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Why Going Solo is a Great (and challenging) Long-Term Travel Option for Women

Going solo for the longer term isn't something you should approach lightly: it's different from other kinds of travel and carries with it a number of twists and turns you won't find in a brief vacation away from home. 

I love solo travel - I don't always travel on my own but when I do, especially long-term, I look at things differently than when I travel with others.

Who hasn't coped with culture shock, especially when settling down in a place for more than a few days? You can gloss over differences if you're breezing through but living like a local means having to accept things in a different way and integrating just a little.

If you traveled to certain countries of the Middle East, would you be willing to wear a chador or burkha on a daily basis? What about a simple scarf over your hair? And how would you cope with countries where women are considered second-class citizens?

going solo - headscarves

Long-term travel usually brings out a great deal of introspection in me. With no one to hide behind or bounce things off, I talk to myself more often (figuratively, of course).

Going solo encourages me to think, to explore, to concentrate and to take risks. It forces me to 'enter' my surroundings more deeply, to make conscious decisions about whether I will become 'a part of' or simply 'apart'.

As I traveled around Africa and Asia for more than three years on my own, here are some of the challenges I grappled with.

  • At first, I was hit by an existential crisis. I found it harder to explain who I was or what I was doing. No longer defined by my job or my town or my daily routine, I had to find new ways of explaining and introducing myself. Mind you, the flips side of this was far deeper understanding of myself.

  • I got lonely. Not often, but it happened. A particularly beautiful or moving moment would have me looking around for someone to share it with - so I learned all about managing travel loneliness, especially during special times of the year like birthdays and anniversaries.

  • I pushed my boundaries. Sometimes, the simple things got to me, like eating alone. It took me a long time to be able to walk into any restaurant alone with my head up high. Macdonald's is one thing - a one-star Michelin is something else.

  • Sometimes I didn't feel very safe. When you're with others, there's strength in numbers. Most of the time this isn't an issue - unless you get hungry after sundown in the wrong part of town, or the bus drops you off in the middle of the African savannah and you're the only single female for miles around. But... that was an infinitesimal part of my travels. I applied basic safety sense and that - plus luck - kept me out of trouble.

  • I often felt vulnerable. This goes beyond safety to gender inequalities. Sadly in today's world women are NOT equal and that can lead to disrespect, danger and discomfort. I shouldn't have to worry about being a woman anywhere but sadly, I do. 
Istanbul coffee cup for oneEating alone can easily become a habit - it doesn't have to, but being on your own shouldn't stop you from enjoying the finer things
  • I missed people. These days it's easy but much of my solo travel took place pre-Internet, when calling home required finding special long-distance pay phones. Relationships with people were sometimes perplexing and I longed for the familiar. Something as simple as unwanted male attention, common in many countries, for women of every age, could throw me.

  • I couldn't understand the language. In many countries I couldn't speak a word, and no one spoke English. I would have to make efforts to understand the language and the culture and some days I simply wasn't in the mood.

  • I often paid more. In some countries, you pay by the room, not by the person, so I'd end up paying twice as much as I would have if I was sharing. It's the dreaded single supplement - yes, there are ways around it but, not always.

  • I became a member of the selfie stick generation. With no one to take pictures of you, you have to be resourceful. Sadly, it's not safe to hand your phone to a stranger...

  • Things got a little heavy. Weight-wise. When there are two or more of you, you can split the weight - toiletries or guidebooks, for example. When you're solo, it's all up to you!

  • I became a prisoner of my bag. Whether backpack or carryon, when you're alone you can't leave your stuff anywhere. Need to go to the bathroom? No problem. Just carry your impossibly heavy luggage up two flights of stairs and try to stuff it into a tiny stall - and then carry it back down.

  • Being sick alone is no fun. I can be a real grouch when I'm sick - but mostly, I want people to bring me things because I can't move or get up. When you're on your own, that option disappears, and there's no one around to grump at.

  • I would get caught off guard. Like everyone, I've formed stereotypes in my mind - I expect certain people and places to be a certain way and getting rid of my stereotypes could be challenging. 

  • I got burned out. Travel burnout is a very real thing. There were days I wasn't sure I could continue: too many churches/mosques/ruins/impersonal rooms/development projects. Too much of everything, too many changes, too much motion. It passed quickly.
  • Coming home was even harder than traveling. The reverse culture shock I had to deal with when nothing was as I'd left it yet everything was the same - I can't quite explain it other than by saying I didn't fit in at first, not for a long time. 

The beauty of going solo was the learning and the discovery, especially the self-discovery. I started with baby steps, thinking I'd only be gone for six months. At first I was, but I just kept going.