Alyssa Ramos‘s article Yes, I’m Pretty and I’m Traveling Alone was published and shared this week. I’m currently traveling solo, and also a female, so it was quickly shared with me on Facebook and I discussed it with friends in messages. After reflecting on the article, the conversations and reading through the comments, I think it warrants a response. Mainly because I think there were several good points made, but likely missed, because of the tone. I don’t know if you choose that tone for effect (which based on the reactions, it worked) or that’s just how you are, and if so, see the title.
I applaud so much of what you do. You have found your personal priorities in travel and use that to guide your decisions (plane tickets over purses is a great guidng principle). You have decided not to wait for others to join you. You aren’t ashamed or bashful about knowing that you’re pretty. You make references to Mean Girls. And you have decided to be strong in the carry yourself around the world. But don’t soil it for the rest of us.
I truly hope the attitude you carry in the article is not the attitude you carry on your travels.
A lot of people don’t understand solo travel, and female solo travel is even tougher. But this is an opportunity to help shed some light, rather than slap their hands. When people are asking questions, it’s important that we remember where those questions are coming from before jumping to conclusions and getting offended. Most often I find that the life I’m living is so radically different than other’s that they are trying to reconcile the differences, which is no small talk. I’m going to promise myself not to use the word “paradigm”, because I think it’s an over-used buzzword, but I’m sure you’ll see how it fits.
So in the vain of looking for understanding, I’d like to address the common curiosities I get about solo female travel, keeping in mind it’s of course from only one traveler’s perspective and experience. And not make it about being pretty.
Motivation and Timing
I left a good job, my house, my friends, my family, my snowboarding mountains and, the toughest, my dog, to travel. And so many people ask why. Like Ramos, many ask if there was a breakup, or something like that. They are seeing it from a perspective of running away. But for me, it wasn’t running away. I hope all those things I left will be there when I get back, and in most cases, I haven’t actually “left” them, but am interacting with them just a little different for awhile. So I didn’t run away, I’m running to. Understanding this subtle difference is the key to understanding my motivation. It’s not about doing this because something else was bad/hard/painful, is about doing this because I want to and I believe in it.
And why solo travel? Why now?
I enjoy traveling by myself. I enjoy the freedom to make my decisions on when to set the alarm for the day and what adventure it will hold. I find that when I’m by myself, I meet more people, experience and see more things and, generally, get more out of it. That isn’t to say I don’t like traveling with people as well – whether it’s planned trips together or picking up other travelers along the way, it can be quite fun to have a partner in adventure. But I also don’t have interest in waiting to find the right travel partner and for the stars to align to enable us to go together. People’s lives are complicated and trying to line them up for big travel is a tall order.
And now is the time. It saddens me each time I hear someone talk about wanting to travel when they retire. What a heartache to backbend your life with all your dreams. At my grandmother’s 90th birthday party she said something that has echoed with me since, “well, when the kids move out and the dog dies, that’s when you really start living, right?” I don’t have kids and don’t aim to make this a kids vs travel debate – that’s all personal choice – but if you want to do something different with your life, even if it’s hard, isn’t it worth exploring?
The idea of following your dreams and not waiting for retirement is all well and good, but what about money? This is probably the biggest question that I get now that my travel itinerary is indefinite. Like Ramos, I worked hard and when I wanted to travel, prioritized my spending accordingly. I got in a HUGE fight with a friend who didn’t understand that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to a week-long music festival for a second year – didn’t I have fun last year?? I wanted to travel that year, so I needed to think through where I wanted my money and vacation time to go. She and I are no longer friends, but in the year after that fight I went on a short trip to Aruba and spent three weeks in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. Live music is great, but that’s not where my priorities were. For this trip, I did a crowd-funding campaign and am so grateful for everyone’s support in my goal. Not just financially – it means the world.
Getting money is only half of it though. The other half is how you spend it, which is what I think people are really trying to understand when they ask about how you afford travel. The answer is simple. With flexibility and patience, it’s just not that expensive. When you ditch the all-inclusives and are open to when and how you go, yod be shocked.
I have a 10 country itinerary planned for the fall that cost $450 USD in airfare, because I scored a few AirAsia ASEAN passes and spent enough time sorting the routes to maximize their potential. By the end of August I will have spent almost three months visiting the most remote countries in the Pacific, and will have spent about $700 total (for 3 MONTHS of travel, food, drink, accommodation, activities). I’m trading casual crew work on a small private yacht for a ride and accommodation, I eat and drink on a budget and more often than not I prefer to skip the touristy packages and tours and explore on my own or with locals.
Travel can be really expensive, but it doesn’t have to be.
You’re a Girl
By the number of people who feel the need to point this out to me, I’m starting to worry it’s not so obvious. It’s usually accompanied with a point about danger or asking if I’m afraid. Sometimes subtly, sometimes directly.
Australian guy at hostel in Peru, “but aren’t you afraid? To travel by yourself? As a girl?”
The unfortunate part about this question is that it’s rooted in real experience and the worry has real base. But I’m a girl by myself all the time. Whether I’m in downtown Denver or exploring a new city. So I have two thoughts on this question. First, I don’t do anything while traveling that I wouldn’t do at home and vice versa. To some people, “home” carries safety with it, but bad things happen there too. I don’t get blackout drunk and stumble down dark alleys alone in Denver, and I sure wouldn’t do that traveling by myself. I also wouldn’t go to places that have cultural differences without being respectful of them. This is why people dress up for church, right? So I would never enter a Hindu temple without all appropriate limbs covered. It’s just respectful.
The second thought I have on the Australian’s question is broader than my own behavior. If we know that we all worry about the safety of and respect for women traveling alone, what can we do about it? Just yesterday, I was sitting at a table having some beers with three locals and another traveler. We all shared some laughs, but as the beers were opened and emptied, two of the locals were getting increasingly forward with me. I never got a feeling of mal intent, but their intent was definitely changing. Eventually the other traveler and I got up to go grab dinner at the restaurant about 30 yards away. One of the locals followed. As we walked, the traveler asked, “todo bien?”, switching to Spanish so he could ask me, and not the islander, all good? I responded “todo bien”, we met up with our third friend, had dinner and after a bit more badgering (“How can I date you? Seriously, I want to date you. You’re so pretty, can I take you on a date.”), the islander left and it was all a non-incident. As we reflected on what happened, my traveler friend later asked what he should have done differently. Did he do enough? He did. This is what we need to be asking ourselves – how do I recognize situations as they’re happening. What should I do? Key word being do. This example was never dangerous or scary, but when it is, we need to know what to do, and take the ownership to take action. He saw something potentially escalating and assessed it, checked in with me, and made sure to be aware of how to step in, if needed.
I might be traveling alone, but I have, and need, allies along the way. The dangers for women and women traveling are real. Avoiding travel doesn’t change that. That’s the equivalent of hiding under our blankets when we were kids because we were scared. The only difference is that this monster is real.
What about your husband? Your boyfriend?
I think most often this is a probing question to find out if a boyfriend/husband exists. Sometimes it gets to the point of being offensive, like Ramos’s experiences of questions about being a prostitute. This question also comes down to perspective. As I mentioned, right now I’m traveling by boat. It’s just me as crew and the, male, captain. When we go ashore, some people get it, but some people have a really tough time understanding the relationship. Most often, the people who don’t understand have not had any experience with male-female relationships of this nature. But now, after talking to us, they do. So hopefully next time they see it, it won’t be so foreign.
The question comes up like this when traveling with a man with whom I don’t have a romantic relationship, and slightly different when I’m alone. Why did I leave my boyfriend behind? Or why isn’t he traveling with me? He isn’t traveling with me because right now he doesn’t exist (or more accurately, the relationship doesn’t exist). To me, this line of questioning comes from a different perspective than the other. The first doesn’t comprehend a non-romantic male-female relationship, where the second doesn’t comprehend the priority level. “Finding a man” has never really been high up on my priority list. I have had other priorities, like travel, education, career, friends, that are higher on my list. If I find a good one while I work on the other goals, great, but finding “the one” isn’t my North Star. That works for me. It doesn’t work for others.
I look forward to continuing to get questions from people as I travel because to me, that means I’m doing something RIGHT. It means I’m connecting with people. It means I’m taking the opportunity to share a little bit of my perspective while I take a little bit of theirs. I’m writing up a separate post with the other common questions I get, mostly as an American, rather than as a solo traveler. And I can’t wait until I figure out what the next set of questions will be.
I know a lot of solo female travelers. They’re all pretty to me. More importantly, they’re all badasses. And if they carry themselves with the responsibility of what their badassery is accomplishing, I’m personally proud and in awe of each and every one of them.