‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness’
When I tell people I’m travelling, usually solo, the stock response is ‘Aren’t you brave’? I first travelled on my own, to Germany, on the train, when I was 15, so you might say I’m used to it. But, weeks before I make a trip, even now, I’m usually in a total funk, wondering what on earth I’m doing going to remote lands no-one here has ever heard of, on the other side of the world, alone. I get so anxious I pack all the wrong things and a result my bag is always overstuffed and cumbersome.
Reading articles about attacks made on women travelling solo – there was a New York Times article circulating on Stamp the Passport recently – can raise anxiety levels. I try to put this sort of thing to one side and assess the risks sensibly. In developing countries – especially FCO red zones – I pay for a guide and often a driver too. I don’t go out on my own at night without checking whether the area is considered safe. I often spend the evenings sorting my photographs and writing my blog.
I’ve had a lot of minor aggravation, verbal ‘offers’, polite ‘invitations’ sometimes people are selling stuff, at others their goal is somewhat different. I’ve got blonde hair and I attract attention. Fortunately, I’ve never had any major issues because I was travelling solo. The worst time was when I had to manhandle my Bhutanese guide away from my bungalow door. Luckily, he went, and hugely embarrassed, didn’t turn up to take me to the airport next morning. I’ve been in more danger from physical risks in small groups – dodgy Land Rovers with slipping clutches and maniac driving up hairpin-bend-mountain tracks in the Karakorum, for example.
Sometimes it’s a little lonely. But I’ve learned that I don’t need to share an experience to understand that this planet is a wonderful place. I’m the one in charge, so I can do what I want, when I want. I don’t need to feel guilty if I don’t wish to visit a museum (I would rather stay outdoors) or listen to a guide (they often talk too much when I just want to look and I have the Internet for information, which is often more accurate anyway) or motor round a city when I’m not that inspired, or stay longer (or return) when I am. I don’t have to conform to anyone else’s notion of what it means to travel, where I should stay or how long for.
Travelling alone has made me so much more self-reliant and independent. I’ve also developed more patience and tolerance ( I hope). I love seeing geopolitics at first hand and trying to understand how countries and borders have evolved the way they have, Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game was a brilliant read on the Silk Road, as is Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography
I’ve become far more aware of the subordination of women across the globe and cultural pressures and teaching that too often ensures women’s acceptance of their role. A young, university educated man in Iran told me that women should wear headscarves because they ‘look better in them’. Women in Somaliland remonstrated with me when I went out wearing trousers – the men were, on the whole, much less bothered.
It depresses me to see how far and fast the aspiration towards materialism and celebrity is spreading. Though I start to challenge my assumptions about what constitutes a good life when I see how happy and content people in developing countries often are.
I used to read up everything before I went and compile lists of must-sees, but I’ve learned that it’s better not to travel with any specific expectations and I sometimes don’t even read guide books, other than for practical information and just see what happens when I get there. The reward is often strange fauna, extraordinary landscapes, diverse customs, colourful festivals, amazing places to relax in.
On the whole I’ve been welcomed as a traveller. Most people I meet are very pleased that I’ve shown an interest in their country, though in some places, like South Sudan, the concept of tourism is totally foreign. I was warned not even to think about taking out my camera in Juba, where photography equates with spying.
A single woman travelling solo is a concept that frequently evokes both pity and bewilderment. At Kathmandu Airport, I was taken into a curtained alcove to be security checked. ‘Are you married? How many children do you have?’ inquired the official. ‘I’m not, I said.’ No children. ‘Oh I’m so sorry,’ she exclaimed and forgot to search me. Sometimes I just invent husbands and hordes of children, who I’ve left at home. That story is accepted much more readily.
It makes me realise how I lucky I’ve been growing up in the UK, even though our current politics are also a cause for confusion on their part and- embarrassment, on my part, when I’m abroad. I’m questioned repeatedly about Brexit. It was all the officer at the Somaliland Embassy wanted to talk about when I went for my visa. He didn’t ask me anything about my proposed journey.
I’ve been on the receiving end of some abuse as a British or European traveller. I’ve been told to ‘Go home!’ both politely, in Arabic and in much more colourful Anglo Saxon English. I’ve had rocks hurled at my bus in Jordan (Sadaam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait and I was one of the last remaining tourists.) More frequently, I’ve been welcomed, especially, to my surprise, in ex-British colonies, where fond reminiscences have been common. In Bangladesh, my guide told me that it was commonplace to describe someone as ‘being English’ if they had a good idea. In Somaliland, the locals queued up to tell me, in very broken English, and with very big smiles, that they were once a British Protectorate. The peak of G’an Libah looking out across the desert to the Gulf of Aden is most notably ‘where the British drank their tea’.
At times, I have to summon up my courage and initiate a conversation. There are nearly always fascinating people to meet and talk to. Train dining cars are good. Sometimes, we stay in touch and swap travel stories, or even take a trip together. If I’m not in the mood for talk I put on my headphones and take a book. They’re a good back up for quiet (or bustling) dining rooms. If terrain or organisation looks overly challenging (or regulations demand it – like North Korea), I might get a tour custom made, or I might join a group tour for a short while, for one leg of a longer trip. Enjoyment of a group tour, I’ve discovered, is hugely dependent on the quality of the leader/guide. And more often than not I come away thinking ‘I could easily have done that on my own after all’.