Words by Elaine Mead
There are mixed opinions about the idea, and actuality, of travelling solo for pleasure, especially as a female.
When I first started travelling on my own, many of my friends (and more specifically my mother) expressed concerns. Not only for my general safety, but also for the oddity that they thought my desire to journey alone indicated. It seemed to be a much bigger thing in some people’s minds than my own. I was repeatedly asked, why? As though there needed to be a more profound reason behind my decision. My response of ‘because I want to’ simply didn’t measure up.
When I returned from these trips however, I noticed a different response to my travels. Friends and acquaintances cooed at my braveness. To a few minds I was even an ‘inspiration’.
More frequently we’re seeing women who travel alone being heralded as ‘brave’; that their solo journeys are an action that needs to be boasted about and celebrated as something uniquely empowering – even as an act of subversion.
I’ll quickly second that travelling alone is empowering. It is the action of travelling alone that helped me to celebrate aspects of myself that didn’t seem to have the best reception when I was in other situations (a fondness for being on my own never really seemed to go down well in relationships). The trouble is that within modern culture there is a disproportionate amount of fetishisation attached to female solo travelers.
It is frequently seen as something ‘other’, something outside of the norm, simply because a woman has done it.
This is where I think we need to stop and amend our thinking.
When we weigh up the reception of male compared with female solo travelers, we can see the discord between the two. Both are celebrated in their own right however; men are rarely praised as being brave for the same action. It is almost expected that men will have completed some form of travel in their early adulthood, an ideal that doesn’t seem to be lost the older they get. Men who travel alone are rarely questioned. It’s an accepted mode.
This is not the case for women. But why?
In a world that is supposed to be moving further towards equality, why is it that women who travel alone are regarded as so unusual? Why shouldn’t it be commonplace, just as much as it is for our male counterparts? Why do our female acquaintances feel the need to coo over our solo travel experiences in a way that seems separate to when we travel with others?
Further discord can be identified when we compare the literature written by and about female and male travellers. For men, their books are often about misadventures, getting into various troubles, scrapes and risky situations. They’re daredevils and rogues, venturing to the worst corners of the globe and coming back to tell the tale.
The literature written about and by women seeking out solo journeys is quite different. One of the unifying threads across these books, is that they are predominantly written by white, western women, and their travels are usually the response to an external experience; a divorce or bad break-up, a career crisis, an emotional loss of some description. Their stories are about redemption of the self, spiritual awakening and self-discovery in the wake of being invalidated by some other western ideal.
Which leads me to my next point.
While these stories of course have their place and can provide relatable experience that many will find value in, I think it’s important to note that travelling alone need not be in retaliation to some struggle in your life.
I’m a huge advocate for emotional awareness in the everyday, not for the select moments that force you to rethink life as you know it. You don’t need to wait until your world has crumbled in some aspect to take on the challenge of learning what it really means to be alone with yourself.
In the same right, travelling alone doesn’t need to be a spiritual pilgrimage. You are allowed to travel as a woman and come back the same version of yourself as when you left (albeit hopefully a little more refreshed!). You are also allowed to not enjoy it, to prefer to travel with friends or a partner, or to not enjoy travel at all.
It doesn’t make you any less brave, inspirational, emotionally or spiritually robust, because you don’t like to travel alone. It demonstrates you’ve invested enough into your own self-awareness to know what works for you in life.
We need stop fetishing over women who travel alone. It’s another area where that tricky gender divide is still seeing us labeled as incapable in some way. It’s another area that sees us placing the select few on an unnecessary pedestal.
I’ll finish with a piece from Susan Sontag. One line is often quoted from this, but I think it’s important to put that quote into it’s full context. We have a habit of picking out the bits that suit the points we’re trying to make and dismissing the rest. I feel this beautiful, lyrical piece of writing helps to sum up a little of what I’m trying to convey in this piece;
A curious word, wanderlust. I’m ready to go.
I’ve already gone. Regretfully, exultantly. A prouder lyricism. It’s not Paradise that’s lost.
Advice. Move along, let’s get cracking, don’t hold me down, he travels fastest who travels alone.
Let’s get the show on the road. Get up, slugabed. I’m clearing out of here.
Get your ass in gear. Sleep faster, we need the pillow.
She’s racing, he’s stalling.
If I go this fast, I won’t see anything. If I slow down —everything. — then I won’t have seen everything before it disappears.
Everywhere. I’ve been everywhere. I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.
Art by Helena Perez Garcia