For the last nine winters I have taken a longish trip to somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, mostly on my own. I got started on my solo trips when I decided to go to South Africa, a country that fascinated me. I harbored some of the same fears that I hear so often from friends or acquaintances. Would I be safe? Would I get lonely, especially at dinnertime? But I think the unspoken fear is much deeper — will I be OK spending that much time with myself, in my own skin, with no work or constant companion to distract and comfort me when I feel sad, uneasy or just plain bored?
Yes, I have certainly felt bored, occasionally a bit lonely but luckily, in nine years, I have never really felt unsafe. I've learned keys to who can be trusted and when and have developed good street smarts by practicing them for years. I do take certain safety precautions like not being outside in dark areas but I have mostly felt safer at night traveling than I do in some parts of the Bay Area.
Traveling by oneself creates opportunities for adventure. There was my camping trip along the northern Peruvian coast with a famous wildlife photographer to see condors, the days I spent in a small village with an older Brazilian woman in Minas Gerais whom I met on the bus from Rio. Or the Moslem women in their family compound in Cape Town that called me into their homes on Christmas Day.
A woman traveling alone, especially one of a certain age, is sure to elicit sympathetic and curious responses from fellow travelers and locals. Invariably I am asked if I am married and have kids. When I say no and explain that is exactly the reason I can visit their country and spend money in their restaurant or guest house the reaction sometimes is wide-eyed wonder and even an occasional, "Oh I wish I could do that." For most women in the countries I am visiting, traveling alone is never a financial option, unless they are going to take care of a sick or dying relative.
But for some women, especially the more adventurous, I have decided I am modeling what a woman traveling alone can look like. And what do I look like? I almost never fade into the woodwork, because of my skin color and status but also, perhaps mostly, because I am clearly and blissfully alone.
With a Perspective, this is Karen Hester.
Karen Hester is an events coordinator. She lives in Oakland.