Women’s Tales of Courage and Adventure

One Woman’s Solo Travel Story

By Cyndy Phillips

Tibetan nuns
Tibetan nuns

I still fondly remember how my love of international travel began: in the spring of 1990; the University of Miami, Florida selected me for a six-month foreign exchange program, and my mother said to me, “How will you pay for that?”

I told her the same way I paid for college thus far; I’d work my way through it.

However at that time, Wollongong, Australia sported a 40% unemployment rate. Add to that the disadvantage of not knowing anyone there and of traveling alone as a young woman and I felt pretty pessimistic.

If that wasn’t bad enough, my friends and family entered, filling my head with visions of impending doom waiting for me in the land of great whites, deadly snakes, and, let’s not forget, the flesh-eating aborigines!

The Call of the Wild

Wollongong, Australia
Wollongong, Australia

Yet even with all these barriers swirling around me, deep inside I tingled with excitement at the thought of going abroad for the first time—of discovering life—out there. So I watched movies, kept talking to people, kept dreaming.

Before I knew it, I was jetting towards Sydney with all my hopes in tow. None of the movies, or the advice or the dreams could have prepared me for what I saw when I landed. McDonald’s, Pizza Huts, sky-rise towers floating past my train as we plugged along the mountains towards Wollongong.

Where were all the straw huts I’d seen on T.V? And the cannibal aborigines? What about the deadly snakes? They had to be out there, right?

Well, yes, of course, they were (except for the man-eating aborigines). But most of the dangers lay well off the beaten path. In fact, despite my unquenchable thirst for “bush” hikes, I never stumbled across a snake, and even when scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, the closest I came to a shark was a harmless Spotted Wobbie. And the job I needed to be able to stay there and complete my study? I found two.

But the books, the movies, my friends and family? Hyped-up Hollywood actors and well-meaning, yet wrong, advice. Perhaps if I had known about the Lonely Planet Guidebooks, GoNomad’s travel service or been “into” the internet then, I could have discovered the truth without the shock, but I was young and naïve, and back then I trusted everyone’s opinions but my own.

In Search of the Truth

When I returned to America, my somewhat surprised friends and family greeted me with, “You made it back! Well, I’ll be. What’s it like?” The stories I related carried me along for years; some even inspired others to go out into the world and see it for themselves.

The Second Time Around

Several years passed before I set my sights on my second international trip, a two-month solo trek across Africa. After my friends and family stopped asking, “Why on Earth would anyone want to go there?” they told me to make out a will because I — a twenty-eight-year-old woman — “would surely die in a lion/hippo/rebel [you fill in the appropriate beast] attack.”

Camels in the Sahara Desert
Camels in the Sahara Desert

Even when the US Embassies in both Kenya and Tanzania were bombed just weeks before my departure, this time I wasn’t as easily disenchanted. I read countless guidebooks and backpacker’s guides to Africa. I searched the internet for health warnings, dangerous areas and African codes of conduct. I studied some basic Swahili. And…I did make up a will, just in case.

On the morning of October 2, 1998, I began my second solo trip abroad. I ducked through the exit door of the plane, inhaling the sweet hay smell of the African savannah before stiffening at the sight of a fourteen-year-old soldier pointing an M-16 at me.

Were all those warnings I heard from family and friends true? I hesitated for a moment—but certainly not long enough to keep me from my journey across Africa, armed with nothing more than a notebook, markers, and a much too heavy backpack (okay, I did have pepper spray and a stun gun in my back pocket too–just in case).

Lessons Learned

A Jaisalmer desert woman
A Jaisalmer desert woman

For two months, I safely wandered through Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia. I sketched and scribbled down my experiences: lessons taught by a Muslim woman who begged naked on the streets of Addis Ababa, by Masaii warriors who put down their knives to draw leopards with me, by beautiful young children laughing out comments in Swahili, and by the poor — always the poor.

Actually, I was charged by a hippo one night in Uganda, and the rebels did attack during my stay there, but never in my life have I met people so intent on protecting me from anything even resembling danger as I did in the people of Africa.

And never in my life did I learn more about myself and others than I did amidst the swaying grass of the savannah and the burning embers of the nations’ poverty.

Serving dinner in Nepal
Serving dinner in Nepal

Since then, nearly every year I’ve traveled to foreign lands, each time walking away with photographs, journals, and memories of people and places I never imagined I would ever see. At the age of thirty-six, I’ve traveled to over twenty countries, most of them alone.

I’ve taught English to Tibetan Buddhists in Nepal, where I learned the true meaning of forgiveness and love. I’ve stared into the faces of leprosy, poverty, and the “untouchables,” collecting stories of women whose tragedies affect me still.

Why Solo?

Although I’m not purely advocating solo travel, as luck (or karma) would have it, I can never find anyone in America who gets more than a few weeks off every year to go abroad with me. A few weeks are better than none at all, of course; however, I much prefer several month’s worth of cultural immersion. My mantra has become, “Why just whirl through when you can stay awhile and try on their sandals.

Friends often ask me why I don’t just go on a lengthy travel package tour. My answer, unabashedly, is I never seem to have quite enough money to afford them, really. But I have always been determined not to let a lack of money stand in the way of my seeing the world or doing good in it.

So I frequently travel alone. I’m finding in that scenario, however, that I’m not really so alone after all.

Women’s Travel on the Rise

The main stupa in Swoyambu, Nepal
The main stupa in Swoyambu, Nepal

Women’s travel expert, Marybeth Bond, reported that more than 32 million American women traveled alone during the past year (there are no global statistics).

Women’s solo travel has risen in such popularity that even the U.S. government now produces on-line travel tips for “solo women travelers,” and the latest statistics show that there has been a 230% increase in the number of “women’s only” travel companies in the past six years!

Yet if this is the case, why are so many women who plan solo travels hounded with horror stories, warned to make out wills, told they need to “settle down,” even asked if they are on medication?

Because of this knee-jerk reaction, many women are made to feel like something is wrong with them for wanting to brave a travel adventure without a healthy dose of testosterone tethered to their side. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there shouldn’t be anything wrong with traveling without it, either.

Gutsy Femmes

With such staggering numbers of women travelers and the corresponding barrage of “don’t do it” warnings, two other globe-trotting ladies and myself decided to do our part in encouraging more women to see that traveling solo can be just as rewarding, sometimes even more so, as traveling in co-ed groups.

Lauren Connolly, Stephanie McKurtis and I are working to compile an enticing collection of stories and travel tips from gutsy femmes for our book, Women’s Tales of Courage and Adventure.

Although today my travels generally take me in the direction of service trips, whenever I am gearing up for another adventure, I still feel that rush of excitement I felt on my very first trip abroad to Australia. I think my deep love of travel must be borne from the vantage point of unity. Every single time I travel or I hear others’ travel tales, it teaches me above all else that despite all our differences with one another, we are blessed with many, many more similarities.

cyndy phillipsCM Phillips is a former English professor whose writing and artwork is gaining national attention. She is also the founder and director of a non-profit group for writers, The Hobson Foundation, which focuses on financially aiding writers who want to make a difference in the world.

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