To those who pity me for travelling alone

Dear every person in the world,

Please stop looking at me with those pitying glances in restaurants when you see me eating by myself. Please stop giving me furtive worried looks from behind your menu. If you’re a man, no I do not need or want your company for the evening. Seriously, you don’t even know me – please don’t judge. Instead, reflect on how much more awesome my life is compared to yours.

I choose to travel solo. I choose to live my life as a free woman, in a world where women are too frequently questioned for exploring and wanting to learn. I know, it’s very strange of me. Maybe I’ll buy five cats and be the crazy cat lady.

I am not lonely; I am alone. By choice. And I love it.

This morning, I woke up and stayed in bed for an hour. Then I made myself a cup of tea, the way I like it – and didn’t risk it being the worst tea ever, because I MADE IT. No one makes my tea the way I like it.

Last month I spent two weeks in Sri Lanka, alone but not lonely. In years gone by I have travelled through more than 50 different countries; sometimes with a friend but mostly alone. I havemade spur of the moment travel choices, because I don’t have to check in with another person. My money is MY money, and I can and will spend it on what I choose. I don’t have to wait for someone to ok my choices, I just make them and go. I have never lacked for an experience, never missed an opportunity, never felt as though I was missing out on something simply because I had to wait for someone else to give the final clearance on a decision that should have been mine solely to make in the first place.

So please, spare me your pity. I neither need nor want it. Keep it. You’ll most likely need it before I do.

Love,

A totally fulfilled 30-something woman.

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8 things I wish I had known before I went to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a beautiful, exotic island full of ancient culture, breathtaking scenery, wildlife, and smiling faces. For a country with such a recently violent history, the island is actually home to some of the friendliest people out there. Located in the Indian Ocean, just off the southern coast of India, Sri Lanka is neither quite like India nor Asia, leaving it in somewhat of a curious middle ground as far as geography, features, culture, landscape, and customs. You might already assume that some places here don’t serve beef (12 percent of the island’s population is Hindu), but here are some not so obvious things I wish I had known before I arrived in Colombo.

  1. DON’T SKIP COLOMBO:

It would be easy to take advantage of all the information out there that tells you to skip over Colombo, but there is actually a lot to this multi-layered city. Like all capital cities, Colombo is a bustling town with a lot of traffic; on the surface it seems to be all there is to it. But if you slow down, open your eyes and look beyond the cars and tuk-tuks, you’ll see something beautiful. A city of contrast, Colombo is a product of Sri Lanka’s colonial history. Around Pettah and Galle Face Green the architecture is a nod to the colonial past with Buddist and Hindu temples rubbing shoulders with Christian churches. For some peace among the frenetic pace, head to Galle Face Green and play some cricket with locals; or to Beira Lake and take in the tranquility.

2. ALWAYS BE RESPECTFUL OF THE POLITICAL PAST

The civil war may be over, but it only ended a few years ago. While things are safe now, you should definitely be aware of the past and show respect when talking to locals. While it’s totally cool to ask locals generic questions about their lives and families, I probably wouldn’t bring up or get involved in any type of political conversation. It’s still a delicate subject and, unless you’re a scholar on Sri Lankan politics and policy, it’s best to stick to the simple stuff. More than 70,000 people lost their lives in the civil war, so chances are pretty high that the locals you’ll meet either lost family or know someone who did.

3. IT IS SAFE TO TRAVEL HERE

There is a huge misconception out there about how safe Sri Lanka is, and I get it. Call it civil war or terrorism (your word choice will depend on which side of local politics you sit on), it raged for 26 years, and killed more than 70,000 people. Since the war’s end, the Sri Lankan people have been rebuilding their country and tourism has boomed. The aim is to make tourism their biggest industry by 2020, and with more and more people visiting this little gem it won’t stay like this forever.

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4. TOURISM IS STILL DEVELOPING

Tourism is booming. Sri Lanka has more visitors each year, and the numbers keep growing. While this is actually a great thing, you can get around the country without seeing another tourist for a few days; it also means that outside of the major tourist hubs of Colombo, Kandy and the more popular southern beaches places might not exactly be tourism ready. Don’t expect to order your lunch and have it arrive in the next 20 minutes. Or even be the correct food for that matter. Communication can be difficult, especially if English is not your language. English is fairly widely spoken, but in more rural areas tuk-tuk drivers and back street vendors may not understand what you need. Transport can be difficult away from hotels, and where there might be a hotel does not necessarily guarantee plenty of activities. It’s not super convenient to pick up things you might have forgotten at home, like power converters or even shampoo once you’re outside of Colombo. If you’re a five-star luxury lover, you’ll be disappointed in a lot of hotels on offer, don’t expect the same standard as you would get at home. At the moment, Sri Lanka demands patience. But don’t wait. Go now, while she is still finding her feet. You’ll be richly rewarded.

 

5. IT’S NOT BACKPACKER CHEAP

Sri Lanka isn’t like Thailand or Vietnam, those two have been well established on the backpacker trail for years now and the sheer volume of tourists banging down the door makes for cheap options for backpackers. Add to that the fact that a lot of the island’s goods are imported, taxes hike up the cost of drinks and some foods. That said, you can always find a cheap place to eat if you’re happy to eat curry for three meals a day. ATMs can be hard to find outside major towns like Kandy and Colombo, so make sure you always have plenty of cash on you – hidden of course!

6. YOU HAVE AMAZING WILDLIFE SPOTTING CHANCES

I know, you might not have immediately thought of safari when you think of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s varied landscapes make it a perfect spot to spot some of the world’s biggest and most fascinating animals we usually only connect to Africa. In fact, Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park in the south has the highest concentration of leopards in Asia, while Minneriya National Park, located near Dambulla, is where a yearly elephant gathering takes place. Elephant are literally everywhere; I fell asleep on our bus and woke up stuck in traffic with an elephant staring through the window at me. On the southern coast, Mirissa shows off an annual production of blue whales meandering through. Hiking through Horton Plains you have the potential to spot several species of monkey and colourful birds hanging out of the trees.

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7. THE LANDSCAPES ARE MASSIVELY INSTAGRAMMABLE

I don’t know if you caught it, but if you checked out my Instagram anytime while I was in Sri Lanka you’ll know that the country if beyond stunning. The rolling greens hills of tea plantations, Horton Plains and the end of the world, the sandy stretches of the beaches in the south – I can’t pick one highlight.

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8. YOU’LL NEVER BE MADE TO FEEL MORE WELCOME

My tour guide told me, “You come to Sri Lanka for the first time as a stranger, but you leave as family. And now you always have somewhere to call home.” This is just about the most beautiful thing anyone has ever said to me while I have been travelling, and the best part was that he truly meant it. I’ve been back at home in Australia now for just about a month, but I’ve already had a few emails from him and the other friends I made while I was away. I thought Africa was a friendly continent, but Sri Lanka takes that cake.

Destination: Zanzibar

Zanzibar has captured the imaginations of travellers for decades. The clear waters, the distinctly Arabic feel, the call to prayer echoing through the streets of Stone Town, the heat and the typical island vibe are enough to make anyone want to stay forever.

To get to Zanzibar, you can either get the ferry from Dar es Salaam, on the coast of mainland Tanzania, or you can fly with Precision Airlines from Dar, Nairobi, and several other airports within East Africa. The ferry is generally the cheapest option, but is a relatively uneventful ride until you draw near the port of Stone Town. Looming over the top of the low-rise building is the Anglican Church, once housing the holding cells for hundreds of slaves being smuggled to Europe and the US.

Stone Town is mind-boggling. The alleys (you can’t possibly call them streets, they’re far too narrow for a car!) twist and wind and go on forever. All the buildings start to look the same, and it’s incredibly daunting. Throw away your map, and embrace the feeling of getting lost. Women should note, I recommend avoiding wandering alone, especially at night.

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The Anglican Church is built on the original slavery market grounds. There is a memorial there now, and a small museum set up. The underground holding cells have been refurbished and are open to the public, and definitely worth seeing to put the plight of the slaves into perspective. It’s claustrophobic, dark, small, and it smells. Unimaginable that we held people in these underground rooms, with no light, no food, no clothing, no water, and against their will.

The night markets are lively and there are always a good mix of locals and tourists alike looking for a cheap street food dinner. Try the Zanzibari pizza – not a pizza at all, but something between a pizza, a pancake and gozleme.

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Built by Sultan Barghash, the Persian Baths have been around since the late 19th century. While no longer functioning, they were the first public baths in Zanzibar, and as such hold an insight to a different history. Ask the caretaker across the alley to unlock the gate for you, you may need a small tip to coax him.

Sultan Seyyid Said built the Mtoni Palace as his residence in the early 19th century, and although it is now in ruins, in it’s heyday it was a beautiful building with a large balconied exterior, an observation turret and it’s own mosque. A conservation project is now in place, and guided walking tours can be arranged locally.

Spices no longer dominate Zanzibar’s economy as they once did, but there are some plantations dotting the centre of the island. You can book a tour through any of the tourism outlets in Stone Town, and visit to learn about what cloves, vanilla, and other spices look like in the wild. Tours should cost between US$15 and US$20 per person at time of writing.

The beaches are where Zanzibar really comes into it’s own. Sensational sunsets, impromptu volleyball games, dhows anchored offshore, fresh seafood and cold beer. There is something for everyone on the northern beaches, so head north and get into the water. Snorkel, swim, take a boat ride to Prison Island to visit the tortoises.

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Stories from Skye

When the winds of the Isle of Skye blow, they come straight off the northern Atlantic sea; and it’s beyond freezing. It whistles through rock and up gullies, it snap freezes trees and blows through villages forcing inhabitants inside.

I’ve come to Skye in the beginning of Spring, and there is a gentle hope in the breeze. Flowers and gorse start to emerge, turning the mountainsides into a riot of yellow. Although the sky itself is still grey and foreboding, the rain has eased – and with the ease comes buses and buses of tourists. Tourists the world over are a gullible lot, and my guide tries it on with us over and over, telling tales of war and murder, of fancy and faery, all handed down as folklore is, generation after generation. It’s easy to get caught up in the scenery, the stories and the musical score he has to go with it.

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THE OLD MAN OF STORR

One of my favorites of all the stories is the story of Old Man of Storr, the lone pinnacle of rock perched high on a cliff on the north end of Skye. Once upon a time there were actually two of these pinnacles, and legend tells that they are the preserved remains of an old married couple. This couple was madly in love, and each evening after their dinner they would go for a stroll up the mountainside and sit and look at the view over the ocean back toward mainland Scotland. One day, the old lady began finding it more difficult to climb the steep mountain, and the King of the Faeries, who is actually very tricky and not to be trusted, promised to make sure they could sit and look at the view together, forever and ever. Now, given that the King is not to be trusted, you’d think they’d have known better, but they agreed they would like to sit together and watch the view. And there they sat, in rock form, perched together, looking over the Isle of Skye. Until, obviously, one of them fell due to the forces of nature. Now, the Old Man of Storr sits by himself, forever mournful. Now whether or not you believe in faeries (I do), and whether or not you believe in magic (I do), you have to agree that this story is pretty cool. It kicked my romantic heart into gear, and the way our guide told it, with the music, and sitting at the lookout and watching the stones, I was in tears. How sad for the poor Old Man to now have to sit by himself, as a rock, forever!

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THE FAIRY FLAG

No one really knows the origins of the Fairy Flag. It’s a real thing, an heirloom of the MacLeod clan and makes it’s home at Dunvegan Castle. The legend behind the flag is what intrigues me though, because all the best stories have an element of truth to them 🙂
The story goes that the flag was a gift to a Chief by his fairy lover who had to return to the land of the fairies, so she gave him this gift of protection. The flag was said to have mystical properties if waved, and it seems that the legend was correct! The first time the flag’s magic was used was in 1490 during a battle with the MacDonald’s, and again in 1520. The MacLeods were completely outnumbered by the MacDonalds during the battles but with the help of the flag’s magic, they won. And who can argue with historical fact?

THE BLUE MEN OF THE MINCH

Being an island, Skye has many tales of water creatures. The most common is of the Blue Men of the Minch, also known as Storm Kelpies. These creatures, although blue, bore a close resemblance to humans and could speak the native tongue. They were said to cause storms and would sometimes approach the captain of a ship, recite a couple of verses of a poem, and ask the captain to complete it. If the poem were finished incorrectly, the kelpies would overturn the vessel. I have no historical fact the back my theory, but would you want to risk it? Best start working on your poetry recitation!

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THE GIANTS OF SKYE

I love a good giant story, the BFG was my favorite as a child. Lucky for me, giants are major characters in traditional Scottish folklore.  In particular they are associated with the landscape and peoples of Western Scotland.  The formation of many natural features was often ascribed to the exploits of these giants who frequently came into conflict with men, always coming off worse.  Aside from the alternative story of the Old Man of Storr being the thumb of a giant who died after being buried underground, there are countless other stories of giants lying in the dramatic coastal formations of Skye.

Sunrise at Angkor

Discovering my inner Lara Croft wasn’t difficult once I was faced with the temples of Angkor, looming ahead of me like so many monolithic giants. In their somewhat neglected and abandoned state, rampant vines and overgrown silk-cotton trees, I felt like I was stepping back in time to when men ruled with conviction and life was simpler.

The Khmer Empire, once the most powerful empire in South East Asia, controlling the entire of what is now Cambodia, and most of modern-day Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, has a foundation dating back to around 800 AD. Officially Buddhist by religion, the people of the Khmer Empire founded their capital at Angkor, and today thousands of tourist flock to see the temples representing the disintegration of this once mighty political power.

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And so I came to be standing in the midst of a jungle, surrounded by fallen temple pieces, shaded by large trees, and listening to my local guide give me a detailed history of the region. The area is silent, even while other tourists from across the globe surround me; everyone is speaking in hushed tones, as if their voices will resurrect the kings of the past. In the dark half-light, I wander the halls of Ta Prohm, and my imagination runs wild. In my head, I am not sedately walking alone, I am outrunning all kinds of dangers, Indiana Jones is right there with me, and together, we’re going to save the world from ultimate doom.

While the theme music from Indiana Jones plays in my head, I turn to look at another carving in the stone pointed out by my guide. His words wash over me as all I can think about is how long it must have taken to build these remarkable temples, and how lucky we are they are still standing. This part of the world has seen flood, drought, war, earthquake, bombings, genocide, famine, corruption and other atrocities, and these buildings have stood, testing time, waiting patiently for some love and attention.

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And love and attention they have received. Recently, Cambodia has realized it’s tourism potential, and set about restoring the temples of the Khmer kingdoms. This has led to a huge boom in tourism numbers, which both makes my heart swell with pride, and makes me feel like something has corrupted the innocence of this beautiful landscape. Nothing really compares to watching monks walk through a temple compound with a mobile phone and a cane of Coke.

Much of the heavy restoration work was still taking place when I went through the area, and most is now finished. The scaffolding I remember has now disappeared and given way to new structures replacing the old. Safer walkways, restored rooves, and more weeding that I could ever have imagined.

Angkor Wat, definitely the most famous of the temples, stands out in my memory as a sprawling compound, overrun with tourists, all waiting for the sun to sink behind the temple while they set up for that perfect photo. The other temples I walked through – Ta Prohm, Bantey Srei, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan – are definitely on the path well travelled, but I still felt a tug in my belly, a spiritual pull like I’ve not experienced before or since.

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The sun filters through the canopy of trees, causing rays to dance and play in front of me as I walk. Monks in orange robes wander through the complex, and for all the popularity of the temples I visit, I hardly see a soul until I get to Angkor Wat. Even here, in the major drawcard for tourism in Cambodia, I am able to find pockets of peace, places to sit and ponder life and what man can accomplish with great wealth and power behind him.

I urge each and every one of you – go. Experience the wonder that is Angkor. Let your inner hero run wild, explore your sense of adventure and feel the spirit surround you.

 

Stop saying these things to women who travel alone

If I have said it once, I have said it a thousand times. I am single, and I am happy. I like my own company, especially when I am traveling. I like exploring new places and meeting new people and having those connections that a momentary. My choice to travel alone does not make me sad, reckless or lonely. It makes me an adventuring badass of a woman who refuses to wait until she finds The One to have adventures.

Since I was in high school I have wanted to explore the world. I’ve spent my young adult years saving and scheming for grand adventures for myself. I’ve traveled extensively, both alone and with friends, to more than 50 countries spanning most of Europe, Asia and Africa.

I enjoy spending time with myself, especially when I’m away from home. I love being in pursuit of the feeling of wonder that strikes when you’re walking alone down a foreign street, following an intoxicated scent of something baking or roasting, being mesmerized by the architecture that turns simple apartment buildings into large scale artwork. I do enjoy traveling with friends, but even when I am with my favourite travel buddies a crave solo time. I prefer planning adventures alone (and my friends all know that to travel with me means they will get zero input into the adventures). It leaves me open to adjustments, without having to consult someone else. I can embrace the local scene, practice the language, order huge amounts of food for lunch so I can try all the local delicacies. And I can do all this without fear of judgement.

There are a few things I wish you would all stop telling me though. There are some opinions you should just keep to yourselves. These things you say to me, they’re just insulting.

WAIT… YOU’RE GOING THERE? ALONE? LIKE ALONE, ALONE?

Why is it so scandalous that I would want to travel solo? Women have been adventuring alone for years, I am not breaking new ground in doing so. I am an adult, and I’ve been taking care of myself for a few years now. I speak two languages, and parts of others. I am intelligent and perfectly capable of thinking for myself. I mean, I am wearing my pjs at midday as I type this, but it’s Sunday, and what else are Sundays for?

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BUT YOU KNOW PEOPLE THERE RIGHT?

No. And so what? Part of the joy of traveling is meeting new people. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to meet up with old friends in far away places, and I have a fairly extensive network of people across the globe that I love to see. But even when I surprised Mrs Ayla at Christmas in London, I still escaped from London and spent time alone in York and Bath. Meeting up with people I already know overseas doesn’t make me feel safer or more comfortable when traveling to a certain place.

BUT YOU DON’T SPEAK THE LANGUAGE!

People travel for different reasons, and one of the reasons I do it is to learn. I know more phrases in more languages than I can count. I can order food in most European languages, and if I can’t then I’ll say it again. I am an intelligent woman who can read a phrasebook. I’m crafty, I’ll figure it out. I can get around just fine with a guidebook, my iPhone and a G&T.

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SO YOU’RE NOT GOING WITH A FRIEND? BOYFRIEND?

I don’t understand how you’re not getting this yet?

OH MY GOSH! YOU’RE SO BRAVE!

OK. I am a lot of things. I am resourceful, independent and strong. I am a fucking badass. I am curious, confident and solitary. I am not brave. When I made my first foray into the world I was terrified. I was scared witless. I had no idea what to expect. But I went anyway. Being brave is NOT a prerequisite to travel solo. If you wait until you are brave enough you will never go.

YOU ARE SO LUCKY! I WISH I COULD…

Shut up. I am not lucky. I work really fucking hard to travel as much as I do. I chose travel When you all chose marriage, houses and babies, I chose travel. I made it my career, I sacrificed and I made it happen. You could have to, except you chose a life of debt and screaming children and a husband who mentally checks out after a few years. You don’t like your life? Change it. You love your life? Great, stop judging mine.

YOU ARE TOTALLY EAT, PRAY, LOVING!

Fuck off. Just fuck off. I am not a divorcee who is bored with her very privileged life. I am not traveling in response to a trying life event, although I have had plenty of those. I am always open to the possibility of meeting my Javier Bardem…. but I am traveling alone because I LOVE TO.

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BE SAFE. THE WORLD IS DANGEROUS

*thumbs up* Cheers bro. I’ll make sure to put my wallet away now instead of having is dangling off my rhinestone belt while I flash my diamond necklaces and my tiara all over. This advice you’re giving me also empowers me to avoid getting into cars with strange men, because how would I know not to do that if it weren’t for you!

MAYBE YOU’LL MEET SOMEONE WHILE YOU’RE AWAY?

Or maybe I won’t. And that’s ok. Because that is not what travel is about, and that is not why I do it alone.

Solo female travel is an act of feminism

It seems that almost every time I start to plan a new trip, some well meaning soul will decide it is their obligation to forewarn me of the dangers of solo travel as a woman. They tell me stories of urban legends, freak accidents, and legitimate cultural quirks that I’m usually already aware of.

The first time I traveled alone I went to Thailand. I was a woman, alone in Bangkok and it was the single most uplifting thing I had done in my life to that point. I booked my ticket with a travel agent, and started planning and packing my bags. I told my mum what my plans were, I expected she would be proud of me. Instead, she reacted the way any worried parent might. “Who are you going with? Where will you stay? What will you do? Will you be safe?”I had no answers for her questions, and as my departure date grew closer and the answers still didn’t come she became increasingly anxious. All I knew was that Bangkok was the gateway to South East Asia, and it was calling for me.

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I answered boldly. I went confidently forward, and looking back on that first time by myself I laugh at all the extra precautions I took simply because I wanted to be safe, as a woman. We are conditioned from the time we are able to walk and talk to never go anywhere alone, because it’s not safe for girls.

The truth is you are just as safe or unsafe in any city in the world.

Growing up, we are conditioned to never go alone anywhere. We can’t walk to school alone, we can’t catch a taxi alone. Simply being a woman is to be a target for rape and assault. And the stats back it up, we are more likely to be the target of gendered violence. Now I’m gonna say it again – because no doubt someone will make a comment if I don’t. I am NOT advocating that men do not experience violence, I am simply stating that the TYPE of violence experienced by men is different to that experienced by women.

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My moments traveling through what are now considered off limited countries – places like Syria, Jordan and Egypt or Kenya and Tanzania – have been both empowering and liberating. My travel experiences remind me that being a woman isn’t a cautionary tale. We are the substance that every living thing is made out of. Women are life’s essence and we deserve and are entitled to be anywhere we want to be.

While the reality of being safe is obviously important, being safe does not negate the importance of independence, intelligence and confidence when traveling abroad. And it should not stop you from going. Those things people tell you, about how dangerous it is or how reckless you’re being or asking why you won’t take friends with you? I find it generally stems from jealousy. And for me, that’s everyone else issue – not mine.

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So don’t make it yours. Don’t listen to those that would restrict you and keep you close. Roam free little birds, let the wind take you far and wide. Experience the joy that is travelling alone. Bear witness to the global female solidarity you’ll find in women all over the world.