My Biblical Archaeology lectures were illustrated by slides of the lecturer at various ancient sites (an über-early adopter of the selfie?) looking like a cross between Indiana Jones and Mr Bean. Not only was the subject fascinating but his slides made this strange and historic land seem accessible and familiar.
Having been on several family holidays to Europe I decided, at 19 full of the arrogance of youth, that I was amply qualified to toddle off to Israel to check out these places for myself; no one would come with me so I stubbornly decided to go on my own.
That was 17 years ago and the beginning of my solitary travels. I am currently alone in Malaysia and thought this would be a good time to provide some reflections on travelling as an unaccompanied woman. One of my pet peeves is people who imply that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to travel, so I am merely offering one perspective, based on my own experiences.
On that trip to Israel I visited the Western Wall approximately six thousand times – I was absolutely mesmerised by everything about the place. Not having to justify or explain that decision to anyone, or forgo that experience to accommodate their desires, is self-indulgence on a level that’s hard to get in real life.
An interesting one, this. Personally, I am something of a misanthrope and am not really interested in meeting people for the sake of meeting people. Small talk gives me the eye-rolls and most people (myself included) are fantastically dull until you get to know them properly (which rarely happens in a ‘travel’ scenario). That said, being alone makes you more approachable and allows you to sort the companion wheat from the dreary chaff fairly easily. I have met some amazing people on my journeys who I would simply not have got to know so well if I had had someone with me to dilute my (and their) attention.
Easier to squeeze in
There’s often room for one more person on a tour / bus / table where there wouldn’t be room for a couple. This can lead to…
I have been adopted by trainee priests, expat families and hotel staff, giving me access to experiences I would never have had otherwise. This rarely happens to couples (though does happen sometimes to single sex pairs) and I think is particularly likely when you are a female alone – people often want to protect and nurture you, which I’m fine with!
Superior people watching opportunities
One underrated advantage of having no one to talk to is that no one knows what language you speak. This opens up a whole new and wonderful world of eavesdropping on monumentally unguarded conversations (just be aware of that when you're the one having the inappropriate chat and thinking no one can hear you!).
Most hotels are charged per room rather than per person. Since accommodation is one of the biggest expenses when travelling (if you’re fussy, like me) this is a very real issue. There’s no real way round it if you're not prepared to share with strangers.
Sometimes it’s just nice to share stuff with someone. Evenings can be particularly difficult on your own; you need to get comfortable with just a book or a notepad and pencil for company. Modern technology is your friend here; the invention of the smartphone since I started going away on my own has removed a large part, though by no means all, of the loneliness factor.
So, you’ve decided you can handle the occasional bouts of loneliness and your bank manager has confirmed that you can afford not to share accommodation; here are my top tips…
- Always carry something with which you can reserve a seat – a cardigan you don’t need to wear or a book, something you can live without if it gets pinched when unattended – it is incredibly frustrating to have a prime spot in a café only to lose it when you need a wee.
- Take pictures of maps or directions. If you feel vulnerable wandering round alone with a map out – basically screaming ‘I’m a tourist!’ – use your camera or ‘phone to take a picture of it. That way, you can be checking out where to go whilst looking like someone nonchalant and local enough to be walking and texting. Clearly, there are places where having your ‘phone out is ill advised, but this works really well in lots of places.
- Wear really dark glasses. For the people watching.
- Take tours. You’ll meet people whilst having a set time to get rid of them (at the end of the tour) or carry on hanging out, as well as learning loads. When you travel with someone you discuss what you’re seeing and hearing, which deepens the experience and is missing when you’re solitary – a tour can fill this gap.
- Don’t bother with a fake wedding ring. I’ve seen advice that says wearing a wedding ring will minimise hassle. It won’t. Knobheads will be knobheads – the kind of guy who’s going to hassle a woman on her own is not the kind of guy who’s going to think ‘oooh, she’s wearing a wedding ring, I’d better leave her alone out of respect for the ancient and venerated institute of marriage’. Sadly, in many countries, hassle is what you will get (and this doesn’t just happen when you’re alone or when you have a vagina, it’s just a frustrating part of being a visitor in some parts of the world).
- Enjoy yourself! Make the most of the freedom and pack something to cheer yourself up if you feel a bit blue (personally, I like some good undies and some fancy shower gel, but each to their own).
In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that I prefer travelling with a good companion than without one but that's not always possible. Lone travel is, for me, always going to be preferable to no travel.
I'll finish with a small selection of things I would never have seen if I refused to go away without a friend as a comfort blanket.