In episode 23 in my travel podcast series, I talk to travel blogger and journalist Leyla Giray about her experiences travelling solo all around the world and the book she’s recently written called Women on the Road.
We discuss the barriers that women in their 40 and 50s feel that prevent them from travelling solo and how they can overcome their fears. We talk about how to stay safe on the road, what to wear, the best places to stay and the destinations that work best for women travelling on their own. And as Leyla says, there’ll never be a better time to travel, so if you’ve been thinking about it, that time is now!
About the author, Leyla Giray
Leyla has been travelling since she was five weeks old, when her parents took her on the Orient Express to Turkey and she has been travelling ever since. In her 40s, Leyla left everything behind and made an overland journey through Africa starting from Cape Town and travelling back towards Europe. Her plan was to travel for 6 months but she had such a great time that it was 4 years before she eventually came home. Leyla’s job as a journalist and development worker has taken her travelling all over the world.
Leyla, what was the trigger for you writing this book?
After my journey through Africa I wanted to write a book about my experience, but instead I ended up starting a website for women who want to travel on their own called Women on the Road. However, I still wanted to write a book and so I started pulling together the kind of information that women would want to know who were past their 30s and 40s and want to travel, especially if they feel that time has passed them by and they might not get a chance to see the world. As my big solo trip was while I was in my 40s and I was constantly meeting women who were into their 70s and 80s, I realised that there is no age barrier to travel. I wrote this book, Women on the Road, for women of between 45 and 60 as if I am writing for a friend. On my website I constantly get the same kinds of questions about “Will I be safe?” and “I’m afraid it will be too dangerous”, so I decided that I needed to set the record straight that women can travel solo.
Do you think that women who are a bit more mature have a different approach to travel?
I think that when you get a bit older you want a few more home comforts, you might not want to be backpacking all the time or be in a party hostel. Of course there are some women who would like to relive their second youth, if they’ve spent their time raising a family, developing their career or supporting a partner. Women who are a little older tend to want to take travel more slowly, and be conscious of their limitations and any dangers out there. At this age I’m much more conscious of what I have to lose than I was in my 20s and 30s.
What do you think is stopping women travelling solo?
A lot of women who had had a more supportive role in life may feel out of their depth and not know to begin. There may be a confusion about “Where do I start?” How do I decide where to go, what to take, how to do all this when I’ve been busy doing something else with my life. There is also a fear about how dangerous is it, what is going to happen to me out there, and if you haven’t travelled these are very real fears. If you rely on what you read in books or see on TV, it’s a pretty scary world out there. A lot of women might think that they might travel for a month and never meet anybody, or they might fear being mugged, not understanding the language or getting sick. These are very real fears that I address in my book, Women on the Road
Have you experienced any problems with personal security when travelling?
At the risk of seeming boring, I have not. I think I’ve always been very careful when I travel. I may have ended up in strange situations but I have been cautious and used common sense. I did have my passport stolen in Beijing, but that was my fault, as I did what I advise everyone not to do and left it in my backpack. It was a lesson learned – I should have taken my own advice.
Which destinations are best for women travelling on their own?
If you haven’t travelled much then I would start in your own back yard, as there are many places that you can travel without crossing any national borders. Then I might enlarge that circle to include like-minded countries, for instance if you live in North America you might try Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Then you might try Northern Europe as there is plenty of cultural diversity but the differences aren’t so great that a woman is going to feel in a completely foreign environment. Those are the easiest places for a beginner traveller. Once you’ve come out of Paris, Madrid, London and Rome unscathed, then you might enlarge this to South East Asia where there is a well trodden path for travellers and people are lovely, there are good facilities and medical care, pretty much what you would find in Europe but it’s all a bit more exotic.
Which cultures are especially welcoming for women?
Africa is extremely welcoming to women travellers but that’s because they feel so sorry for you if you appear to have no husband or family. I was pitied everywhere I went in Africa, they would ask me “Where are your family, where are your children, where is your husband?” They felt so sorry for me they would invite me into their house. By the time I was into my 4th or 5th country as I travelled across Africa, I started wearing a wedding ring and inventing a story about my husband who had been called away on business and would be joining me soon!
I’d also like to debunk a myth about the Middle East which is a place that scares a lot of women, as the culture is so different to the one that we’re accustomed to, but it’s an amazingly welcoming place for women. It’s almost as though they need to shield you and want nothing bad to happen to you while in their country. You find yourself enveloped in a cocoon in the Middle East, you may be passed between different family members to look after you. However there could be women who are sensitive to gender issues, for example if you don’t want to cover you head in certain areas, you may be noticed in a negative way or feel some hostility, so its important to be adaptable when you travel. I quite like the anonymity in those countries where men’s eyes are trained to look at women in a certain way and hiding behind a scarf or veil for a few days is a nice respite.
Do you have any favourite local clothing that you adopted when travelling?
In Bangladesh I wore a Shalwar Kameez the whole time, which is a tunic with loose fitting trousers, it was very airy and comfortable. Some countries think that your wearing their national costume is a fantastic things and others might think it is a little odd. For example in Burma I went around wearing a lunghi, but the Burmese are so polite that it was weeks before they had the courage to tell me I was wearing a man’s rather than a woman’s lunghi – that was a bit embrarassing. I did try on an African Mumu dress which was very comfortable, although I’m afraid it didn’t look very attractive.
Are there particular types of accommodation that work best for women travelling solo?
It depends why you are travelling – if you’re travelling to see monuments and not experience the people, then stay in a hotel. It’s the easiest thing and you are protected and safe, but if you want to meet people when you travel then you should stay with people. Of course you can couchsurf and stay with people for free but it can be a bit tricky until you get used to it, as you’ll want to vet people carefully. There are plenty of guest rooms, small boutique places and B & Bs where you can stay with a family but pay for your room.
In Zimbawe I was abandoned in a village in the middle of nowhere and tried to sleep inside a hut but it was so hot that I had to go outside and sleep in a rondavel with just a thatched roof and no walls. I was told that there were lions around and I put some metal barrels around on the assumption that lions couldn’t jump over them, but my eyes were like huge saucers and I didn’t get a wink of sleep, so probably I wouldn’t recommend that kind of sleeping arrangement. I also love staying in hostels, you just need to choose carefully if you don’t want to end up in a party hostel, but it’s a great place to chat with people and find dinner companions. Age disappears when you are travelling, it’s not an issue.
How do you overcome the worry that you will always be on your own or be lonely?
I find it’s the opposite problem, I often find I need to find some alone time, because when you are travelling people naturally form into groups. The solo part of the trip is normally just in the planning and preparation, and after you arrive you’re rarely solo. I’ve experienced loneliness a few times and missed family and friends. In the 90s there was no Skype and I didn’t have the easy ways to communicate. Nowadays if you feel lonely you can step into an internet cafe and just call home. Sometimes I meet people who spend all their time connecting back home and then I wonder why they’re travelling. It does happen that you feel lonely but when you’re with likeminded people who are excited about travelling, the excitement will rub off on you too. Maybe you won’t be able to share the sunset with that someone special but you’ll have 3 or 4 new friends to share it with and to me that is just as good.
Any final tips for women travelling solo?
It’s not a big, bad world out there – use your common sense just as you would at home. Lock your door at night, don’t put yourself in vulnerable situations, just as you would at home. It’s about being aware of your surroundings and being sensible just as you would at home. The best advice I can give women is to get out there and just do it. Don’t stay at home until the time is right, there’ll never be a right time, that time is now.
About the book Women on the Road
- Are you ready to travel Solo? The pros and cons
- Will it break the bank? Tips to save money before you go and on the road
- Avoiding scams and keeping your valuables and yourself safe
- Finding the right destination for you and where to go in each month of the year
- Travel packing and what to wear to look good and feel great in different parts of the world
- Getting around cheaply, easily and safely – your transport options
- Accommodation – hostel or chateau?
- Eating around the world – enjoy some new tastes and avoid getting tummy upsets
- Staying fit and healthy and travel insurance advice
- Shopping, ethical purchases and how to haggle like a pro
- Volunteering and thoughts on begging
- Keeping in touch with friends and family and dealing with loneliness
- Travel resources, lists and itineraries
- Tips from other women travelling solo
- Women on the road is priced at $12.99
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