Solo Female Travel: The Highs And Lows Of Travelling Alone As A Woman
It’s February 2001 and I’m a 22-year-old backpacker.
Staring out at the Indian Ocean, I bury my toes into the burnt vanilla-coloured sand of Kuta Beach in Bali while watching the sky turn a pinkish orange. Suddenly, a woman approaches.
“You want a massage? Only 70,000 rupiah,” she says.
Ooh, that sounds lovely, I think to myself. And right here on the beach for what was about US$7 at the time? “Sure, yes,” I reply.
“Manicure, too?” asks another woman, who seems to come out of nowhere with a basket filled with nail polish.
Hmm, I think. It has been a while... “Sure, why not,” I answer, nodding and smiling with approval.
They lay out a sarong and dig a small hole in the sand under it for my face. I nestle down toward the Earth. One woman sits on my lower back, while the other takes my right hand. Just as I begin to lose myself in the sounds of the waves crashing onto the shore and the scent of coconut oil mixing with my salt-kissed skin, it begins to feel like there are more than four hands on me.
Is my hair being pulled? I wonder. Is someone braiding my hair? And my feet... how can my feet be getting rubbed at the same time as my back?
I try to ignore the notion that something is wrong since everything should feel so right, but then I pick my head up to notice no fewer than six women gathered around my every limb: one on each of my hands, another two on my feet, one on my back and another up by my head.
Feverishly warm with embarrassment, I scramble upright wondering how many people saw me get “spa-attacked” as I lay there like an oblivious tourist, but more on this later.
On The Road
It’s September 2019 and I’m a 41-year-old professional journalist.
Once again, I am alone on a beach. Only this time, I’m staring at the azure Mediterranean waters and actually seeking a spa treatment—one that I can do for myself.
The partly sandy, partly pebbly Kalogeros Beach on the Greek Cycladic Island of Paros is known for its clay-based boulders that can be used to make do-it-yourself mud mixtures to exfoliate the skin. I see the boulders, but I am not quite sure how to turn Mother Nature into a beauty regimen, so I approach a couple who appear to be there for the same reason.
“Hi, Bonjour, Shalom,” I say, using an amalgam of the three languages I can muster. “So, how does this work?”
“Come,” says the girl, “I’ll show you.”
I follow her and watch as she uses one hand to shed dry rubble into her other hand, which is cupped on the edge of the rock. I do the same, accumulating as much as I can before walking with her to the water. She then rubs it all into a gluey grey paste before covering her arms, legs and face.
I immediately regret not only wearing a one-piece swimsuit, but a very expensive one at that. I wonder whether it will stain, but I slather myself in the stuff anyway.
Camouflaged in mud, we stand awkwardly for a bit exchanging traveller pleasantries—Where are you from? How long are you travelling for? Where have you eaten?—before retreating to our own swathes of sand to blissfully (and carefully) sunbathe in peace.
It doesn’t take long for me to get restless, so after catching her eye and receiving a nod of reassurance—as if to say, “You can wash it off now!”—I return to the sea to do so. Sure enough, my skin is new-born-baby smooth. Better yet, I’d had a quintessential Solo Travel Moment: I relished a solitary experience, only to have it amplified by strangers who became friends, if even for an instant, resulting in a memory for a lifetime.
Me, Myself And I
Many recent travel surveys have shown a growing degree of confidence among women when it comes to travelling on their own, buffeted by the general trends of a boom in experiential travel and easier online access to reviews and guides. Last year, Klook Travel’s first solo travel survey showed that 34 per cent of women are completely fine with the concept of travelling alone. Over the last decade, solo sojourns have become a conscious choice for many women around the world.
Despite never attending sleep-away camp during childhood summers nor studying abroad for a term in college, travelling alone is something I’ve been comfortable with for 20 years now. Once I ripped off the Band-Aid, I couldn’t imagine what took me so long. And it all stemmed from that first trip post-university where I got suckered into a multi-handed spa treatment on a beach in Bali. While I was young and inexperienced at being on my own, I was still a New Yorker, so if anything, I was more embarrassed than scared by having fallen victim to a common scam. The fact that the perpetrators were women may have mitigated the sting, though. They did try to swindle me out of more money than we’d agreed upon, and I relented a little just to end the situation as quickly as possible. But thankfully all I walked away with was a bruised ego.
Did I know then that such a foolish and naive experience would stick with me? That it would push me to become the brave but cautious, confident yet deliberate woman I am today? No. And therein lies one of the many benefits of going at it alone: the surprises; the what ifs; the you-never-knows. They are small moments that became big moments (and great stories), etching themselves into your consciousness to be recalled the next time you’re faced with uncertainty, which inevitably turns to wonderment, usually because you figured it out on your own.
I’ll never forget arriving in the tiny town of Vernazza in Italy’s Cinque Terre in July 2012. I’d been told it was the most charming of Italy’s five villages built into the coastal cliffs along the Ligurian Sea and was expecting the Talented Mr Ripley meets Roman Holiday. But much to my surprise the town was a mess. Cobblestone alleyways were busted open, electrical wires hung precariously from doorways and I awoke to the sound of drilling every morning.
I spent two days trying to appreciate the rest of my surroundings—the sparkling turquoise sea as I hiked along the trail between the towns, the sleepy cats I saw slumbering on the aluminium rooftops, and the sweet, ripe scent of plums that squished beneath my shoes as I trekked— but then I’d get back to Vernazza and face the imperfections like the noisy construction and the closed-forbusiness signs.
Shamefully, it wasn’t until my last night in Cinque Terre that I learned what had happened: just nine months earlier, Vernazza had been devastated by a deadly mudslide. It washed away much of the city’s livelihood, let alone any “charming” hospitality that might impress unsuspecting tourists.
I felt so foolish for my ignorance—for not having known or asked questions sooner and for craving something better than what remained. What could be better than a culture and a community rebuilding itself? Suddenly, I saw the miscellaneous nails and cinder blocks in a new, hopeful light. All the other constants that had endured were doubly delightful: the church bells that rang on the half-hour, the bobbing boats in the harbour, the anchovies soaked and served in lemon, the ricotta pastries dusted with powdered sugar and the painted pottery for tourists to buy as a reminder of their stay. As for me, I didn’t need a memento to keep this trip front of mind. I had my humility to account for that.
Not every solo journey brings such profound self-realisation. Sometimes it’s just as simple as being the maker of your own destiny—picking one bistro over another or deciding what time to wake in the morning or go to bed at night. Choosing the destination and airline or taking 30 minutes (or three hours) to pack and opting for the audio guide over the group tour to view an art exhibit at your own pace. These little freedoms can amount to so much.
There are downsides too, of course: not getting to witness a super moonrise or a striking sunset with someone or being able to share the tasting-menu-for-two at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Getting lost. Going over-budget. Being approached by hagglers looking to take advantage. Arriving at your destination only to be clueless about what to do there. But instinct takes over and you rely on your own wits and the occasional assistance from a stranger—two things that, if travelling with someone, you might not experience, which is a shame because they remind you the world is small and people can be kind.
For every fail, there’s a lesson learned. For every success, there’s an electric rush of endurance to go at it again or further or higher or longer. Maybe you’ll rent a car to ride up the California coast even though you don’t drive that often, or maybe you’ll hike in Israel without proper footwear or a map. If you’re careful and confident, such risks only make the rewards that much more fulfilling. No points or companions required for redemption.
See also: Discover Zanzibar: Where To Stay, Eat And Visit According To Travel Photographer Aline Coquelle