I’m taking a break from recapping my trip to the Azores Islands and Lisbon (Part 1 here and Part 2 here) and from overloading you with pictures to talk about solo travel and why I chose to kept this trip largely secret from friends and yes, even my family. You might remember in my first post about the trip that I mentioned that not very many people knew about the trip beforehand, and it was never mentioned on the blog or on social media until I had already landed. “Why keep something so exciting a secret?” you might be asking.
I booked this trip months ago – actually, not long after I came back in October from my trip to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Oman. I was itching for another travel experience and I hate not having anything lined up. I also knew that I was committed to going to Nepal this year, probably by myself, so I reasoned that it would be a good idea to test out how I feel about solo travel before going on a long trip in a more challenging country. After all, I have traveled in the U.S. by myself but never overseas, and I didn’t know if I would like it. Of course, I talked to my husband, A.J., about it, but literally told no one else for a very, very long time. Not even my best friend knew at first. Why?
As I touched on in a previous post, the negative comments that I received about terrorism and the treatment of women in the Middle East, however unfounded they were for the countries I was visiting, affected me much more than I could possibly have realized at the time. When I arrived, I found myself jumping at everything and unable to relax. My experiences in my first couple of days gave me no reason whatsoever to feel threatened, but the opinions and comments I had received had colored my expectations negatively. Did those thoughts and fears come from a place of concern and love for me? Yes, probably. But the result was that cultural differences started to feel like threats even when I was meant no harm. After talking to my best friend (who was traveling with me), I realized that I was letting the opinions and concerns I had heard determine how I perceived where I was. After I realized that, I was able to calm down, but the last thing I wanted was for that to happen again.
I love my parents, but my mom is…a bit of a worrier. She’s a mom, after all. All I could picture was long emails and Facebook messages begging me not to hike alone, imploring me not to go at all, and phone calls to AJ asking if he was really ok with this. I envisioned myself tentatively looking around every tree and jumping at every sound on my hikes, or nervously clutching my bag while walking the streets of Lisbon to avoid pickpockets. So, I decided to avoid the situation entirely. I called my parents and told them I was leaving while sitting in the airport in Boston, waiting for my flight to the Azores with about an hour left til takeoff. Now, I will give them credit – they were very cool about it on the phone. But my mother did begin to panic once I was gone (“Don’t you get any ideas about traveling by yourself to Africa because that is NOT HAPPENING”) and so I felt vindicated in my decision (sorry Mom, it’s true).
Here’s the thing. Female solo travel is not widely accepted in a lot of places. It is certainly not as common in the U.S. as it is in Europe, and it is really uncommon where I live here in the South. I knew my parents would be worried out of their minds, and, after all of the negative comments and opinions I got when I mentioned my trip to the Middle East, I honestly just didn’t really want to deal with it because I wasn’t confident that I could. Yes, I knew there would be some people who would be very positive and excited for me, but I also knew there would be a lot of “You’re CRAZY to travel by yourself!” or “I would be SO scared to go alone!” That just makes me scared. Although some of you may have no idea what I’m talking about, may not think traveling alone is a big deal at all and might not understand why I was worried about people’s perceptions, unfortunately, my worries often turned out to be accurate. The people I did tell ahead of time (mostly no more than a few weeks before I left) often reinforced why I didn’t want to spread the word in the first place. The conversation frequently went something like this:
Them: “Oh, you’re going on a trip? Cool! Who are you going with?”
Me: “I’m going by myself”
Them: “By YOURSELF? What does A.J. have to say about that/A.J. is letting you go alone?”
I am not exaggerating when I tell you that probably 75% of the people I spoke to about this trip asked me first what my husband thought about me going alone. There was no “Wow, why did you pick Portugal? What are you going to see? That’s so exciting!” Just “What does your husband think?”
I try not to get overly uppity about this kind of thing, but you guys – my husband doesn’t “let” me do anything. He’s not my keeper. He doesn’t give me permission to do anything, just as I don’t give him permission to do anything. We value each other’s opinions and of course ask for them in a situation like this, but ultimately, we trust each other’s judgement. And honestly? It made me feel incredibly small and unimportant and it deeply shook my confidence when people asked me that question, especially when they asked it first. Intentional or not (and it often came from other women, so it was likely not intentional at all), the question implies, at least to me, “You can’t make decisions by yourself. You need your husband’s approval. This is a bad idea.” Maybe that’s being overly sensitive, but that’s how I felt when I heard it.
All this tough talk sounds pretty good, right? Like “Yeah, I don’t need no man! I can travel alone! Woo!” The problem is, as I’ve already told you, I’m not fearless. Not at all. So all of the comments from my friends and family made out of worry and fear (I don’t really get negative comments here on the blog very often – thank you for that!), while they come from a good place of genuine concern and caring, only serve to inhibit me and diminish my experiences when I travel. I am not at the point yet where I feel powerful enough to brush them off and ignore them. I’m not a superhero. I worry tremendously and suffer from crippling anxiety. Those comments affect me deeply and personally, even though I wish they didn’t.
Deep down, I did worry that maybe this trip was a bad idea, so people reinforcing that tiny notion (whether on purpose or not) was not going to be helpful to me and make my trip successful. Confidence is key to keeping you safe anywhere you are, and I struggle enough with my confidence as it is. When I’m home in the U.S., I don’t walk the streets fearing that 99% of men are looking to harm me. Why? Because they’re not. And while there are certainly countries where solo female travel is more dangerous than in others, in most places, the situation is the same: most people want to help you, not hurt you. I’ve encountered nothing but kindness on any of my trips, and many of them have been taken with “only” another female friend. I needed to remember that, not the fact that most people in my life thought it was a bad idea for me to go.
Ultimately, this trip was about proving to myself that I was more powerful than the voices and doubt in my own head. And maybe it’s selfish, but the last thing I wanted to worry about were the thoughts and doubts in the minds of others. I’d like to think that now that I’ve made it back from my first trip in one piece (and with a working phone after all), the people around me will be more confident in my ongoing survival. The good news is that, as you’ve seen from my posts so far, the trip was an amazing, empowering experience! I returned home with more confidence in my ability to take care of myself and problem solve than I’ve ever had. So while I can’t say that I’ll always tell all of my secrets, I know now that I’m one step closer to relying on my own intuition and opinions to help me navigate the world and one step further from fretting about everything I hear. That, my friends, is something to talk about.
LEAVE A COMMENT: How do you feel about solo travel? Have you ever gone on a trip (domestic or international) alone?