I picked a shitty hotel, and I knew it. The TripAdvisor reviews had been ruthless: "This is not a hotel, this a worn-down, dangerous location," and "rustic ... not for pretentious people."
"That's OK, I can handle it," I told myself.
I was heading to a budget hotel in Mexico and wasn't in the position to be picky. It had electricity 12 hours per day, running cold water and a mosquito net hanging above the bed. In the pictures, it looked like a poorly rated youth hostel, but with a sliding door to paradise.
Before I left, coworkers and friends asked me: Why are you going to Mexico alone? Isn't there anyone who will go with you? One man had even dubbed me the "bravest person he knew."
I was too busy planning to be scared. Besides, I'd braved the crowded bars of New York City and was once robbed on the subway. I was prepared for anything international travel would throw my way, I figured.
Of course, women who travel alone face alarming statistics about homicide rates in foreign countries. The popular travel guide Rick Steves' Europe instructs women to "wear a real or fake wedding ring and carry a picture of a real or fake husband," and to "lie unhesitatingly." The suggestions send the message that danger lurks on every corner, and every outing is just an abduction movie waiting to happen.
But it turns out the threats to my safety weren't quite so cinematic. Instead, as a woman, the experience of traveling alone is the experience of being subject to the world, the constant recipient of outside judgments that oscillated between pitying and threatening. My own "courageous" journey involved confronting these subtle but insidious challenges, day by day — and in the process, finding my own quiet confidence.
Small challenges: I was sitting at a restaurant in Tulum when the waiter said, "You're alone?"
"Yes, I'll have the veggie tacos, please."
"You didn't come with a boyfriend or friend?"
I gave him the truth: "I just left my job in New York and have a few days off before the next one starts. I'm here to relax and enjoy myself in the warmth."
"Oh," he replied, with something I read as pity in his eyes.
A shirtless man walked by asking if I wanted my Mayan astrological sign read to discover the real purpose of my life. I refused, unhesitatingly.
In minutes, the waiter returned with an ice cold margarita I hadn't ordered. "It's happy hour?" I asked in Spanish.
"With a beautiful face, any hour is happy hour," he said. Benevolent sexism in a glass.
"I wouldn't drink that if I were you," a bearded diner called to me. It was the patented rule of my travel guides: Don't drink alone. He walked over to my table and joined me. "It could be drugged," he said.
The subtle, but certain, pattern began to emerge: pity, threats, then more pity and some more threats, all packaged innocently in the form of knowing glances, free drinks and shouts from passing cars.
Despite the danger, the number of women who travel solo seems to be climbing. According to the Travel Channel, 32 million American women traveled alone in 2007. As of 2014, Booking.com found that 72% of American women had traveled on their own. The lone female traveler is no longer an anomaly, but nor is she a damsel in distress or the bravest person in the world.
Instead, our cultural portrait of the lone female traveler goes one of two ways. Either she's an adventurer embarking on 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a la Cheryl Strayed's Wild, or she's a food snob-turned-spiritual guru who finds passionate love, like in Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. Both are epic journeys whereby the woman confronts the wider world and, in doing so, finds herself.
Facing down far less epic challenges, my journey didn't seem quite as significant on the surface. Instead of rattlesnakes, crusted-over hiking boots and men who resembled Javier Bardem, my Mexico excursion consisted of freezing showers, cockroaches, limited Wi-Fi — and a man who looked more like Seth Rogen, with whom I shared a blanket on the beach and tequila in plastic cups as we chatted through the night.
After days of feeling isolated by my rudimentary Spanish, his fluent English and his friendship were a welcome reprieve. Then he said, "I have a girlfriend. We thought we would use this trip to open up our relationship. Is that something you'd be interested in joining?" I gulped, and he continued. "I figured since you were traveling alone..."
Once again, I felt betrayed by a stranger's kindness that turned out to hinge on an assumption of what it meant for me to be on my own. I hadn't anticipated needing to turn down a threesome on my trip, but here I was, defending that right to a man I'd spent less than two hours with.
Quiet acts of bravery: The next day, after I had politely refused his offer, the bearded man came to my hotel twice and stuffed several notes under my door, cueing a wave of panic. He had cornered me in the only part of Mexico I finally felt comfortable, where I didn't have to navigate the alternating stream of pity and threats that made me feel so vulnerable.
So the last time he arrived, I opened my door. "I don't want this," I told him. "You need to leave. You need to get out now." My voice was louder, unhesitating. He finally took no for an answer and left.
I'd been lucky to untangle myself unscathed, when so many women don't. The dark truth of our Wild and Eat, Pray, Love fantasies is that horrific events, like New York mother Sarai Sierra's murder while vacationing in Turkey, happen more often than we think.
That small, but assured, feeling of good fortune was the very reason I didn't need a multi-continent holiday or a 1,100-mile trek to feel brave. Every fresh fruit smoothie I sipped alone, the solo trek I took through a bio-reserve and the Argentinian man I befriended on a bus were all tastes of freedom in the face of judgment, reminders that I was capable of traveling within sensible limits while still outside my wildest expectations.
Travel is proven to reduce our risk of heart attack and alleviate stress. But for a woman deciding to travel alone, the benefits go beyond cardiovascular health. There is courage to be summoned in the ordinary — the simple fact of being a woman alone in the world, without needing an excuse. That's the peace of mind and confidence we get when we travel alone.
"Loving life is easy when you are abroad," political theorist Hannah Arendt once wrote. "Where no one knows you and you hold your life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time."
On the way back to the airport, I heard the inescapable question for the last time:
"Are you alone?" the cab driver asked.
"Yes." I told him. "That's okay, I can handle it." I knew I meant it.