Tuesday, August 24, 2010
"aren't you afraid of traveling alone ? "
If I had a dollar for every time I have been asked this question, I could have bought a round the world air ticket by now....Seriously, this is by far the most common question I get asked from almost everyone I meet when I tell them I am about to embark on yet another trip to a faraway land. Usually there is a second question that comes right after this one, something to the effect of "Do you feel safe as a woman traveling on her own?" and before they go on to the next question about whether or not I get homesick, I begin to smile, and gently shake my head "no" and begin to explain to them something I have been sharing for most of my life.
No, I am not afraid of traveling alone. This is an absolutely foreign concept to me. I have been on airplanes since I was 4, traveling alone on buses since I was 10, and living on my own since I was 18. I am not afraid of my own company. In fact, I actually like and often prefer my own company. I am usually pretty fun to be with and seem to have honed some pretty good survival skills over the years to cope with whatever situation is presented to me (and there have been many...more on that in another entry or two..)
Sure I have some fears in life (riding rollercoasters comes to mind right now) but getting on an airplane and landing in a country where I know no one and no one knows me continues continues to be one of the most exhilarating experiences that I have in my life. It is hard for me to describe the adrenaline I feel days (sometimes even weeks) before I am about to go on another trip. My sense of adventure for the unknown is so heightened that I often have to make sure my mind's eye doesn't take over and create a whole scenario for me before I even get to where I am going.
I am a believer in letting things "unfold" as they need to though I do believe in at least booking a hotel room or 2 in advance (tripadvisor.com is really good for this) so I can just land, get to my room, and start exploring with no time wasted. And yes, I still have whims (that I often act on) of getting on a train or plane and just going "somewhere" and not knowing much about what I am about to see. I did that in Vietnam 2 years ago and for a month I traveled up the entire coast from the Mekong Delta to Saigon and then onward to Hanoi with nothing more than a lonely planet guide book in tow and the recommendations of fellow travelers I met along the way.
"There are never any strangers in life- only friends you haven't met". These were the words I saw on a worn wooden plaque over our dining room table in my childhood home in Orange, Connecticut. These words continue to ring true for me and I often recite them to myself as I make my way down cobblestone streets in unknown cities and villages where heads often turn from cafe tables and store windows and I am greeted with warm smiles and gentle nods of "sawatdee ka" and "guten morgen".
Perhaps what makes me feel most safe in any foreign country is connecting and playing with the children. Truly this has been my playground and the many moments of laughter and joy I have with these kids will continue to inspire me to travel more. Kids just aren't afraid, plain and simple. They still haven't been told that some people are "bad" and some people are "good". Their sixth sense is completely intact and they just "know" when you want to be friends with them and play. There is no second guessing with them. Just the other day, I was playing with a 2-year old adopted Chinese girl who had never met me before and within 5 minutes of me talking and laughing with her, she gently grabbed my hand and asked me to walk her to the pool to play. An hour later, she gave me a kiss on the lips and said "bye bye" in broken english...a trust was built and then shared....if only everyone got along so easily and well.
So the bottom line is this: traveling alone is safe and often a great deal of fun. If you are open-minded, friendly, and willing to start up a conversation with strangers, you will never feel alone. If you are resourceful, have done some homework on where you are, even better. You will get a good sense of the lay of the land pretty quickly and there always seems to be someone just around the corner that can at least point you in the right direction of "somewhere"
Knowing the language is always helpful but what I find even more helpful is being really good at pointing to words in a dictionary when asking for help. Being clever with nonverbal gestures can also be a lifesaver as has been the case for me in dozens of foreign places around the world where the locals did not speak a word of English. ( Chau Doc, Vietnam comes to mind right now)
And yes, being a woman that travels alone also has some challenges but I sense I really don't need to lecture you all on how to "be" ; Just be yourself, walk with confidence, smile a lot, and just know when to walk away from a situation that might seem "dangerous". Most important of all, trust your instinct- it is usually spot on.
But do remember this: once you get the hang of traveling on your own and have rid yourself of those "demons and fears", you will feel the whole world is literally at your fingertips. No one or nothing can stop you. And that is a pretty darn cool place to be.
If you have any experiences and helpful advice that you would like to share from traveling alone (either as a woman or man !), please share. I would love to hear from you.
until next time....be safe but dont be scared.