Long term travel for the solo woman
I am told all the time that I am brave for travelling the world on my own. Not by men. By other women. There are many like-minded women such as I, but this post isn’t for them. This post is for all the women who feel like they can’t (or shouldn’t) travel on their own.
Deciding to go
Once the travel bug infects you, there’s no known cure. Case in point, I’ve been backpacking for 7 years and I see no reason to ever stop. So when you decide that there is so much more out there for you than just your hometown, there is very little that will stop you from eventually just booking that ticket, grabbing your passport, and taking the ride.
For me, it never occurred to me to ask my friends or partners if they wanted to come with. I’ve always been somewhat of an independent lass (aka loner …stemming from being a writer, no doubt) and have always booked my travel with just me in mind. However, I know I’m not the majority. For many women, they are only travelling solo because their friends or partners couldn’t join.
But deciding to go it alone is the best choice you can make. If you actually waited around for your friends to have the same schedule/holiday time as you, you’d never go anywhere. Your friends may or may not have the same finances as you, and above all, they may not want to go to the same countries as you. There’s no reason why you should sacrifice your dream-adventure to the jungles of Borneo just because your friends only want to do package deals to resorts in Cancun.
This is the most important factor for women when deciding to travel alone, and rightly so. The UN recently released a study on the status of women and declared that “women make up 70% of the world’s poor, only own 1% of the world’s titled land, and are discriminated against in almost every single country.”
However, none of this should stop you from seeing the world. It’s important to remember that you could equally be the victim of a crime in your own city as you could whilst on the road. You have to remember that people all over the world are pretty much the same– the good will do good, and the evil will do evil. It’s true that when I was in the Middle East and in Italy and in India, the men were relentless with the catcalling and the verbal harassment. But have I also experienced that in my hometown of toronto? Absolutely.
That being said, use the same good sense you would use walking home at night after work. Be aware, keep your purse zipped and in front of you (or use a money belt like I do under your clothes), don’t listen to your iPod because it will mask the sound of anyone getting too close, keep photocopies of all your important documents in a separate compartment from your primary wallet, and if you are the victim of a crime, know that it was absolutely not your fault.
Go to the police, then go to your consulate. Call your insurance, and call your mum cuz she’s probably worried sick.
Good rule of thumb– a heavy keychain can double as a weapon in self-defence. If someone grabs you, you can whip around and either slash them with your keys, poke their eyes, or hit them with the heavy keychain handle itself. When I walk home alone at night, I always grip my keys firmly so that, in any event, I don’t have to fumble through my purse looking for them.
As for catcalling, it’s tempting to tell them to fuck off or give them dirty looks for the obscene things they will say to you (and they will), but the only actual method that works is to keep your head down and ignore them. Let them call, let them get up in your grill, but don’t give them the satisfaction. They do not exist in your world, and don’t deserve to own real estate in your brain. Seriously ladies, just keep your eyes lowered, keep moving, and ignore.
Of course, it’s natural to fear the unknown. But that fear should propel you forward, not hold you back. You’re travelling in the first place because you want to be pushed out of your comfort zone anyway. The challenge is the best part.
Fear is temporary, regret is forever.
If I had listened to everyone who tried to scare me out of going to Kosovo or Bosnia or Peru or Turkey or Lebanon or India, I never would have had those life-altering experiences or met those wonderful people who are now my lifelong friends or witnessed those places and sites normally only read about in books.
People want to tell you that you can’t go somewhere because they’re too scared to go there. Don’t listen to other people’s ideas for your life. Take on board what you think is credible and sensible, but discard what is just projection. You’ll see that most of it is the latter.
Another common concern for “all the single laydeeeeeez” is being lonely for weeks on end if you’re travelling alone.
That is a real possibility, and something you have to prepare for. If you’re not someone who enjoys their own company very much, reevaluate your travel goals, because it is inevitable that at some point, you may not meet anyone or talk to anyone for days.
But there are lots of ways to ensure you stave off loneliness whilst on the road.
stay in hostels- I know many of you don’t like the idea of dorms, or being awoken by the scrunching of plastic bags or late arrivals, but the pros far outweigh the cons. Everyone in a hostel dorm is there to meet people. They are more apt to chat, to wanna explore with you, to eat meals with you, and become your lifelong friend than your average stranger in a hotel. And not just the other travellers, I’ve even made lifelong friends with some hostel staff! Remember that lots of hostellers are solo travellers as well, and therefore are more open to chat and venture out on the town together. Hostels also offer more perks than hotels– free wifi, free breakfast, free bike rentals, free tours, free laundry, free dinners, free parties, guest kitchens, cheap drinks, and waaaay cheaper than hotels. As for being kept awake by dorm noise, invest in ear plugs and an eye mask. They have saved my sleepy ass more than once.
do day tours and trips — day excursions are always populated by like minded travellers who inevitably end up chatting and high fiving during your time together.
smile- it’s amazing what a positive attitude and an approachable manner can do for your social life. Just don’t smile at the catcallers.
take local trains, subways, and buses– great way to meet locals when you stop that handsome local man for directions.
Women particularly are more subject to local customs and societal pressures, especially when travelling. Sometimes we have to cover our head when entering a place of supernatural worship, and sometimes we are not allowed to even enter the country without our father or husband present. It’s always super important to do as much research as possible before venturing to another country, especially the laws and legal system. Lesbian couples married in canada could possibly not have their union recognized by other governments, and may be refused entry. Some cities have different subway cars for women and men. I even once saw a sign in India that said, “to protect the sanctity of this temple, women who are menstruating are not permitted to enter.” Of course, that temple had no problem allowing the wild monkeys of the area to enter.
Remember that you have a choice where you go, and only you know what you’re willing to put up with. If being forced to wear the chador is too much for you, then don’t go to Iran. If being forced to cover your entire body in wrapping before entering the San Marco church is too much for you, then dont go to Venice. Know your limits and travel accordingly. I used to get really upset by all the rules surrounding my body and behaviour, but instead of lashing out at the locals, it’s just much easier to not give them my tourist dollars.
That being said, if you are arrested in another country for violating one of their women-centric laws, sometimes there may be very little your consulate or government can do for you. You are subject to the laws of the country in which you travel, and just proclaiming, “you can’t do this to me, I’m a Canadian!” won’t get you out of trouble, or out of jail time. So if you go, follow their laws.
Good rule of thumb – even when going to tropical countries, bring a scarf, a long sleeved shirt, and a long skirt, just in case. Cleavage and belly-buttons are usually troublesome, no matter how much that rule irks me.
Always check the foreign affairs website for travel advisories, health risks, vaccination requirements, visa requirements, and more that the Canadian government compiles for every single country, and keeps freakishly up to date. They also publish a free handbook for women called Her Own Way – A Woman’s Safe-travel Guide.
Pack like a woman
Lets be honest, even the most seasoned female hardcore backpackers have at least one vanity item. Mascara, a set of heels, a little black dress, a fascinator … Whatever it is, even whilst on the road, sometimes we like to look our best. And that’s perfectly okay. Don’t feel like you can’t treat yourself once in a while because you have to follow some guy-code of the road.
Here’s some of my packing tips:
- lay out everything you want to take with you on your bed, cut it in half, then pack. You only actually need half of what you think you’ll need. Trust me. The lighter your backpack, the better. You dont need a different bra for every day of the week, you just need a couple. You don’t need 7 bikinis, you just need 1. You don’t need that huge 500ml bottle of perfume, just the tiny 40ml bottle. Besides, airports always have free perfume and moisturizer samples at the duty free. Great for freshening up between layovers.
-forgo the wheelie suitcase and invest in an amazing backpack. Despite appearances, backpacks, when worn correctly, don’t hurt your shoulders or neck or back because all of the weight actually sits on your hips. Wheelie suitcases are horrible for going up and down the staircases of subways and airports and train stations that have no ramps or elevators (aka most of the developing world). With a backpack, you are entirely mobile and have your hands free.
-lock up every access point in your checked and carry on bags. Baggage handlers notoriously have sticky fingers, as do the bus operators in Asia who like to sneak down to the luggage compartment whilst you’re asleep and steal your hardware. Keep all your money, documents, passports, iPhones, iPads, camera, jewellery, etc in your carry-on luggage, and never let your carry-on out of your site, even to go to the loo. When out on the street, thieves and pickpockets will try to distract you whilst they unzip your daypack and steal your camera, so keep it locked even on the street. When flying through the States, make sure your locks are TSA approved, otherwise they will break open your locks at your expense. Bastards.
-the local pharmacy or chemist will have anything you need: tampons, canesten, tweezers, vagisil, whatever. So don’t overpack, or freak, if you didnt pack them. Some places, like the UK, offer free condoms and birth control pills, so you can still enjoy your holiday romance if you aren’t prepared. Some over the counter medication you’re used to at home may not be available in another country, but they usually have a comparable substitute. For example, there’s no Tylenol (acetaminophen) in the UK, but there is paracetamol.
-you’re allowed to bring your makeup with you, just as long as your makeup bag doesn’t outsize your carry-on bag.
-any clothes you pack will probably get dirty and smelly, and possibly ripped or ruined, so don’t bring any expensive threads or things you can’t live without. Good rule of thumb- pack onesies. They take up less space than separate tops and bottoms, and look fricken cute.
-theft is a real problem in hostels, and you don’t know who has a key to your dorm, so if you have space in your backpack, carry a pac-safe backpack protector. When I first bought this, I thought it would just collect dust in the bottom of my pack. Seven years later, I can’t travel without it. I’ve used it in almost every single hostel I’ve ever stayed in, and I’ve never had anything stolen.
-if you’re carrying more than 15 kilos in total, you’re doing it wrong.
While you’re on the road
I always say that travellers who expect every country they visit to resemble their own had better stay home. Sure, the buses don’t run on time, and the nightclubs close earlier, but just remember where you are! And how jealous all your friends back home at work are! You are the luckiest woman in the world. And you gotta get in the spirit of things!
Remain positive, go with the flow, and don’t let anyone ruin your fun. You are not beholden to or obligated to anyone you meet, so if they shove their rain cloud of doom in your face, leave them behind in your dust. Kill them with awesome. Your trip, your way!
And remember the wise words of Mae West, “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”