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Female Solo Travel- advantages and disadvantages

My first mind-blowing backpacking extravaganza for 14 months, was with my then boyfriend in 1992 and so began my thirst for globetrotting. Unfortunately, I harboured a lot of resentment towards said boyfriend during this trip for not wanting to visit Kolkata- the place that had become my very own personal pilgrimage. Admittedly, he did have some legitimate reasons- we were in the middle of a heat wave in Delhi at 45+ degree heat and the 27-hour train journey would have been like swimming in lava. Oh yeah and there was that other thing- he’d just got out of a week’s stay in hospital after nearly dying from contracting pneumonia and was still pretty sick. But still, that one sacrifice was as frustrating as running out of space on my iPhone photos. I vowed from that moment on I would only ever travel solo so I would never have to compromise on my destination choices again and I’ve kept to that promise ever since. Well, I did stupidly do it again with another boyfriend which also ended in tears. I did visit Kolkata 3 years later and it was definitely worth the wait. For me, the best way to travel is SOLO.

Strangely there are sceptics of solo travel who are unconvinced of my true conviction to do it alone. Of course I go on holidays with my friends and family but when it comes to travel, it’s only solo baby and I can’t big it up enough. Nope, I’m not a loner, a psychopath or devoid of human emotion. I just like doing exactly what I want when I want. I make all the decisions, do as I please and indulge in being selfish- it’s the only time I can. I very rarely get homesick and if it happens I do like ET and ‘phone home’. Okay undeniably it is annoying looking like a drunken Houdini attempting an escapology act out of a straightjacket when having to apply sun-cream in the middle of my back, as there’s no one else to do it. Naturally, there are advantages and disadvantages to everything so here is my take on them.

The drain on your wallet

My friends are defiantly a little bit envious when I say I’m off on another backpacking trip as they frantically pick up their kids from school in between online meetings. “How do you afford it?” They cry, into their wines. “I don’t have kids or a mortgage which is a huge advantage” I smugly respond “and I’m also quite cheap”. I don’t have Botox (to be reconsidered), I’m not materialistic in the slightest, I dye my own hair, my mum trims it, I eat packed lunches, I mainly cook a home and I buy my booze from Aldi. God that sounds as tragic as living back with my mum on returning from my travels which I still do but my older brother does too. Please like me. I’ve permanently scrimped and saved for ‘the travel fund’ since my first trip at 17 years old so it’s become second nature to me.

A lot of pre planning

This may appear reckless but I don’t pre-read anything before a big trip. It’s become a ritual that I open my guide book on the flight to read up on the capital city I’m heading to or the border-town I’m crossing over. I’ve also learnt not to plot my route as this never quite goes to plan. The one time I spent weeks researching my route, my intricately thought out itinerary flew out the window on day 2. I rely mainly on recommendations from other travellers and locals especially in the more far-flung countries. I can go to a random recommendation mentioned in passing by another backpacker, love it and stay for a week or go to that town I read about for ages, hate it and leave. Simple as. Most importantly I stopped having expectations a long time ago. Expectations are the devil’s creations, they ruin everything.

Increased safety risks

Needless to say it’s not all fun and games. I’ve had my fair share of squeaky-bum moments and near death experiences. There is the obvious advantage of being with someone for safety reasons. Little things like someone keeping an eye on my belongings whilst scampering off to inhale food, find accommodation, go to the loo or buy a bus ticket. Similarly, there’s always an irksome scammer out to get you. I’ve been scammed a few times but you just have to be vigilant as possible and never walk down an empty street alone. One of the many scam stories happened when I was travelling to Huacachina Oasis in Peru. If you want to know more about this scam read here

Being lonely

When travelling solo, you’re never really alone (that’s the secret). I’ve met the most diverse, interesting and sometimes fairly odd people along the way because you have to and it’s fun. I’m a very inquisitive person so I’m one of those annoying people who ask the locals thousands of questions about their country. It’s a wealthy education to meet likeminded people from across the globe, it broadens the mind and some will remain my friends forever. Yes, mobile phones have slightly altered its ease to meet people as those darned millennials love to scroll rather than communicate but generally travelling solo is like ‘flies to shit’, constantly seeking out each other.

I rarely get lonely, unless I’m travelling in more remote places where I might not see another backpacker for weeks. But this just makes me feel more excited, intrepid and adventurous. I’m comfortable in my own skin and happy to spend nights on my own, so I don’t feel the need to make friends at every port. Naturally, I have down days even in paradise, I will get lonely from time to time but I know its transient which will lift in a day or two and these times are generally around my period.

Those pesky devil advocates who refute that people can have fun on their own ask “do you not miss sharing those special moments with someone?” As if wanting to catch me out on a personality test of a serial killer. I have to rack my brain and really think about the question- so clearly I don’t. It often feels more romantic walking along a stormy secluded beach alone, that memory is mine why do I have to share it? Am I dead inside? Sharing that ‘special moment’ is not enough reason to give up my satisfying state of free will. Being driven mad by someone’s snoring, whining, money squabbling and negotiations for that fleeting romantic glimpse in the eye with someone you’ll probably split up with in a year anyway- it’s simply not worth it. OMG I’m SO dead inside.

Being scared

An anti-solo travel pessimist will think I must get apprehensive about what might happen when alone. I never get the jitters before a trip because I’m not Mystic Meg (may she rest in peace), I can’t predict what will happen. There’s no travel crystal ball to foresee certain death defying moments. If shit hits the fan you deal with it at the time and make sure you have your travel insurances deets to hand. There’s no point in worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet.

I was fearful once, on the eve of going to my university exchange programme in New York State, aged 22 but that was the first and last time. I stupidly read an article about the murder of Andre ‘Angel’ Melendez one of the ‘club Kids’ in NYC by his friend. That night I couldn’t sleep- petrified of the city that doesn’t either. I didn’t want to be a part of it, I was a nervous wreck on the flight and to top it off I was heading to a hostel in Harlem- this was ‘97, I might add. But guess what- nothing happened, I wasn’t brutally murdered or the investigation ignored by the NYPD. I partied hard in Harlem and fell in love with Manhattan. All that nail biting and free flight booze for nothing. However, later when volunteering in a ‘battered wives shelter’ for my philosophy module, I did enter into a hood that I definitely shouldn’t have but that’s another story.

Solo travel is more expensive

This is a major disadvantage for the solo traveller. We definitely pay extra for the privilege. There’s no sharing room rates or taxi rides and it can double the price of tours. If you ever see a little mad blonde racing around town looking for companions to join her on an expedition to cut the expense, that’ll be me. You do save on some things- like all those excursions that you don’t want to go on but your travel buddy does. Or splitting the restaurant bill when you’ve clearly not eaten half a horse the others have. Unfortunately, I’m yet to make my millions so I still travel on a budget. Just because I’m 47 doesn’t mean I’ve turned into a middle-aged, hiking-stick walker, who needs her luxury and creature comforts. Without a doubt I will pay for expensive activities such as hanging out with the Chimpanzees in Tanzania but if I can do something cheaply I will. Living in a capsule hotel in Tokyo for a couple of weeks was like dwelling in a little sanctuary once I pulled that shutter down. If the cheaper route is taking a shared taxi with 12 other people in a 5 seater beaten up car in Malawi, then so be it. I don’t like taking internal flights, not because I’m a tight-arse but what’s the fun in that? I’d miss out on everything. Travelling on 12-hour bus journey which turns into 17 hours due to yet another setback, tests your patience but also gets you chatting (mostly using body-language) to the locals. Disastrous journeys are the things I remember and talk about the most, not the bored security man in an airport terminal. I’m not a complete total travel snob, I have taken internal flights that have also been quite scary in themselves. Like the miniscule 4 seater plane over the ‘Nazca Lines’ in Peru with the two fattest touristic Americans, literally tipping the plane to one side. The flight to Leh, Ladakh in the Himalayas was touch and go, it can only leave at a particular time in the morning needing absolute visibility due to flying in between the highest mountain peaks in the world which, was breath-taking but circling the runway 4 times to get into the exact position to land, due to the runway being  so short (again it being in the middle of the Himalayas), was petrifying.

The risk of sexual assault as a solo female traveller

On a more serious note the ultimate disadvantage of travelling solo for women is the risk of rape, something that male travellers never have to contemplate and something us women probably think about daily, especially when travelling in certain countries such as Egypt and India, even when suitably covered up. I’ve been sexually assaulted on my travels countless times it’s part and parcel for a western women- wanting sluts the lot of us.

My worst near rape experience was in Thailand whilst living there. I’d just completed my CELTA certificate and was teaching in Hua Hin. I won’t go into the gory details but luckily I have four brothers so I know how to fight dirty. Biting off a chunk of his ear ‘rude girl style’ managed to get him off me. The nightmare continued for a month, as the police saw dollar signs rather than justice, making the parents of the perpetrator pay a humungous bribe to keep him out of prison, the exact opposite to what I wanted. The assault left me numb, frightened to go out and questioning my love affair with travel. I was deliberating about going home to lick my wounds but I couldn’t let him win. I couldn’t let him effect the one thing I love most in this world. The only cure was to get the hell out of dodge and get back on the travelling horse to China which turned out to be the perfect remedy.

I might be failing at the whole convincing you to go solo thing but let me finish on this. It’s good to feel out of your comfort zone, you learn more about yourself in the face of adversity. Confronting your fears and achieving those challenging little wins makes you proud of yourself and is the best ‘big-up’ ever. I know how lucky I am to have been brought up in a developed country which allows me the privilege to travel and I never underestimate that. In the UK I feel suffocated and fall into roles that people expect me to be, whereas, whilst travelling no one has preconceived ideas of me so I’m myself one hundred percent of the time. Travelling is good for the soul, mental health and wellbeing. It’s the ultimate freedom and an exhilarating and empowering experience. It is like an intravenous drip pumping life into my veins making me feel alive.

I’ve learnt what I don’t like doing for example: bungee jumping in Surfers Paradise; eating crickets; parasailing from a speedboat and cycling down ‘the most dangerous road in South America’, in Bolivia. I also don’t ever want to climb another hard-core mountain after climbing Mt Fuji for 14 hours straight. However, I’ve also learnt what I love doing: I love hot climates; I love fist-bumping happy kids on the roadside and I love booking that flight to a destination I’ve been dreaming of for years.

Some memories include: watching the sunrise to reveal an unexpected mountain range at Mount Sinai; dancing to ‘Trance’ on a plateau in Manali; feeding giraffes at their breeding sanctuary in Nairobi (I love giraffes); boxing lessons at Posto 9, on Ipanema beach; watching different districts ‘Bon Odori’ festivals in Tokyo during the summer months; struggling to enter Tibet but finally visiting Potala Palace in Lhasa; hot air ballooning over Yangshuo, China and ending up crash landing onto someone’s roof; flirting with a Swedish guy during the 3 day trek to Machu Pichu; being massaged in a hot mud volcano at El Totumo near Cartagena, Columbia on  Christmas day; also seeing a Lama sitting in the back of a car with its head out the window, in Columbia; chilling with the sea-lions in the Galapogas Islands… My memory banks are full of these astounding experiences, travelling enriches the soul so don’t wait around forever, trying to find someone to go with, just do it, alone.