cliché he is. All my life, I have seen men like this — but I have a sandwich to eat, and a sunset to watch, so might as well get on.

The real challenge of travelling alone, for me at least, is the homesickness. This I cannot just shake away. I miss my husband, my daughter, all the comforts and warmth of our life together.

Travelling alone is often a get-out-of-jail-free card — a reprieve from the routines and responsibilities of domestic life.

Very soon, instead of wondering idly whether to have another mint tea and prolong the sunset, I will be writing down the weekly grocery shopping list, once again ignoring the pile of clutter in the corner of my bedroom, which I have successfully managed to ignore for seven months. It feels extremely stupid to sit here and miss the clutter of my regular life. But when the sun starts dipping into the Atlantic Ocean and a reverent silence comes to rest on the promenades of Tangier, as cigarette smoke and the steam from mint tea collide, I long to share the moment with my loved ones. For them, I write it down and for them, I take the pictures, as Europe shimmers in the dusk, mere kilometres away. These continents are supposed to be distinct but here, at the very edge of Africa, those distinctions feel shimmery indeed. Yet, the distance is also painfully real — thousands of migrants attempt to cross that distance without the right papers every year, risking their lives on overcrowded rafts and boats. The beauty of the sunset and the brutality of this journey sit side by side.

It is at moments like this that the loneliness settles on me. When a feeling lies just beyond words, and cannot be captured in pictures, the company of a beloved makes that feeling a bit more palpable, a bit more bearable.

And perhaps this is the loveliest irony of travelling alone: the beloveds we do not travel with are travelling with us, as a series of absences. Here and here and here, you were not here, but somehow you were.

(Shahnaz Habib is the author of Airplane Mode: A Passive-Aggressive History of Travel by Context, an imprint of Westland Books.)

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Published 06 July 2024, 21:04 IST

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