I was in Paris, on my very first day alone.
Gathering my courage, I pulled open the front door. Just before I stepped outside, I caught a glimpse of myself in the hall mirror. I looked very young and very grown up, all at once. I hardly recognized myself. I stared at the girl in the mirror. She stared back and gave me a small smile. Onward, I thought, and walked out the front door into a strange and wonderful world.
For the first week or so, I felt as if everyone was staring at me, wondering why this child was walking around alone. Every man I passed I thought was checking me out, judging me, and wondering how best to kidnap me. After a few weeks, this fear dissolved, thanks to some very valuable lessons I learned from my WWOOFing host in Spain. She specialized in natural horsemanship, but she showed me that the way you conduct yourself around horses in natural horsemanship can also apply to how you act around humans in the real world. She taught me how to carry myself with confidence and purpose, how to keep creepy guys at arms-length, and how to maintain eye contact (which is harder than it seems). I did my very best to remember everything she and the many solo female traveler blogs I read taught me over the next nine months of my journey. So here are the tried-and-true tips I have used on my trip and in everyday life.
I’m serious, this works. Every time I feel nervous or scared, I pretend I’m an undercover spy for the FBI/CIA/MI6/etc. I stand straight, look people in the eyes, notice my surroundings, and walk like I mean business. Any catcalls or whistles or creepy comments are completely ignored. I’m on a mission. Don’t mess with me.
This also works with pretending you’re a spy. Sometimes I play a game with myself to notice as many things about my surroundings (like Shawn in Psych). I’d see how the people around me dressed and acted, the details on a building, or what the weather was doing. It is very important for all travelers (but ladies especially!) to blend in with the surroundings. Is it a touristy area? Are the women dressed in short shorts and tank tops? Wear what you want! Are the women covering their knees (important in parts of Africa) or their cleavage? You might want to cover up too. It’s no fun to attract too many stares while you’re out and about and trying to enjoy yourself. And under any circumstances, you should never drink too much.
This applies to everyone. Don’t spread your stuff everywhere like you do at home, especially in hostels. It makes it harder for you to find everything when you’re packing, and much easier for thieves to snatch something when you’re gone (plus, it’s just good hostel etiquette). If you’re traveling with a wallet, passport, phone, laptop, camera, or anything valuable, pretend it’s your baby. Know where it is at all times. Every ten minutes or so, do a mental and physical check of where your babies are. Laptop locked up at the hostel? Check. Phone, wallet, camera, passport still with you? Good to go. Hopefully your hostel has lockers where you can lock up some of your valuables (it’s nice to carry a padlock with you in case they don’t provide locks), but some hostels will let you leave your valuables at the front desk if you’re uncomfortable.
Big bags are targets for thieves and pickpockets. When I was in Italy, my hostel roommate got her big, beautiful, fashionable bag snatched by a passing motorcyclist. When waiting to cross a street, take a step back from the curb to stay out of reach of passing motorcyclists. Also, I’d advise you to take a smaller purse that closes securely. I had a perfect one that was only slightly bigger than an average smartphone that allowed me to tuck it inside my coat if I needed to, and I never had a problem.
Fellas, feel free to skip over this one. Ladies, if you (like me) are picky about your feminine hygiene products, then it’s a good idea to stock up on your preferred products. For example, tampons with applicators are pretty uncommon in Europe, so pretty much every time I found some, I’d buy them. Before I went to Africa for two months, I had about 40 travel-sized mini tampons in my backpack. I also carried Tylenol and emergency chocolate for whenever that time of the month arrived. And if I felt too terrible to go out, I just stayed in my hostel and had a movie day. It’s okay to take a day off from sightseeing.
I know it sounds old-fashioned, but especially when you are a woman traveling alone, it is best to arrive at your destination in daylight and have an escort home after dark. But if your bus or train is delayed, and you just can’t get someone to walk with you, keep a secret weapon in your pocket, just like you do at home. Keys, pens, whatever you have. If you want to carry a small pocket knife, then you should probably check local laws to see if that’s okay. It’s just a backup plan in case things go wrong.
Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. I always stick a little extra money in different places, just in case (money belts under your clothes also work great). In one of my shoes, in my coat pocket, and in a secret pocket in my backpack. I even carry photocopies of my passport, credit card, and health insurance card in case my purse is ever stolen. Luckily, I never had to use them, except once I had to use a 20 euro note I had stashed in my shoe when my debit card wasn’t working.
Despite all this scary advice, don’t be afraid! Yes, there are bad people out there, but I have enough evidence to believe that the majority of people are good. I met some overwhelmingly kind and helpful people on my travels who I never would have met if I had stayed at home. We shared views on politics, religion, philosophy, and even how to make the perfect pasta carbonara. I understand so many things now that I never would have thought of if I stayed in my circle of friends at home. And now I know how to make proper Italian carbonara.
Yes, traveling solo gets lonely sometimes. There are times when you feel so lost and so very alone, you’d do anything to not be sad. But just remember that without the bad times, there can be no good times. I remember during my first month of being alone, I was so miserable, I was contemplating how much it would cost to fly home. But just a few weeks after that, I was having the time of my life and grateful that I hadn’t gone home. Just remember that your friends and family back home are there for you—they’re only a message or Skype call away. A few things worked really well for me whenever I started to feel lonely: I’d either write in my journal, watch a movie, or push aside my loneliness and strike up a conversation with someone. The distractions always helped me feel better. And believe me, it does get better. The first week is always the hardest, but it gets easier as you go. You’re going to have the time of your life.
This is the truly beautiful thing about traveling solo. You can do whatever you want. Want to spend all day in a museum? Cool, do that! Want to sleep till noon and party all night? Awesome, let’s go! Want to just wander aimlessly and take photos? Great! You’re in charge, you call the shots. Change your plans at the last minute, stay an extra day in that city because it’s so beautiful. There’s absolutely nothing holding you back.
So, whether you’re planning your first go-alone trip, or looking to brush up on tips and tricks, I hope these will help you on your own adventure. Travel safe, travel well, and have fun!
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