Women’s Travel E-Mail Roundtable, Part Twelve: Hitting the Road
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.
10.12.07 | 11:29 AM ET
From: Catherine Watson
To: Terry Ward, Liz Sinclair and Stephanie Elizondo Griest
Subject: Hitting the Road
I‘m going to tackle Terry’s wonderful question in two parts—advice for people, especially women, who want to take a trip, especially that first trip alone, and also for people who are thinking of throwing over the traces (giving up the apartment, putting all that stuff into storage!) and going to live somewhere else.
First, I think anyone who even mentions wanting to travel—like Kate, who sounds as if she’s on the brink of a life change—should be encouraged, heavily and often. Actually, I also encourage people who’ve never mentioned it at all—like young relatives. Some are open to the idea, some not, but it helps them, I think, to have a sort of Auntie Mame in the background, cheering them on.
I tell beginning solo travelers to start small, if they’re fearful—a short trip, even a weekend alone, so they can see how it feels. Or start with an interest-focused group trip, particularly a study tour or activity-based experience, like ones offered by Earthwatch or the Sierra Club or Crow Canyon archaeological center in New Mexico. Or consider joining an organization like “5W’’— Women Welcoming Women World Wide, based in England, whose members will meet, guide, even offer lodging to fellow members. All these practically guarantee you’ll be with like-spirited people.
For Kate, I’d suggest one of the short-term volunteer programs, which operate in the U.S. as well as overseas. Global Volunteers and Global Citizens Network come first to my mind because they’re based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I know them best, but there are lots of others. She could go for two or three weeks, work on an on-going project in a community that has asked for help and find out what it feels like to do development work. Then she can make a bigger commitment—Peace Corps, maybe?
Now about traveling alone, and its rewards—which is what the four of us chose and clearly love. For me, first and foremost, every day is full and different, and full not just of things to see and do, but full of people. Travel has made me come to love people—all the wildly varied and rather magnificent forms and moods they come in. I too have wept over it, in gratitude for the sense that I’d been vouchsafed wonders.
Traveling alone has made those wonders easier to see and feel. Traveling alone frees me from my demons, my limits, my crutches. Those drop away like a bad laundry list as soon as the plane takes off. One of my favorite things is to feel that surge of energy when the lumbering plane leaps into the air, tucks its feet in and returns to its element, gleaming and swift. I feel like that too.
Clearly, traveling alone forces you out of your comfort zone. It requires you to talk to people. And—a selfish reason, but a real one—it leaves your mind free. You don’t have to feel guilty or torn because you got interested in some bit of serendipity when you were supposed to meet your traveling companion and had to choose between pulling yourself away—or standing them up. The autonomy of this is amazing.
I think more women ought to experience such autonomy: Taking care of yourself—putting yourself first—is something that’s harder for us to do than I think it is for men. We’re practically conditioned not to put ourselves first, in fact. But imagine: No arguments over who gets to drive, who gets to shower first, who snored, or who gets to pick the next restaurant—it’s a kind of freedom. You can change plans in a heartbeat. You don’t have to compromise.
As for the fear factor: Yes, there are risks in travel. But there are just as many, maybe more, in staying home, including that you’ll wait so long that you can’t travel. Will the untaken risks be worth that? I don’t think so.
I live in anecdotes, and I can’t resist plugging this one in here: For about 17 years, a group of newspaper colleagues and I rented the same house in Acapulco for a week of R&R every February. For the first five years or so, as the deadline for signing up approached, one of the men would vacillate about it: “Should I go this time? I don’t know… The price has gone up. I have too much work to do. Do I really want to go?” Then he had a revelation. “I’m gonna end up sitting in a nursing home someday,” he said, “and I don’t think I’ll be thinking, ‘Wasn’t it a good thing I didn’t go to Mexico that one year?’” He never dithered about taking the trip again.
I like the distinction between alone and loneliness. They are very different. Besides, “traveling alone” is really just starting out alone. Once you’ve started, you’re only alone for about 15 minutes. From the minute you get on the plane until the minute you come back, you’ll be in contact with somebody. There will be people all around you, all the time, even in places where you don’t speak the language, and virtually all of them will be decent folks who will talk to you, help you, give you advice, etc. Even the inevitable hassles and unpredictabilities of travel will tell you loads about the place—and about yourself.
It doesn’t matter if you’re shy at home—solo/sola travel is your chance to change that. In fact, you’ll have to: At the very least, you’re going to need to ask for directions from time to time. Offering to share a cab, asking if you can join someone at a restaurant table, turning to someone in a museum to ask a question, buying bread in a Paris bakery, pointing at stuff in an outdoor market and asking what it is—the contact points are infinite.
Just learning to count turned into a mini-party for me once in a street market in Tunisia. I could only count to seven in Arabic, but I started counting tomatoes out loud, and the people around me laughed and started correcting me and telling me more numbers and the names of other vegetables, which I couldn’t say right, either, so they corrected me with more laughter, and it was silly, and human, and therefore great.
I think of traveling alone as kind of like learning to sail—sure, in a sailing course, you learn to pull on lines and steer by a compass, but you also gain a tremendous amount of confidence and self-reliance—important things that women really need and that we don’t have enough opportunities to learn at home.
For what it’s worth, I get scared too, before I leave. Also before I set foot outside the hotel that first, jetlagged morning, because I’m usually working and I’m afraid I won’t do a good job this time. It’s daunting, to tackle a whole new city or a whole new country.
My cures: It helps me to pack at the last minute because then I’m too busy to be scared. (I do make lists ahead of time, though—writing stuff down also makes me feel comforted.)
As for the “will I fail at my job?” fears: The answers are the same as that first decision to travel alone: Just do it. Just get out there.
This is a good thing to do on any trip, in fact. That first intimidating day, I take my camera and just go out walking. Just walk. Just see. And pretty soon I am struck by an image, a moment, light falling through trees, a child playing, and I start taking pictures, and then I’m connected with the place, and I relax. After that, I’m really there—in the moment, in the good old here and now —and I’m happy. As every traveler, male or female, should be. How lucky we are, to have this world.