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

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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.

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.

16 Comments for Women’s Travel E-Mail Roundtable, Part Twelve: Hitting the Road

Rosa 10.14.07 | 4:35 PM ET

I so enjoyed reading about women
traveling solo.  I usually find so
fascinating reading stories about
traveling to foreign lands and what
one experiences.  I have traveled
alone and gone unexpectedly to diffent
states.  I have not traveled though
over-seas.  There are a couple of
places that seem to catch my eye
but for now I must consider my budget.
I really appreciated reading this
article.  I look forward to reading
more on this subject in the future.

Lindsay 10.15.07 | 12:06 AM ET

Thanks for posting these…they were all very inspiring.

Eliza Amos 10.16.07 | 2:37 PM ET

Thank you all so much!

I knew it was about time to take another solo trip, and as I gather the gumption I needed to hear this cheerleading.

Oh my gosh, where to?!

MargoWolf 10.18.07 | 12:00 PM ET

Crow Canyon is outside Cortez, Colorado in
Montezuma County. If you want to travel and you never have there are safer places than the USA. If you are young, cities are dangerous even if you have money. If money
is tight but the drive to travel is strong-
pick an English speaking country; Scotland, Ireland, Belize. Bermuda and go
for as long as your pocketbook will support you. Plan on Hostels or camping and be prepared like a good girlscout. Do
not take too much but have what is necessary for too hot, too cold and too wet days. Be comfortable so you can enjoy your new surroundings.

Tracey 10.21.07 | 4:58 PM ET

Hi Ladies!  Thanks so much for these postings!  My life has taken an interesting turn. I recently married a commercial airline pilot!  So now I can travel pretty much anywhere, any time. It sounds great but I spend too much time at home by myself. My husband works a lot and when seats are available I opt to go on some of his trips. Since moving to the Seattle area from the South I haven’t really made any friends.  I’ve had a tough time adjusting to my new life and now that Seattle is becoming cold and rainy (fall/winter) I am in serious need of warm weather and sunshine.  Do you have any suggestions when planning day trips?  Most likely, I would be traveling alone to places like LA, San Diego, etc.  I’ve never traveled by myself, only with my husband or friends.  How do I start out?  Any suggestions on getting around town?  Cabs?  Any help would be very much appreciated!  Thank you for your stories, the great travel tips, and for letting the rest of us sola travelers know that we could get out there too!

MargoWolf 10.21.07 | 11:43 PM ET

  As I have said, cities are dangerous;California is dangerous. You need money and transpo. If you are in the L.A. area my suggestion would be to book a room on highway 101 in Laguna Beach. I lived there one winter. It is a walking town but you can get there easily from
LAX or other AP. Laguna has great shops
and some good food including Mexican and
seafood. The motel I was at was the last home of Christine Jorgenson, famous for
her humor and sex change. But Laguna B.
boasts it is a safe place and it has
beaches for walking, sunning or running
and it is a great town in the winter months with mild weather and cool nights.
Days in the 60s and 70s. You can bus to
Disneyland or L.A. for a day on Rodeo Drive or visit the Ocean Liner Queen Elisabeth near Santa Monica ( but Santa Monica is no place for a stroll). So my
strongest recommendation is Laguna Beach
where the off season is cordial and there are galleries, great shops and
good food all within walking distance of
your room and the beaches.

MargoWolf 10.22.07 | 12:58 AM ET


Melodee Monroe 01.03.08 | 7:06 PM ET

Santa Monica has a pier and a promenade, both of which are always full of both locals and tourists.  It is a friendly city right on the Pacific Ocean and I would not hesitate to go either place during day or night.

If you choose to stay in Laguna Beach, which is lovely, you will be about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego and you will need a car! Public Transportation is possible but will use up a lot of time.

San Diego is a wonderful city with a wide variety of entertainment.  You can even drive out to the Himalayan Tourmaline Mines in Julian and for around $50.00 you can mine for tourmaline.  And there’s always Mexico a few miles south.

My favorite thing to do is to pick one city and really get to know it.  Since you can fly when the mood stikes you can visit a different city each time.

But please remember, California is a huge state with every lifestyle and climate represented.  It is totally misleading to say flatly that California is dangerous.  I’ve lived here my whole life and I would encourage everyone to come, explore, and take home lovely memories.

Melodee Monroe 01.03.08 | 7:14 PM ET

Thank you, Catherine, Terry, Liz, and Stephanie.  After reading your articles I feel less alone that I have in a long time.

I’m one of those women who compromised for the ‘American Dream’ and while I wouldn’t give up my daughter and granddaughter for anything, I would love to hit the road.

You are brave and blessed to know and trust yourself well enough to grasp the dream and make it a reality.  I am soon to be 58 and have not traveled nearly enough. Twice I’ve traveled with others and have found sola is the only option for me.  It was liberating for me in a way I am still appreciating.

So, ladies, thank you, again, for making me feel part of.

MargoWolf 01.04.08 | 3:07 AM ET

To Melodee,
  If one has grown up in California you have a lot built into you; where to not go, things like that. I have been near
violent acts and a friend from Ireland was in San Diego a few years ago and used the public transpo and said he saw half a dozen people arrested over his 2 week stay, just going out and about. I was
surprised myself, but he had never seen anyone arrested in all his life in Ireland. To say California is not dangerous is like saying there is no problem in America at all about women
being preyed upon; females of all ages
are fair game in our country. It is alarming and true and California and Florida are dangerous enough to be stated so. Get real. I am 58 years old and I did many things traveling this country over 40 years that have all evolved because this country has grown so and spread out into the once wonderful and private places we are trying to save from further development.
Yet I will go on traveling and do so alone and meet people on their turf and
avoid lingering in cities because they are expensive and for me, a day trip is
all I need and what I want to see is out
and away. In the West and in Europe I see women traveling alone, with kids and
best friends and they are an adventurous lot. Because the world is not so safe is
not enough reason to stop us from going
where we dream of. Freedom is a grand thing and we should not take it for granted and we should always be careful
because we are all vulnerable. We don’t need to be fearful. That is the whole thing. Western women (as opposed to Oriental, Middle Eastern) can and should see the world. Our sisters in distant lands are literally under the gun and so
many are impoverished that travel is a
total dream/fantasy. The National Park Service hires many who have a police background because of the high numbers of people that go to parks bring their
bad habits with them. Always be careful.
Think about it, but do travel even alone.MargoWolf

Melodee 01.04.08 | 3:34 AM ET

Margo -
I think we basically feel the same about travel.  I have taken an oath to always travel alone; it always works out best for me.

From the sound of it my travels are not nearly as extensive as yours.  I’ve been all over California, and to Chicago where the instinct you referred to to kicked in when I realized I’d wandered into a rougher part of town than I cared for.  I’ve been to Tucson, Miami and Miami Beach.  Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona all welcomed me with open arms at one time or another.  So maybe I’ve not been around enough to be objective, but I’ve never felt any more or less safe in any of these cities than I feel in most of California.

I’m staring my 58th birthday in the face, I have seen the changes, too.  I’ve ridden the light rail from one end to the other on a daily basis and seen some very interesting people.  I’ve never seen an act of violence, praise the powers that be. I have had some interesting conversations with people I probably would not have noticed on days when the train broke down and we all commiserated about the sad state of the trains. By the way, often people are arrested for not purchasing a ticket before boarding the train.  Not a huge crime, but a crime, ergo arrest.

And while the traffic in L.A. County makes me think wistfully of the pedestrian only streets in my favorite city, Amsterdam, I must defend California. To state flatly that it is dangerous is to compare Los Angeles to Morro Bay, Compton to Paso Robles, Pelican Bay to Half Moon Bay.  It simply makes no sense. 

And Santa Monica is a beach town, no one who lives by the beach is angry!

MargoWolf 01.04.08 | 4:18 AM ET

Thanks for your response. I hear where you are coming from and you have been to more places than I have overseas. I tend to move to a place then go off and about when I get my bearings. Because I must follow a lot of news I am only too aware of violence and the statistics that make us seem so primitive here. You are fortunate.
So have I been. And when a young friend in Ireland indicated her wish to hitchhike
across the USA to visit Las Vegas, I pleaded with her to find a public ride
on a bus or Amtrak. She goes all over Europe by thumb and I did it in Western Ireland in 2005. But, her bravado and her beauty could get her hurt here. I don’t want to give examples because many
who are harmed are inexperienced or it is someone they know. That is why we are
lucky. My travels are in the mountains and by sailboat along the Intercoastal Waterway and I tend to move to the places I fall in love with. Wyoming, Idaho,Oregon; Colorado and New Mexico several times. Connecticut was home and I love New England. Living outdoors all
the warmer months is a communion with the natural world I prefer to cities. There may be more work and better pay in cities but I grew up in the woods near the University of Connecticut where my parents (and later myself) worked. Having camped across country and up into
the Atlantic Provences growing up- I was
hooked on travel very young. And I love my beautiful country. There is just more. Out there. I think we will see as
much as we are able on our own. MargoWolf

MargoWolf 01.04.08 | 4:33 AM ET

Melodee, I am also writing on Part Nine;The Girl Power and the Get Up and Go.

Melodee Monroe 01.04.08 | 3:57 PM ET

I really have enjoyed the articles.  Each was like an embrace from kindred spirits.  I’m sure I will re-read them, especially on the days I’m feeling the most disconnection.

Your advice to your Irish friend to not hitchhike was an extremely wise one.  I think all big cities, and huge diverse countries such as America, are done better on the beaten path until you’ve become familiar with the area.  Even if you are inclined to look for the unusual, in California especially, you will rarely be alone.

Sandy Dionisi 06.09.08 | 9:46 AM ET

a friend told me of a show she had seen about a women’s group who had small single person campers and did traveling and met up in new spots.  I can’t find the name of the program or the group!  Can anyone help????

Adrienne 11.09.08 | 5:01 PM ET

I have always wanted to travel but like lot of woman I do not want to go solo. Although I have travel to areas of the US alone with no problem. But I have used a car. What my problem is other then money. Is I am scared of the airports not the airplane I have no problem fly with friends or family. I scared to death that I will get so lost in the airport or not get on the right plane and end up who knows where. Or miss the plane and not be able to get my money back. So I have two questions one how do I get over come being scared of aiports? Second what are some cheap ways of travel solo that are save?

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