In this second installment of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS doctoral student Leah Butterfield recounts her experience interviewing women solo travelers in Spain.
We were seated on a sidewalk terraza on a hot, cloudless afternoon. Over icy glasses of
Cruzcampo, a Spanish beer, Alexandria talked to me about her solitary travel experiences. As the conversation circled back to the expectations society often has for women—and the ways that traveling alone runs counter to those expectations—she pondered, “We’re warriors in a way.” “Backpack warriors,” she added, with a chuckle. With every solo trip, she suggested, women are fighting against cultural conventions and expectations: that they should remain in the home, that they should prioritize romantic and family ties, that they should avoid risk or adventure.
Alexandria is one of the twenty-six American women that I interviewed this summer as part of my preliminary dissertation research. Though not all of these women might label themselves as warriors, most expressed an awareness that their solitary travels are a challenge to traditional gender norms. Despite the often-negative reactions from friends, family and strangers, these women choose to journey solo, on trips ranging from a few days to a few months, to destinations around the globe. The individuals that I spoke with ranged in age from nineteen to seventy. They included women of color and second- and third-generation immigrants, though the majority of interviewees were white. Most women identified as somewhere between lower-middle and upper-middle class, and over 40% of the women claimed queer identities, from “mostly straight” to “fluid” to “Let me put it this way: I don’t usually like sleeping with men.”
I spent much of my summer listening to these women’s stories. They shared anecdotes of
afternoons spent in charming cafes, of forming unexpected friendships and of being followed by unknown men. They talked about the moments when they felt safe and at peace in their solitude and of the moments when they did not. They told me about the books and blogs and people who inspired their journeys. When I asked interviewees to describe how they feel when traveling alone, they responded with words like joy, exhilaration, terror, independence, self-reliance, worry and love. This discordant mixture of terms suggests that the emotional uplift of women’s travel is often weighed down by the burden of fear. While the vast majority of these women had never experienced sexual assault or violent crime during their travels, the possibility of such occurrences was constantly on their minds. As one interviewee put it, traveling alone is “empowerment tinged with fear.”
As I explored Madrid, where I rented a room for two months, and traveled to other parts of Spain, I experienced the truth behind these women’s words. I walked along the shore in Cádiz and through the winding streets of Seville. I marveled at the royal library in El Escorial and pet friendly, stinky goats at the Madrid Zoo. I watched flamenco from the cheap seats at El Teatro de Canal and danced along with the crowd during Madrid’s Orgullo Gay parade. I got pickpocketed, I got catcalled, and I broke down crying to more than one stranger in the Barcelona Sants railway station. I ate countless meals with only a book for company. And, like most of the women that I interviewed, these solitary experiences made me deeply, unshakably, embarrassing-to-try-to-put-into-words happy.
As a PhD student feeling the pressure to be productive, it has been challenging to justify my choice to spend the summer in Spain. When people ask me the inevitable, “Why’d you do that?” I emphasize that the trip wasn’t all play, that I offset my costs by working as a nanny, teaching English to three sweet niños. I tell people that I wanted to escape from the Texas heat, that I wanted to practice my Spanish, that I wanted to return to the city, Madrid, that enchanted me as a study abroad student.
While these reasons are all true, what I yearned for, above all, was the experience that one interviewee described. Solo travel, she said, “is like when you’re in the shower, but for days.” She explained, “It’s time to really think through s—.” Perhaps, for a scholar-in-training, spending a summer really thinking through s— is the best justification of all.
Some things I’m thinking through next? How American travelers conceive of their ties to the U.S., how age, race and physical appearance influence the anonymity of travel, and how the unsettled nature of travel can alter the value one places on “settling down.”