Carla Stefaniak did everything “right”, her best friend says.
On a five-day vacation to Costa Rica in November to celebrate her 36th birthday, Stefaniak, a dual Venezuelan-American citizen, chose a gated Airbnb villa near the airport. It had a security guard. It was in a safe neighbourhood. And she made sure to get home before dark.
The night before she was to fly to Florida, she contacted her best friend, Laura Jaime, on FaceTime. She showed off the crocheted earrings she had bought in a local market and gave a video tour of her villa. The friends planned to see each other the next day, when Jaime was to pick her up at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
But Stefaniak never boarded her flight home on 28 November.
During their phone call, Stefaniak had made a strange remark. She said the situation felt “sketchy”, but didn’t elaborate.
“Carla knew at 8.20 that night that something was wrong,” Jaime says. “Sometimes we justify our intuition. But when something is triggered and our body says something is wrong, you have to listen to it.”
A week later, Stefaniak’s brutalised body was found wrapped in plastic and half-buried in a sloping patch of forest near her Airbnb rental. The Costa Rican police arrested the property’s security guard in connection with the killing.
Recent headlines about the deadly violence inflicted on women travelling alone have raised questions about how the world is greeting the documented rise in female solo travellers and about the role of social media in promoting the idea that far-off lands are easily accessible and safe.
They have also shone a light on the enduring nature of gender violence worldwide and laid bare how a lone foreign traveller’s cultural and social expectations do not always comport with local views about a woman’s place in the world – and whether she should travel at all.
Thousands of women go abroad every year without incident. Many women experience catcalls and myriad other forms of harassment while travelling; women of colour have written about being dismissed or ignored abroad because of their race. And while violence against male tourists is just as devastating, the harrowing experiences of female solo travellers can still shock the senses.
In December, the bodies of Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, of Denmark and Maren Ueland, 28, of Norway, were found with knife wounds in their necks in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Danish officials called the murders an act of terror. That same month, Briton Grace Millane disappeared in Auckland, New Zealand, on the night before her 22nd birthday; she was found slain days later. In 2015, a 19-year-old British backpacker was gang-raped by bikers in Thailand. In March, an Australian man was convicted of kidnapping and raping a Belgian traveller seeking work; he had kept her locked up in his pig shed for two days.
There is no question that women face unique risks when travelling solo, experts say.
“We have evidence that shows that women face risks that men don’t face in public spaces, at home, wherever they may be,” says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, an organisation that promotes female equality. Increasingly, “wherever they may be” includes alone in foreign countries.
But she says that violence against female tourists is a thread in the broader fabric of violence against women around the world. And violent episodes are just as likely to occur, experts note, in rich Western nations such as France, Italy and Germany as in the developing world.
“The root cause of this kind of violence against women in communities and in public and private spaces has a lot to do with the underlying gender stereotypes, social norms, entitlement and patriarchy,” Mlambo-Ngcuka says.
The lure of travelling alone
Women have always been explorers on a scale both grand and personal – long before British trailblazer Freya Stark visited inhospitable areas in Turkey and the Middle East and before Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy saw the world on a bicycle.
Today, women’s increased spending power has given them the means to travel more for leisure and adventure. Shifting attitudes in the West about who can travel alone have also added to a growing industry. Social media plays a big part, offering intimate glimpses of far-off lands. A scroll through Instagram hashtags such as #LadiesGoneGlobal, #WeAreTravelGirls and #TheTravelWomen offers millions of photos of women posing on glistening beaches, trekking up mountains and exploring cobblestone streets – a collective and aspirational lure.
Gavios found her passion for travelling solo while studying abroad in college. “I feel like it gives me the luxury of seeing the culture in the way I want to and being able to paint my own experience,” she says.
After college, she travelled to southeast Asia on her own, visiting Thailand in 2016 on a break from teaching English in Vietnam. One evening, she was walking alone after dinner in Krabi, known for its beaches and as a popular hangout for young tourists, when a local man offered to guide her back to her hotel.
She says she was afraid of getting lost, so she followed him. But just as she grew increasingly uneasy, he attacked.
Fleeing for her life, Gavios tumbled from a cliff and fractured her spine. The man sexually assaulted her while she lay helpless for 11 hours.
In the morning light, he left – but, surprisingly, returned with help.
Gavios was hospitalised for months, first in Thailand and then New York, and has had to learn to walk again using crutches and custom leg braces. Her attacker was eventually arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.
A shattered family
The week Stefaniak vanished, her friends and family scrambled to alert Costa Rican authorities. They organised a campaign through a Facebook page, “Finding Carla”. The State Department quickly became involved, and the FBI pressed local officials.
When her body was discovered near her villa, her relatives were shattered.
Jaime, her best friend, says local authorities should have done more to publicise the risks to women in the country. “They have a responsibility to tell tourists of all the risks, and they are not doing it,” she says.
Stefaniak was the third foreign woman killed in Costa Rica in three months. But the country was also grappling with a deeper, more systemic problem of brutality against local women, ones who did not have the power of an American passport to help galvanise agencies such as the State Department or the FBI on their behalf.
At least 14 women were killed in gender-based violence in the country from January to August 2018. In September, the government declared violence against women a national problem.
The National Institute for Women, a government ministry, points to the murders of foreigners last summer in a statement to illustrate the issue: “We are faced with the fact that, beyond the damage it may cause to the image of the country, they are clear examples of the serious situation of violence against women, which has its most brutal expression in femicide.”
Still, Costa Rica is considered one of the safest countries in Central America, particularly for tourists, with a lower homicide rate than many neighbouring nations. Officials say they have made strides to combat gender-based violence.
Jaime says she believes her friend might have been targeted because she was a Spanish speaker who blended right in and her killer might have thought the police would be lax. “Maybe because she spoke Spanish, he might have felt no one would have looked for her,” Jaime says.
But she says the attacker had underestimated the determination of Stefaniak’s family. Not only are her relatives fighting for justice in Costa Rica’s courts, they have also filed a lawsuit accusing Airbnb of negligence. Their lawyer in Costa Rica, Joseph Alfonso Rivera Cheves, appears to suggest a callous disregard in the aftermath, noting that the same day Stefaniak vanished, her Airbnb room was being cleaned and new renters checked in.
The family also says that the local host evaded negative reviews by changing the name of the listing, and no background check of the security guard was conducted even though he had access to all the rooms on site.
Airbnb, in a statement, says it has removed the villa where Stefaniak stayed from its platform, and has been in contact with authorities. The company also says it has made strides to address women’s safety concerns, partnering with rights organisations and violence-prevention groups in local communities, and creating policies that emphasise women’s needs.
That includes removing any host or guest accused of sexual assault from the platform and including a clause in its nondiscrimination policy that allows female hosts to accept only female guests.
The power of preparation
Seasoned solo travellers say that preparation can be the key to minimising risk.
For Cassie DePecol, 29, who in 2017 claimed the Guinness World Record as the first woman on record to travel to every country, travelling alone means having a long list of precautions. The Connecticut-born activist practises Krav Maga, an Israeli self-defence technique. She carries a GPS tracker. She makes sure someone knows where she is at all times.
“Some of these might sound extreme,” she says. “But I attribute having safely travelled alone to 196 countries to these specific procedures.”
DePecol says that gender-based violence is an unfortunate reality for women who travel.
“The awareness of needing to always watch our backs when we’re both alone and in public places is something that men don’t necessarily need to be aware of,” she says.
Jessica Nabongo, 34, is on a mission to become the first black woman to visit every country in the world. Born in Detroit, she has been to 158 so far – 54 of them alone – and hopes to complete her journey in October.
Her road map for safety includes trying to stay in hotels with 24-hour security. If she stays in an Airbnb, the host has to have received consistently excellent reviews and achieved “superhost” status. She takes Ubers so that her location is tracked.
Nabongo acknowledged that “we tell women what not to do to avoid being attacked instead of telling men not to attack women.”
But she says she dresses conservatively until she can assess whether what she wears matters in the place she is visiting.
She would prefer a world where women can just pack up and travel without having to do the extra legwork that solo male travellers don’t have to, but says that’s idealistic.
Nabongo, however, like many women’s advocates, believes that any focus on the way women dress – or the fact that they travel alone at all – provides a convenient scapegoat and does not address the true causes of gender-based violence and rape culture.
Most headlines tend to highlight the experiences of young, white or Western victims – partly because of a dearth of public data on any violent experiences of women of colour who travel alone. But Nabongo notes that as a black woman travelling solo, she has to deal with a whole other level of safety concerns, anxiety and fear.
“In many European cities that I’ve been in – like Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Milan – women of colour are in more danger because a lot of people think we are prostitutes,” she says. “My fear is always that if something happens to me in a European city, no one will care. I could be running down the street screaming in Italy and onlookers won’t care because I’m black.”
To help one another traverse the world safely, women have formed their own online communities.
Dianelle Rivers-Mitchell founded Black Girls Travel Too, which coordinates group travel, to serve a growing market. On her company’s Facebook site, thousands of women share tips on where to stay, eat and visit, and hash out safety concerns.
“We are each other’s keeper, especially when it comes to travel,” says Rivers-Mitchell.
Apps provide another level of support for women travelling alone. Free ones such as Chirpey, RedZone, MayDay, Tripwhistle and Noonlight let women flag incidents and areas of danger, and contact local law enforcement.
A rape, and a fight for justice
Even with the best preparation, trips can go wrong.
Born and raised in Moscow, Vasilisa Komarova grew up in the 1980s behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. She studied law, moved to London, learned English and became a British citizen. But she dreamed of travelling the wider world.
In 2016, at 35, she embarked on a solo motorcycle journey through the Americas.
She visited Cuba and spent time in the Atacama Desert and Chilean Patagonia. She linked up with motorcyclists and got odd jobs in a bike shop and in fitness training. She was living a dream, chronicling it all with photos on Instagram and posts on Facebook.
Then, everything changed.
“At some point, maybe because everyone I was meeting was so kind, I think I put down my guard a little,” she says.
While camping in northern Bolivia on 4 June 2017, in an area people had told her was safe, three men with machetes dragged her out of her tent. They beat her, dislocating her arm in three places. While two held her down, one raped her. Then they broke her motorcycle, stole her belongings, urinated on her tent and left her for dead.
Afraid that they might come back, Komarova lay still all night. When the sun rose, she used her laptop, which her attackers had missed, to summon help.
But what she experienced was a climate of impunity, she says.
Authorities didn’t want to take her to a doctor; the doctor didn’t want to see her because she could not pay.
“Only after the Russian Embassy was involved did the police listen,” Komarova says.
But the embassy retreated after connecting her with local authorities, saying she was not in immediate danger. She felt she was on her own.
Experts say such a response isn’t unusual. “Some of these law enforcers are themselves part of the problem, and they do not take these crimes as seriously as they need to,” Mlambo-Ngcuka, of UN Women, says.
Bolivian and Russian authorities did not respond to several requests for comment.
With the help of the British Embassy, Komarova, made contact with an advocate who helped her file a criminal complaint and begin the legal fight against her attackers.
Komarova says she knew she had to be her own biggest advocate; she couldn’t move forward in her journey or return home without getting some form of justice. But between the local bureaucracy and the corruption, she says, it was an arduous fight.
“The attack, the process, it broke me down,” Komarova says. “But I had to find strength inside myself.”
A year later, she watched as her attackers were sentenced to a combined 42 years in prison.
In November, Komarova rode out of Bolivia on her motorcycle. The first night she put her tent up after leaving, she was afraid, she admits. She is still on the road, and wants other women to travel, but to be on alert – always.
“My guard is really high,” Komarova says by Skype from Ecuador. “People don’t always deserve my scepticism, but that is how it is. That’s how it has to be.”
As for Gavios, she is still partly paralysed, but since the attack, she has become a yoga instructor and has learned Krav Maga. Last fall, she completed the New York City Marathon – on crutches.
“It hasn’t prevented me from moving forward or travelling by myself,” she said. “I don’t feel defeated.”
She says she doesn’t want her experience to scare other women away from having the rich, eye-opening experience of travelling solo.
“The more we tell women not to travel alone and the more we send the message that the world is very dangerous, in a way, we are also supporting that belief,” Gavios says. “Rather than horrifying people, I want people to go into it with a little more bravery and a little more knowledge.”
From her perspective, there are no dangerous countries, just dangerous people.
“It sucks, but you can’t control the world,” she says, adding, “But you also have to go out and live your life and not let these terrible stories stop you.
“Because otherwise, you let them win.”
© New York Times
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