I tried not to trip on the cobblestone streets as I walked through Poland. It was late at night and I had my huge backpack on, making me a vulnerable target. It marked me as a tourist plus I couldn’t run with it dragging my ass down.
I couldn’t find the front door of the youth hostel. This was in the 1990s before smartphones made everything easy. I’d been traveling through Europe on my own for weeks and had discovered that most hostels had strange entrances off the beaten path. You can think it’s either nuts or brave, but I didn’t even carry a travel book back then. I would just trust that I’d run into someone cool who would advise me on where to stay next. I can’t believe I did that!
I started to get nervous. I couldn’t find the entrance and it was getting later and later, so I broke down and asked someone for directions.
They looked at me quizzically and pointed right behind me at a huge well-lit building that looked like a hotel.
Ahhhh, THAT is my hostel! It was several stories tall and had an actual lobby. While most people would be relieved to stay there, I was disappointed. The bigger the hostel, the harder it is to meet people when traveling alone.
The small, funky ones had the most interesting people.
You may arrive friendless in a new country. But when you leave, you could end up with a going party on your last night as I did when I was in Costa Rica in 2011!
I LOVE meeting people from all over the world. I have never understood people prefer spending time with others just like themselves. That bewilders me. It would be so boring if we were all the same!
There were the Italian girls that took me out dancing at 11pm in Berlin.
There was Lisa from Australia, an entomologist (they study bugs). She showed me around Prague while telling me with stories about how her and her boyfriend lived with pet snakes and bugs. The snakes would SLITHER up to them while they were sitting on the couch. She is definitely someone that would be fun to find after all these years!
There were not-so-nice experiences. I got really sick in France - I was shivering so bad from a fever that I piled crappy hostel blankets on top of myself while two bitchy girls refused to help me. I was so determined to get to the Louvre that trip that I dragged myself out of bed to wander, despite how sick I was.
I’ve danced down the streets of New Orleans on my own, Oaxaca, Warsaw, Bahia, Israel, Spain are just a few places I’ve journeyed to by myself.
It feeds my soul. Exploring new places, engaging with new people. I’ve always said one year of travel is like 10 years of therapy. It’s a way to discover different parts of myself, determine WHO I am without everyone around me holding up mirrors reflecting back who they *think* I should be.
Less so now, but in the old days, people would pity me! Ha!! Why is it so HARD to believe that a woman would enjoy her own company? (Truthfully, I sometimes felt bad for people that were traveling with their entire family or with an annoying group of people.)
I’m having a hard time these days, but in general, I think I’m pretty fun to hang out with! Is it that odd that I’d be my favorite traveling companion??
If you’re with other people - which is fun too, don’t get me wrong! - it’s just harder to meet and connect with other people.
Interestingly, I met other young women who were traveling in groups who got hassled more than I did.
Being quiet and alone often kept me safer. Nobody overheard my accent, I blended in with the crowd.
People spoke to me in Polish, French, German - they assumed I was a native. I remember being in the middle of Paris, still recovering from the flu, and in fact wearing pants that were actually pajamas and a car slowed down. A woman rolled down her window and started speaking to me in rapid French.
As soon as she heard my accent, “I’m not from here…” she sped off.
It gave me strength, these journeys alone. Every trip, every experience, every destination I ventured to, made me feel stronger, more capable, more BRAVE.
Now that I look back, I realize how incredibly lucky I was. For most of history, I could not have traveled safely as a woman alone unless I disguised myself as a man. I certainly avoided certain places - I was advised not to go to Turkey by myself - and I always had to be super vigilant. If I had to travel around a city by myself, I would not imbibe in alcohol. I always had comfortable shoes on and I generally wore baggy clothes to avoid unwanted attention.
I wish our culture encouraged more women to travel on their own. Most travel packages are for couples. Hotels and car rentals are slowly coming up to speed, realizing this is a huge demographic with disposable income. But still.
We have a long way to go in order for women to feel both safe and respected while they travel alone.
I’ve traveled on four continents by myself and it never feels like I did enough now.
I will always, always regret not traveling to Asia and Australia in 2008 when I was rent-free and had a bunch of money saved up. And I've ALWAYS wanted to visit India, Africa, the Amazon - but my digestive system....
I try to be glad I was able to travel at all during my 13 healthy years as an adult. I try to look at it that way - at least I got the 13.
All I want are experiences now. That’s all I want to collect. I was never really into “stuff” so much. But now? I definitely don’t want any stuff. I just want memories.
Because memories become stories!
I want to collect stories, to share with the kids, with you, and to think about when I’m sick and stuck in bed....
"In many ways, I was an independent woman," writes Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Alice Steinbach. “For years I’d made my own choices, paid my own bills, shoveled my own snow.” But somehow she had become dependent in quite another way. “I had fallen into the habit of defining myself in terms of who I was to other people and what they expected of me.” You can order or read more about her book here.
Some blog posts from women who traveled alone.
Photo #9b. This is part of a writing project where I challenge myself to write 700-1000 words per day - not in advance - for 30 days using old photos and different writing prompts. This particular set of stories will focus on my experiences as a (white) Gen X woman and experiencing America pre- and post- #metoo movement.