Home » Once, I Traveled Alone.

Once, I Traveled Alone.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of getting into a taxi in a place you do not know. I like to hand the address of my hotel to the driver, and then, lean back and watch the skyline — such as it is — go by. I have done this in Los Angeles and Dar es Salaam and Buenos Aires and it is always the same miraculous feeling, of strangeness and adventure. I have nothing more than the name of a destination in my hand, my luggage in the trunk, and I travel alone under an unknown sky, often tired, but never afraid.

Once, in India, I walked back through a forest to a hill town in India alone. I was not feeling up to crossing the mountain pass and I left my companion for a few days to make my way solo to the city of Srinigar. When I boarded a bus, the man in front of me asked if he could talk with me. “Please…” I said, with some hesitation. “Listen, I have to ask you, the food in your country… I found it utterly without flavor. Can you tell me why this is so?” I burst out laughing and we talked about how spicy I found the food in India.

Once in Cairo, I went for a walk and ended up talking to a young man about politics. He was genuinely interested in where I had been and what I was doing in his city. When we were done talking, he wished me happy travels and shook my hand and thanked me for the conversation.

Sarai Sierra, a 33 year old woman from New York City, was killed in Istanbul while traveling alone. When NBC news posted the story, commenters responded that women should not travel alone. That men should not murder did not seem to be part of the equation.

Once, in Ushuaia, I sat in a bar and ate a giant salad and drank beer and watched the crowd change behind me in the reflection of the mirror in front of me.

Once, in Spain, I got lost trying to find Altamira. While trying to turn around, I planted my borrowed car into a ditch. It was embarrassing. I went into a local pub to look for help. Two big farmers laughed at me, kindly, indulged my bad Spanish, and helped push the car back onto the road again.

Once, I got on an airplane to spend the weekend in Antwerp with some people I had never met. I stayed in their apartment and cooked them dinner and we went on walks and drank beer and had a smashing time.

Once, in Zanzibar, I was greeted like a lost cousin everywhere I went. Once in Manhattan the same thing happened, after midnight, in a neighborhood deli, where two enormous black men in track suits and bling asked me, “What are you DOING all the way out there in Seattle?” as though I had left them to see the west. As though I was their sister, wandered off and back again. “Welcome back to New York!” they said, even though it was not my home.

Once, I got on the wrong train heading to Amsterdam. I had planned badly, and I was jetlagged, and the Dutch mother traveling with her daughter shared her meal with me and the train conductor shook his head at my absent mindedness and said, “No problem.”

Once, in Australia, I rented a bicycle and rode off into the bush for miles and miles with nothing but zebra finches and red dirt all around me.

Once in Florence, once in Tel Aviv and San Antonio and on the island of Moloka’i  and in so many places where I got on the bus, or into a taxi, or on the subway, or I walked, with a map of some kind in my hand, alone, until I saw what I had come to see and then, went home again.  I made some mistakes and people were helpful and indulgent and understanding, in many different places in the world, in the Arab world and in the West and in South America.

“Women should not travel alone.” Comment after comment on Sarai Sierra’s murder blames the victim. It is her fault for traveling alone.

Once I traveled alone and because people were kind and welcoming, I wanted to travel alone over and over and over again. There is nothing quite like the feeling of relaxing into the back seat of a taxi, seeing your reflection superimposed on the landscape of a place you do not know. It is all the poetry of travel distilled into the place where your forehead meets the glass of the back seat window. And to have this feeling, you must do it alone.

Sarai Sierra’s murder is not the fault of women traveling alone. I will not listen to the voices of those who say it is. What else should women not do because of the potential harm others will wreak upon us? Why are we to blame and not those who perpetrate crimes against women?

Once, I traveled alone and I was not afraid.

This is still true. I travel alone and I am not afraid.

 

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41 Responses to “Once, I Traveled Alone.”
  1. Emily Wenzel says:

    Beautiful, absolutely beautiful. No one should be afraid to travel alone. Thank you Pam.

  2. Gray says:

    Yes, yes, and yes. I love this. So very much.

  3. Jessi says:

    Thank you! It wasn’t just comments that made me angry. The whole frame of the story in the media was “woman tourist traveling alone” as if a woman alone in a public space is somehow asking for murder or assault.

  4. Britany says:

    What a perfectly simple and moving way to convey why so many of us love to travel alone. It really is a gorgeous world out there and no woman should feel afraid to explore it.

  5. Kelsey says:

    Remind me to have my daughter read this when she’s 18. You go girl!

  6. Katherina says:

    A woman traveling alone is not the problem – its a matter of the country’s general safety, system and beliefs. How many turkish women have suffered of abuse or murder in their own country?
    Around the same days this happened, 6 spanish girls were raped in Mexico. They were traveling with their partners and a local friend of theirs. This demonstrates that this is unrelated to the fact of traveling alone or in company. Its an external problem!

    • Meg says:

      While I get your point, Turkey has no monopoly on violence against women, and the US still has a shockingly high rate of rapes and murders for a developed country. I’ve lived as a foreigner, woman, and mother for several years in Istanbul and have found it to be one of the safest, friendliest, most caring places in the world. I’m visiting Turkey now and on my own with a baby most of the time, and people look after me as if I were their sister or daughter. I’ve heard lots of theories and discussion about poor Sarai Sierra, but no one knows the full details of what happened. I hope her family gets closure and her killers are brought to justice, and I also hope her fate does not dissuade anyone (especially female and/or solo traveler) from visiting Turkey, or anywhere else considered “exotic.”

      But anyway, I came to say, lovely read, Pam! Very thoughtful.

  7. Solo travel is my preferred way of travel .. that way I can get up close in away that’s not possible when travelling in pairs or groups!

    off to Borneo shorty .. but once there will not be alone — l’ll meet the locals – the very reason for travel :)

  8. Toni says:

    Such a beautifully honest and well-written post; LOVE!

  9. Chrystal says:

    I have been traveling alone my whole life since I was 13 I am now 55. I have had many adventures and have meet many wonderful people. I am always aware of what is going on around me and try to never be out after dark just to be on the safe side.

  10. sandra says:

    I wish I could have written something so eloquent that it touched so many other hearts. Beautifully written and tho not as widely traveled as you, my sentiments are the same.

  11. Jason says:

    First and foremost let there be no misunderstanding – The murder lies solely on the murderer and NEVER on the victim.

    That said, let’s take the clear villain out of the “equation” and put a more ever-present danger in its place – gravity. After all, we live in a world filled with those who are persuaded by evil.

    My two year old daughter likes to stand on the coffee table. I can hear her say, “There’s nothing like the feeling of relaxing on the perch of a table watching the landscape of her toys on the floor from a different perspective.” She also claims to have this feeling she must do this without the aid of support wires or loving fatherly arms.

    I wish I could only explain to her the inherent dangers of such activities so that she could understand. I’m sure she can even admit to making “mistakes” and therefore the potential is there to misstep. Once she falls I am consumed with a mix of feelings. Compassions floods over me. I assess that she is physically alright and her tears stop flowing. Now I must fulfill my other responsibility and bestow reproach that might be interpreted as blame.

    • The laws of physics are very different than the laws that govern human behavior. You may live in a world “filled with those who are persuaded by evil” but my world, the one I’ve seen throughout my travels, is one populated primarily by those that are good, kind, generous humans. Teaching kids about gravity has very different implications than teaching kids that the world is full of potential evil doers.

      Who do you want to share your world with? Those who believe that people are generally good or those who believe they are generally evil. I’ll side with the good, thank you, and hope that your little girl grows up to do the same.

      • Jason says:

        I believe this might come down to opinion when we truly get to the root of it. My intention of using gravity instead of wrongdoers was to point out that the reality of the situation is that both forces are undeniably present in our world (not worlds – yours and mine). We devise methods of combating both forces: aircrafts, personal protection devices, traveling beyond the stratosphere, violent hot-spot travel restrictions, etc., etc. I would just hope that you would not spurn such these efforts in an attempt to gain the utopia we all wish was our home here on earth.

        I by no means want to go down the road of thinking that Sarai’s death was anything less than tragic. I mourn for her and those who knew and loved her.

        I will continue to teach that we should hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

        BTW beautifully written piece – I neglected to mention. I wish you well on your future travels.

        • Don’t get me wrong, I’m a very smart traveler. I don’t seek out war zones. I’m a very modest dresser when I travel and I wear practical shoes. I rely very heavily upon instinct and local advice — if folks who live in town tell me not to go into that bar solo, I don’t go into that bar solo. But I don’t approach the world as though it’s out to get me, either. I’m lucky to know people who have traveled well in places like Afghanistan and Iran, places we’re warned off all the time. The Taliban, yeah, *I’m* probably going to pass on their turf. But I kid you not, I just met a young man from England who held pretty outdated ideas about Americans and firearms and thought we were all armed to the teeth and therefore, it might not be a great idea to travel in the US.

          I prefer to err on the side of believing that people are going to help me, not hurt me, and that has served me very well.

    • Jessi says:

      It’s disingenuous to explain Sarai Sierra’s death as the result of her solo traveling instead of as the result of an encounter with a person of murderous intent. And it’s fear-mongering to boot. It says, “If you travel alone, you will probably be murdered, and if you go anyway, you’ll have been asking for it.”

      Additionally, it couches the discussion in terms of victims who are legitimately victims, and victims who are partially to blame. It says that if a woman is murdered while traveling with her husband it’s a crime, but if she is alone, it was because she was being irresponsible. And who wants to go there?

      The reality is, both men and women are at times in danger, whether alone or in groups, at home or abroad. Should you mitigate risk as best you can? Absolutely–be responsible, make good decisions, be aware of your surroundings. But it’s not possible to live a completely safe life, no matter where you are or who you’re with.

      • Jessi says:

        ps, Jason I don’t mean that you are disingenuous, rather, how the discussion has been framed in the news.

        • Jason says:

          I agree that the way things are framed in the media are so often very wrong and a result of biased and uninformed authors.

          No worries – I didn’t take it that way. I do however appreciate the clarification.

  12. JILL says:

    i have traveled alone for most of my life – 35plus —- traveled alone for work so many times – and traveled for fun and to see the world – yes – sometimes friends came with but mostly just me – it is a wonderful feeling to see the world – meet strangers who become life long friends – and others just for a short time – I am a careful traveler – not out late at night – you get the picture – i have found that the world is full of generous souls who love to help travelers! My favorite quote -“Fill up your time to escape nostalgia and regret-and travel the earth-for – perhaps – it is your heaven.”

  13. A beautiful essay, Pam. I’m still struggling to express my own reactions to this issue. I drafted a post that is so ranting and bordering on incoherence as to be embarrassing. I’m about to sit down and attempt to make some sense of it. Thank you for writing this. Solidarity, sista!

  14. Once, I got on a plane with two suitcases and moved to a country where I knew no one. I moved in with a woman I met once. I lived there for five years and came back alive, with a masters’ degree and a career.

    It’s not the alone that’s the problem. It’s the people who prey on the alone.

  15. Nick Dallett says:

    Hear here, Herr Heer!

    Brilliant! While I’m not a woman, I too enjoy traveling alone in a foreign country or strange city. All of your stories sparked memories of my own, but the one that hit first was riding in a taxi at 6 AM in Budapest, heading to the airport in minus centrigrade temperatures, and having my mind blown by the fact that the red lights turned yellow before turning green. What an amazingly excellent idea! Let’s enable people to know whether they need to apply the brake or if the light is going to be green imminently. A small thing, but a fundamentally different approach to traffic flow. It’s these small things that make international travel so delightful and surprising.

  16. Michelle says:

    This is by far the most beautiful response I have read to the murder of Sarai Sierra and the proposed issue of women traveling alone. I whole-heartedly agree with you.

  17. Sheila McDougall says:

    Thank you for expressing the joy of travelling alone so well. I bet a lot more women are murdered by their significant other than by travelling alone. Does that mean we should never have a relationship?

  18. jen says:

    I too have travelled alone and was lucky not to encounter too much trouble. I mostly had a great time and met some fabulous people.

  19. Sharon Miro says:

    Well done. Well done. Thank you.
    I started traveling alone for pleasure just as I turned 60, and I have no intention of turning back. YES YES, being aware and having common sense should be part of what we do everyday, no matter where we are….but.. but that feeling you describe of being in the back of the taxi looking out the glass: AHHHHHH…says it so well…

  20. Leah says:

    Damn straight! Where the hell did all this “Women travelling WITHOUT CHAPERONES?! Unthinkable!” crap come from? It’s 2013. Women travelling without chaperones is hardly new (btw, I’d totally recommend anyone who’s interested in reading Margaret Fountaine’s “Love Amongst the Butterflies” – that was one BADASS Victorian woman!). I can’t believe there are people who even think this is an issue. It’s just sad for them, more than anything. It must be very limiting.

  21. […] My Indian Adventure – Violence Against Women: A Global Problem Nerd’s Eye View – Once, I Traveled Alone Our Oyster – Is Solo Female Travel Safe? Pegs on the Line – Travelling solo: I’m […]

  22. Donna H says:

    Travelling by one’s self is such a great experience. You cannot get that feeling when travelling with someone else. I have been to the great capitols in Europe and never once became afraid. People were very nice and helpful wherever I went. I am planning a trip to Japan this May and cannot wait!! Pleae don’t let this one occurance keep you from travelling. It is such a lifetime experience. Oh did I tell you?!! I’m 62 y.o. and have no plans to stop seeing the world.

  23. Annie says:

    I had never traveled outside the US until after September 11, 2001. On a challenge from my husband to overcome my fear of flying/leaving home/the unknown I took a flight to England. Alone. Where I wandered, open-mouthed and heart pounding with excitement for ten days. Paris was next, again alone…and I discovered the miracle of communication despite a lack of common language. I was hooked. I grew .I learned. I became a better person…and I HAD to do it alone. Since then, there’s been nothing stopping me except the time it takes to save for another adventure. Now my little list includes:China, Costa Rica, Italy, Belize and Guatamala as well as exploring my own country more fully. When I come home, my journals are filled with stories of people–funny, caring, helpful, concerned and giving people. In Costa Rica– the taxi driver who attempted to drive 80 miles an hour in traffic while tugging his wallet from his back pocket and holding it over the seat so I could see the photos of his two daughters while he talked non-stop about how wonderful and smart they were. The bus driver who hunted up roadside aloe vera for my sunburned legs in Belize. The inn-keeper in Paris who slept on the sofa in the little reception area all night and leaped up at 5 AM, tugging on his trousers, to stop me from leaving on my sightseeing adventures until he’d fixed me a cup of coffee and some toast and jam. People are people, wherever you go. I’ll never let fear hold me back again. Life is too short, and experiencing the world is too important to me.

  24. Kate says:

    I also loved Kelsey’s comment. Some of my best travel moments have been the proud feelings of doing something alone and coping with that. Eliminating all risks isn’t one of the options life provides.

  25. Gigi says:

    Absolutely beautiful. Best response I’ve seen to the topic.

  26. Neens says:

    How beautifully written!

    I am in the process of getting a driving license (in the next week, hopefully!) and will then buy a motorhome or campervan and travel around Europe with it. I won’t be alone, as I will travel with my dog Albert, but I still sometimes stop and wonder what on earth I’m doing. As a woman, I have been raised to be afraid, but the few times I have had unpleasant experiences with men following or stalking me, it has been at home, where I lived. When travelling, I have only ever met such amazing, helpful and generous people that it’s almost hard to describe.

    Once, on the metro in Prague, two elderly women paid for mine and my friend’s ticket because our bank notes were too big for the ticket machine to accept. They led us to the correct train, got onboard with us and told us when to get off. They refused our attempts to try to pay them back, and we weren’t even sure if they were supposed to go in the same direction as us. I was 17 at the time..

    Once, I boarded the wrong train to London. I panicked and thought I would miss my flight, but the kind train conductor helped me out. When I got to Heathrow airport, I was checking in my luggage when I realised I had left my passport back home in Devon. The airport staff rebooked my flight to a later one, even though I had one of those cheap tickets that couldn’t be changed or refunded, and once I got into London, the girl at the embassy gave up her lunch break to give me an emergency passport on time.

    The vast majority of people are overwhelmingly generous. It just isn’t reported on the news.

  27. Lynne Nieman says:

    Wow! I love this piece. It is powerful, descriptive, emotional…I can picture where you are, the people you meet and the conversations you have. And, I, like you, have had similar, wonderful experiences. I will share this! And cherish it!!

  28. Kate says:

    Just right. Perfect.

  29. Craig says:

    I could not agree more with this post. Over the past five years I have been fortunate enough to have traveled often on my own and I have loved and cherished each and every quest! Happy Travels all!

  30. […] her observations spot-on. (Read Seven, for which she won a 2012 Solas Best Travel Writing Award, or Once, I Traveled Alone to see what I mean.) In short, I’m a big fan. So, I’m very happy to have her contribute […]

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