Solo Travel: Get out and explore

I was 22 and in Venice, Italy, for four days by myself, walking through winding streets while the city was waking up, women hanging laundry on lines between windows, setting out pastries they’d already baked by breads on shelves, men pushing wheelbarrows over cobblestones to pick up trash. I napped in the park as teenage boys walked back to school laughing and joking loudly with each other from lunch. I read and ate gelato on benches watching 10-year-old boys carry their friend over to profess his love to a girl whose friends stood behind her, less convinced of the romantic match. I got lost walking on the island, taking photos under archways, in alleyways, on bridges.

I was there alone, and I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, for however long — or short — I wanted. I wasn’t bound by others’ needs, wants, and concerns, and didn’t have to filter my experiences through others’ perceptions. I lived in a dreamy state of presentness and timelessness that gave me a freedom to know and prioritize myself in a way I never had before.

It all sounds very romantic because it was.

An oar used to row a gondola is paddled through the water in a canal in Venice, Italy. The colors, grace and mystery of this place inspired me like no other place ever has. (Photo by Mia Pohlman)

With its textured walls painted in pastels, water lapping softly at the sides of canals and winding alleyways that felt like secrets, I have never been to a place that inspires me more than that chain of sinking islands in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon.

I decided I would travel by myself when I was 22, walking behind my friend Danny through the streets of downtown Athens, Greece. We’d been there for only a couple of weeks of our year-long Fulbright fellowship, and I’d noticed how he could walk through the streets as a man so easily without worrying

about his safety, and I, as a woman, felt I could not. The culture I grew up in taught me fear should be my default, that I should not travel alone as a woman because I was vulnerable and my physical safety would be in danger, but in that moment, I began wondering: Is the world really as dangerous as society teaches women it is, or is the fear we’re taught another way our society exercises control over women to keep us in one place?

I realized with a sudden, irrevocable awareness: I was jealous of my friend’s freedom. And in that moment, I made my decision: I, too, would go places alone.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the risks involved with traveling solo as a female; as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized there are real dangers in the world and many people who would do physical harm to women. Rape, human trafficking and harassment are real concerns for women specifically and should not be dismissed. While holding this truth in one hand, I hold another truth in the other: I don’t think the world in many places is as dangerous as the fear women are taught to believe. I can trust myself to see and experience the world. I am capable.

And so, when my friends I lived with in Greece who had already been to the countries I wanted to go to were planning their trips to other places for our breaks throughout the year, I came to a crossroads: I could go with them to places I didn’t really want to go to for the sake of being with people, or I could go to the cities I had always dreamed of, by myself.

That’s how I found myself alone in Venice. And in the village of Nafplio, Greece, for a long weekend. And in Thessaloniki, Greece, where one of my housemates had also randomly traveled by herself (surprise!); we ended up traveling for a day to Skopje, North Macedonia, together, one of my favorite places I’ve been. I traveled solo to London, Rome and the Vatican for two weeks. And in the nearly decade of years since I’ve been back in the U.S., I’ve traveled by myself to cities around the country.

When I travel alone, the trip becomes about the place I am in, as opposed to when

I travel with others and the trip is about the memories we make together. I love both ways of traveling, but when I am by myself, something happens: I am immersed in the present moment and the place becomes my companion, with new delights and sadnesses to teach me. My observation skills are sharpened as I look around me to problem solve for daily tasks like taking public transportation. And I strengthen my trust in myself and my intuition when endeavors go wrong, such as getting lost.

Traveling by myself has helped me become who I want to be, gifting me with insight that shapes my day-to-day life profoundly. It teaches me to pursue the opportunities I want, even if it means I go alone. It shows me I am enough, that what is important to me matters, that I am provided for along the way. It frees me from my fear and limited, preconceived notions of the world, others and myself, opening me, my life, and the lives of others around me to beauty, inspiration, and different ways of thinking, living, and believing. It is something I have wanted for a very long time, and it matters deeply to me.

So often in our society, women are taught to surrender our own desires for the sake of others’. It is good and beautiful and brave, and there are times and places to enter into love in this way; it is true, relationship requires this mutual sacrifice. But there are also times and places to choose ourselves, to say, No, this matters to me, I will not forfeit it, not for society, not for another, not even for myself, and to pursue those endeavors that resound in the echoes of our hearts. You know the ones: They hurt, and sometimes we run from them, because they scare us. Choosing these, too, is good and beautiful and brave.

Because who knew there was still a place in the world without cars, that uses small boats as water taxis and wheelbarrows as garbage trucks? Who knew I could take myself there because I wanted to and feel so safe? Who knew I could be so wholly content to be my- self, by myself, choosing myself, in that place?

I didn’t.

And now, I do.

A building stands in Bath, England, a city where writer Jane Austen lived from 1801 to 1806, when the city was a thriving spa resort known for its Roman-built baths. Even though I wouldn’t discover and appreciate the novelist’s wit for another year or so, while I spent an afternoon in the town, it was a delightful surprise to learn she had lived there. (Photo by Mia Pohlman)

Interested in living abroad?

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs offers more than 40 fully-funded programs for people of varying ages and interests to live abroad. The goal of the programs is to strengthen international relations by living day-to-day life as an American with people from other countries. It’s a slow process, but the hope is to increase other countries’ understanding of America, as well as Americans’ understanding of other countries, by building relationships with people from different cultures, helping our world to be a more peaceful and loving place.

Here is a sampling of opportunities for each age group; find the complete list of programs and how to apply at exchanges.state.gov/us/alphabetical-list-programs.

For high school students: The U.S. Youth Ambassadors Program sends cohorts of high school students from the U.S. with at least one semester of high school left to countries across the Americas for two to four weeks to engage in work- shops, community service activities, team building exercises and meetings with local leaders while living with local host families. After returning home, students apply what they’ve learned to create a project that meets the needs of their home community while receiving mentorship from adults with the program. Students with proficient Spanish-speaking skills can apply to Argentina, Costa Rica and Ecuador; students with proficient English-speaking skills can apply to Belize and Brazil.

For undergraduate students: The Critical Language Scholarship Program allows American undergraduate students to spend eight to 10 weeks in the summertime studying one of 14 languages that have been identified as critical to U.S. national security and economic prosperity. While in the country where their language of study is commonly spoken, students take intensive language classes; applicants do not need to have prior experience with the language to apply. The languages currently offered include Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Turkish and Urdu.

For people post-undergraduate: The various Fulbright programs allow artists, teachers, musicians, scientists, coaches, scholars and professionals to practice their profession abroad for varying lengths of time in more than 150 countries around the world. Fulbright fellows often implement special projects to engage the host community where they work, live and learn. Grant lengths, qualifications and descriptions of programs and responsibilities vary by award.

 

Stay safe while traveling by yourself

Although traveling by yourself is fun, empowering and an excellent teacher, it is true there are heightened risks as a woman. While that shouldn’t stop you from taking a trip by yourself, it is good to exercise awareness, caution and critical thinking about the dangers that exist specifically for females in the world. We love you, so do your research, and keep these guidelines in mind when adventuring solo:

1. Listen to your intuition.

If something seems off, it is. Our intuition is a gift and power; don’t ignore or dismiss your gut feelings. Even if you can’t pinpoint why you feel a certain way, get yourself out of a situation that feels amiss immediately.

2. You don’t have to be polite.

If someone is causing you to feel uncomfortable or you don’t feel like talking, tell them to get away from you, and don’t apologize for it. You are the only one who will take care of yourself when you’re traveling alone, so travel with this mentality and look out for yourself as No. 1. You don’t owe anyone anything, so don’t act like you do.

3. Don’t tell others more information than necessary.
Although it’s fun to meet new people while you’re traveling, avoid telling them your life story, that you’re traveling alone or the details of your plans; even if they are honest, you never know who could be listening to your conversation and what their intentions are. It’s better to appear aloof or rude than it is to have your safety compromised.

4. Use taxis with a reputable taxi company.

Uber and Lyft are fine when you’re traveling with others, but I feel safer calling a cab from a reputable and traceable taxi company when traveling alone. Even through taxi companies, cab drivers are not always on the up-and-up, so share your location on your phone with a loved one if you feel unsafe or are using Uber or Lyft. Remember, you can always tell the driver you need to get out of the car immediately or at the next available safe place at any point in the ride.

5. Take your phone charger with you for the day.
Between using Google Maps, calling, texting, taking photos and video, and looking up information on the internet, cell phone batteries get used up quickly, and you don’t want to be stuck in a new place without yours. Throughout the day, charge your phone every chance you get at restaurants, airports and other places with outlets to maintain a full battery.

6. Find a group.

There are some activities like hiking that you should never do alone. If an activity like this is something you want to do on a solo trip, sign up with a credible paid tour group or an organized club in the area where you’re staying.

7. Remain sober.

Keep your critical thinking and decision-making skills intact to allow you to stay in control of situations and to make it more difficult for someone to take advantage of you.

8. Be in place before dark.

Not all aspects of society are equal yet, and women need to have a heightened sense of caution when alone. Be back at your hotel by the time it’s dark outside when traveling by yourself. And when exploring before it’s dark, stay in areas where people are; walk by families or other people who look safe and like they would help you if danger arose.

9. Stay at nice hotels.

Share the details of your hotels, flights and itinerary with loved ones before you leave for your trip. Paying extra money to stay in a good area at a finer hotel is worth it when traveling solo for peace of mind, physical safety and hotel staff vigilance. If you have the chance while traveling in Italy, Austria or Slovenia, try staying at a monastery; you can find these gems at Monasterystays.com.

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