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Monday, 21 July 2014

How Being a Solo Female Traveler Has Changed Me

I'm a big advocate for women traveling solo. Sure traveling with others is wonderful too. Having a boyfriend/partner at your side can make you feel safer and it gives you someone to share those unique travel experiences with. Traveling with friends ensures a lot of laughter and fun will be had. However, there is something special about traveling and seeking out new experiences on your own. It changes you.

I am now wrapping up my fifth year of living abroad. I have lived in five countries on three continents and my travels have brought me to nearly forty countries. Many of the countries I have traveled have been solo trips. Originally when I started traveling solo it was mainly because I didn't have anyone to go with. Friends would back out of trips, timing was off, or it just wouldn't work out. I refused to miss out on a life adventure and sit at home just because I didn't have anyone to go with. So... I went anyway. I went and I explored and I was forced out of my comfort zone time and time again. The more I traveled solo, the more I grew and the more I realized I love traveling alone.

The reaction I often get when I say I'm about to embark on another trip alone is usually one of shock or surprise. I often get that sympathetic look saying "But you don't have someone to go with?" or the concerned "Are you sure it is safe to go alone?".  All well meant intentions no doubt, but what people don't realize is that traveling solo as a female is so much easier than it appears.

I do admit there are more challenges traveling as a solo female than there probably are as a male. You constantly have to be conscious of your surroundings and you have to take extra steps in planning things like a night out. How will you get back to your hostel/hotel safely? Do you have enough cash on you in case you need a cab? Should you really go to the bbq that the local guy invited you to at his beach house? Am I dressed appropriately for this culture? There are always extra precautions that you need to take - especially when traveling alone. But, don't you already take these precautions when you're at home?

When you travel solo you see the world through your own eyes. There is no one there to influence your views. You make your own judgements and opinions. Without meaning to I think many people get wrapped up in others negative view points. I've seen this happen. Someone is unhappy in their new place and it slowly rubs off onto their friends. Traveling solo allows you to fully appreciate a place on your own without the unintentional influence that others traveling with you may pass on.

Traveling solo makes you stronger. One negative aspect of travel is getting scammed. I can't tell you the amount of times someone has attempted to rip me off. The taxi driver that charges double or drives in circles knowing you don't have a clue where you are going. The tour agency that hikes up the price because you're a young female who probably doesn't know any better. The airport worker who tries to force you into handing over a wad of cash for your luggage - knowing full well he's about to pocket your money. I have a long list of people who have attempted to scam me over the years. This is sadly the reality of travel. It's frustrating for sure, but you quickly learn that if you're traveling alone you better know how to stand up for yourself... and so, you become stronger. You're not about to let some guy in the middle of Vietnam rob you. You learn little tricks along the way and you learn how to carefully get out of situations when people try to take advantage of you. The main tip to prevent being scammed is to do your research. Print out maps and taxi costs prior to getting into a cab. Google known scams for that region so you can anticipate them and avoid them. Researching a place goes a long way and can save you a great deal of hassle. At the end of the day, the trials and challenges that may have exhausted you have also made you stronger than you were before.
Traveling solo allows you to make your own decisions. Feel like spending six hours in museums? Don't feel like getting out of bed till noon? Want ice cream for breakfast? Interested in saving money by taking a 5am flight or an overnight 12 hour bus ride? These are just some of the luxuries of traveling alone. There is no guilt when it comes to making a decision. You do what you want, when you want. This is one of my favourite aspects of traveling solo. I can come and go as I please and do whatever I want! The nice thing about meeting people as you travel is you do not feel obliged to make a ton of plans with them. I normally make plans to meet up in the evenings for dinner/drinks but do my own thing during the day. When I was in Prague last month I spent three hours touring the museum of Communism. I literally read every thing posted in the museum and stayed to watch a full documentary. If I was with others I would have felt guilty about spending so much time in a museum that others may not be interested in. When you travel solo you have the freedom to make your own itinerary. You can be as selfish as you want because it is your trip!

Traveling solo makes you much more patient. When you travel you are pretty much guaranteed to run into unplanned interruptions or delays. It's easy to become frustrated and angry, but I think the beauty of being alone is that the stress is only on you. You're not worrying about your fellow travelers getting upset. Being alone means you can choose to just accept the situation and let it be. Just last week I was at an airport in Milan and was certain I was about to miss my flight. It was one of those awful mornings where everything went wrong and everything was out of my control. My taxi showed up late, I missed the bus to the airport and had to wait for another, I got yelled at for putting my luggage on the wrong side of the bus, the ques at the airport were worse than Christmas time. I had already checked in online and only had a small carry on bag, but still had to wait in line to do a visa check. I waited and I waited. A few years ago when returning to the Bahamas after Christmas I had a very similar situation. The difference - At that time my heart was beating uncontrollably fast, my stomach was doing flips and I was feeling major anxiety. This time? This time sure I was slightly annoyed, but I knew it was all out of my control so what was the point in getting worked up? This was when I realized how far I've come. When you travel you pretty much run into a daily occurrence of something going unplanned. When you're alone and there is nobody moaning and groaning about the stress of the situation, you can choose to just let it be. It's out of your control. You learn that things aren't done like they are in your home country. You learn that trying to complete paperwork for visas, health insurance, banking, etc has its own calendar and this calendar is nothing like the calendar you're used to at home. You learn that when someone in customer service says 'they'll be right back', they probably aren't coming back. You learn that ordering food and waiting for that food also has a different schedule in each country. You learn that the world doesn't revolve around your schedule and why should it? You leave your North American home and concept of time behind when you travel. And so, the more you travel, the more patient you become.

Traveling solo makes you more independent. When you travel with others you have them to rely on. When you travel alone, every aspect and every detail is up to you. You are forced to figure situations out and you only have yourself to rely on. At the beginning traveling solo (especially in third world countries) can seem daunting. Knowing you only have yourself to rely on can seem scary and overwhelming. But when you are forced to figure things out for yourself and you have no choice, you somehow manage. You do it and in the end you feel like a stronger, more independent person because of it.
My first solo trip was almost six years ago. I had just turned 23 and was in Italy for one month as part of a University teaching program. This was my first taste of solo travel. During my first week I had ventured into the city several times on my own. I often went to McDonald's or grabbed a sandwich from a cafe and ate as I walked. I would pass beautiful Italian restaurants with incredible smells seeping from their doorways. I wanted so badly to sit inside and order myself a delicious three course meal. But, could I eat alone? Would that be weird? Would people stare at me and think that poor pathetic little Canadian? Well, the smells won me over and there I sat alone, enjoying every carb I put into my body. Over the years and through my travels I have found myself sitting alone in many restaurants. No book to read, no phone for texting... just sitting and enjoying my food and watching my surroundings. Something that seems so simple is something I often hear other women my age say they could never do. Travel forces you to enjoy your own company and it teaches you to be happy being alone. You don't need a phone in your hand to distract you. Sit, eat and enjoy watching the world happen around you. I'm not saying I prefer to go out by myself, but travel has definitely taught me how to really do things alone.

Traveling solo makes you a more social person. The friends you meet on the road often turn into lifelong friendships. There is a lot of judgement and criticism towards hostels. I'll admit the older I am getting the more I am realizing that hostels are for younger people. But, the beauty in a hostel is that you automatically meet new friends. This is such a great opportunity for the solo traveler. Sure you might end up in a room full of 21 year olds and at times feel like their mother and want to yell at them to pick up their clothes off the floor and to throw their beer cans in the garbage. But, you also meet what I like to call the 'Peter Pan syndrome travelers" - those are the late 20's, early 30's travelers who are seeking adventure by exploring the world, rather than being tied down with a mortgage and car payments. Every hostel I have stayed in has had a good mix of both. You meet the young partiers who are more interested in the nightlife than the culture, but you also meet like minded people who you automatically click with. Traveling solo gives you the opportunity to meet these new people and to spend time with them. When you travel with others it is natural you stay with your group. When you travel alone, you become more approachable to others and you are more likely to approach others. You meet people on buses, trains, in bars, on the beach, when asking for directions, etc. When you're alone it is so much easier to be social and meet new friends.

Traveling solo can change you in so many ways. The unique experiences you gain on the road allow you to grow. The more you travel out of your comfort zone, the more open-minded you become. When you see how others live, how other countries function, how other cultures view life, you begin to think on a deeper level. You question your own values and you also gain a greater appreciation for what you have. You learn that your way is not always the right way and being open to new ideas and experiences is probably the greatest gift you can give yourself. Most importantly, you learn to see the world as a beautiful place waiting to be explored, rather than a dangerous, scary place. Of course there are dangerous and bad people everywhere - including home, but I always say for every person who has tried to scam me, hurt me or harm me there have been a dozen who have helped me. The world is wonderful and having an optimistic attitude helps make it an easy place to travel!

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