I’ve just left Australia after a short stint working there to earn some money to go back to Asia with. I didn’t want to go. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to tell you I was dreading it. I’d travelled Australia before, and while I think it is a great country with a huge amount on offer, I just didn’t want to go. I’m very happy and comfortable in South East Asia, I’ve spent a lot of time there and I know it well. I just wanted to stay there. But it was that or go home, and I wasn’t about to have left my job for a three month trip.
God, I’m glad I went. It wasn’t a three month whirlwind of partying, I (regret to say) didn’t have a hot affair with some bronzed Australian Adonis, I worked two jobs and for a long time I had no job. It was trying and it was bloody hard work. But, I learnt so much (there’s one for the cliche bingo for you) and in particular, I met some awesome women. Women who had all, like me, started out as solo travellers. I will never forget meeting one girl in my dorm, exchanging the usual “when did you get here? where have you been?” questions that pass a thousand times a day between backpackers in dorms. She’d just arrived in Melbourne, straight from the UK. She’d flown over 24 hours to the other side of the world, by herself, to try out living in another place, at the age of eighteen. EIGHTEEN. I was immediately impressed. I mostly travel by myself, and first left to go backpacking at the age of 22, but I started travelling with my cousin, and I cannot imagine doing what my friend Darina has done. The young are fearless.
A lot of people ask me what it’s like to travel as a female by myself. Every day that I meet new people on the road, at least one of them will express some shock when I confirm that yes, I am travelling alone. This is often followed by a proclamation that they themselves couldn’t do it, and then I tell them they could. I’m proud of the fact I travel by myself. It’s challenging at times but travelling solo is one of the most rewarding experiences. You can be selfish, do exactly what you want when you want, without any pressure. You can spend as little or as long as you like in each place, not dictated by others. It builds your confidence and allows you to learn about yourself in a way you don’t get when you are surrounded by people. I’ve ended up in places for far longer than intended because it was up to me, and left places I didn’t care for on my terms. I’ve met people I would never have had the privilege of meeting had I been with other people, including people I am still friends with ‘in real life’ years later. I’ve learnt more about what I actually like to do – turns out, I don’t enjoy sunbathing that much, which I always do with friends on holiday. I’d rather sit in a cafe or beach side bar and read or write.
There are two main things people ask me about travelling by myself. The first one is “do you feel safe?” Collectively, I’ve spent around 18 months of my life backpacking, and I’ve felt genuinely unsafe as a woman by myself maybe three times: once on a ferry in Java, once in Manila and once in the Gili Islands. It’s horrible, it truly is. But you do what you can to ensure your safety, make sure you have your wits about you and be aware. On the ferry in Java, I moved to where there were other women and – I’m aware this sounds ridiculous in hindsight – I changed into my trainers so I could run quicker if I needed to. In Manila, where I didn’t know anyone yet, I switched on my 3G and what’s apped my mum, who I was late for a FaceTime with, and just kept her up to date and promised to message as soon as I was back at the hostel. Not ideal, but it was better than not telling anyone where I was. Having my 3G on meant my phone could be tracked, and when I could I went into a McDonald’s to use the universally free wifi to properly find out where I was. In the Gilis I relied on my instincts and I asked a male friend to walk me home, which was absolutely the right thing to do, and he was more than happy to do so.
I’m not stupid enough to believe that I can travel absolutely the same as a man can: I can’t. I can do pretty much everything a man can, but as a woman I have to be more aware about my safety in certain situations. I trust my intuition, keep my valuables out of sight in dangerous places (which is a non gender specific thing to do), keep my wits about me as much as I can and as a rule, I always let my parents know when I move onto a new place. Big news can travel slowly when you’re backpacking, and it’s only right they should know where I am in the world, should anything happen – natural disaster, terrorist attack, transport crashes. Letting your parents know where you are doesn’t take away from your independence on the road, it’s just common courtesy, and to be honest I expect the same from them and always ask for their flight numbers when they go away, too.
Just the other day, I was out partying on the beach with some fellow backpackers I’d met mere hours previously. It was busy and everyone was drunk. And yet, everyone looked out for each other. More so perhaps than I’ve experienced previously since I first started travelling four years ago: everyone made sure to stay where they were to wait for anyone who popped back to the hostel quickly, or went to get a drink. When we couldn’t find someone, everyone stopped and looked for them. I think this has very much come as a result of the recent tragedy of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller (both of whom were travelling with friends), who were murdered in Koh Tao in the early hours after a night out. A horrific thing to happen, and something that hits home when it happens to a fellow backpacker, and in a place you have felt so safe. I’ve wandered home drunk after a night out in Koh Tao many times; it could happen to any of us. On the most part, the vast majority of the time I feel safe, because I listen to my intuition and there is a certain camaraderie that comes among backpackers, that includes looking out for each other’s safety.
The second question people ask is, inevitably, “don’t you get lonely?” The answer is yes, I do sometimes. I am someone who is pretty happy in my own company, but loneliness rears its head when I’m ill, or get a bout of homesickness (regularly brought on by a bad hangover), or simply haven’t met anyone in a while. It’s shit and it’s challenging, but is a few days feeling a little lonely a reason to stop travelling alone? Some of the best moments of travelling solo are when you really are by yourself: the only person on a beautiful beach or taking in a mountain vista with no one else around. Chances are you’ll get homesick at some point whether you’re travelling with other people or not, so it’s not a problem specific to travelling alone. And in a way it’s a good thing, to appreciate the life you have waiting for you when you get back – what a wonderful thing, to have a home to miss.
Of course, everyone has different experiences, which is why I’ve asked some of the brilliant independent female travellers I’ve met along the way to tell me about the highs and lows of their journeys, and give a bit of insight over the coming weeks into the type of person that decides to pack up their lives into a backpack and throw caution to the wind. Spoiler: there IS no type of person. You can come from anywhere, have any job, speak any language: the common denominator is the urge to explore and immerse yourself in different places and cultures. And you can do it solo, too.