I was scared the day before I flew to Africa for the first time.
I remember sitting with my friends at a coffee shop, caffeine and panic rife in my abdomen. What the fuck was going to happen? Would we get kidnapped?
I wasn't going alone so that was a comfort, but still, how would I survive?
I think back to that moment and can no longer imagine how my thought's were even forming like they did. A couple of bad things did happen that trip. I got mugged one night and we were involved in a few moments of tragedy. But guess what, I lived.
In fact, I couldn't wait to go get some more.
I read a New York Times article recently of tips for the solo female traveller. It was a disheartening read at best, encouraging women to travel only to places that they would feel welcome - skip the Middle East and head to New Zealand - as well as staying in hotels instead of hostels because of course, dodgy hostels are too risky for us fragile girls.
I did not enjoy the article one bit. Purely because I think it's not true. There is nothing wrong with New Zealand, but It takes a little bit of courage to step into the great unknown, and by golly is it worth it.
Here are a few reasons that solo travel to places you could never imagine is totally worthwhile:
1. You have to be risky to get the whiskey
Travel is meant to broaden your horizons, that's the whole point. If you stay within the confines of what you already know, your personal growth will be seriously limited. Taking risks is probably the biggest part of this, things that you formally considered dangerous will quickly become familiar and normal and that's when you know it is working.
Almost all of my memorable moments on the road have come from when I did something against recommendation, or without inhibitions. Maybe I have been lucky, but I am more inclined to say that I have actually just allowed myself to experience things as much as I can. When you're thinking about going somewhere that seems a little dangerous, remind yourself that people live there. People spend their entire lives there and you're just thinking about a short stint.
The world is not a death trap, go forth and see for yourself. And plus, how will you ever know what it's like to eat homemade baba ghanoush and pita bread or get gritty in an club that looks like a tomb if you never go to the Middle East?
2. You're never really alone
The New York Times article suggested not to stay in hostels because they might be unsafe and instead choose hotels. This is probably the worst advice you can possible receive because hostels are where you meet people, the same people you travel for stints with and the same people that will have your back when times get rough.
Hostels are where you meet other travelers that might become lifelong friends, tell you something that changes your whole perception of the world or perhaps just be there for a good time for a couple of days. People to go to bars with and hold your handbag while you're in the bathroom. Staying in a hotel will keep you alone which ultimately will prove much worse than staying in a hostel. Plus, there's a lot of really nice hostels out there, with helpful staff in cool locations that also make your trip a whole lot more affordable.
3. Having absolutely no idea what is going on makes you humble
I didn't even know how to buy gelato when I first arrived in Marrakesh, Morocco. The guy behind the counter was directing me to go pay somewhere else and bring a ticket, but I didn't get it and stood confused in the hot sun for a good five minutes, the teenagers behind me giggling at my confusion, wondering what I was supposed to do. It wasn't pleasant, people stared, but travel isn't for pleasantries.
This kind of thing happening over and over again makes you humble. Having to look like an idiot, clueless at how things work is a reminder that you are just a tiny drop in a huge sea of humans. That the world doesn't revolve around you and sometimes you have to feel like an idiot to figure this out.
It teaches you to laugh at yourself and the other people involved, realising that in fact you don't have to be right all the time. Not knowing is ok. Because soon, you will know.
4. Finding common ground with different people makes the world a whole lot smaller
I sat in small house with two sisters in a back alley of the old town, Hebron, Palestine. I was with my Danish friend and we had been invited in off the street by two women - 38 and 48, both divorced - for some tea and kunafa. Their father was there, he had throat cancer but sat smoking a cigarette, breathing the smoke in his mouth and exhaling from the hole in his neck.
We sat there and had girl talk. What was it like as a christian girl to be with multiple men? What was it like to share your husband? ("You support each other and help care for the children but women are the same everywhere - of course you get jealous").
We then talked about AirBnB and how it would be a good idea to set up an account for the spare room in the downstairs of the small apartment. These women, from so far away - geographically and culturally - had somehow managed to find common ground and suddenly it dawned on me that no matter what, people have the same needs and desires everywhere. Fundamentally we are the same. With this in mind it is easy to see the world as a warm inviting place. It is entirely possible to take comfort in strangers if you let yourself get involved.
5. Being exotic is fun
While it is easy to suggest going to places where you fit in so people don't stare, being exotic actually makes for a good time. You can get away with a lot more things, people want to talk to you more to find out your story and you are open to a lot more adventures with interesting people because you stand out.
Being the odd one out is not actually a bad thing, especially when you're in a country like Morocco where many women are not really in the public sphere a whole lot - somehow you become slightly exempt. I am not saying this as a license to go forth and be culturally disrespectful, but when travelling through these kinds of places don't be afraid to take advantage of the hospitality offered to you because you look different.
Especially if you are surfing, being a female is actually a real advantage because you're a novelty and people love to see a girl ripping when they don't see it very often.
6. Surviving tricky situations makes you stronger
Sometimes difficult or scary things do happen. It's part of the trade off of getting the most out of your adventure. This is not actually so bad though, because you quickly learn to adapt, adjust and deal with the problem at hand and despite being terrible at the time, these are the experiences in which you will learn the most about yourself. The times you will grow rapidly and being forced to rebuild parts of yourself will actually make you a whole lot stronger.
Don't be stupid, adhere to local customs, but also don't be afraid. Taking risks is risky, but trusty me, testing yourself is well worth the cost.
7. Language barriers make you resourceful
Don't be concerned about travelling somewhere because you can't speak the language. You will always find a way to communicate. Sometimes it isn't easy, but it is definitely not impossible. It is always a good idea to get some basic phrases down pat before you go, but even if you can't utter a word, it won't take you long to be able to.
As well as this, almost anywhere you go you will be able to find someone that can speak some English. Or at least someone that knows someone that does. Not knowing the language develops different elements of your communication skills and makes you very patient and creative.
8. Overcoming fear makes you a better person
Feel the fear and do it anyway. It's ok to be scared. No one expects you to feel nothing, the difference is going ahead anyway - letting the fear set you alight rather than control you. Fear and excitement go hand in hand and this potent mixture is one of the greatest and addictive feelings that solo travel can give you.
Revel in it, don't try and get rid of it. Soon you will find that the boundaries of your comfort zone become wider and wider and what you once considered a source of fear is actually a plateau of normality. I think this means travel is working. You're becoming braver.