When I decided to take off a year and a half and depart on my-around-the-world adventure I approached it like everything else in my life — solo. Everyone I talked to was in shock that I would attempt to do this journey to new worlds alone, but for me I would have it no other way.
In Western culture, it is becoming more and more acceptable to be a single woman in your 30’s. Whether it’s traveling, or simply living day-to-day on your own; being single doesn’t mean that you are a leper. However, once you step out into another culture you realize just how far our Western culture has evolved. Most countries and cultures I visited had a completely different view of unmarried women in their 30’s. As I would get to know the locals of various countries, they would shake their head in confusion when I told them I was 37, not married, and traveling alone. I could tell what they were thinking, “How could her family have let this happen?!” It made me chuckle to think that they were blaming my parents for my decisions.
There was one country, so full of truth and honesty that they did ask that ‘forbidden’ question of single people. In India one of my students asked me, “Mam, do you ever get lonely? I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. Sure, there are many people that I had encountered that had thought that before, but no one really had the guts to ask it; in front of a whole group of people! I looked out over 15 young adult students staring at me wide-eyed waiting for my answer.
Traveling solo has many benefits; first and foremost you get to do what YOU want to do. If I don’t feel like going to the Roman Forum, I don’t have to. Second, I don’t have to worry about getting separated in a crowd at a busy train station. You are truly free and unencumbered. Most importantly, I’m not on someone else’s bladder schedule! Seriously, I have a strong bladder — I’m proud of it, but most of my friends can’t say the same about their tiny little bladders. I’ve spent a lot of time looking for restrooms for them which is not the way I prefer to spend my travel time!’
I recently spent 16 months traveling. From these experiences, I was able to put some tips together for those other independent travelers out there.
A Book is Your Best Friend: Always, always have a book, magazine, or ipod with you. It gives you something to do while dining solo. It helps you feel less self conscience about sitting alone — as long as you have something to do — then no one will think you’re a loser without friends. Instead, you immediately become intriguing.
Checking In: Revert back to your teens and get in the habit of telling people where you are going to be. This can be as simple as sending a regular email to friends/family letting them know where you are or keeping a blog and letting everyone know where you are. Every time I traveled to a new country, I would send my family an email to let them know my itinerary (at least as much of it as I knew) and a way to try to contact me if I had one.
Safety in Numbers: When I was traveling into countries where I didn’t necessarily feel like traveling solo as a female (for me this was Morocco and Egypt), I would find a group to backpack/travel with. This provided me companionship, security, and drinking buddies! I often booked a ‘Basix’ (budget) tour with Intrepid Travel. This provided me backpacking companions, a guide who spoke the language, and a fabulous way to interact with the locals.
You are Never Too Old for a Hostel: The first night I ever stayed in a hostel, I was a bit intimidated, and felt a little old to be sleeping in a bunk bed again. However, hostels are great ways to meet other solo travelers in the same situation as you; plus you already have something in common: a love of travel. I also met a number of future travel companions on day tours. I would meet people on the tour, quickly socialize and end up going out with them that evening or the next day. When you travel, you tend to socialize and pick ‘potential friends’ much more quickly — there’s no time for courting, you just trust your instincts.
Give yourself an Imaginary Life: In some countries I traveled to, I felt like it was necessary to pull out all the stops, and get married. Well — sort of married — in my mind at least. In countries with particularly aggressive men, I found it easier to simply put my grandmother’s wedding ring on my left ring finger and pretend I was married. Granted this didn’t necessarily stop the men from starting to harass me for a date, drink, or purchasing something, but when I flashed my little ring it provided me some additional respect for personal space that I didn’t have as a single woman walking around alone. The most common questions I was asked in the souks of Northern Africa was first “Where you from?” followed by, “Are you married?” and the finale, “You have boyfriend?”. I hated this line of questioning — but depending on my mood and safety level I would engage in that conversation, or I would make up a romantic life and move on without being harassed.
Solo travel isn’t for everyone, but don’t let being solo stop you from doing something or going somewhere. Throughout my travels, I was surrounded by couples; most of the time I surveyed them and felt like I was much happier than the couples that surrounded me. Sure, it would’ve been nice to have a significant other with me to help shoulder the burden, carry my bags, share the rough travel times with, to kill bugs and put sunscreen on my back – but would I have been as happy as I am on my own making my own decisions? Would I feel that intoxicating sense of accomplishment that I feel solo; the feeling that I’ve made this happen on my own?