Tips for (Female) Solo Travelers

Over the years, quite a number of people have asked me about what it’s like as a solo female traveler. Of course, I can only speak from my perspective- the only one I’ve ever had- but I’ve managed to come up with a list that may prove to be interesting, and hopefully helpful, to anyone out interested in seeing the world on their own terms. 

Personally, I travel for human connections: to learn, see, and maybe even understand. Life is meant to be communicated and experienced together. 

  • It is almost always more mental than physical
  • Discomfort is not the same as danger. What you’re concerned about is generally more discomfort than actual issues of safety
  • Humans are inherently problem solvers and we have been gathering skills our whole lives to fix things and work out issues. Even if they aren’t necessarily “back-country” skills, you’ll figure it out. Eventually, the problem-solving process will simplify as you develop your priorities.
  • Testing limits will allow you to gain experience.
  • That being said, don’t be dumb. Don’t test limits just for the sake of doing so. This will be your call, and the nuances will show themselves with time and experience as you figure out what direction you’re trying to go in.
  • Trust your gut feeling. Develop your gut feeling by being aware of it and listening to it. Don’t be paranoid, but if something doesn’t feel right, it’s better to be rude or unsociable than allowing yourself to enter what feels like precarious territory
  • Develop a different relationship with failure/expectations! If something doesn’t go as planned, you can learn from it, go along and see what happens. Some even say that real adventures don’t start unless everything goes wrong. That’s a bit hardcore, but most of my favourite and most memorable times abroad were unplanned.
  • Do your basic research. Respect local customs. Pack loose pants, tops, and scarves for covering up as needed.
  • A quick-drying travel towel is your friend.
  • I always try to have a book, journal, and pens on me. Helps with keeping boredom at bay during inevitable waits (much of traveling is waiting; this is something people don’t talk about enough).
  • Carry $100+ USD for emergencies (i.e. paying for visas on arrival)
  • Always carry all of your documents- old passports, immunizations, sim cards, etc. You never know when a pandemic may hit and where it may send you…

Lurching from a Global Pandemic

No one’s life has gone unscathed in this pandemic. I remember where I was when I first heard about COVID-19: I was out on a walk around the neighbourhood with my mother, and she had just told me how the community Chinese New Year’s event had been canceled due to a virus from Wuhan. This was back in January, 2020. Most Americans were most likely still unaware of just how globalized our world is, how none of us are truly safe from one another. I had been largely on a news-purge since late August of 2020, filling my screen-time with reading literary and art articles. The closest I got to headlines were New Yorker culture articles. I found that I would hear about important happenings in politics sooner or later from my friends. It became an interesting social experiment.

I was a hair’s breadth away from being stuck in Tunisia, North Africa in mid-March as the incoming pandemic swept through (that’s a story for another time). As what felt like my only resort– short of staying in Tunisia for god-knows-how-long, without a real support system– I opted to fly to Nairobi, where I had lived back in 2018. I could stay with a friend for the time being until I figured out how to get back to the States. I’ve been here for seven weeks and counting, with at least 2 more weeks to go. We learned from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s announcement on April 25th that the initial 3-week internal lockdown for Nairobi, Kilifi, Mombasa, and other hotspot areas was doubled until May 18th. Meanwhile, the international borders remain closed (not counting horrifically expensive embassy-arranged charter flights out of Nairobi to Addis-Ababa, where you’re on your own to figure out what to do next). As I near 50 days of being back in Nairobi, I am a bundle of contradictions. My mind is a mess; sometimes I wake up to realize that I’m here, that I’ve been sharing a bed with my friend for more than a month. The inability to retract into my own space has been wearing– like many others, I find myself crying more than usual. Swinging between highs and lows of what we once knew and all the uncertainty the unsteady future holds. I am seriously eternally grateful that Nairobi is still a home for me- I had never thought that I’d come back under such bizarre circumstances. The space that Karen– the admittedly bougie part of the city– offers has been a true blessing; while we are required by law to wear face masks and socially distance in public, with a strict 7pm - 5am curfew, we are free to go outside for walks and runs as we please. My friends in Spain are not so fortunate. 

It appears that people around the world are bored as heck under lockdown (white-collar, well-off individuals fit this category best). I have not been able to relate to this- if anything, I feel more busy than ever. There’s the ever-present internal pressure to work harder at everything- figuring out shit I haven’t gotten around to (e.g. stock trading, savings strategies), developing personal skillset (writing, GIS, and coding loom high on the list), doing more at my jobs (my core job as project manager/account administrator has been remote since day 1). I can’t remember the last time my life was so routine for so long. It’s a comforting yet stifling feeling knowing where I’ll wake up each day and exactly what I will need to do. This is the perfect opportunity for me to grow into rituals I have always felt the urge to do (intermittent fasting, meditation, oil-pulling, regular journalling, yoga, the list goes on), but are difficult to form given an itinerant lifestyle. Routines in this rather forced setting have the tendency to feel like a core. Normal life consists of carefully calibrated routines– if I fail to get the endorphin fix I need or stick to my tasks, I’m liable to totally falling apart.
If anything, I am trying to put this newfound meditation to good use and not feel overwhelmed about all the films I wish I had time to watch and all the skills I should have obtained last year. The rolling cycle of applications, Skillshare classes, thoughts to clear out via stream of consciousness writing doesn’t stop. The key is to accept and respect all Known Unknowns. But take things one day at a time.

What Remains in Us

A story investigating the healing effect of the trail, and how nature reminds us of the qualities and strengths we possess, even after periods of neglect. 

My hips have never hurt from walking before, but there is a time and place for everything. I was on the final leg of the Primitivo Camino de Santiago and had just reached Lugo, the only city in the world surrounded by completely intact Roman walls. This new pain felt like an appropriate part of the Camino experience. Historically, the devout sought penitence for their sins through this pilgrimage. Days of solo-walking through tiny villages had acclimatized me to quiet trails and minimal human interaction. The bustling streets of Lugo were an unexpected surprise; I found myself ogling at the dozens of shops as I searched for my albergue (pilgrim’s hostel). If all went as planned, I would reach Santiago de la Compostela in three days, a journey totaling 321km. I had mixed feelings about the inevitable end. I knew I would miss the ritual of waking up just to walk, eat, and sleep– truly a rarity in our modern age– despite the accompanying blisters, aches, and bitter-sweet solitude.

One of my oldest friends had invited me to visit her in Barcelona when I spontaneously decided to also walk the Camino. I had once heard of these famous routes which all end in Santiago de la Compostela, where the remains of the apostle St. James are said to rest. Within three weeks of booking my flight to Spain, I found myself making my way west starting from Oviedo, passing endless fields, ripe citrus trees, and gurgling streams. I was struck by the aliveness of February in northern Spain. I relished in bluebird skies and minimal mud after a difficult season of life: leaving a difficult job, the death of a grandparent, and ending a relationship.

Winter is a quiet time on the Camino. I needed this exercise in aloneness. Our normal lives can be so maddening, seemingly bursting with distractions, notifications, and a perpetual stream of tasks. This journey allowed me time and space to reorient myself. My mind was free to process whatever it needed to, or nothing at all. Humans were made to walk, and walk I did. It felt like I was coming back to myself in a way.

Every morning, the fog hugged the quiet landscape in a blanket of mystical glory. Encounters with locals and animals were brief but mostly tender. Evenings were spent alone at albergues, mulling over the sights of the day with dinner at a dingy village bar, usually complete with a bottle of local wine. All I had with me was a pack containing a change of clothes, my journal, and a book. I was reminded of just how little we need to live a full life.

I had embarked on the Camino with the naive desire to find reassurance that I still had what I valued most in myself, even if I lost sight of those qualities sometimes. While the trail gave me the reset I sought, I eventually realized I had never actually lost anything. Everything I needed to collect the pieces of my life were always within me. The pilgrimage did help realign my focus and values; changes in geography usually help. I promised myself I wouldn’t forget this lesson from the Camino: everything I need to carry on is already within me.

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