In Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes the truest of truths about solo travel. It goes something like this.
“It seemed an advantage to be travelling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others… Being closely observed by a companion can also inhibit our observation of others; then, too, we may become caught up in adjusting ourselves to the companion’s questions and remarks, or feel the need to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity.”
At the tail-end of 2011, before heading home to South Africa (after finishing my two-year work contract in South Korea), I bought a one-way ticket to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, avocado smoothies, exploring magma volcano plugs, infected blisters, walking through tea plantations, reading teachings on Islam at a national mosque, turtle spotting from fort walls, losing guidebooks, finding friends, learning how to eat Indian curry with my hands, Christmas markets, travelling without glasses (for two days) and self reflection.
I wasn’t paying for a three-month long solo trip across South East Asia to Europe, instead I bought me time, conversations with myself, I learned never to silence my instincts for the fear of appearing rude, I realised just how hardy I am, I satiated that undefeatable urge to wander streets from sunrise until last light, I bought spontaneity, I changed my itinerary and changed it again. The currency I traded in was insight and advice offered by fellow travellers and locals, which I passed on to others.
When I travel alone I engage with a place and its people more authentically. With no one to keep me company I’m more likely to make conversation with my waitron (and ask them for their insider’s tips on what to do) or random strangers, I ask to join a table of friends, or simply people watch from a street corner and observe the rhythm of time in a new place. I notice more things, not just about the destination, but about myself.
As we bid farewell to women’s month, here are some solo female travel tips from some of my favourite South African female travel bloggers, who fearlessly take on the world.
Ignore the naysayers, but be practical says Anje from Going Somewhere Slowly
“Solo travel is one of the most rewarding ways to explore and experience the world. My advice to any woman would be to do your research and trust your instincts. Any destination in the world is much safer than the paranoia that lives in our minds and in the mouths of others, but a bit of logic – like checking in with family back home, not trusting too quickly, respecting local culture, avoiding abandoned places and late night solo wanderings – can never hurt. Go, explore, experience and be empowered and don’t let the fear of being alone ever overpower the joy of travelling.”
Be fearless – not careless – on the road says Rachel from TipsyGypsy
“Travelling regularly for both my own blog and for Getaway Magazine, I have driven dirt roads, navigated potholes, taken my car across a river on a pontoon, got stuck in the middle of a taxi rank, waited for cows and elephants to cross the road and even changed a tyre or two, on my own! My best advice to solo female travellers on roadtrips is to be fearless, but not careless. Make sure your car and tyres are in good condition (don’t forget to pump up the spare), travel during the day as much as possible (or let people who are expecting you know your estimated time of arrival) and at least know how to change a tyre and a fanbelt. Don’t forget to pack in water (enough for the radiator too, just in case) and some good tunes! Nothing beats the freedom the of the open road and jokes aside, girls can drive just as well as men! I drove from Cape Town to Zimbabwe and back solo and it was the best, and most empowering, thing I have ever done.”
Pack a scarf and smile says Katchie from Travel With Katchie
“People have misconceptions about the safety of a woman who just gets up and journeys alone. A scarf is always your friend. The beauty of having a large scarf is that you can turn it into a blanket, a pillow or even a hijab. It is very important to always respect people’s cultures and religions as that also encourages them to accept you into their communities. If you are like me and love discovering villages and immersing yourself in the culture, there’s no such a thing as bringing enough supplies for that time of the month. The reality is they can be very hard to find in rural areas. Also, a smile will melt any heart. If you smile and learn a basic greeting that opens up a lot of people and they become more willing to assist, especially when they realise you are a woman on your own.”
Trust your instincts, don’t worry about seeming rude says Carla from Die Reismier
“I’ve been put in quite compromising situations because I tried to be polite and culturally sensitive. When strange men sit down next to me at a restaurant or bar, I would grin and bear it, so as not to cause an incident or come across as rude. However, most predators take advantage of woman’s gentle nature and in the end I’ve ended up with more effort and trouble, trying to get rid of these hangers on. I would say, follow your gut instinct, some people give off a dodgy vibe, so if you’re feeling uncomfortable, get up and leave. Don’t try to make excuses or lie about a friend or husband joining you later. It’s better to come across rude, than to be put in a situation that may compromise your safety.”
Technology and social media and are your biggest assets says Linda from Moving Sushi
“I am very lucky to be at ease with travelling solo. It has become a sacred pleasure of mine, to be able to direct my travels and experiences in whatever way I fancy without having to worry about anyone else. When I travel I don’t actively seek out new friendships or group activities, if they happen I don’t mind, but I would not want to be pressurised into socialising just for the sake of having someone else for company. For that reason, I often carry my Ipod filled with music I love or music from my destination to get me into the vibe of where I am and hit the streets by foot, walking around as much as my feet can handle. I also use Twitter and Instagram to get recommendations and tips from the local virtual world on exciting sights, tastes and not-to-be-missed activities. Being solo doesn’t mean you can’t watch plays, attend concerts or enjoy eating out. Having a Kindle filled with local authors and the perfect table angled out towards busy streets, is the best way to people watch. Solo travel means I have to be bolder and rely on myself for all my decisions, if it doesn’t go the way I want I only really have one person to blame. But when it goes right, and it often does, boy do I mentally high-five myself.”
You’ll learn about your capabilities during solo travel says Lauren from Wanderlust Movement
“It’s okay to be alone. It doesn’t mean you’re a loner. As a solo female traveller who is also an introvert, I have had to struggle against the societal norm that it is weird to like doing things alone. I’ve dealt with the anxiety about what people would think if I went to watch a movie by myself, and I still find myself get slightly caught up in it at the start of a new trip. I’m here to tell you that you aren’t weird for wanting to be alone and it doesn’t mean you are a loner. Sometimes it’s great to go on a crazy adventure with your dorm mates and other times it’s just as exciting to be caught up and wander off in a new city by yourself. Next time you feel self-conscious about your ‘aloneness’, take a deep breath and enjoy it. It’s in times of solitude that we learn about ourselves and discover what we are truly capable of when no one else is around to hold our hand.”
Plan thoroughly says Cathy from Passport to the World
“I have travelled to many countries – some familiar, others unfamiliar – and find that solo travel allows for more freedom and is more exciting when you are the sole decision-maker/pathfinder. However, if you’re embarking on a cruise (as I will be in October from Passau to Budapest), then a companion is a must, so I think it depends on your destination and how flexible your plans are. My advice? Plan your trip thoroughly and when you arrive at your destination – throw caution to the wind, followed by your well-rehearsed plans and just have fun!”
So when’s your next solo trip and where are you headed? Please share some of your solo female travel tips in the comments below.