Adventures in Solitude

I was born with a lifelong partner that makes it easier to live my life solo. I have a twin sister and thanks to that I can afford not to let anyone into my life who doesn’t belong there, and I don’t need people to fill a void, to tick a box, or to satisfy any demands of the high society.

My ‘twinship’ affects every facet of my life, and it’s even more pronounced when I’m away travelling. Then my willingness to accept anything less than what is in line with my values diminishes entirely. Likely because even if I spend months in a destination, my time is limited and so too precious to waste on something or someone that holds me back or pulls me down. It’s easier to go out into the world, be it your home town or the Antarctic, when you know that someone is backing you, no matter what. The best bit? I had to do nothing for it. The worst? Not many appreciate my attitude.

Travel companies started targeting women who wanted to travel alone only in the last few years but like many other women, I travelled solo most of my life, well before it became popular and considered a badge of honour.

For long I travelled for research and I couldn’t expect anyone to follow me into the spaces and places no one sane would go under the terms and conditions that applied to a budding academic. In recent years, I joined a couple of group trips and although my travel companions were lovely in most cases, I always sneaked away and went my separate ways to discover the place on my way.

For some people travelling is purely about rest and spending time with their families and friends, sipping cocktails by the pool or dining in top restaurants. That’s understandable, we all need a certain level of luxury in our lives. For some, it means a chocolate bar for Christmas, for others it’s a sailing trip in the Mediterranean. When I am away, my luxury is full immersion. Spending all my time with my homies, that is people who can’t supply me with information about the visited place, would feel like missing out on what travelling is truly about, that is learning.

Because I spent nearly 20 years organizing my trips without much assistance, on a budget hardly worth mentioning, I became slightly arrogant in this respect, and I don’t necessarily feel the need to ask for help in the case of an undiscovered destination. I have seen it all after all. Of course, I know I haven’t. Besides, it’s not easy to face the prices once you are not knowledgeable enough to live in your destination as a local would, and hiring a travel agent would add a cost that hurts even to think about.

Last year though came a travel idea that I wanted to make a reality but my confidence dwindled for a second. A friend said ’Let’s go together’, and I agreed. This friend backed out pretty quickly and I felt miserable. For another second, then I started planning.

I was amazed to receive the first comments regarding my plan to visit Cuba as a single woman. A tour organizer was adamant I find someone to accompany me, presumably a strong man who would protect me. How dare anyone tell me what I should do or what I can do? I get it, there are situations in the big wild world when it’s great to have someone on hand to rely on. But I’m never alone while I travel and so far I always found men and women, who were extremely helpful when the situation prompted it. I leave my country only with my suitcase but I happily spend my time with locals or others who are also on the road to discovering themselves through travelling. These encounters are rewarding, always spontaneous, and never forced.

After the first disappointing comments, I shared a post or two on various social media platforms and it took only a few hours to find like-minded women. I received several messages from people who have visited Cuba either solo or with a partner, and without exception, they all encouraged me to go ahead with my plans. People’s eyes mist over when they talk about Cuba, I have noticed that before but the stories I heard this time showed me a side of the country that the news doesn’t talk about. It’s time to discover this magic first-hand, narratives and books are not enough.

Various numbers are circulating online regarding the number of women who travel alone. Some sources cite lower, others higher numbers but all agree that more women are travelling solo than men, and the figures are increasing worldwide. The latter may be related to the general decline in childbearing in the countries studied (especially the US and Western Europe), and the possibility of filling the space thus freed up. Increased financial independence and the (very) slowly shifting roles of women and men in the family might also make it easier for women to get away for an adventure. And of course, some professions make frequent and solo travel necessary, without those concerned making it public or praising their achievements in this regard.

In summary, women have become a major target group for travel agencies and tour organizers. The offerings span from visits to coastal villages and vineyards in Europe to hiking and camping in a US national park or going on personalized safaris in Tanzania. Tours focusing on personal development are also gaining popularity in more and more countries, but the prices can be staggering.

A ten-night trip in Mongolia for women to see the countryside was offered for $7,995 in 2023, excluding flights, by an agency focusing solely on women. I’m not their target audience, partly because I have seen what they offered for a fraction of the mentioned rate, more than once. But mainly because this amount doesn’t support local businesses but the tour organizers, who in the mentioned case were not Mongolians. Public transport works pretty well in Mongolia, and so does hitchhiking if you don’t mind full inclusion.

Don’t get mistaken, local guides are not cheap and we should never expect to be offered a bargain only because the average income in the visited country is lower than in ours. Hiring local guides will make sure your money goes where it belongs. Yes, you might need some help and connections to make the first steps but with a bit of research, it can be done in a way that is rewarding for all parties involved. Remember that a local connection is only a few clicks away.

In the case of planning my trip to Cuba, having a couple of friends from the country comes in handy, and the latest edition of Lonely Planet Cuba, as well as their Havana city guide, proved to be a treasure trove of information. Long gone are the days when a Lonely Planet guide told me to take a bus in a place where neither public transport nor accommodation for tourists existed. The authors of these guides are dedicated to their described country, they know its heartbeat, and generously share its secrets.

If you hesitate to go on a trip alone despite your proven track record of achieving extraordinary things in other fields, think of it as an opportunity to embrace independence, and as an exciting adventure where you can explore at your own pace and terms, following your mood and intuition. It will be an empowering and transformative experience that will stay with you for life.

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