Today, I’m delighted to bring you an article by guest blogger Jodi Ettenberg of Legal Nomads, a former corporate lawyer-turned-long-term-traveler from Montreal. Jodi has been eating her way around the world for more than two years and has had many and varied experiences during her time on the road, including having her temporary home neighborhood in Thailand turn into a war zone and being shat upon multiple times by birds of many nationalities. I asked Jodi if she wouldn’t mind sharing with us her thoughts on long-term travel, from the perspective of a woman traveling alone.
As a solo female traveler who has been on the road for over 2 years, I often get emails from other women asking for reassurance or tips before they too take the plunge and travel alone. When Gray asked me to do a guest post on her site, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to put my thoughts down in one place.
My first solo travel experience was when I went to study in France in 2001. It was my first trip overseas without family, and my first time living so far from home. I remember staying up all night just before I left and worrying myself sick. Would I make any friends? Would I even leave my room? During my first Friday in France, I forced myself to the train station and asked the attendant where the next train was headed. Annecy was the answer – a tiny, picturesque town nestled into surrounding mountains, with a beautiful lake to explore. I inhaled deeply, bought the ticket – and had one of the best weekends of my life. I wandered around town aimlessly, met other backpackers at my hostel and wrote for hours in my journal. I often wonder how my perspective would have differed had that first solo foray gone awry, but luckily for me the damage was done: I was hooked on solo travel.
Fast forward to 2008. I quit my job to pursue my dream of travelling around the world, and started out with a fellow lawyer. After I got sicker than sick and had to go home to recoup, she continued on and in September of 2008 (when I had finally recovered) I took off alone. I’ve been traveling solo since, and it is terrific.
Why Do I Love to Travel Alone?
As someone who tends to obsess over the little quirks that make a place special, I find solo travel a uniquely suitable enterprise for my personality. I am also obsessed with food, and it is an obsession that has grown over the last two years. While most travelers love to try new foods, I tend to plan my days around eating and traveling alone means that I can take the time to savor as many street stalls as possible or travel to tiny towns to try a new food. Being alone also means that there is no fixed schedule, nor anyone to consult with if I want to leave earlier than planned or stay longer in a given place. Of course, it is easy to meet people on the road, and oftentimes many of these activities involve a new sidekick or two – but it is a tremendous comfort to know that whenever I want to move on, I can.
Do I Ever Get Lonely?
I would be lying if I said I did not have pangs of loneliness on the road, but the reality is that they remain few and far between. Watching a glorious sunset over the ruins of Bagan was great with my newfound friends, but would have been even lovelier to share with someone who knew me even more. And there have been cities or places like Iloilo City in the Philippines, where there was nary a tourist in sight and as dusk fell I found myself wistfully thinking of home. More often than not, however, I am caught up in the whirlwind of a new destination, with its exciting new foods, sights and cities or towns to explore. And let’s not downplay how incredibly easy it is to meet people on the road. All you need to do is put yourself out there and strike up a conversation with someone new – what’s there to lose? If you two get along, you have a travel companion for the next few hours or days, or a friend for life.
What about Getting Sick?
The only time that travelling alone became a scarier proposition is when I got sick. Luckily I have been able to rely on the kindness of strangers – rehydration salts from another hostelgoer in Burma, some charcoal pills from a newfound friend in Cambodia – when travel sickness has set in. Loneliness tends to tighten around you when you are at your weakest, and there is no question that sitting on the floor of the bathroom in a new country can take its toll on your psyche. As clichéd as it sounds, getting through and past these moments of sickness mixed with solitude have made me feel stronger as a person. I have also made sure to repay the favour with other travellers who have gotten sick on the road. A big hug, cold water and some bananas from a new friend goes a long way when you’re feeling down.
Do I Worry About Safety?
When women write me for advice about solo travel, I always respond the same thing: first and foremost, you need to have confidence in yourself and your instincts, and you need to use common sense. When I was still saving to quit my job and travel, I would think about what it would be like to finally be on the road, and safety certainly figured prominently among any worries I had. As Gray advocated in her recent post, common sense goes a long way toward keeping yourself safe on the road. I don’t drink copious amounts of alcohol, and if I do have a beer or a drink, I never let it leave my side. I tend to pay a little more to stay in more centrally located hostels or hotels, knowing that a walk home after dark might be a problem if I were in a gloomier area.
Those basic tips aside, I also do the following:
I keep a doorstop in my backpack for those hotels where the staff seems a wee bit sketchier than I would like. Shoved between the door’s end and my floor, it gives me some piece of mind when I sleep and some extra noise if someone is trying to get in the room. Yes, this did come in handy once in the Philippines, where people tried to get in my room at 3am (I obviously switched hotels the next day).
I opened a second bank account and put in a few hundred dollars. On the whole, Asia is remarkably safe compared with some other destinations but for my travels through South America and South Africa I made sure to open a 2nd bank account and deposit a few hundred dollars of cash in the account. The reason for this is the ‘express kidnapping’, whereby tourists have been kidnapped and forced to withdraw the daily maximum from their bank accounts each day, until they drain their bank account entirely and are set free. No, this is not a common occurrence. But setting up a 2nd account took 10 minutes of my time and gives me the piece of mind to travel knowing I (hopefully) have a way out without losing all of my savings.
In parts of the world, I carry a mugger’s wallet. Again, this depends on your destination but it came in handy for me when I was mugged at knife point in Brazil. I don’t tend to carry one when I am in Asia, but having a second wallet with a few fake cards and a small bit of cash can save you a lot of hassle if you are asked to turn over your valuables. Yes, use of the mugger’s wallet is contingent upon keeping a cool head and being robbed by someone who doesn’t give you a thorough pat-down. But when it does work out – what a relief!
There is no guaranteed way to keep yourself absolutely safe, and horror stories involving women can happen on the road or at home. I try not to become too complacent in a familiar place, and keep a watchful eye wherever I go.
Would I do It Again?
Overall, I’ve found solo travel to be a rewarding, engaging experience. I’ve made friends with locals who strike up conversations on buses and boats and trains, I’ve pushed my comfort levels by hiking up mountains alone and I’ve grown tremendously as a person over these last two years. While I can see the benefits of traveling with a friend, I would encourage everyone to try traveling alone at least once in their lives.