What does it mean to step out into the world on your own as a young woman?
Three days after my 21st birthday, I jumped on a plane and went to Europe. I spent five months in London studying for a semester at UCL, and then another five months traversing much of the continent. Other than the fleeting pockets of time I spent with those I met along the way, my ten months abroad was mostly a solitary experience. I went sightseeing alone, I went to markets alone, I went to museums and galleries and parks alone. Sometimes I dined with company, sometimes not. And I just as often went to concerts with friends as I did solo. Occasionally, I’d even watch a movie with other people, but to be honest, I preferred going by myself (which is, actually, the only right way to do it).
Four years later, I still travel alone; not as a necessity, but as a choice. I choose freedom over everything else — to wander, to sleep, to go out, to stay in, or to just change my mind on doing something completely. I choose the freedom to escape from routine and expectations, and the freedom to explore undealt-with problems and undiscovered delights. Travelling solo has helped instil a fearlessness in me to do whatever I want or need to with my time, unobstructed by social norms or for a lack of a companion.
Travel writer Stephanie Rosenbloom once wrote that “when you’re not sitting across from someone, you’re sitting across from the world.” Solitary travel has taught me to indulge in that — to be perceptive to those around me, not just to those in front of me. It’s taught me to not just look and stare, but to taste, touch, smell and listen too. Certain experiences remain with me so vividly because they’re unperturbed by the gaze or demands of others — a light breeze, a biting snow, a blinding sun, a wet mist. I remember the silence up in the hills and the clamour down in the streets. I remember dry autumn leaves and soft blades of grass. I remember the salty scent of fresh fish and the smokey waft of grilled ones. And I still remember the taste of many, many teas: bitter, savoury, saccharine sweet.
It’s not for everyone, this whole travelling alone thing. Going to new places with your friends/family/partner is fun! Even I’ve done it! Once! And I’d probably do it again! But travelling alone isn’t the same as travelling lonely: I’ve met some of the most fascinating, hilarious and valuable individuals along the way, particularly other women — women like me — who are going at it alone. I’ve met artists who’ve shared with me their creative visions, nurses who’ve seen more life and death pass through this world than most, and humanitarian workers trying to help solve the world’s seemingly unsolvable problems.
Naturally, people worry about a woman going off on her own to strange, far-flung places. “It’s different for girls!” my mother will shriek, while my father will grumble something about not going out after dark. Meanwhile, I’ll shout with infantile rage that ‘I’m an adult and I know what I’m doing’, not because what they’re saying isn’t at all true, but because they’re the sort of rules you’d be dumb not to follow. Of course you don’t hitchhike into town in some stranger’s car. Of course you don’t let a guy you just met hold your drink. And of course you don’t take a 10 minute back alley shortcut when there’s a 30 minute one along the main road.
Being a young woman travelling alone doesn’t explain why bad things happen to them. Bad things happen to them because we live in a society that condones it, that ignores it and asks women to do everything to stop it and nothing from those who start it.
That’s why we have ‘rules’ — they’re all we have for now. What else can a young woman who wants to live on her own terms do? One day, I’d like to think we won’t need those rules anymore: that having one type of freedom doesn’t mean having to sacrifice another. Unfettered freedom — unburdened from fear — so that I might meet more women passing through far-flung places.
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