10 Lessons I Learned from Traveling (Alone As a Young Woman)

1. Just do it.

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Sweaty and exhausted after a three day hike to Macchu Picchu sans shower :X

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Taking a break outside Colobrí, the nonprofit where I volunteered at in Cusco

I probably hesitated for all of 10 seconds before going to my first international destination completely alone (Peru!), without a plan and without friends/contacts in the country. Honestly, I didn’t really think about it. I knew that it was going to all work out. I planned to just feel it out as I went, to trust my intuition and to be open to people. Overthinking and overplanning things can often be a waste of time – in life, you just have to go for the things you want and do your best to deal with the challenges and issues that inevitably arise. Here I am four years later, alive and incredibly enriched by the sequence of events that unrolled themselves after I took that first leap all those years ago.

2. That being said, safety is an issue.

At 18, I understood the concept that the world is dangerous for women, but I didn’t understand how dangerous until I really began to explore the world. I don’t want to scare women from traveling the world alone – I say this more as a sad testament to how many parts of the world are, including well-known urban areas in industrialized countries. The fact is, I could be raped tomorrow in New York City just as easily/randomly as in New Delhi, India. There is a consciousness about these issues that women just unfortunately need to have. Please take care of your safety while traveling by asking locals about where to go/what to do etc. And if you are in a so-called sketchy area, don’t panic, but simply use your common sense and judgment to guide you. I’m actually typically more often in these sketchy areas, because I’m interested in learning about marginalized populations and want to explore places beyond the affluent neighborhoods of a city, but I do try to be careful nonetheless. Finally, something I would like to stress is that it isn’t right that the world is more dangerous for women than for men. That’s something that took me a long time to realize. Women have to be more cautious in their travels than men, and while that’s a reality, it’s not fair or right. I hope that my children will live in a world that is safer for women, and I hope to actively shape that future world.

3. Strangers are friends you haven’t made yet.

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Mayi and Erica were like my sisters in Cartagena, and I lived with them for a while

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It all started with Flor, whom I met through an acquaintance. I fell in love with her, her family, and somehow ended up living with them. They treated me like family ❤

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I was integrated into a whole artist community in Buenos Aires and always met incredibly interesting and smart people.

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I lived in Shakespeare & Co., a bookstore in Paris along the Seine, and us “tumbleweeds” were often young travelers with a penchant for reading/writing and a soft spot for Paris.

Even though this world can be a dangerous place for women, as I described above, what I ultimately experienced and took away from my travels was the overwhelming goodness inherent in humanity. Be open to meeting people, and indeed, traveling alone will facilitate that. People will naturally be curious about what you are doing in their country, and why you are traveling alone. You’ll discover how warm, generous, and simply remarkable millions of people are around the world. You’ll make instant best friends over a cup of chai, or be invited to have dinner with a family, or travel for the rest of your train journey with a group of local college students. Always expect the unexpected, and be ready for incredible new people to shape your journeys and perhaps the rest of your life.

4.    Travel deeper, not necessarily more.

We live in the age of mass consumption. Travel is yet another commoditized item. It is like an object to some people: something to do, something to have, something to acquire, something to show off, something to check off a list. When you travel alone, however, I think you will realize that travel is truly a journey (pardon that cliché). How much you learn on that journey is up to how open you are and how deeply you immerse yourself into a given culture. Do you want to spend two days passing through every city or are you able to spend more time in the community, make local friends, and get deeper into the culture? There are all sorts of challenges that arise with cultural immersion (which I will get into soon) but ultimately, these are the challenges that will help you grow and change you as a person. Don’t take the easy way out of superficially traveling the world. You’ll find that you have a lot of stamps in your passport, but not deep and intimate knowledge about these places and their people.

 5.    Cultural immersion is not easy, but it’s worth it.

I was an anthropology major before quitting school and setting out to travel. I was probably always an anthropologist at heart – I grew up in the most diverse city in the world and was always curious and learning about different cultures around me. That being said, culture is not a straightforward thing to study or immerse yourself in. You’ll often need the language for one, which is why I’ve always stressed the importance of learning foreign languages on IndieVolunteer. You’ll also need to interact with all sorts of people. ‘Culture’ is often a catch-all phrase. I think of it as a truly invisible, some could say imaginary, and yet tangible pattern of norms and behavior that exist and manifest themselves in certain ways. As you travel, I hope you explore the questions of how we separate ourselves from others and call them “the other” and “different”. Also, cultural politics play a huge role in cultural immersion. Be aware of how people view you because of where you come from, and the advantages and disadvantages of that. When you are “accepted”, it can feel terrific, but it is a complicated process. No culture is perfect, because culture is an expression of humanity and historicity, both of which has a dark side. Can you accept the “dark side” of whatever culture you are learning about? Are there things you cannot accept? How is this different from the “dark side” of the culture you come from? Cultural immersion truly raises all sorts of difficult questions, and can create for very unsettling experiences. I believe it is these difficult experiences that can change your perspective and broaden your worldview.

6. Cultural shock is real and inevitable.

I don’t think you will experience cultural shock everywhere, but it is inevitable that you will eventually experience it. Whether or not you experience cultural shock will depend on your cultural personality (which can be different from the culture that you come from), how deeply you immerse yourself into another culture, and also which particular section of that culture you are in. Socioeconomic classes have different cultures as well – rich people act and behave very differently than poor people of the same culture, so don’t think that if you go to Brazil and only interact with the social elites there, that that’s “representative of the culture” in general. Personally, I’ve experienced more cultural shock in mainland China, India, and returning to New York (of the reverse cultural shock variety) than in South America or certain countries in Europe, where I feel like I blended in rather effortlessly. That’s not to say that I didn’t experience challenges, but cultural shock is an all-encompassing phase of bewilderment, disappointment, rejection, anger. Not all those emotions at the same time or all the time, but one or more will arise – it’s pretty complicated. But just like it will happen, it will probably end as well. I take cultural shock as a learning experience. I ask myself, what am I learning and why am I reacting this way? What does that show about where I come from and my values?

7.    Humans are infinitely adaptable.

Humans can adapt to anything. We have a fierce will to survive, and we are infinitely creative in adapting ourselves to our environments and taking advantage of available local resources (environmentalists would say to the point of destruction). Your threshold for whatever it may be – cold, heat, bad living conditions, lack of sanitation services, compromised food/water – is probably much higher than you think it is. Don’t complain about different services or conditions in places around the world. Modern infrastructure is a new phenomenon and it’s not equally implemented around the world. Not that it’s right or fair, but there are millions of people in this world living in incredibly difficult situations and places. They have adapted to their everyday reality, and for them, it is simple daily life. Don’t think that you are so different from them and that you couldn’t live in those conditions. If one day you were in the same situation, you would.

 8.    Nothing in life is permanent, and we have to learn how to let go.

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I’m not Buddhist, but I find many tenets of Buddhism to be very useful and true.

This is probably a lesson that I was going to learn later in life, but traveling taught me this very quickly. Whatever happiness we are experiencing in the moment will eventually end. Whatever sadness we are experiencing in the moment will also eventually end. No matter how much you want to preserve a moment in history and re-live that moment forever, you can’t. The same goes for people, especially when you are traveling. You have to take advantage of the time that you have with the people that you are with right now, because life is short and you never know what might happen. But also trust in life and the universe in order to let go. You have to trust that somehow or another, you WILL return to the people and places that have truly touched your heart. If you try hard enough, you can make it happen. But letting go is part of the process, and it’s easier said than done. I’ve recently (within the past two years) begun the very slow process of meditating more regularly, and I’ve found that that calms my roaming mind and fearful heart more than anything else.

 9.    *Edited* Feminism IS necessary. 

Traveling around as a woman, you will naturally meet more women and they will confide in you. They would be shyer around men, and you have the opportunity to listen to stories and try to understand their experiences. The women that I’ve met all around the world – from all sorts of socioeconomic classes and from industrialized to “developing” countries – and the stories they’ve told me have greatly influenced me to dedicate my life to women’s development and rights.

That wasn’t by any means my intention. I didn’t really understand feminism in high school. My single mother raised me to believe that I could do anything that I want to, and I saw lots of girls doing well in school right next to me. They were smart and ambitious. My first boyfriend was a feminist, and I didn’t understand his sensitivity about gender relations and women’s issues. I, too, was swept away by the negative connotation of feminism and didn’t want to identify myself as a feminist. It wasn’t until I started traveling that I realized that I had been very idealistic about the status of gender equality today. In many industrialized countries, I believe that both boys and girls grow up with the myth of gender equality. There are women in politics, business, technology – so we’ve achieved it all right? Women can study and work and make their own money and not even get married if they don’t want to. For some reason, traveling to countries where women did not have rights that I took for granted made me re-examine the true state of women’s rights and development in industrialized countries that I was more familiar with. I now know that feminism is simply the belief that women should have equal rights and opportunity as men. It’s not a radical, man-hating movement – only a small minority of feminists are so extreme. With a sharpened eye and a fresh perspective, I saw a much more dismal situation. I began independently reading about women’s issues – (I recommend Half the Sky and Rumors of our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated). Moreover, the global situation as a whole is not pretty. Women are the majority of the world’s population, but they own 10% of the world’s resources and less than 1% of the land. Violence against women is endemic. We are at a moment in history where we are grappling with traditional, conservative values about how women should be and act at the same time as an unprecedented surge in educated, working women with modern values.

 10.  The right time is now.

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A silly casual photoshoot that I did for an STA World Traveler internship application video.

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Outside a market in Dakar, Senegal. I hope to explore more countries in Africa soon.

It’s funny. Originally I had planned for the last point to be about how I learned, just like the protagonist in Into the Wild, that traveling alone is fantastic but learning to live with other people is  also fantastic, learning how to settle down and compromise is great blah blah blah. But I’m also 22 going on 35 and I always have been. (When I was 18 and in my second year of college I gave myself several projects just for fun, such as baking baguettes from scratch. My idea of fun…) The point is, I might have always been a little bit mature and more excited about a dinner party with great conversation than a night at the club. I don’t often “feel” my age and in fact, I often have to force myself to do things that other people do at my age (and then I end up enjoying them. Everything is temporary, after all!) But I am highly aware of one thing. I know that later on in life, my life will be more complicated. I’ll have more responsibilities and burdens. I’m happy that I took the time now, when I am relatively unburdened (except by student loans) to travel and explore and figure out what I want to do with my life. I graduate in May and post-graduation, I expect to travel a bit more. I have a six month grace period before I have to start paying back my loans, and I think it’s okay to take a break every now and again. The point is, if you want to travel alone, this is the time. Later on in life, you might have a job that you truly love and don’t want to give up, a partner in life that you truly love and don’t want to travel without, a situation where you’re required to be in a certain place. Now, you’re young. So go be young, wild, and free. Responsibly 😉 

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