CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA—I think the Australian/Scottish couple at the table next to me felt sorry for me sitting by myself at Nobu so they started making small talk about my smoking lobster dish and their melting chocolate fondant. A few minutes later as the conversation dried up, the waitress came by asking me if I wanted to read a book while I waited for another course. I politely agreed to the book but kept thinking that what I really wanted, as Greta Garbo famously said in “Grand Hotel,” was to be alone. A year before, while walking through an outdoor market in a town in northern Ethiopia, a woman selling vegetables asked me if I was married. When I told her I was, she asked me how I got permission from my husband to travel by myself. “Unbelievable,” she said through my translator. “I cannot believe he let you come on your own and you don’t seem sad at all.”
I am often a lone traveler, but not a lonely one. In fact, I adore travelling on my own. As a journalist, I get paid to talk to people and ask questions—which I absolutely love. But I also like to have time to myself, not having to make small talk with people, to absorb and think about the things I have seen and witnessed. So these two incidents got me thinking that the world seems to view solo travelers—especially female— that in the best case, are seen as a bit mysterious, and in the worst case, as suspicious. I used to think that as well as a teenager—I distinctly remember once on a dude ranch vacation in Arizona with my family finding it odd and curious that there was a woman who had come alone for her holiday.
Are we put off by solo travelers because maybe they reflect our own insecurities of being alone or that it smacks of some kind of fragility or failure? Or have we read too many novels where the solo female traveler is either a predator/femme fatale of sorts trying to have a fling with someone’s boyfriend/husband (or wife) or is escaping from some kind of crime or drama or failed romance? On one hand, when I am travelling on my own I am not really sure why a solo traveler elicits such curiosity and sympathy yet when travelling with my husband or with friends I, too, jump on the conjecture bandwagon, wondering if I see a solo female traveller where they are going and why they are alone.
As a journalist, travelling on your own is part and parcel of the job; you have to be independent, adaptable and social. I distinctly remember the first solo work trip I took; I was sent by Newsweek in 2000 to cover the Swiss skiing trip of Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry. I remember I was so nervous going my own and not knowing anyone else on the trip and feeling quite insecure about the whole thing. But it was a great learning experience and it was pretty stress-free. I had drinks (and got lots of gossip) with members of the royal press corps and shared a ski lift with a paparazzo who admitted he had followed Princess Diana by motorcycle during that ill-fated trip through that Paris tunnel.
Soon, solo work trips became second-nature to me; I have covered conflict in places like Lebanon, post-conflict in Sri Lanka, Bosnia and Rwanda, and have had the prime minister of Fiji, Frank Bainimarama, chase me down after a press conference in Suva to ask me why I was seen talking to one of his opponents at a hotel restaurant. And, seeing that these were all work-related solo jaunts, no one seemed to pay any attention to me hanging out by myself at restaurants, coffee shops or in hotel lobbies (except, as it seems, Mr. Bainimarama).
I have a notepad and paper, so therefore, I must have a purpose, a good reason to be travelling to said country. But the moment it becomes something recreational and relaxed, the impression seems to change. Looks are exchanged between locals (“Don’t you have friends,” a tour guide in Thailand once asked me). It leaves me a bit disheartened, not that I allow them to make me feel lame, but because that instead of eliciting a reaction by people of how wondrously independent you are, they often instantly think you are a saddo and try to make sympathetic monotonous conversation.
I do, of course, also love travelling with friends, family and my husband. It’s wonderful to compare notes as I wander through local markets with friends and surreptitiously roll my eyes with my family when tour guides make lame jokes. But I also like not having to wait around for people (one of my brothers is often running late, making trips to the airport sometimes stressful and tense) or having to visit sites that I wasn’t interested in. I have also been burned by friends when on holiday.
I once went to Russia on my own to spend a month volunteering at an orphanage in rural Russia. I became friendly with several other volunteers and when the four weeks were up, one woman and I decided to travel to Moscow together for a few days before flying back to our respective homes.
After being ogled and hassled by police in Red Square and getting ripped off by a taxi driver, she’d had enough and changed her flight to the next day. So I unexpectedly was by myself for three days. I was initially angry and stressed out to be on my own but each day I gained more confidence. “If I can handle Moscow by myself,” I thought, “I can handle just about anything.”
Not to say I haven’t had moments of insecurity as a solo traveller—once in wintery Kiev a cab driver dropped me off on the wrong street and unable to read Cyrillic, I got stressed out in the Ukrainian cold. But some friendly locals helped guide me where I was going (tip—if you can’t find someone who speaks English, pantomime can get you pretty far) and in the end, it was another confidence boosting moment.
But travelling on your own also forces you—whether you want it or not—to be more social and I have made some great pals on my trips that, to be honest, if I was with friends or family, I maybe would not have started, or continued, a conversation.
Though most of my solo trips are work ones, in November I am going to Vietnam by myself for almost two weeks. My husband has no desire to go and it might be my last chance for a solo trip for some time for a number of reasons. If you have not had the pleasure yet of travelling solo, I urge you to do it. It nourishes and enriches the soul, boosts your confidence and gives you quality hang time with yourself.
1st, Shutterstock, 2nd, the author in St. Petersburg, Russia; 3rd, a beach in Vietnam