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Tag: solo lady travel

When does solo equal stupid?

In my neverending consumption of solo-travel-related media, last weekend while trawling Netflix for something to occupy me, I stumbled on Maidentrip, about Laura Dekker‘s solo sailing trip around the world. She was 14 when she started and 16 when she finished, and now holds the record for youngest person to sail around the world alone. Before she left, she had to endure a 10 month court battle with the Dutch government, who were trying to decide if it was necessary to remove her from her father and not allow her to make the trip.

After some Googling, I found a few things that said Laura wasn’t a great fan of the way the movie portrays her trip (or at least, she initially wasn’t), and although I do think the film is actually pretty good, I can understand why she’d feel that way even without knowing exactly what happened. She was clearly irritated at the presence of the media whenever they popped up as she just wanted to get on with it. Even without the high profile court case to begin with, I’m sure the attention would have been unwelcome.

There’s a scene in the film where she’s being interviewed by a journalist that I think was meant to be sort of following the trip, and Laura spends most of it trying to get the journalist to stop asking questions she doesn’t like. And to be fair, the questions ARE ridiculous. Also, she’s 15 at that point – at that age, if I’d spent most of the last year on my own running my own life and a whole boat as I pleased, I’d be pretty peeved at the stuff that woman was asking as well.

In any case, it’s pretty clear that the trip wasn’t so much about the world record for her, but more about seeing if she could do it. I get that. But a lot of people still believe it’s stupid to let a 14 year old attempt to sail around the world on her own. You have to wonder what being completely by yourself in the middle of the ocean can do to your mind when you don’t have the experience of time and age. I mean, in one way, 14-16 is THE BEST time for a teenage girl to be hanging out on her own piloting a boat, because I know I was quite happy to tell the world to piss off most of the time at that point in my life. And what a treat to focus on sailing and what’s going on inside your own head instead of the horrors of growing up in the age of Facebook and crappy mass-media. But then you also miss the part where you learn to deal with the fact that the world is still there even when you’d LIKE for it to fuck right off. And that is a necessary life skill.

I don’t think most 14-year-olds are at a stage where they’re ready to take their life in their own hands like that. But I do think that after 10 months of battling the state, it’s pretty apparent that it wasn’t some fleeting thought Laura Dekker had, to sail around the world. She had a ton of experience and more or less grew up on the water. And her father obviously cares a lot about her and knows his shit when it comes to boats, so there’s no way a parent would give their kid the go-ahead to do such a trip if they didn’t have complete faith in the kid’s capability. Sure, she didn’t know much in terms of Life In The World, but then plenty of adults are complete morons regardless of the fact they’ve had more time on the planet, so, case-by-case basis, I say.

Last weekend just before watching Maidentrip I also finished Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s book about Chris McCandless‘s ill-fated attempt to live off the land in Alaska, and how he got to that point. I was talking about the intersection of these two of these things to my friend Chris in the pub the other night because we’ve talked about this book before and I know he thinks that this motivation to go off and do extreme things on one’s own is a mostly male phenomenon. I still think that opinion comes from the fact that women are stopped more often than men from any personal quests that don’t sit well with society’s perception of what normal human beings SHOULD do, and that when they aren’t stopped, you don’t often hear about them.

It doesn’t mean he’s wrong though. Societal conditioning or whatever it is, it may still be a fact. I don’t think women lack the same motivation, I think men just have a lot more to spur them on. And some kind of ideal masculine mythology to aspire to – which may also cause an extra blind sort of stupidity in itself. On top of all that, I think McCandless had a borderline dangerous idealistic view of his own life fueled in part by the kind of impressionable undergraduate experience of Reading Lots Of Things And Fiercely Believing Them that I am incredibly familiar with.

Anyway, Chris thinks it’s stupid to have let Laura Dekker go sail around the world alone. Partially because she’s young and you know nothing about anything when you’re young. Which, true, particularly the fact that you don’t even know how you YOURSELF work in relation to the world. So fair enough. I just don’t know if that’s a good enough reason for it to be stupid.

Then he said, ‘What if she had died?’ Well. Chris McCandless died and he was nearly a decade older. A lot of people think he was an idiot for doing what he did. It seems to me he was pretty aware of what he was getting himself into. Overconfident and overoptimistic, possibly, but also mostly just unlucky. And anyone can be unlucky in any situation. I nearly got rammed by an asshole in a car when I was on my bike in a roundabout the other day. I could have died and I was just going about my normal life.

Chris McCandless died doing something he felt some unstoppable need to do. He wasn’t NOT going to do it. Laura Dekker was also not going to be stopped. If the state had managed to stop her at 14 she’d have just waited til she was legally an adult and done it anyway. And what if she did die? Well. It would really suck, but also, she’d have been doing what she wanted. Maybe that’s stupid. Maybe it’s not. If it is, it may only be so because of the pain it causes other people rather than how it affects the person doing the doing.

Not letting someone stop you doing something a bit out of the ordinary is a brand of determination that not many people have the guts to carry off. That alone can’t get you through the perils of a solo sailing trip around the world, but I don’t think you could begin to even consider such an undertaking without it.

I have some gumption but I can’t claim to have the kind of hard edge McCandless had and Dekker has. In Into the Wild, there’s a whole section where Jon Krakauer relates his own story of climbing a mountain on his own when he nearly died about 3 separate times. He kept going back at it every single time. And I think THAT’S pretty stupid.

That is about ten levels up from the kind of determination I posses. I mean, the term ‘risk assessment’ is pretty much a joke to me due to my current corporate employers, but there comes a point when you have to read the situation for what it really is. Krakauer himself admits that it was relatively ridiculous, even if only for the fact that conquering that mountain without dying did not change his life in the way he imagined it would as a younger man. No one really cared in the way he hoped they would. No one ever really does in these situations. They only care enough to rip you apart if you happen to fail.

The only reason we’re even talking about Chris McCandless is because he died. Laura Dekker did not die, and I bet she wishes we weren’t talking about her.

Maybe some of the ten levels up determination comes from preferring death to being pilloried, but there’s two different solo motivations at work here, and I think they often work in tandem even if you bring only one of them to the fore. There’s proving it to yourself and proving it to the world.  If proving it to the world is something you’re concerned about, it doesn’t typically end well. But even proving something to yourself isn’t always the life balm you think it’s going to be. And both are selfish. It’s good to be a little selfish sometimes. It’s also sometimes a little stupid.

I’m not doing anything I think is all that crazy, and the reason I’m traveling alone is because the lack of a companion isn’t something I’ll let stop me doing and seeing what I want. For Laura Dekker, being alone was most of the point. But there is something in the root of her attitude that I hope is related to the root of mine: the scrappy, fuck-it-I’ll-do-what-I-want foundation. And as stupid as I think Krakauer was for throwing himself back at that mountain multiple times, that foundation is there too, and I get it. I’m astonished it can go that far, but I do get it.

I think what Laura Dekker did is awesome. Not because of a record or her age, but because it was fucking hard and it would have been so easy to give up. At any point. And she didn’t. And then she reached her goal and STILL didn’t stop. She was lucky a few times when she could have been unlucky, but luck or lack of luck isn’t what drives that kind of experience, it just happens to have terminal possibilities. There are a few people that can stare that down. There are more people who can admire them for it, on at least some level. Then there’s everyone else.

My favourite bit of Maidentrip is what is presumably Christmas day, or close to it, when Laura is at sea in tropical weather blasting a punk cover of a Christmas song and dancing all over the deck of the boat in a Santa hat. People always seem to be so concerned about me (or anyone) spending Christmas alone in a far away place. But it’s just a day. And in that moment, she is loving it.

Laura Dekker on Guppy

Laura Dekker on Guppy

Couchsurfing is the answer

Last weekend I had a MA-HOO-SIVE party, the likes of which I will be lucky to top anytime soon. I had a flat full of Lindy Hoppers, 20 pizzas (TWENTY!), booze, good music and a floor that, it turns out, is plenty big enough for a dance party into the wee hours.

My new toy, takin' over the hallway.

All the plans.

I won’t ramble on about it, but it also meant that a whole load of people saw my Ridiculously Giant Post-It Calendar Of Planning, so I suddenly had lots of good new tips about various parts of my trip where people had been before. Perhaps most importantly: the info on Vietnam is all lies (up to 15 days for UK passport holders visa-free) and I DEFINITELY need to sort out a visa before I head off.

It’s so good to know who’s been where though, and now I can pick even more people’s brains about specific countries.

But maybe the best thing to come out of everyone seeing it is that the other night in the pub, my friend George said he hadn’t realised I was definitely going so soon until he saw that on my wall. So I was asking him for advice, first on what to do in China, but then just in general because he’s been all sorts of places. And that’s when he convinced me to reconsider the whole couchsurfing thing.

I’ve never really talked to anyone who’s done couchsurfing at length before, but George has both used it while traveling and at home. He’s currently hosting people, and actually brought the girl staying on his couch for the weekend to that party I had, which: what an intro to the city! But that’s also awesome. He had nothing but good things to say about his experiences with it.

I guess before I wrote it off without much thought (ERROR) because I let THE FEAR bred by safety concerns of being a solo lady traveller in someone whom I’ve never met’s home cancel out any sensible consideration. But once I properly checked out the couchsurfing website, my mind was easily changed. I spent all last night looking up hosts in some of the cities I’ll be in, and it’s clear from the honest and glowing references that most people have an amazing time with their hosts and surfers, and it’s really quite easy to find verified, well-reviewed hosts who have things in common with you.

I wholeheartedly believe that most people are good and friendly and trustworthy and just want to help you have a great time in their city. But it helps when you can see evidence, you know?

I also filtered some of my city searches by searching ‘Lindy Hop’ and found tons of dancers. I didn’t expect it would be so easy, but it’s exactly what I wanted to happen! I’ve been excited about dancing everywhere, but the logistics of that when you’re on your own are a little intimidating. The actual events themselves weren’t so much what worried me, it was the going to and from places, most likely at night, and looking after my stuff, and just all the little things I take for granted at home. If I stay with someone who knows the local scene, a lot of that anxiety fades away.

Staying with locals also means I’ll get to see their favourite bits of their own city, which isn’t the kind of thing you’ll usually end up seeing when you’re just looking things up online or speaking to people in hostels. When I went to Helsinki last year and stayed with Carolina and Johanna, I did one or two touristy things, but most of the time we were just wandering around or hanging out with their friends hanging out in the places they like to hang out. And it was great! That’s what I’d like to do everywhere. And that’s kind of how George sold it to me. He said it would be the most memorable part of my trip, and I believe it.

The other side of this is that I’m going to try to host some people here before I leave. Partially for references, but also because I love MY city, and I love showing off all my favourite things in it. I think this will be especially nice during the festival, because the place is overrun with tourists and the city kind of becomes this whole other animal. If you’re working the festival or staying in a hostel, you probably don’t see much more than Edinburgh’s festival face. I know that’s how I saw it in the beginning. And there’s nothing horrible about that, but how nice would it have been to see the local side during the most non-local part of the year? So hopefully I can show that to a few people. I shall report back!


PS I’ve done a wee overhaul. New theme! (Still by Anders Noren because I love his stuff.) After a year, it was definitely time for a change. Still doing some tweaks on it (need to get tags showing outside of a tab among other tiny bits), but I’m liking it so far. Hope you do too!

On your own

I was talking recently to someone I work with about the Trans-Siberian and how it’s the seed my solo trip is growing out of.

He said, ‘I have a friend who did it once but I don’t see the point.’

To which I asked, ‘of doing the Trans-Siberian or doing it on your own?’

And he said, ‘both.’

Then I tried to explain myself, but I’m not sure it made much difference.

I totally get that sitting on a train staring at a frozen landscape for the better part of a week is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I like trains. But what’s more I like seeing the planet, because it’s pretty amazing. I’ll be more than entertained watching the Siberian wilderness chug by because who gets to do that every day?

Plus, being confined to a space where I can do little more than read, write, eat, and talk to people is like a creative mission. It’s like life editing – putting constraints on a situation forces you to get much better things out the other end. And with what I imagine will be zero mobile or data reception plus low hope of recharging any kind of electrical devices, I’ll be left to what I’ve got in my head and on paper. Which is precisely what I want.

So, not for everyone, but that’s the appeal to me.

As for the doing it on my own bit – that’s trickier. Ten years ago when I was like ‘YES, this Trans-Siberian Railway? THIS I MUST DO.’ I wasn’t thinking, ‘This I must do. ALONE.’ No. Never. In fact, nearly none of the traveling I want to do is conceived as something I want to do by myself. It’s more a matter of I don’t have much choice.

Everyone’s got partners and babies and careers and commitments and other priorities, especially the older I get. It’s ridiculous to expect anyone else to drop their life in favour of accompanying me on a trip of my own mad design. If I had some fantastic boyfriend who magically had the same travel wishlist as I did (applications open, *ahem*) or a friend whose holiday allowances and budget and circumstances aligned perfectly with my own, hell yes I’d be going on this trip WITH THEM. But these things are a tall order.

I could wait another ten years to find a plus one, or I can just get on with it.

When I got home the night of this particular conversation, as if the universe knew I needed more writing fodder, a link to this article popped up in my Facebook feed: IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Traveled The World Alone And It Sucked

I think it’s totally important to have this point of view available online, that you can go do something like take a massive trip alone and decide you kind of hate it and that’s absolutely fine. You don’t have to love everything you try, and a solo trip around the world is difficult stuff. But she put all this crazy pressure on herself and her trip. I’m going to be brave because I feel like I HAVE to. I’m going to find my own artsy subculture clique and become the next Kerouac (which, ugh, why does everyone want to be THAT ASSHAT, but whatever).

No one lives in a novel or a movie. Meeting people takes time. Coming out of your shell takes adjustment and work. More of this for some than others, but it doesn’t just HAPPEN. I don’t remember being particularly scared before I went backpacking when I was 20. I think knowing less about the world meant I didn’t think about all the crap I think about now. But it was hard and lonely at some points, and I didn’t really hit my stride with the being alone and figuring out how to talk to other people thing until about 2 weeks in when my trip was nearly over. I had a lot of nights in, reading alone in bed or in the hostel bar.

But I also didn’t have the expectation that I was going to waltz into Europe and make all the friends and have all the stories to tell. If you’re not doing that shit in your normal life, like hell you’re going to suddenly do it in multiple foreign environments where you have to spend a lot of energy on basic things you barely give a second thought to at home.

So. Less pressure on yourself helps. And perhaps being good at being alone to begin with before you go do it in the big bad world.

This trip is going to be a lot like the rest of my life, just condensed and sometimes slightly more confusing. It takes me a pretty long time to adjust to new situations. But in the confines of an existence focused on travel, that timeline will shrink a little. I will force myself to make awkward and uncomfortable steps a little earlier than I normally would because what the hell else are you gonna do when you’re sitting in a train compartment across from a Russian lady who’s gonna be your roomie for the next 2 nights?

I’ll get used to it. Sometimes I’ll be restless with loneliness and that will suck just as much as when it happens at home. Other times I’ll meet some awesome new person who is bizarrely easy to talk to and it will rock just as much as when it happens at home.

It’s not for everyone. But maybe you can see the point.

The wasted energy of being a girl

The world is a dangerous place for little girls. Besides, little girls are more fragile, more delicate, more brittle than little boys. ‘Watch out, be careful, watch,’ ‘Don’t climb trees, don’t dirty your dress, don’t accept lifts from strange men. Listen but don’t learn, you won’t need it.’ And so the snail’s antennae grow, watching for this, looking for that, the underneath of things. The threat. And so she wastes so much of her energy, seeking to break those circuits, to push up the millions of tiny thumbs that have tried to quelch energy and creativity and strength and self-confidence; that have so effectively caused her to build fences against possibility, daring; that have so effectively kept her imprisoned inside her notions of self-worthlessness.

-Robyn Davidson, Tracks

Val on solo travel

This is the first in (hopefully!) a series of long-form conversations/interviews with people I know on their experiences traveling solo. It took a long time to put this together (and a lot of figuring out how to record interweb calls) but it was really good fun and I’m looking forward to picking other people’s brains on the subject.

My guinea pig for this endeavour was my college friend Val (aka Victoria). Val is one of the sharpest, funniest people I know. She has done all sorts of amazing things from learning how to make cheese on a goat farm in France (more on which below) to being a proper badass jouster in Renaissance Faires. She also has one of the best email addresses I’ve ever seen AND the most adorable, hilarious dog, who I hope I get to meet in person one day.

Val on the very windy pier in St Andrews when she was visiting on her first WWOOFing trip

Val on the very windy pier in St Andrews when she was visiting on her first WWOOFing trip

Kate: Who are you? What are you up to these days?

Val: Right now, I’m a student at Yale Divinity School and I’m earning a Master of Sacred Theology degree, which is like MDiv +1!

I would like to be a pastor and my timing was a little weird, so I could have either waited for a job or got an extra year’s study in. So I’m getting to study stuff I didn’t know a  lot about but I’m very interested in, so it’s really good. I was incredibly doubtful about whether it was a good decision because school’s expensive! But it’s been really good and I’ve learned a lot and I feel like I have a lot more clarity on what I want to do as a pastor because of this year, so who’d’ve thunk it!

What’s your favourite cheese?

I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this! Broadly speaking, blue cheese is my favourite kind of cheese. I love blue cheese with red wine it’s SO good. But I have fond memories of very specific cheeses.

I was traveling in northern Italy, and we stopped at the cheesemonger in San Remo which was a magical place. I found this gorgonzola dolce which was made like a cake – not like a cheesecake, but a cake made of cheese. So there were these two hunks of gorgonzola and in the middle was this layer of mascarpone, and it was coated in walnuts. I got a chunk of it and I ate the WHOLE THING on the train ride back. That is my favourite cheese. And It’s one I don’t think I’ll ever get to find again. Which almost makes it even more special.

Can you give a bit of a summary of the traveling you’ve done, particularly on your own?

So I started traveling when I was in college. I studied abroad in Ireland for a semester and then the next semester I spent in Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. So that was really good and got me stuck with the travel bug.

Family of meerkats, South Africa 2006

Family of meerkats, South Africa 2006

When I was in South Africa I also spent some time in Lesotho, which was amazingly gorgeous. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

Then I came back and got my undergraduate degree in drama and humanities and spent the next few years doing professional acting. I would do summer stock jobs and not find much to do in the winter. The first winter I did a bilingual production of a Moliere play with a national children’s touring theatre company, so I’ve seen a lot of the States but only very briefly.

After that I went WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), so the next free block of time I had I went to Provence in France and worked on a goat farm for 6 weeks. This is the site of the cheese adventures! It was an excellent, excellent time. Then I went to Spain to work on a farm that bred Andalusian horses – which, as a girl who loved My Little Ponies, it was like my lifetime dream – and was supposed to be there for 2 months but the hosts and I did not mesh well.

The Cordoba Mosque, Spain 2008

The Cordoba Mosque, Spain 2008

One of the things I learned is that the relationships you form when traveling are really important, especially when you’re traveling alone because you have no other relationships to bank on. So I left that farm and ended up just hopping around different farms in Spain and visiting friends, including you!

Then I went back to France for two weeks and went to Normandy to work on a farm with a lot of different things going on. Then I went to Ireland and ended up on 3 different farms there. I worked at a place with bees because I was really curious to learn about bees. And the week that I spent on that farm cured me of that.

That 5 month span was really good: so good that I decided to do it again the next year. I went to Italy. It was not the same though, so instead of spending another 5 months, I came back after 5 weeks.

Then I went to Seminary and got poor, which put the kibosh on the traveling for a little while. But I was saving my money throughout Seminary because I really wanted to take this travel seminar to Israel, Palestine and Jordan, which I did this time last year. And that’s the last piece of travel I’ve done.

Camel in Petra, Jordan, 2014 (I love this picture SO MUCH -K)

Camel in Petra, Jordan, 2014 (I love this picture SO MUCH -K)

You’ve been everywhere!

No, I’m missing entire continents!

When I was in South Africa, it’s the only place I’ve ever really felt kind of unsafe. Not in a way that would turn me off going there, I just felt I had to have my guard up much more than any place I’ve ever been. Did you feel that?

A little, maybe not as much as I should have. I think the transition between Ireland and South Africa was pretty drastic. Ireland was very safe, for example, it’s the only place I’ve ever tried hitchhiking. It’s just a place you feel safe. And South Africa is not that way. I’d never hitchhike in South Africa.

I remember there was this one day I was walking down the street in Grahamstown. I think I had a backpack on, and I heard this voice behind me going, ‘Excuse me. EXCUSE ME!’ And I turned around and this woman was like, ‘That guy just tried to steal your bag, you need to pay more attention!’ It was a good Samaritan thing, but I felt like it was kind of a bitch-slap of a good Samaritan thing, like, pay attention!

When did you first think traveling on your own sounded like a pretty good plan? Did anything in particular lead to that decision?

I think it just sounded like a good idea at the time? I remember looking for colleges that had good study abroad programmes, because I knew it was something I wanted to do. I’m not quite sure where the longing came from.

I worked really hard to make sure I could do it my Junior year. I wanted to go to Ireland the whole year, but I could only do a semester so I decided to go to a completely different place, so I was deciding between Hong Kong, Australia and South Africa. I think I had this sense of wanting to know what other cultures were like and wanting to take myself out of my comfort zone. And the study abroad thing was my way into that.

Were you worried about anything in relation to being on your own? Particularly being on your own as a woman?

Not as much as I should have been probably? I had that whole invincible thing going on, which I think was good and actually worked for me. I’d like to say I was sensible at all times and always took good precautions but that would not be a true statement. I think it was a combination of luck and SOME common sense, and also just, unfortunately, privilege – I don’t look… vulnerable.

I guess I had the same thing where when I was younger and backpacking the first time. I’d have moments where I was like, ‘oh maybe I shouldn’t have just done that’, or ‘maybe I should have paid more attention’. Whereas now I think about it a lot more and if I’m alone I’m like, ‘what do I need to be aware of here?’ I didn’t really do that in college, and maybe I should have, but maybe it was also a confidence benefit, when people are looking at you and thinking, well, she’s not one to mess with because she clearly knows what she’s doing.

Yeah, that wouldn’t work for everyone and I wouldn’t recommend it, but that’s kind of how it happens.

I also have a memory of walking in Ireland. I lived in a safe part of the city of Cork and walked down to this pub. If you’re ever in Cork you should visit! It’s called An Spailpin Fanach and they do Irish trad music every night. So I was there and I decided to walk back home by myself, it was like 11 at night. It’s Cork, it’s Ireland, it’s safe, and it’s well-lit. So I didn’t feel any qualms about walking back by myself. Which I should have! And there was a guy who started a very polite conversation with me walking on the opposite side of the street and eventually crossed over because he was like, ‘I have sisters, I can’t let you walk home alone!’ which was like, but you’re the kind of person I should look out for if I was being overly cautious! So he walked me to my door and then left. But that kind of thing just happens in Ireland. And it was the kind of thing where this guy just saw what I was not in a frame of mind to see at that point in my life.

A (very safe) Irish donkey on Inis Meain, from Ireland 2005

A (very safe) Irish donkey on Inis Meain, from Ireland 2005

I remember you said you wore a wedding band to ward off unwelcome male attention. Did it work? Would you recommend it?

I have this ring that looks like an engagement ring, so I wore that on my left ring finger to help undercut unwanted attention. I’m not sure it worked. It’s hard to say. I do remember that one of the run-ins I had that made me most deeply uncomfortable was with a married man, so clearly the ring was just like… not working in that situation.

I definitely disagree with the statement that you shouldn’t travel alone as a single woman, that’s just not true. But it does come with it’s own unique set of baggage, and one of the very large pieces of carry-on with that luggage set is the unwanted male attention. And I would love to say that it works to just say ‘no’, but it doesn’t. So you need to be able to be able to say ‘no’ a number of different ways and be able to gauge the situation and know which ‘no’ to use, and when you need to solicit outside help.

I err on the side of soft ‘no’s to start with, ‘no’s that don’t necessarily work right away. ‘I can’t.’ ‘I’m busy.’ ‘I’m meeting somebody else.’ ‘I need to go.’ Stuff like that. And if the guy doesn’t take the hint, what I find often works is turning on the bitch face. And being like ‘NO. No.’ And when you raise your voice and make those sentences very flat and pointed, I think it often scares them. So that has worked. Not all the time – and it’s at that point that you just need to find a way to extricate.

Oh, it’s so annoying! It’s not fair you have to think about it more. Especially when so many dudes are just decent friendly people. Like the guys I met in the pub in Manchester. I was on my own and we had a great chat and a few beers and they were really lovely about making sure I safely got a taxi at the end of the night.

And it’s too bad that women have to have their guard way up, because not everyone is a threat, but it’s so hard to tell sometimes. Because you can get the occasional creeper who acts lovely and then turns it around and takes advantage of the situation. But it would be too bad to never open yourself up to people at all because then you’d never have really nice things happen.

Ugh. It’s really difficult.

It’s such a bitch.

Looking back on it, I can now identify this as the most dangerous situation I was in. I didn’t see it at the time. I had a guy who I thought was that kind of guy, who was being really nice, striking up a friendship kind of relationship. And I didn’t realise until he was actually IN my hostel room that that was NOT what he was there for. And I was really lucky in that he listened to me when I said ‘leave’, and he did, and it was fine. But I could have been really unfortunate in that situation. And oh God, it’s just like, you really have to be able to make good judgement calls, and you have to be lucky when you don’t.

Was there anything that happened to you while traveling that really made you wish you had someone with you? (Good or bad!)

The reason I ended up cutting the Italy trip short is because I felt so intensely lonely. The year before, I could speak French well enough that I could make friends and build relationships. And in Spain I was with a lot of English expats – there’s a surprising number of them at Spanish farms – so the language barrier was nonexistent.

View from my room at the farm where I worked near Terra del Sole, Italy, 2009

View from my room at the farm where I worked near Terra del Sole, Italy, 2009

I thought that the French would be enough to get me by in Italy. It was not. So it was a very isolating experience because I couldn’t speak and make myself understood, and I couldn’t understand people. It was then that I wished really intensely that I had a traveling companion. There was a lot of REALLY cool stuff happening, and I didn’t necessarily appreciate or enjoy it as much as I could have because I was combating that loneliness.

I feel like my best memories from that set of travels was the 6 weeks in France on the goat farm, and that was because I had friends I made while I was there, and I had people to share the experiences with, and it was just so good. It made it so much better.

Cheese stand at a French festival in Valbonne, 2008

Cheese stand at a French festival in Valbonne, 2008

So I don’t think you need to travel with somebody but you definitely need to be open to the relationships you encounter.

It’s a two-edged sword: you can either bring a travel companion and have that companionship all the time and not worry about it, or you can not, and increase your chances of having a really amazing experience because of the people you meet that you’ll just be more open to.

Was there anything that happened or that you did when you were actually actively happy you were on your own?

Yes! Any time I needed to leave a farm early, I was really grateful I had the flexibility and the freedom to do that and I didn’t have to worry about someone else and their feelings. There’s this really wonderful freedom in being able to chart your own course and decide what you want to see and what you’re interested in. And to really be able to pursue that in a way you… well, you CAN do with a companion, but you have to focus on the compromise and the group dynamic.

Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth, 2014

Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth, 2014

I noticed that a little when I was doing the Israel, Palestine, Jordan trip. I was grateful to be in a group, I saw a lot more that I would have been able to see on my own, but for me as a traveler one of the things I really enjoy doing is slowing down and getting to know one place well and getting to meet people there. And I wasn’t able to do that because I was part of a group.

So you stopped traveling the second time because you were lonely. Was there anything else keeping you from staying away longer? Or was that the main reason?

That was the main thing. I had a relationship at home I was really into at the time, and that put harder edges on the isolation, because it was like, I can sit here in Italy struggling with being lonely for a long time, or I can go back to this great relationship! And my nephew had just been born, and he was really cute, and my family was all in one place for once, so I felt like I was missing a lot at home. So that’s something else to contend with.

Is there anywhere you’d worry about going on your own, or wouldn’t even consider?

I would be hesitant to go anywhere I couldn’t speak the language, because as I mentioned, the relationship part is important to me. So I’d want to either be there with someone who can speak the language or figure out some other way past that. I need to figure that out actually because I’d like to go to Asia and South America and I speak no Asian languages or any Spanish. SO I need to figure out a way to bridge that.

I think there are places where I’d make different decisions in terms of my travel arrangements. Like in Europe I’d be fine staying in a hostel because I’ve done it and it’s so common, but I don’t know if I’d be willing to do that in South America because I don’t know the social expectations. I also just look different from most people in Asia and South America, so, that will draw attention.

What’s your next trip? (alone or accompanied!)

I have a couple things in the works. Nothing solid yet. My best friend Janine and I are turning 30 this year. We’ve been friends for over 20 years and looove traveling together. And one of my favourite trips I’ve taken is a bike trip with her and (our college friend) Mike during the summer of my sophomore year. Colum McCann had just come to campus to talk about biking across the country for a year without health insurance, and that sounded really appealing at the time, especially since we were all still on our parents insurance.

So we started at my house in Southern Chester County PA, and biked up to Delaware Water Gap, and it took about 6 or 7 days. And it was the BEST time. We would knock on people’s doors and ask if we could pitch our tents in their backyards, and I can’t believe that worked! It was sort of a trip that restored my faith in humanity because people let us sleep in their back gardens just because we asked! People are so great! I love Mike and I’m really glad he was on that trip and I think he enjoyed it, but Janine and I asked him because both of our mothers said we couldn’t do this trip unless we had a man with us.

Ha! Did that annoy you?!

No, I understood where they were coming from, and this sounds mean to Mike, but both Janine and I look scarier than him, so. I think it was the compromise. But it was just a good time and Mike has a great sense of humour so, of course he made the trip better.

SO, Janine and I did that together and it was great. And she did a bike trip in Maine on her own a few years later and had a great time.

So we’re going to do another trip this year because we’re turning 30, and I think it might take that shape again because we’re both sort of poor right now. She’s also the person who told me about the Camino de Santiago which is now one of my dreams – I REALLY want to go hike the Camino de Santiago one day.

Also because I’m Lutheran and studying to be a pastor and I’m kind of a church nerd, the anniversary of the Reformation is 2017, I think. That will be the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg. So Germany is going to be one big happy German Lutheran fest, and I’d really like to go see that. So that’s maybe on the radar.


Val blogs about all sorts of things, but these days Lutheran stuff especially, at Lutheran Moxie.

Klara Harden’s Made in Iceland and other stories of solo female journeys

MADE IN ICELAND from Klara Harden

I don’t remember how I originally came across the link to Klara Harden‘s record of her solo trek through Iceland, so unfortunately I can’t properly credit that lead. I saw it around the time she first posted it so there was probably some interweb buzz. And rightfully so. This video has stuck with me. It’s incredibly well done, but more importantly, it makes me feel like I can do whatever the hell I want on my own and it will be totally fine.

This was brought to the surface in my brain again recently because I saw the film Tracks, which is based on Robyn Davidson’s memoir about walking across the Australian Outback from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean with her dog and four camels. Occasionally joined by a National Geographic photographer, but mostly alone. It is FANTASTIC. The actual book is now on my list because I want to read the non-film-ified story. But movie version or not, hearing these stories about women is refreshing because it’s so much more common to see films or read books about men going off by themselves into the big bad world. And these two stories are very different, but they’re GOOD. There’s a lot of truth without bravado.

The world needs more stories like these because the world – unfortunately – often needs to be reminded that women are just as capable as men of having these adventures on their own. We’re all just humans. We can take care of ourselves. We can handle nature and we can do it alone if we want to.

Happily, we’ve got another story like this coming our way. Cheryl Strayed’s (excellent) memoir Wild, about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail alone, has been made into a film. In a recent interview, Reese Witherspoon said:

I’ve never seen a film like Wild where the woman ends up with no man, no money, no family, no opportunity, but she still has a happy ending.

And I don’t think that’s to say they don’t exist, but they are few and far between, and SO MANY PEOPLE haven’t regularly seen stories like that.

I’m lucky in that no one ever really TOLD me I couldn’t do something because of my gender. (My family is great.) But when you’re a kid, you pick up on what’s generally accepted in society for girls without anyone having to spell it out for you. Even if you decide to rail against that, it hangs in the air around you. It’s exhausting enough to do the work required to take your own adventure. The feeling that you’re fighting the expectations of an entire society at the same time just make it that bit more of a slog.

Women certainly face slightly more challenging circumstances in solo travel than men. It’s unfortunate but we have to be a little more careful in general, of the public – of men in particular – and differing cultural expectations. And maybe we always will. But letting the world use that as an excuse or a reason to tell us we shouldn’t do something is frustrating and self-perpetuating. By showing more stories of women navigating extraordinary journeys on their own and for their own reasons, we help create a world where people see that as just fine because they see it working. And, importantly, working independently. Not in relation to a man.

I don’t know if I’ll ever walk and camp my way through Iceland or somewhere equally amazing by myself, but these stories make me want to. And they remind me that I can.