Beth Whitman, publisher of Wanderlust and Lipstick, has logged hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe as a contemporary Wanderer: combining her love for travel with volunteer work, adventure trips, travel writing and business.
She has backpacked through Nepal; ridden a motorcycle solo through Central America; worked with orphans in Vietnam; driven the AlCan Highway to Alaska; and maneuvered the back roads of France's Dijon region in a rental car. She's had a hand grenade pulled on her in Cambodia; fought off giardia in southeast Asia; been threatened by Nicaraguan police; and been flashed by men from New Orleans to Saigon.
Women on the Road: What is it that fascinates you about solo travel?
Beth Whitman: I wouldn't say that I'm necessarily "fascinated" by solo travel but I do really enjoy it. Traveling on my own gives me the chance to meet lots of people and find strengths in myself that I didn't realize I had.
I was in India earlier this year on my own. I was stuck at a train station late at night and my train was going to potentially be another couple of hours. I was the only foreign woman waiting amongst hundreds of Indians, mostly men. I walked up and down the platform trying to get information from railway staff to no avail. I then saw a group of three young backpackers standing around also waiting for a train. Normally I wouldn't be so forward, but I found myself just walking right up to these three guys and introducing myself. Of all places, they were from Kurdistan and were happy to have a chat and provide me with a little companionship so I didn't stand out so much as the only white woman at the station. Shortly after we began chatting, I was disappointed to discover they were waiting for another train, and it arrived, leaving me alone for another hour while my train finally came.
My point is that I met a few interesting people that I wouldn't have been so bold to chat with if I had been traveling with even just one other person. As brief as the encounter was, I felt emboldened by the experience and knew that I would be fine for the remaining three weeks I was to spend in the country.
What kind of a traveler are you - do you plan or do you just head off?
I definitely plan but I ALWAYS leave room for serendipity. You never know when you might meet someone, a local or another traveler, who gives you a great idea for a place to stay or eat or even another little town to visit that's totally off the tourist map.
What draws you to a place - how do you decide where you'll go on your next trip?
I have so many places on my list. Usually what happens is that information starts popping up about a given destination and then it just seems like everything is pointing me in that direction. Right now it's Argentina! I've met several expats living there and I'm convinced that an opportunity will arise for me to go there sooner rather than later.
What is the best thing that has ever happened to you on the road?
Wow - there are so many things that I can't point to one. What strikes me is that when I'm really down, lost or in a situation that is difficult, people seem to come out of nowhere to help out.
I had ridden my motorcycle from Seattle to Panama on a nine week solo trip. In the countryside of New Mexico I had a flat tire on a Saturday afternoon, when most shops are closed. I met a few people who were really helpful, putting me in touch with a mechanic, 30 miles away, who came to help out. I don't know what I would have done if these people didn't take me under their wing.
As odd as it might sound, it's the times that are most difficult that tend to turn intothe most interesting experiences. It makes me realize how wonderful people really are all over the world.
What is the story behind Wanderlust and Lipstick?
I had been teaching workshops for women travelers for about 15 years in the Seattle area and it seemed to me there was a lack of information for women that really encouraged them to get out and travel on their own. Initially I wrote The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo to address these women and launched the website around the same time. I then realized that I could expand that for women wanting to travel to specific regions and for other niches. For Women Traveling to India was released in September of '08 and Traveling with Kids in early '09.
What prompted you to write your book "For Women Traveling to India"?
I had been to India a couple of times and realized that, as wonderful a country as it is, it is a challenging place for women to travel.
I don't think that women should avoid going there just because it's challenging. So, I wrote a book that addresses a lot of the concerns that women have and hopefully it will be an inspiration for them to plan a trip.What kind of experiences did you have as a Western woman in India?
What kind of experiences did you have as a Western woman in India?
Indians are so kind and friendly. Because I'm a Western woman, blonde and blue-eyed at that, I stand out. So people are VERY interested in meeting me. Young women would come up to me and touch my skin and ask for my autograph. I can't tell you the number of photos I was asked to be in with entire families. It can be overwhelming but it really is quite sweet.
How can solo women stay safe when we travel to India?
I don't think that India is necessarily "unsafe", not when you compare it to big cities like New York or Rome. But, like anyplace you travel, you have to take some precautions.
The first thing is that a woman needs to dress conservatively so as not to be hassled, groped or stared at by the local men. It's a socially conservative country and what many women don't realize is that they need to cover their shoulders and knees unless in a very touristy area. This will go a long way in being safe.
Secondly, it's really important to act confidently. If a woman isn't an experienced traveler, it would do her well to take a course in self defense for women. Not that she'll ever have to defend herself (because India is NOT a violent country), but she can then carry herself with confidence that may thwart an opportunistic thief looking to quickly grab her bag.
Where do you still want to go?
The two big destinations on my wish list are Papua New Guinea and the Brazilian rainforest. I'm fascinated by indigenous cultures and really want to get to these two places for that reason. I may have an opportunity to get to PNG next year and I can't wait!
I'm also leading a couple of trips to Bhutan next year and one to India... So, if there are any folks out there interested in joining me on these very special trips, I'd love to have them!