This series is a series of firsthand anecdotes from a seasoned solo traveler who has traveled to 50 countries over the past decade. Priyanka Juneja is also completing her MBA and Masters in International Studies from Wharton and is the founder of @ hera.travel, a platform that empowers women to travel fearlessly.
1. You will get noticed
I clearly remember my flight from Cairo to Bahrain. It was late. I was more than tired and had flown through Egypt earlier that day. I looked forward to curling up in my tight airplane seat and resting. At least I had a flight from Bahrain to Muscat. I got on the flight sleepily and immediately felt my blood go cold. When I got to the plane, I realized that not only was I the only woman traveling alone, but also the only woman who wasn’t wearing one Niqab. It’s difficult to put into words the exact feeling, but knowing that all eyes were on me as I walked to my seat made my skin tingle. I stood out and everyone knew it.
When I got to my seat, no fewer than three men jumped up to help me set up my suitcase. The second I sat down, the man next to me gave me a friendly smile and grabbed my seat belt for me. I politely told him that I was fine and that I would make it. He looked like he was about to protest, but finally turned away from me.
After everyone settled down and the flight attendant came over the intercom to give the normal pre-take off instructions, I spent some time trying to understand why I was so confused. Knowing that I was the only woman on the plane traveling alone made me feel uncomfortable, but there was more to it than that. I finally realized that I was having cognitive dissonances where two parts of my brain collided and struggled to find a solution.
On the one hand, I understood the situation from a cultural context and that the man next to me trying to put my seat belt on for me didn’t mean bad intention; On the other hand, as a woman traveling alone, I have always been taught to be aware of my surroundings, to keep an eye on my personal belongings, and to be skeptical of anyone who tries to approach me. How should I reconcile these two contradicting ideas?
2. It won’t be without challenges
The fact is, traveling as a woman in the Middle East is not without its challenges. First, depending on where you are from, you may feel completely out of your comfort zone as this is likely to be culturally different from what you are used to at home. Second, you will stand out as a woman traveling alone.
I have attracted attention all over Egypt. It was a challenge to find someone I trusted and in a place where I was comfortable, even though I had a couple of tour guides who went out of their way to ensure my safety. Interestingly, there were a lot of local people who thought I was Egyptian (I’m of Indian descent) and that attracted additional glances. I could see people trying to figure me out when I shook my head that no, I don’t speak Arabic. The extra attention added another layer of discomfort to the trip. There were moments when I was exhausted from being on guard and times when it was almost too much to handle.
3. It will ignite your senses
I share these challenges so as not to dissuade you from traveling to the Middle East, but to highlight some of the unique situations women may face when traveling to different regions. Despite its challenges, there are so many incredible reasons to travel to this area. It’s a chance to immerse yourself in a world that is likely completely different from your own. It’s an opportunity to ignite your senses, from air full of unfamiliar spices and snippets of conversation in Dulcet Arabic to music that envelops you to the core. There’s a chance to experience the history you’ve read about in textbooks, foods that take your palette to a whole new level, and other vibrant cultural components that will only make you discover more of the area.
There are places like Dahab, Egypt’s hidden gem with some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever done and some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
There is Beirut which, along with so much to offer, has some of the most delicious foods I can think of (Manakish, Knefeh and Falafel).
There’s even Dubai, an interesting juxtaposition of modernity and tradition, and a fascinating opportunity to watch a society develop.
4. Find a trusted local guide
Given the wealth of experience in the region, countries should focus on how to improve the safety and comfort of women and, in turn, attract more solo travelers. For example, having two tour guides in Egypt that I could trust was invaluable to my experience and I was able to relax a bit knowing they were looking for me. Both guides were recommended by the hotels I’ve stayed in, but not all hotels necessarily have this option. For some travelers, this is the main differentiator between a good trip and one that keeps them from returning to the region.
There is an opportunity to provide important safety information for women such as trusted tour guides to make it more accessible to future travelers. There is also a need for more women-centric initiatives and the ability to connect women traveling to the same cities. That’s exactly why I founded Hera. This women-only travel platform tries to provide detailed safety advice and connect travelers who are visiting the same place at the same time.
This serves two purposes:
- It makes women feel more comfortable while traveling
- It enables a higher and more trustworthy travel experience
Women keep saying that when the sun goes down, they don’t feel comfortable traveling alone. As a result, we miss a multitude of experiences while traveling. There is an opportunity to change this not just in the Middle East but across the travel industry in general.
Despite its challenges, there are so many incredible reasons to travel to the Middle East. It’s a chance to immerse yourself in a world that is likely completely different from your own.
Pro Traveler Corner
This section provides tips for traveling solo in the Middle East. The most important thing is that you do your research in advance. This is absolutely necessary.
- Pack according to cultural norms
In general, women in the Middle East dress conservatively, but understanding what the country you are traveling to expects and accepts is important.
- Know which areas of the city are safe for tourists
It is important that you do your research on certain areas as some can be more politically charged and unsafe for tourists.
- Be prepared for a male dominated society
It is important to know and be prepared for the power imbalance between men and women.
- Stay vigilant but enjoy the hospitality
The Middle East is known for its incredible hospitality and this is sure to be an element of your trip that you will enjoy. Even so, you should always be careful. Do not accept anything from someone you do not know on the street or get into cars that you are unfamiliar with.