This dispatch was written in the midst of my first time traveling abroad on my own. I never published it back then, but looking back on it now, this was truly a major turning point in my evolution as a traveler and my confidence in myself. I hope that this perspective might be helpful to anyone considering taking their first solo-journey!
It’s raining today in Bergen, as it does almost everyday in this northern seaside town. While my hiking plans have been put on hold, I’m grateful for the excuse to curl up with a chai latte and reflect on my trip so far.
I’ve spent the past week traveling throughout Norway by myself and so, I’ve had a lot of time to think. At home, I have this bad habit of getting lost in my imagination— I entertain vivid daydreams of my aspirations; such as starting my own company, living abroad before I’m 30, and creating artisanal hot sauce.
Yet, to my own surprise, my thoughts while traveling have tended to stay grounded in the present. I’ve found myself checking in with myself constantly; how am I feeling? Am I relaxed? Tense? Is this good? Am I okay? What should I do right now? I’ve been thinking a lot about the journey itself; how it’s going so far. I’m learning so much about myself; what makes me happy and comfortable.
But I also find myself evaluating everything I experience and converting it into the mental evidence I need to feel confident in this journey. Like I’m building a case against the idea of how women should navigate the world that’s been ingrained in me since I was a young girl.
This isn’t the first time I’ve traveled on my own, but it is the longest and my first time doing so outside of major metropolitan areas and without a professional purpose. It’s also significant to me because a little over three years ago I was mugged while traveling abroad in South America. Ever since I’ve slowly been rebuilding my confidence in wandering the world.
Up until that incident, I thought, like most people in their early twenties, that I was invincible and all the paranoia my mother instilled in me was just that— a crippling fear of the unknown. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to return to that blissfully ignorant worldview, but perhaps that’s a good thing. Understanding the realities of moving through the world as a woman people might perceive as “vulnerable-looking” has resulted in me being both more alert and more prepared on this trip.
Rough Translation: “Do not sit inside when all hope is gone”
I’ve been mulling over all the considerations I’ve had to make in order to feel safe traveling alone as a woman. It’s doesn’t just require extra effort, but also money. Google “best places to travel alone as a woman” and you’ll find that most of them are either Western European or Nordic countries like Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland.
If you also google “most expensive places to travel in the world” you’ll get a nearly identical list. When I pointed out that I chose to come to Norway because it seemed safe, a new friend I made in Bergen quipped, “well you’re certainly paying for it”.
At a more microscopic level, I also spent hours doing research on the right neighborhoods to stay in— the perfect balance of being easily accessible but also not too central, because for whatever reason the areas immediately around the train stations in the European cities I’ve visited are often described as “shady”.
For the cities where I was able to save a little bit of money by staying in AirBnBs, I was biased towards finding female hosts. When I did decide to stay in an apartment with a male host, it was only after thoroughly scouring his reviews and taking note of how many self-identified solo women travelers gave him the seal of approval. Still, even with all that research, I was surprised to find my room was on the ground floor with windows facing the street. It was fine in the end, but I was a bit upset at myself for not thinking to consider this during my initial search.
And of course, there was also a self-imposed curfew
I tried to schedule all of my transportation between towns before dark. I would spend my flights and train rides memorizing the route from the stations to my lodging, so that I wouldn’t be wandering around with my iPhone out looking like a lost tourist. The curfew also required cutting myself off after one drink at dinner so I could be alert if I was walking home after dark.
If possible, I also try to take Uber. Say what you want about them, but having a record of my trip and not having to worry about being scammed on cab prices are just two fewer things I have to worry about. Although this didn’t stop an Uber driver I had in Oslo from getting my number from the app, saving it, and texting me later in an attempt to solicit my patronage outside of the app.
The most surprising thing I learned on this trip was how much more comfortable I felt out in the isolated refuge of nature. Having grown up in the suburbs, I’ve traditionally felt more at ease in dense urban areas. I’ve always felt safer knowing there were people around, so I was initially anxious about spending so much time out in these small towns near the fjords.
I didn’t realize how much safer I actually felt there until I arrived in the much larger city of Bergen afterward. Suddenly, the presence of drunk men loitering on the street corners snapped me back to reality. They actually made realize that all these considerations I had to take while traveling aren’t really all that different from how I navigate my day to day life in New York City.
Camera Self-Timer Struggles
Almost as stressful as worrying about my physical safety was dealing with the crippling social anxiety of being alone, and doing so recreationally. It’s not that women don’t do things alone. We may travel for work, or grab a quick bite to eat while running errands, but when we do choose to indulge in our own company it is often in the privacy of our homes. I don’t know how else to describe it but it still feels foreign and frankly, a little awkward for me to enjoy my own company in public.
When it comes to the trope of the solo woman traveler there are the Elizabeth Gilberts and Cheryl Strayeds— but even they present traveling alone as a woman as a kind of spiritual rebirth after a traumatic event, such as a death or a divorce. Why can’t we do it for fun? Why can’t we do it when everything is actually going pretty great in our lives?
When I was younger, I used to think having a boyfriend was like having a passport
That this entity would entitle me to travel the world, and without one I would be stuck. I later realized that if I rely on other people to make my dreams come true, whether it’s boyfriends or flaky friends, I might never get my feet off the ground. And while at first it felt like a decision between seeing the world alone versus not seeing it all, it’s now a choice I enjoy and feel empowered to make.
In fact, being in a serious relationship and living together has made me truly appreciate my alone time, and taking it is healthy for all parties involved. While there are sights and experiences I want to share with the people I love, there are also the ones that I want to keep to myself, as my own little secret.
I’ve always had this romantic notion in my head of the rugged male traveler. A Kerouac-reading, whiskey-sipping, lightly stubbled guy who looks right at home by himself in a bar. Nobody wonders what he’s doing here. I used to be disappointed that I could never be perceived that way, and never walk through the world alone so naturally.
However, I’ve come to realize that just maybe, a small-statured woman enjoying a glass of wine and a four-course meal by herself is as intimidating an image as our Kerouac imposter. Maybe it’s a good thing that they wonder what I’m doing here.
I’m realizing that traveling alone is only as awkward as I allow it to be. And so, I’ve learned to say, with a big smile and some confidence “table for one, please” and mean it.
Sabrina is an independent designer and travel enthusiast who is currently based in Bangkok. She writes about cool places to stay in her weekly(ish) newsletter, The Innbox. Follow her on IG @theinnbox