Women’s Travel E-Mail Roundtable, Part Five: Settling Down on the Fringe

Speaker's Corner: All this week, four accomplished travelers -- Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Liz Sinclair, Terry Ward and Catherine Watson -- talk about the rewards and perils of hitting the road alone as a woman.

10.09.07 | 3:26 PM ET

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From: Terry Ward
To: Liz Sinclair, Stephanie Elizondo Griest and Catherine Watson
Subject: Settling Down on the Fringe

I am loving this dialog we’ve got going, and I realize that it has everything to do with why I love travel in general—for the way it immerses me in an ever-evolving learning experience, just by virtue of being myself in a situation completely outside of my usual domestic everyday.

Speaking of my domestic everyday here in Florida, it’s a different version than that of most of my friends.

Today, I turn 32.

I don’t own a house, I don’t have a kid (nor am I “trying”), I’m not married, I don’t even have a pet. And right now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I can basically get up and go at any given moment (as long as the rent’s paid), and often, I do. Sometimes I get the feeling my friends don’t even consider my profession, as a freelance writer, a “real job.” They say they envy it, sure. But they’re always bemused when I say how hard I’ve been working, or when I have to turn down an invitation due to my work load.

And while my friends and family have gotten used to my frequent departures—they’ve come to ask where I’m headed next before I have a chance to tell them—I still get the feeling that it makes people uncomfortable, this “traveling thing.” And I suppose it’s because they can’t relate.

For all the foreign situations I’ve found myself in—where the women and men I meet are confused by why a woman would travel alone—I can honestly say that I feel most Americans are equally perplexed.

I wrote my South Florida Sun-Sentinel column this month about how my boyfriend and I, having different interests, often pursue our travels apart. And how I enjoy traveling alone. And I actually got an e-mail from a male reader saying this: “People who really love each other don’t feel a deep desire to travel on their own.”

Typically, his e-mail was trying to sway me his direction—he wrote that he was ready to set off for Tahiti together with me. But I think his point of view on solo travel is not uncommon here in the States—that it implies something is wrong.

Catherine mentioned that she feels more outgoing, curious and a lot lower-maintenance when she is traveling in a meaningful way (for work, to help people) than she does at home.

When I return from a trip, I usually find myself in a funk because everything is so easy and expected, like there’s some unseen handbook guiding me through my every day—work, work out, wind down, repeat. And it bothers me to feel like I’m living with blinders on at home, when I am so much more automatically open to experiences everyplace else. Why is this?

There is the anonymity on the road, especially in conservative countries, where the sheer difference in cultural expectations allows me to let questions in the vein of “Why aren’t you married?” and “Why don’t you have kids?” roll right off me.

But back in the States, where most of my peers really don’t get why I would want to travel in lieu of what they see as building a life here, the constant reminders that my clock is ticking and my “eggs are getting old” aren’t as easily shaken off.

I agree with Catherine that I feel most vulnerable as a woman here at home. America is a violent country and I can feel it more here than almost every other place I’ve been—even if I have never been attacked myself.

But for me, at this moment, the vulnerability I feel as a woman in America is more of an emotional one.

Most of my closest friends are American. And most of my friends see my wanderlust as something I will eventually outgrow. I get the feeling they see me as a rebel—perhaps even an immature one—who will eventually come ‘round, and settle down. And as much as they say they admire my experiences (and I think they genuinely do), I get the feeling that they see something selfish in the way that I live my life. So when we’re together, I talk mostly about things that are relative, and I relegate my travels—my passion, my true interest—to my writing and my dreams, and to conversations with the few people who I know are on the same page.

When I travel alone here in the States, I feel more anonymous than I do anywhere else. I speak English with a neutral accent, I look as American as the next person (I always marvel at how pretty much anyone can fit in, physically, in this country—that’s a beautiful thing), so nobody really sees me as a traveler. It’s only really abroad that I feel my traveler identity recognized.

As a result, I feel trapped between cultures—between being American abroad, and un-American here at home. Fitting in everywhere and nowhere. Am I just being an overly dramatic woman, or does being a traveler—and especially being a woman traveler—put us on the fringe here in America? I think it does, but I also think I am finally learning to live with it—mostly because I cannot imagine changing the way I live, the way I travel, in favor of fitting in.

World Hum contributing editor Terry Ward writes for The Washington Post, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Orlando Sentinel and AOL. A story she wrote about a women-run guesthouse in Rajasthan, India was selected as notable travel writing for the 2006 edition of the "Best American Travel Writing" series. She is based in Florida.

Catherine Watson is the former travel editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and the author of two collections of travel essays, the new Home on the Road -- Further Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth, and Roads Less Traveled -- Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth. She recently wrote the World Hum story Where the Roads Diverged.

Stephanie Elizondo Griest has mingled with the Russian Mafiya, polished Chinese propaganda and belly danced with Cuban rumba queens. She is the author of Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, as well as Not Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines, and the guidebook 100 Places Every Woman Should Go

Australia-based Liz Sinclair is living in Bali, learning Indonesian, volunteering as a grant writer for a maternal and child health center for the poor and writing about Australia and Asia, with an emphasis on Indonesia and interfaith issues. She wrote Why I am Still Going to Bali for World Hum, and has written for The Melbourne Age, The Big Issue, Australia, The Brunei Times, The Evening Standard and Islands magazine.

8 Comments for Women’s Travel E-Mail Roundtable, Part Five: Settling Down on the Fringe

Eva Holland 10.09.07 | 5:30 PM ET

Wow, Terry, thanks for this. You pretty much just distilled hours of conversations I’ve had with my one other close traveling/writing friend into a few (much more coherent) paragraphs. We both left Canada for a year and a half after undergrad and landed back last Christmas in a world of car payments and condo shopping and wedding planning - I still don’t quite know what to make of it.

You mentioned shaking off questions about being a solo female traveler on the road more easily than at home - I agree, but the funny thing is, I almost find I get more of those questions when I travel alone in Canada and the US. Maybe people overseas are just resigned to the peculiarities of foreign tourists, but I find I have to explain myself a lot more here. I lost count of the people in San Francisco and New York who asked, “Well… why are you here?” Uh, to see the city. “Really? Alone? Why?”

Eva Holland 10.09.07 | 5:32 PM ET

ps: Did you reply to the “people who really love each other…” email?

Terry Ward 10.09.07 | 6:32 PM ET

Hi Eva…I think you’re right, actually, about getting more of those questions here at home than on the road, because abroad, as you said, we’re entitled to some peculiarities - whereas here, most people just think it’s plain peculiar.  Regarding the people who love each other email, I did respond. I told him that I was just fine with my boyfriend, and that I have yet to meet another man who would begrudge me less my freedom and travel choices.  He hasn’t responded.

Rainfield 10.09.07 | 11:10 PM ET

wow, this must be the coolest blog ive ever read about women in travel.
i myself love travel too, and just like you, i dont have a kid nor a pet, im not married either, i do love solo traveling, hiking in the mountain area stuff.
it always gives me the feeling of free.

Grizzly Mom 10.12.07 | 12:41 PM ET

I love to travel and do it alone because I get to tour, sleep, and eat, (or not) when and where I want.  When I was younger I waited for companionship and didnít go anywhere.  People think I am brave to travel alone.  I don’t tell that that I trained foreign military members, am a state certified police instructor, and served in the military.  My friends and I were robbed in Italy by a gang of bandits with saw off shotguns and I was pistol whipped.  It was scary and I cried afterward.  Now as I look at it as the violent crime I will experience in this lifetime and think that its safe for me to do anything!  Young women, you go traveling girl, and donít wait for anyone.  Itís a big world, start exploring it!

Sarah 10.16.07 | 4:48 AM ET

I’m 24 years old, yet I completely relate to what you are all saying.  I caught the travel bug almost 10 years ago but first started traveling abroad when I was 20.  Since I’ve lived in 3 countries and now find myself living in Alaska, practically a different country by its own right.  I know I am young, but for some reason so many of my friends are settling down, have kids, are married, buying houses.  It’s hard not to feel like the odd one out.  I have no plans for any of that for a very long time.  People always ask me “what’s next” because I always take contract jobs so I can experience new places and be on the move.  I remember the first time I left my home state in the midwest to move to DC for the summer to do an intership.  My friends told me I was insane….interestingly now I am the one they talk about like i’m a celebrity to their boring friends.  My grandmother of 91 always panics when I tell her I’m flying alone or going somewhere alone.  There is definately benefits and drawbacks as a woman traveling alone.  I always look back on all my adventures when I was alone as very empowering.  They give me confidence in my everyday life and are some of my favorite memories.  I’ve found you meet a lot more people when you are alone as well because people aren’t as intimidated to talk to you, or maybe they are just intriuged or feel sorry for you!  Certain countries I’ve been to Morocco for example, make you very aware of your sex.  During that trip I was very thankful I had my boyfriend with me.  Men were looking at me as if they were undressing me with their eyes and it made me feel nervous.  But just like every where there is a lot to be said for holding your head high and acting like you belong where you are.  Also so much to be said for trusting your gut instinct about a person or a situation.  To first timers I would say everywhere has good people and bad people and everyplace has beauty and suffering.  But people are still people no matter where you go, they have addictions and sickness and favorite foods and enjoy music and all that - just a little differently.  Some people may think it’s crazy to fall in love with a city or a country but I have and I agree there is a little part of me left in each of those places I fell in love with.  But who want a life without love?!  Go! Travel! Do it! It changes you in a very good way.

Grizzly Mom 10.16.07 | 10:04 AM ET

Traveling is a confidence building experience.  Its lots easier to do before you have to plan around hubby, kids and mortage! The confidence gained will help you in your career.  Traveling alone enriches the expereince because faciliates interaction with the locals.  Yeah guys came on to me, but wear sunglasses, avoid eye contact, ignore them, say no like you mean or make lots of noise and they go away.  This is also a confidence builder and an important life skill.  I’m at the age where I’m compare my life with that of my H.S. classmates 30 years ago.  I feel blessed and wise that I am single with out children and had the freedom to travel, volunteer, or work where I choose.

MargoWolf 01.04.08 | 7:37 AM ET

Terry, This is the entry that hits home most. You are so young! But I have had all these things with my friends and family for 40 years and now that I am 58! and I never married and I do not regret not having children and my boyfriend takes me to the airport and picks me up and life goes on. One of my oldest friends could not believe I was going back to Ireland and beyond and has acted as if I am silly
and I cannot share with her as I do with someone else who understands. Why I am a
single woman traveler is constantly asked by women. Men seem to enjoy that I do it alone. Friends have called me brave and I tell them there is so much to see why haven’t they gone anywhere besides Disney World? I have worked for a Rafting company on the Snake River, filled in as a muleskinner on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I have sailed 1500 miles on a 37 foot sailboat as the First Mate. I have managed a horsefarm with 32 horses alone in the winter, snowed in. I had my own small sailboat on a lake in Connecticut. And I ran two
teaching labs at The University of Connecticut in Physiology and Neurobiology. I was a poet at 15. My books live in storage with my family stuff. And younger women than me are doing far more; going further, climbing Mount Everest, working in third world countries and I feel humbled by their accomplishments. When I first lived in Wyoming in 1972, I could not get a GS job planting trees for the forest service because I was a woman. I was not welcome at the university in Cheyenne in
Ornithology because that was a man’s field. I still get pissed about the time that was lost because of prejudice. It is amazing to me that things have changed. Yet so many women live as second class citizens or less, all around the world. Marx said you measure a country by the status of its women. I realize how fortunate I am. It would be nice to be understood. When I went to Ireland my first email I got from my dear friend, Katherine, was; ‘I am so proud of you!!’ There isn’t enough encouragement to be the one who lives on the edge of things. And it is not always easy but it is fulfilling. Don’t you agree? You are THERE. I am only taking baby steps.MargoWolf

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