The case for hitting the road in your own company.
If I can manage it, I am absent from all public holidays on the calendar. For the past three years, whatever gloriously long weekend we’ve had come our way, I’ve decidedly spent it alone. I love and long for it. While my friends plan their day-to-night merriments during time off, I troll the net to find my next somewhat accessible country to tick off – on my tod.
We millennials prioritise and monetise for travel over future-proofing our latter years by ascending the property ladder. And we’re not even sorry about it. We wolf pack it, get personalised T-shirts made and carry on stories born of sticky summer nights until the next. But I prefer to go at it alone – mostly because for most people going to Kazakhstan in the dead of winter to hike a mountain isn’t at the top of their list. More on that later.
In the world of travel, I am a serial soloist – a tier of travel which reverberates on the most primal levels. I don’t mean I make fires out of arbitrary accoutrements found on a forest trail or forage for my food with an acute sense of smell – I’m not that Wild (Cheryl Strayed, fantastic travel literature) yet. When I travel alone, I very much live in my head. I might be submerged in thick crowds of people, passively picking up mid-conversation banter and information (oh the things you chance upon that can’t be unseen or unheard) but it stays and swivels in my head, mounting into a fascinating mental moodboard. There’s something so personal and affecting about letting that build up in your body. As much as I sometimes wish there was a person to share belly laughs with when I trip over air, attempt to converse with locals using hand gestures similar to the spin cycle mode on a washing machine or like that time I was in the Seychelles partaking in your standard snorkelling trip with five honeymoon couples and one husband asked me if I was in the Seychelles looking for a man – “but every man here is married!” I jeered, he gave me a pitied smile. The ownership of those unique moments is addictive.
I’ve never caressed that Eat, Pray, Love experience – too contrived and filmy for me – nor have I needed to execute an existential escape plan from daily life to the foothills of the Himalayas (well, that urge rumbles every month during press week). I have an itch to see the world simply because there’s so much of it – and I’m scratching it because it’s easier and accessible for women now more than ever – despite the burden of stereotypical labels (case and point: the Seychelles. How strange for a woman to want more in life than just a man!).
In 2012, according to Intrepid Travel, a travel adventure company, 64 per cent of their global bookings were from women. Booking.com reported in 2014 that 72 per cent of women made solo journeys; findings also show that millennial travel is here to stay with 25 per cent planning independent trips in the next two years.
Diving into solo travel with abandon takes a lot of consulting your innermost insecurities and shortcomings and facing them dead on. I am what I like to think of as an introverted extrovert – I can pretty much strike up a conversation with a cactus but I am also deeply internal. In line with my weird intro-extro complexities, I really indulge in Silvia Lawrence of Heart My Backpack. She’s outwardly quiet, self-proclaimed as well, but has done some hard-core travel to countries where women are marginalised at best: think along the lines of Iran and Afghanistan (add to that, she is peroxide blonde and stands out like a sore thumb) but “it’s those places where I was the most welcomed. Locals were always eager to offer me help. I really had no choice but to meet new people.”
Sometimes going to countries that are ‘easy’ to socialise in are actually the hardest because you’re weighted with the expectation to come away from it with a strong circle of bus acquired friends. I remember sitting on the banks of a river in Cambodia. It was heaving with hippie millennials. I sat in a patch of grass, ludicrously content in my own silence. A group of expat teachers from Nepal came over and we bonded over our nomadic common ground. It was knowing and warming – they asked me what I was doing later that day and if I wanted to join them for ice cream at a café to watch something that I can’t even remember now. I lied and said I was on deadline and needed to work through the night. Their forward humanity was reassuring but I wanted to be alone in my alarmingly quiet hotel. You’ll know when you need other people around you. Don’t force fraternise if you don’t want to, just because every listicle says travelling alone is an opportunity to take a big gulp of courage and meet new people. Plus: the amount of instant Facebook friends you make and then forget about on your travels…
Kazakhstan, again. There was nothing ahead of me but mountains painted in alabaster white; I was wrapped in a belt of wind in what felt like the tropopause – my guide was below the clouds waiting for me. My silent panting was deafening – my skin roseyed by canings of cold mountain air; I felt so big and small and connected to everything, mostly myself. That night I slept a thousand years. You get the best sleep when you travel alone. All that loud silence knocks you out good.
My friend and travel journalist, Danae Mercer, has swept across this earth on her own many times. “It opens doors to cultures and communities that might be nervous to approach a group of people. When you are alone you have more opportunities to strike up one-on-one conversations. I’ve had little old women invite me in for tea. There’s a real joy in it,” she says. She’s right. In Kazakhstan I was dragged to a shashlik (kebab) shin-dig in downtown Almaty by my guide’s extended family. I had a heap of mystery meat but also unforgettable fun. Enjoy those unplanned moments.
There are always going to be uncomfortable truths about travelling alone as a woman. The lingering, stomach-flipping, unwanted gaze of lecherous men will prick you. You might even lash out, you might take another route to your destination, adding an extra 15 minutes to your journey time or you might make a pit stop at a well-populated café and pretend you’re there to meet someone. They’re moments that will pass and you move on, maybe with a reset agenda to speak up and out. The bigger picture of it all is empowering.
I’m going to leave you with the words of Aminatou Sow to take one board. She’s the co-host of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast (her girlfriend is the inimitable journalist Ann Friedman) and host of On She Goes – a podcast for women of colour to travel more confidently.
“I didn’t grow up with a strong sense of “home” because my family was scattered all around the world due to political, financial and personal reasons. In a lot of ways, I’m lucky that my Muslim parents never made me feel like I couldn’t just pick up and go anywhere in the world. The first time I took a plane alone, I was 11 years old and I haven’t stopped since. Travelling alone has made me a stronger, less judgmental and more open-minded person and resilient woman. I am constantly surprised to see what I’m made of and I suspect a lot of other solo women travellers feels the same way. There are so few narratives of female adventure so I strongly believe that it’s a political act for women to travel solo— not just in search of romance or to mend a broken heart as we are often encouraged to do, but really to take up as much space in the world as we want and see as much of it as we deserve.”
You are welcome.