Monthly Archives: June 2015

I’m not scared, and you shouldn’t be either

Danger...danger

The other day I was in Target getting a few things for my upcoming trips.  One of these things just happened to be a portable luggage scale. And that set off the questions by the friendly, but misinformed cashier.  I should point out that the cashier was a woman, most likely in her 50’s. The conversation then went something like this.

Cashier:  I wish I could travel.

Me:  You can.  Anybody can really.

Cashier:  I have a job      

Me:  So do I

Cashier:  Well, I don’t have anybody to go with me.

Me:  Neither do I most of the time

Cashier:  You go BY YOURSELF!  Aren’t you scared?

Me:  [Commence Eye Rolling]

And that is how nearly every interaction goes with someone who I don’t know well or not at all whenever they find out I do this thing called TRAVEL BY MYSELF. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve received a handful of emails and comments from seemingly well-meaning people [mostly women and mostly older than me] asking me all kinds of questions about traveling solo. I don’t necessarily want to be pigeon-holed as a SOLO FEMALE TRAVELER [or solo female traveler blogger for that matter] because what happens when I have a travel partner, or a sex change?  Does that mean my experience is no longer valid or relevant?  I’d like to think not, but the fact remains, that as of today, I am decidedly female, and I do travel alone about 95% of the time.  So I guess that sort of makes me an ambassador for girls traveling alone.

kitty hiding We all can’t hide under a blanket forever


Anyway… I’ve been traveling alone for a few years now — not because I inherently dislike people, but usually because I don’t want to wait around for someone to travel with me and because I kind of LIKE to be on my own and have the freedom to do what I want when I want.  And yes, since I am being honest , I WAS scared the first time I traveled by myself, and I was probably scared the second and third times as well.  And planning trips with others in mind is a huge task… especially when said others don’t have a fucking clue about what they want to do in said place.

The media–whether you are right leaning or left leaning or somewhere out in left field– is our common enemy when it comes to traveling alone. It’s a common misconception that it’s inherently dangerous to travel solo if you are a woman. I’ll admit–traveling solo as a woman IS a different experience than traveling solo as a man. As a woman, you DO have to be more careful and more vigilant in some cases. You have to be more aware of how you’re dressed, who you decide to trust, and how decisions you make could affect your safety. However, this doesn’t just apply to traveling. In a world where violence against women is a growing problem [even here in USA and especially in SC which ranks #1 for violence against women], being careful and vigilant is something women just DO. EVERY. SINGLE. FUCKING. DAY. It’s certainly not confined to traveling. Which brings me to my point [and I do have one, in case you were wondering]:

Traveling solo as a woman is not automatically dangerous.

It’s no more or less dangerous than doing things alone as a woman in your home country or town. People ask me [quite frequently these days] if I’m ever afraid to travel solo. And my answer is always no.  And these are the reasons why:

I Trust Myself

This hasn’t always been true.  There have been times in my past where I didn’t always trust my instincts or did things that dulled those instincts.  Common travel wisdom is don’t do anything abroad that you wouldn’t do at home. I take that a step further.  Some of the things I would do at home, I would never do abroad.  So I evaluate the situation and assess the risk.  Things that I would do at home like wander around, accept rides from strangers [yes, I’ve done it], go off without telling somewhere where I am, get blitzed on a night out are things that I’d never consider doing abroad. I also get a map and study it on day 1 so that I can be aware of my location.  I have learned to be aware of my surroundings and to trust my gut. Should I find myself in a situation where I feel uncomfortable, I do what I can to remove myself from it. When you travel solo, you are your own best, and sometimes only, defense. st wenceles square

I Trust strangers

People you meet on your travels ARE, for the most part, going to be helpful rather than threatening. As a solo female traveler, I’ve had countless experiences where I’ve actually had complete strangers looking out for me on subways [giving me directions when I got on a wrong train],  making sure I got off at the right stop on trains or buses, or given me rides when it was needed. My travel experiences have be greatly enhanced by trusting my instincts when trusting strangers. Just as the world isn’t an inherently dangerous place, people are not inherently evil. I don’t always make conversation with strangers and occasionally I am suspicious about anyone who tries strike up a conversation with me, but most of the time people are just trying to be friendly. Which brings me back to point 1:  Yes, it’s important to be careful and to trust your gut. But every unknown face as a threat. Your travels will be enriched when you open yourself up to new conversations and meeting new people.  And you’ll learn that people are more similar than different.

kissing the blarney stoneI had to trust that this guy wouldn’t drop me as I leaned over the cliff, upside down.

I Trust the Herd

If I ever DO find myself in a destination where I don’t feel completely comfortable on my own, I know that there are always ways to ensure that I’m NOT alone. A lot of times, I may book myself on a day trip to a place I’m unfamiliar with or want to visit, but don’t feel confident visiting it solo. It’s rare that you’ll find my in a hotel. I opt to stay in hostels or guest houses where it’s easy to meet other travelers and join in on group activities.  Usually people don’t mind if you tag alone. I’ve learned that traveling solo doesn’t necessarily have to mean being alone all the time.  

I Trust my research

I am not a planner, but I do like doing research on new destination.  I will always have a couple of things in mind that I’d like to see or do for any new destination.  If it is a truly foreign destination, I’ll brush up on a bit of the language, read up on things like cultural norms, common scams, and how I should dress as a tourist. If I am traveling to some of the more conservative countries, I make sure to pack more modest clothing. Not only does this make me feel more comfortable, but it also tends to cut down on unwanted attention. Doing my homework helps me fit in to new cultures better, and also makes it easier to be vigilant without being scared or paranoid. firing demo
It’s, OK…I knew ahead of time there would be a musket firing demonstration

I trust humanity

Every country has statistics of which they are not proud, but that doesn’t mean every person who lives in that country has contributed to those statistics. The US has some of the highest violence rates in the world, and yet I wouldn’t consider it a dangerous place in which to be a tourist… although once again, there are some places that I am scared to travel by myself in the USA.

We see so many movies and read so many sensationalized headlines that we’ve become conditioned to assume that the world “out there” is a scary, dangerous place. But guess what? It’s not, and if you were that scared and that worried about safety, you’d never venture outside your front door.

black sheep 1
You can’t be scared of a  little black sheep

and if you can’t trust people, trust animals… animals will never lead you astray, but sometimes, I get scared of animals… especially bears.

South Carolina State Parks | Jones Gap State Park

Well, that was unexpected

‘Oh thank God, I made it’ was my first thought when I reached the top of Rainbow Falls at Jones Gap State Park two hours after I started.  To be fair, I stopped a lot, took a lot of snaps, and played with all the friendly puppies that crossed my path.

upper rainbow falls

It isn’t the highest peak in South Carolina nor the most strenuous, but with 1200 ft elevation gain over a fairly short distance, it was hard enough.  Especially with humidity in the 90% range and temps in the upper 80’s.  I checked the weather forecast before I left and with only a 15% chance of rain, I threw a lightweight rain jacket in my backpack, packed myself a decent, trail-worthy lunch, filled up my Camelback with water and set off.

Walking the trail

And that was the last time my day went according to plan.  The main road to Jones Gap was washed out resulting in a 30-ish minute detour.  There was a yellow jacket advisory [which I should have paid more attention to].  The sky was overcast, but not threatening, and so I was off.  I hiked through rock beds.  I criss-crossed streams.  I crossed bridges. I navigated tree roots. I walked across a narrow board.  I went through boulders.

trail-to-rainbow-falls

Not 5 stinkin’ minutes after I reached my glorious summit, I heard a low rumble.  At first, I ignored it.  After all, I had a lunch of a deluxe turkey sandwich, trail mix, granola, grapes, and water to enjoy. I heard the low rumble again; this time is was just a little bit louder. I looked up.

storm clouds

And then I started to curse…loudly. As in F-bombs flying The last thing a novice/intermediate hiker wants is to be stuck on the top of a mountain when a thunderstorm comes rolling in. The very last thing I wanted was to get struck by lightening. Rain I could deal with; thunder and lightening, not so much. Not even two bites into my sandwich, I had to pack up. I barely broke into my granola, and I didn’t even get to eat one little grape! I was pissed at Mother Nature, but I didn’t want to inspire her wrath. As if I needed prodding, the low rumble rumbled again…this time a lot louder. I packed up my sandwich, pulled out my rain shell, and set off back down the trail I’d just made my way up. I hadn’t even rested good, yet! I practically ran down the trail, or at least as safely as I could manage, considering the rocks and roots. I didn’t even get to enjoy the small waterfalls that appeared sporadically on the trail.

Small falls

Trouble…just ahead

About 1/3 of the way down, I hit trouble. Raindrops so big and hard they stung as they hit my exposed skin. I also inadvertently disturbed a yellow jacket nest. I never saw it, but my God, they saw me. A small army flew after me, and at least a couple managed to find their way under my clothes. And that’s when the real fun began. Off came the backpack. Off came the rain shell.  And off came my t-shirt. The bees were still swarming. Off came my shorts. Luckily I was near one of the many creek crossings, and general safety and common sense be damned, I jumped into the creek. It was a part where there was a small plunge waterfall and a shallow pool. I screamed like a little girl getting her ponytail pulled on the playground. The water was icy cold. Icy may be a tiny bit of exaggeration, but 55 degrees still feels like the frozen tundra. Sports bra, socks, hiking boots were all that I had on as I submerged my head! and body! in this shallow pool. Might I remind you, it is 1) still pouring 2) thundering and lightening and 3) I’m still about 1.5 miles or so from my car.

small falls at jones gap

Bees stung me 5 times; once on the neck, once on the leg, and 3 times higher up the leg in a slightly more delicate area.

yellow jacket sting

After drowning the bees and freezing my ass off in the water, I resumed my descent still faster than I’m comfortable with because now, as a soaking wet thing, being struck by lightening was still a very real possibility. I successfully navigated the boulders, the steep decline, and the roots. My God, the roots. They always seem to be out to get me. I have a fear of falling. This is a real fear, not just one that COULD happen.  I HAVE actually broken bones while trail raining:  two to be exact [a wrist and an ankle], sprained an ankle multiple times, required stitches, and have cut, scraped, and bruised myself way  too much.

DSCF1176

But I keep coming back. Because there is beauty in nature. I find answers to the questions of the universe when I am in nature.  There is peace in nature. Even when Mother Nature shows her ass and reminds us mortals who’s boss, a day in the woods is better than a day cooped up in a building any day.

rainbow falls

Palenque–not exactly what I was expecting

As Mayan ruins go – and there are many in Mexico, and I’ve visited more than the average bear– Palenque is one of the best.
palenque 1

This ancient city is quite older than some and it dates back as far as 226 BC . While Palenque seems quite small in comparison with some other ruins such as Tikal and Chichen Itza, it is thought that the majority of the city remains undiscovered behind dense jungle.  What is there is incredibly well preserved for a city of more than 2000 years old.

Palenque carvings

Palenque stand out in my mind for several reasons one of which is this is the only ruin I visited where I had family with me.  My dad, who has since passed away, met me in Guatemala City on a complete whim [what can I say, spontaneity runs in the family].  We traveled together on a rickety old school bus to the Mexican border, stayed in quite possibly the worst hotel [and I use that word cautiously] I’ve ever been in [and that’s saying a lot], nearly froze to death in San Cristobal de las Casas, and once of us [hint:  not me]  angered the travel gods and suffered Montezuma’s Revenge. By the time we reached Palenque, one of us was very nearly dead and the other wanted to finish the job.

The heat and humidity of Palenque is no joke.  Having come straight from the mountainous San Cristobal [where I suffered from fever of unknown etiology and was quite weak], it was next to impossible to adjust to the heat and humidity of Palenque.  I did what I rarely ever do:  I rested.   I woke up with the howler monkey screeches at 5 am, siesta-ed in the hottest middle part of the day, and prowled around like an ocelot at night.  [Ocelots and howler monkeys do live in the jungle, but I never saw either of them].  On the third day, we tackled Palenque.

Palenque

The entrance to Palenque is a giant parking lot filled with people selling everything from refreshments to hats and souvenirs. Many of the paths within the gates are also lined with vendors. At the entrance to the site, official guides vie for your attention. They may mean well, but you can get almost as much information from plaques dotted around the site, and it’s much more enjoyable to explore the ruins at your own pace [even if you have to leave your dad sitting on the steps with the jaguar]

Palenque 3

Who even knows where my dad is at this point; Mayan architecture was not all that exciting for him.