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  • Isabel Steele

Females Travelling Solo

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

Firstly, I want to reinforce that I am aware that the plights of solo travel can be as daunting for men as for women. But to retain the niche, focused by my own female perspective, I wanted to help other women to build adventures from a world that shouldn’t be restricted to us. It’s about taking educated, calculated risks. Let’s chat about this and put the myth to bed - that the world is too dangerous for a woman to take on by herself.

Of course, women traveling solo face certain dangers (the easy target, the quick scam, the sudden spicy accent you magically acquire as soon as you step through arrivals – it’s not all doom and gloom). Read on to ease your mind, gain confidence to plan your next trip, and refocus our concerns on issues much closer to home.

Living between purples skies and warm turquoise seas. Marie Galante - you won me over.

I started solo travelling at 18. I’m now 24. I’ve lived in 5 countries, lived 9 chapters, and been abroad for a total of 28 months. I even shocked myself when I counted those up. I’d simply discovered a need to explore what is aptly referred to in literature as ‘the cultural Other’. I wanted to familiarise myself with this otherness, or at least appreciate it in contrast and comparison to myself. I was excited by the thought of endlessly changing directions and the multifaceted personalities I’d have to acquire to blend in. I’d visualise the friendships I may build, despite thick language barriers and cultural differences. This is where my love for languages came from, as a way into these communities. Because to be able to laugh with my host families around their dinner tables, cultural references couldn't be lost in translation.

Chloe, a woman who inspires me every single day. She is a now an NHS Hero but we'd kindled our friendship last year, during a dreamy week under the palms, swimming with turtles and eating sorbet de coco.

I’m still in one piece (just) and would argue that my most valuable life lessons have been whilst culturally immersed among communities I’d known little about before turning 18. I started as an Au Pair (arguably a terrible one) for 4 Parisian rascals, herding them like sheep on the underground and gaining a new-found appreciation for my parents. You grow up fast. Since then, I’ve served lobster to million dollar yacht owners in the French Mediterranean. I’ve learnt countless scripts for cartes des vins to serve to fur clad Russian families living in the Alps. I’ve learnt to fit in snowboard sessions as fast as triathlon transitions, between 16 hour alpine restaurant shifts. The mountain is always calling.

Hannah, one of the most special women I've ever met. We spent our Guadeloupean days swimming until the sun joined us in the water and our final year at university planning the next mountain trip. I can't wait to see what beauty she creates in her adult life.

I’ve loved, I’ve lost. I’ve made life-long friends with people that I would never have met if I’d been travelling with a group, and who warm my heart when I ring for a catch up four years on. I went abroad to work, from waitressing to teaching. And I hope that the many mornings I’ve forced my (well disguised) introverted self in front of a class of 30 flamboyant teenagers, that I helped inculcate their passion to learn. To lead by example, to squeeze the very best out of our education, and that concentrating in language class really can take you places.

It certainly doesn't always go plain sailing but the kindness of people you'll meet along the way is priceless. Marie Chantal took me under her wing for 6 months and guided my discovery of Guadeloupe. Some people are bursting with selflessness and I'm honoured that they have been part of my life.

I’ve raced on motorbikes back from Thai beaches, wearing only a bikini and an

invincible/invisible helmet. That was silly. For months, I’ve survived on only one main meal a day and a hand soap as my only cosmetic product because I was being paid in foreign cheques I couldn’t bank. It’s not always pretty. I’ve gotten myself lost over thousands of kilometres of high altitude mountain trails. But I’ve swam with lemon sharks and sting rays, even ebullient retirees, brown as leather sofas. I’ve trained with a Caribbean CrossFit community until I had more shoulders than Dwayne Johnson. I’ve had the honour to speak with Nobel Prize Laureates, Peruvian governmental advisors and Muay Thai champions…and then there’s the ‘normal people’. The man who had hitch-hiked from Western Africa to Brazil by volunteering as a skipper on someone’s transatlantic yacht. Now you won’t find him on your doorstep. Or any of the above for that matter. Have I tempted you yet?

Eleanor from Oxford, the kindest, calmest presence I met for the first time on a Caribbean beach. She will remain a friend for life as I follow her career development into a Human Rights Lawyer.

And not any of that was done with a body guard or someone to hold my bags. This is not to say that you should all ditch your boyfriends or avoid nurturing new relationships along the way. As I know as much as anyone, we all need to be surrounded by loved ones, shoulders to cry on, and friends that laugh our socks off. We all need a support system. But if you’re faced with the prospect of a solo voyage, don’t shy away.

As Mum kindly reminds me when I’m losing sight of the ground: “Don’t forget, even Lara Croft had a butler”.

Hannah I had the luck of meeting during finals, she is the most powerful go-getter I know. As a fellow linguist she's managed to hold down solo world travels, elite swimming, coding and launching innovative aps, writing first class essays, and that's just the 9-5.

But when you’re fearing the leap into the unknown, remember reading this. When you have the freedom of solo travel, you’ll be surprised by the people that become best friends, coming from homes very different from your own. How liberating to go out there and find that yourself. On your own terms. Remember that the feelings of doubt and fear, will be far outweighed by the pure elation when you see, with your own eyes, a country you’ve read about since you were a young girl. When you’re freely thinking in a language that was once just pleasurable symphonies of foreign sounds. When you’re laughing with someone from a culture you knew little of, over a remark only a local would understand the nuance to. When you seamlessly wander down a new street in new lands, realising people aren’t taking a second glance, because the world’s diverse communities have long spilt pacifically into one another. You could almost have been there all along.

Ros, one of my incredible house mates this year. She spent her Year Abroad navigating a long distance relationship with her now husband and moving between Italian landscapes, establishing lifelong friendships with Italian families. I'm sure she'll be living in one of these towns with her husband once day - keep drip feeding the idea Ros!

The world is abundant with kindness and generosity. But to ease your doubts, read broadly about the region before you go. Make sure to be aware of cultural differences, dress codes and social etiquette – respect this loyally. Logistically, make sure to have your first few nights’ accommodation booked and a small financial safety net. Use a widely accepted money card (Post Office Card was my usual go-to for emergency funds). Make sure your loved ones know where you are – the uncertainty you feel is probably a fraction of what your parents are feeling! And don’t speak to strange men. Unless they’re offering free champers on a superyacht or a helicopter ride. Just have an Escape Plan A. And maybe a B, depending on how extravagant the offer.

Fiona, an adventurous soul I've got to know this past year, who travelled solo through Corsica and Latin America, only fuelling the fire for more trips. She is now living back in Spain, working for The British Council.

Just make sure to go to new countries with a wide open mind, trying not to create preconceptions about what the experience will entail or how your new acquaintances will go about their lives. Take your own perspectives with you, but regularly set them down to allow in different ways of seeing. I’ve seen some of my most inspiring friends overcome doubts about solo travels with such confidence. They’ve come home with the most enriching tales of teaching English in poverty stricken areas of Latin America, living gelato fuelled adventures with enormous Italian families and learning computer coding between French and Spanish. They’ve only come back home more resilient.

My beautiful sister Maddy who has solo travelled to China and Australia. She visited the Great Wall of China and got invited to fashion conventions in Shanghai before travelling the East Coast of Australia. Classic Covid brought her home!

Women travelling solo have an instant affinity, becoming precious friends with whom you’ll share memories like no other. You may head to the airport completely solo, I did every time, with my own agenda and itinerary. But solo female travellers make up an enormous community, you'll come home with friends who've saved you from foreign hospitals, cried on each other’s shoulders when you’ve felt homesick, collaborated on Plan B when Escape Plan A fell through, and ran around naked on tropical sugar sands, whooping at how wonderful life is. So cliché.

Charlie, a German and Spanish linguist, with whom I spent endless hours in Lima's coffee shops and museums putting the world right. I don't know what I would have done with my afternoons without her.

As I said at the beginning of this post, while we worry about our women travelling alone, the more immediate risk remains hidden in our own homes. In a statement made by the Executive Director of UN Women, in the previous 12 months, 243 million women and girls (aged 15-49) across the world have been subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner. Tragically, only 18% of women who had experienced this abuse reported it to the police[1]. These numbers can vary, but they are always shockingly high. So statistically, a woman’s safety and emotional health are more likely to be at risk in an intimate relationship, quietly internalised through fear or shame, than when discovering other cultures across seas. And the world needs more intercultural appreciation and exchange.

Charlie, a training doctor who has travelled Latin America. Last year, she worked with The Menstrual Project, collaborating with Lalibela High School, Ethiopia, to ensure the girls now have access to sanitary products.

With this crazy year we have been going through, four billion people have been sheltering at home across 90 countries (Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women[2]). So before we worry about whether we should allow our strong women to travel solo, to relish foreign colours and tropical flavours, to dance all night at carnivals, and to discover new ways of seeing the world, consider proportionate risk. Before we stamp on the autonomy of our sisters, best friends, mothers, and aunts, to go out there and experience our global community, let’s make sure to protect them from abuse under our own roof. We must raise all women, so that once the world gets back on its feet, we feel like we can take on the world regardless.

Rachael from Oxford, one of the most intellectual, well-read women I've had the pleasure to discuss literature for hours with and drop it like it's hot in Bachata classes in Tarapoto.

Of course, I've been painfully lonely at times and just wanted to pack up and go home. But thanks to the endless support of my family over FaceTime and new friends who've made me laugh until I cried, I've always healed and head back out. While I think setting down some more tangible roots at some point might be a good idea, I'm not ready to stop solo travelling just yet.

Sophie, a Spanish and Arabic student from Durham who I met while living in Peru. She has a sense of humour that would leave us creasing. Living in Lebanon since, I hope Covid didn't cut her travels too short.

To close this blog, I want to say, stay wild, stay fierce, and never underestimate the power of your thoughts to become your reality. Book those solo flights.

Issy x

Note: all photos are of women with whom I've shared the passion for solo travel this past year. And we'd ALL do it again.

The freephone, 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000 247

[1] CSEW data :

[2] Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (April, 2020)

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