When in doubt, just make NEW friends. (I’m the one on the left, in the hat.)




I travel alone a lot. I also catch fair amount of flack about it. People have been subtly (or not so subtly) insinuating I’m naive, or reckless, or otherwise youthfully unhinged since I declared my intention to go to Rwanda alone when I was in East Africa the first time around, back in 2007; some friends ended up wanting to come with, so it was a non-issue, but I’d already decided I wasn’t fearful of the prospect. Since then, I’ve been to a number of countries without pre-ordained companions, some of which gave my family and friends a collective heart attack to hear about (Damascus is lovely, I tell you, heartbreaking current events aside). At present, as you well know, I’m planning on passing through perhaps a dozen countries as I slowly wind my way back to America. In several, I have friends or friends-of-friends expecting me. I arrived in Ethiopia with two of my closest friends from Peace Corps, and we had a grand old time I wouldn’t trade for the world. But in a few other places … well. I’ll probably be going solo.

I’m not going to post my exact itinerary, guest house location, and room number on my blog; I’m taking smart precautions, honed from lived experience, travel guides, and general common sense. But being a moderately pretty 24-year-old blonde chick stomping alone through Africa MAY sound like the start of a “Law and Order: Hague Edition” episode, and yet … it’s less intimidating than you might expect. Certainly less intimidating than you’d believe if you formed your reactions based on the looks I get from people in airports, or friends who haven’t spent extensive time overseas.

You see, the world tends to be unfair towards women – I’ll whole-heartedly agree with you there – but its danger overall is overstated. The media is giddy to build for us a world wherein to leave your house is to put yourself at 50/50 odds from being bludgeoned with a hammer, or abducted by bandits, or shot by marauding separatists, even in the US. When we allow ourselves to develop our intuition and permit ourselves to gauge risk based on situational street smarts rather than what Fox News tells us, we realize that simple precautions will go a long way in most places. Sometimes it works out ok, and sometimes it doesn’t – a degree of risk is inherent in everything we do. But should that prevent us from accomplishing things that are meaningful to us? Or should we wait for ideal conditions in all things?

I have traveled with large groups, small groups, and as one-half of a pair. I would be hard-pressed to rank one above the rest. Each has its definite pros and cons. Sometimes, there’s nothing more fulfilling than to turn to someone and, while pointing, say “Look! This is a thing! A thing that is cool! Let us acknowledge it mutually and share in the experience of seeing this cool thing!” Conversely, with large groups, you can often turn an otherwise costly trip into a more economically agreeable one, splitting cabs and hotel rooms among more folk than is (probably) advisable. It has its charms, to be certain.

I could go on. I certainly don’t dislike traveling with other people. I am not some reclusive misanthrope, staring daggers at people who want to share my bus seat, waving a stick at children while hollering, “GET OFFA MY LAWN!” (At least, not after I’ve had my second cup of morning coffee.) Few and far between are the traveling companions I haven’t *completely adored.* I’ve been innumerable places where someone else added so much to the experience, I live eternally in their debt and wouldn’t trade the experience for all the tea in a hipster commune. (It can also provide some measure of logistical support and security that may not be strictly necessary but IS awfully encouraging.) Nonetheless, I don’t I see bunching up and moving in herds as a traveler’s imperative. I can handle most things by myself, thank you very much. As can you, in all likelihood, if you give yourself the chance.

When did our culture, particularly my generation, decide doing *anything* alone is inherently shameful or frightening? We are a nation of secret introverts, more connected in superficial ways than ever before, and probably less happy for it. At the end of all things, what are we so afraid of?

Separatists, bandits, and hammer-wielding maniacs, perhaps. Or perhaps just what we’ll find if we’re left alone with our thoughts for too long, without our nearest and dearest – or failing that, any of our 359 (on average) Facebook friends – to interrupt us. You never know what’s lurking in the back of your mind.

“But don’t you get lonely?”

No. Yes. Both of those things, and neither – and is being lonely always such a terrible thing? It’s not bad, it’s different. The difference between cooking a gourmet meal at home or going to a restaurant with a raucous group of friends, or the difference between a jolly midnight film screening and watching a Netflix in bed on a rainy day. Each experience is valuable in its own way, and enjoyable, but for distinctive reasons. Neither can be held as inherently “better” or “worse” than the other; it all depends on expectation and attitude.

And when the genuine isolation of overseas travel begins to creep to an uncomfortable level, it helps to remember that the world is perhaps now a smaller place than it ever has been, with connections more easily formed, and shared experience more easily discovered. What I have found is this: there are “bad” people in the world – you don’t need me to tell you that – whose intent is solely to harm you, or profit from you at your expense. Far more numerous are indifferent people, who in my humble view are all the more frightening for their ambivalence, and for whom the maintenance or degradation of your general well-being is of less consequence than the soda options on their next flight.

But most important, and equal in number perhaps to those who are “bad,” are people who are good, and kind, and genuinely want to help. People who think little of pausing in their own hectic routines to sketch a map for you, or direct you through a particularly labyrinthine airport. People who will end conversations by tearing a page out of a book with a phone number or an e-mail address on it: This is my sister-in-law, she lives in Dubai, she’d be happy to recommend places comfortable for lady-travlelers. This is the phone number for Steve, he runs a trekking outfit in Victoria but his wife and kids live in Harare, if you run into any trouble there are no kinder people in the world to ask for help; best mate I ever had. Don’t misread me: anyone who knows me can tell you I view most people with a healthy degree of suspicion until proven otherwise, and I’d not recommend trusting all comers willy-nilly. But the kindness of strangers isn’t always to be rebuffed. Travelers form their own networks; in this sense, even when traveling solo, are we ever really alone?

I could delve into that question on a deeper, more existential level, but I have a lingering brunch and a fond companion (in the form of a local newspaper) waiting for me. If you need me, I’ll be over here lustily stuffing my face with mandaazi and not caring who, if anyone, is watching. You’re welcome to join me, if you wish. Or don’t. Take the table next to mine.

You may find you like it.

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