A Little Honesty… On Safety and Solo Female Travel

Concerns about my safety on the road plagued those who love and care about me when I first announced my plan to travel solo around the world. Long-term travel is still an uncommon practice in the United States (compared to Europe and Australia) so perhaps the chief issue I dealt with was the fact that most of my friends had never heard of someone taking a round the world trip. Top that with media portrayals of other countries and you might think every country outside the United States is fraught with peril at every corner.

Top of the Monument
Traveling totally solo and feeling very safe in Scotland, safe enough for this selfie on top of Stirling Monument.

I have not found this to be the case on the road these past years, but in my  early days of planning, their fears became my fears and the entire situation caused, to-date, the only anxiety attacks I have ever had. It was the solo aspect more than the safety when I first left (in the throes of the naïveté of my mid-twenties), but both fears were present during that first year. Before I left, my solo fears circled around the idea of loneliness, but safety is the biggie that gets thrown in my face most often, then as well as now, when I announce new places I will visit.

I am a young solo female and thus pretty much lowest on the totem pole in terms of the types of travelers. Couples have safety in numbers and male solo travelers have an easier go of it in terms of world-wide gender inequality issues, a fact not up for debate—it’s just different for a solo man. So, I’d like to take a look at the different elements of safety on the road—it’s broad topic in regards to travel, and most travelers I know have, at one time or another, dealt with safety fears related to: health, physical safety, and risky activities. Health is a topic for another day; today I’m focusing on physical safety fears that I could have let overcome my desire to travel the world. These are fears that I still consciously choose to overcome each time I leave because it’s not a one-shot deal . . . the nature of some fears is that they are solved for a time and place, but not in general. I travel, but it does not mean that I don’t harbor fear; fear is a part of the human experience and evolutionary wise it was needed for survival. Now though, a lot of what triggers fears on the evolutionary scale are no longer valid (it’s unlikely a cougar will stalk me down a city street at night) but they are vestiges of being human, so let’s understand and address the main fears, one by one.

What Does Travel Safety Really Mean?

I have only increased my safety by traveling rather than simply staying home. I now have a greater breadth of experience and knowledge to draw upon when assessing uncertain situations.

On Traveling as a Solo Woman

If we boil down the core fear for solo women it’s rape. And I can’t downplay that, it’s a fear I share and it’s the main differentiating part of traveling as a solo woman—it’s my fear and the fear of every person who raises their eyebrow when I share that I travel solo. My best friend’s mother heartily disapproves of my travels. And though it often concerns the places I choose to visit (U.S. media does not treat Mexico well in the news), she has known me since I was in high school and she genuinely fears for my safety; she fears that something truly devastating will happen.

And for my family, my dad puts a lot of trust in my judgment because he seldom mentions the core dangers. He emails me travel warnings and keeps me updated on conflicts in areas nearby my travel route—so I know he’s concerned—but he trusts me treat my own life with care, and that’s the main advice I usually email to other travels: respect your own life. I take precautions and steps to mitigate the chances I am in a bad situation; I choose hostels in safe areas, I stay sober, and I stay aware. There are more practical actions too, and I share more at the end of this post. Beyond that, I can’t stop random acts of violence on the road any more than I can at home—and the rape/homicide rates in many U.S. cities prove that home is dangerous, too.

Safety as a solo female traveler also involves discussing sexual harassment. Female readers have asked over the years if I’ve ever feared for my safety, if I’ve had negative experiences on the road. I’m always tempted to write back that I’m lucky nothing terrible has happened to me, but that statement just pisses me off because it shouldn’t come down to luck. As a woman, I shouldn’t have to hope and pray that a man doesn’t decide to harm me, but it’s the state of the world.

Let’s look at that idea more closely: Safety for female travelers comes down to luck and not preparation alone.

Anyone who says that they avoided issues on the road “because they were prepared,” or because they did “all the right things,” imply a false sense of security. Plus it’s an insult to any woman who has been harmed while traveling—citing preparation as the sole reason for safety does a grave disservice to the facts. Violence against women is an epidemic. It’s a problem in the U.S., and a problem in many countries I visit. I can take steps to minimize my exposure to risk when traveling, but I can’t change the nature of the world—this ready violence against women. No one can plan against the sheer ill-luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Me and Jordi around Town
Since guards are down with locals during India’s Holi celebrations you have to be alert, but I will always remember the fun times with my friends Jordi and Neil wandering around town during the Festival of Colors.

For the sake of transparency on this issue, I have been aggressively groped three times in my life. Each time I was disappointed and mad, and (luckily) none were to the point that I feared it would go further. Each incident reminded me that the way society sees women has a long way to go in a lot of places in the world, my own country included. In 10 years as a solo female traveler, I have experienced only two incidences of clear violence against me. One was in broad daylight during a festival in India and another in Jordan, also during the day. The third incident happened before I left to travel, at a bar in Los Angeles, and of the three it was the most aggressive, invasive, and left me feeling the worst—and it was in a crowded bar with my friends nearby.

I didn’t write about these incidences at the time not out of fear, shame, or covering anything up, but rather because they defined my travel experiences in neither Jordan and India, nor in LA. And I wasn’t solo for any of them. In fact, in all three instances I had men and friends nearby and it didn’t stop the harassment. Three continents, three entirely different cultures, and yet similar attitudes toward women created that shared experience . . . more a statement on the way women are treated the world over rather than on travel, specifically.

I can’t say that nothing will befall female travelers, but I can say that it is not the norm. Truly. Kindness the world over has been the baseline of my experiences all over the world, but it’s hard to combat that when the random acts of violence against women are highlighted more prominently in global media. I know that if something happens to me—and there is that chance—that it will likely be random, and it will be poor timing: wrong place, wrong time. And it could just as likely happen during my time in the U.S. as in the places I travel.

I can’t live from a place of fear. I travel with self-defined policies, agreements I have made with myself to lessen my exposure to risky situations. Beyond that, I put my trust in the world. It may fail me, but that is a risk I have consciously chosen.

how to make a krathong
A friend in Thailand shows my niece Ana and Em how to fold traditional patterns into the palm frond krathongs for a local festival.

On Taking Risks

There is no one-size rule. Life, and travel, is about constantly assessing a situation, making predictions, observations, and acting based on those assessments. Sometimes the assessments are off and I make a bad choice. But it is an absolute fact that traveling has greatly increased my ability to size up a situation and a person and make an accurate judgment. In talking to people from all walks of life—all cultures, backgrounds, attitudes—I have created a book of knowledge that I add to whenever I encounter something new.

If safety is the topic, then I have only increased my safety by traveling—I have a greater breadth of experience and knowledge that I can draw from when assessing uncertain situations.

Surf Camp
Not so risky, but tricky enough for me. Learning to surf in Byron Bay, Australia.

A reader emailed me about taking risks. He heard my story about hiking an active volcano in Guatemala on a podcast and asked: “Something that called my attention was your positive attitude towards risk, so different from mine. [Please share] a few sentences about how you approach risk in your travels, and especially inside your mind.”

My response to him:

I am not an adventurous traveler by any stretch—there are those who do all the big, risky, sporty things. For me though, I try to nudge the boundaries of my comfort zone, but there are many things I won’t do that others will. Travel is highly personal, so if you don’t want to hike a volcano then I say don’t do it and stand firm in that decision.

When I was in Belize, just before I traveled through Guatemala, I had a big decision to make and I erred on the side of caution because it made me intensely uncomfortable to do something that some other travelers easily think is okay. I was at the blue hole, a popular dive site off the coast of Belize, and I had planned, dreamed, and anticipated diving there for several years. Once I arrived though, I didn’t like the attitudes of the dive companiesmany take very novice divers down even though it’s a difficult dive. The thought of diving that deep made me nervous, and I decided that seeing the caves 140 feet below the water was not worth the risk—I assessed the situation and realized I didn’t care enough about the experience to put myself on what I perceive is a risky dive. So I didn’t. Instead I snorkeled nearby, did a couple of shore dives on the reef, and had a perfectly enjoyable time. Other divers may think my decision was silly because thousands of people do that dive without harm, but it didn’t feel right for me. I trusted that feeling, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Traveling is highly personal and what one person does, enjoys, or finds interesting another won’t—and the same goes with risk. Find the travel experience that you think fits you personally and that makes you excited to travel and go do that! Travel should excite you and push just at the edge of your comfort zone. That’s how we grow and change—not by necessarily doing outright risky things, but by confronting the small fears that are boxing us in and not allowing us to live the life we want.

My fear of that dive made it unsafe for me. It pushed me too far outside my comfort zone, and it’s likely I would have done something dangerous from that fear. I knew it wasn’t a good choice because I wouldn’t have stayed calm, and that could prove fatal while diving that deep, when there’s no margin for error. For me, the balance of facing a fear versus the risks and safety of travel becomes learning what are informed fears—which are based on a truth—and which are instead masking fears of change or fears of challenging the status quo. It can be hard to tell the difference, at first, but there is a big difference in the actions that should result.

Holding a tarantula in Guatemala
Saying hello to a tarantula my guide pulled from the ground while exploring Tikal, Guatemala.

On the Actual Dangers

The very basic fact of it all is that if something serious happens to me on the road it will likely be a transportation based injury—just like at home. Traffic accidents and drowning are far more common the world over than tragedies from these other fears according to the U.S. State Department. Fatal traffic accidents far outweigh death from terrorism, plane crashes, or infectious disease according to the CDC.

Some chicken bus drivers in Central America are on duty for 24 hours while driving decades-old buses on pothole strewn roads. The rickety buses in India speed over high mountain passes in the dark and careen around curves protected by guard rails held on with scotch-tape and wishful thinking. Rampant corruption in Mexico (and Bali, and India, and . . .) means that no matter your traffic infraction, you can buy your way out of the ticket for less than $100 (and often just $20).

Chicken bus guatemala

And a “Thai tattoo” in Thailand doesn’t refer to getting some ink while tipsy and high on life—it’s the scabs, scars, and road rash mottling the skin of travelers who have crashed their motorbikes. Something that happens often enough that it has nicknames in every places travelers take this risk (it’s also so common in Bali that it’s called a Bali Kiss). In 2011, I got in a traffic accident in Laos with my niece Ana because I made a riskier decision than I probably should have, and I have several gnarly “Laos tattoos” that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Ana came out of the accident unscathed (thank god) but I had a serious muffler burn, went into shock, and limped away with a lot of road rash on my hip, elbow, and knees.

Did you know that fatal traffic accidents in Thailand are the second leading cause of death for U.S. travelers abroad? The first being traffic accidents in Mexico. No joke.

Three to a motorbike
Three to a motorbike with Jodi and Ana in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Transportation laws are sparse in many developing countries, and those they have rarely enforced in full.

Now compare this to the dialogue from people each time I leave for Mexico or Thailand. I hear about the drug cartels in Mexico, getting seriously sick, and the “scary people” who may harm me. The reality is that while precautions for the other areas are needed, our perceptions are skewed by the media. Outside perspectives often simply reinforcing political doctrine or maintain societal norms.

The map of the world according to mainstream media would have me think a broad swath of the world is untravelable, that the people in these countries I visit cultivate hate and will actively harm me. That’s not true. More than 95% of the world may not like the politics of the west. They may not like my religion. But they are not seeking ways to harm me. Or you. In fact, that 95% doesn’t really think about me at all. They raise their kids and work each day to put food on the table . . . just like in the U.S. So in terms of harm, I don’t feel the religious or cultural based fears. Granted, there are regions I approach with caution because of the gender inequality issues, but the danger map of the world is far different in actuality than you might think, so I point you to this post for more on accurately assessing location-based fears.

On Overcoming Fears

Have enough fear to keep you present each moment of your travels, enough to keep you cautious, but not enough to stop you from traveling. Male or female, there is a basis for fear or we wouldn’t discuss this issue. Bad things can happen. But travel changed my life; it made me a better person, it opened opportunities in my life and facets of understanding I never knew I lacked. It bred compassion into the fiber of who I am as a citizen of this world.

Safety and risks come down to time and place as much as anything. Each region, country, or moment of life comes with its own issues, risks, and fears. I take steps to accurately understand the risks of a place, and I act with my own safety in mind. Then I release the rest to chance, which is all any of us can do because risk is a part of life. Just as there are little risks, there are big risks, too. The biggest one for me being looking back on my 20s and 30s and thinking “what would my life look like if I had traveled young?”

A Little Adrift

There are many things I may look back and regret, but this will not be one of them. To close this out, and before mentioning the specific female travel tips, I will say, as I have many times, that I have found true kindness, friendship, and generosity in each corner of the world, in the mostly unlikely of people, and in countries other Americans assume are only filled with foes. People have gone out of their way to extend help when I needed it, times when I was at my most vulnerable—sick, lost, alone—and that common thread of generosity follows me around the world. Fears have a place in keeping us safe, but without frankly talking about the true facets of traveling in diverse places it’s easy to believe the world is the sum of its dangers. By and large it’s the opposite: traveling becomes the sum of human kindness. It only takes a commitment to shifting your perspective to see that.

How safe do we want to be? How much of ourselves are we willing to give up for it?

Sarah Hepola

Practical Tips for Solo Females Traveling

Safety and Solo Female Travel: An honest discussion and practical advice for female travelers.

These handful of tips should be paired with common sense and they will take you most any place you want to go in life:

Do Your Research & Bookmark Important Resources

Read the national travel advisories and research what the government says are the key dangers—many local embassies around the world will update country and city listings with nuanced safety information surfaced by no amount of Google searching. The U.S. government has one, though I find the Canadian one more thorough in some regards. The Canadian one also includes an extensive section on risks for women—have a read and then bookmark because it has a section for “If the worst happens.” While your embassy is one potential point of contact for Americans abroad, Pathway’s to Safety International provides care for American victim’s abroad.

Understand Local Cultural Norms

The first thing I recommend to any traveler—male or female—is to understand the cultural norms. Read about your upcoming destination; read memoirs and histories and the accounts of travelers and locals in that destination. Email local expats or locals who blog; figure out the geo-politics and religions and these will inform your travels as well as your behaviors. I have a whole section of this site dedicated to the best travel books broken down by region/country for this very reason—so you can learn and understand before you leave and have a baseline for your actions. In some places you should cover your hair (Iran) while others it’s best to cover shoulders and legs but belly is acceptable (India). The interactions between women and men differ and you cannot travel and assume your home culture will follow you. Although Western women are afforded “male” status in some countries, you cannot accept that as a given. That means things like direct eye contact, touching, and even the way you address others is up for adjustments as you travel.

Involve Others in Your Safety

Look around you and find ways to involve the people in this new place in your safety—usually just telling them you are alone is enough. This applies to bartenders, hotel clerks, and any place you might be waiting around. Tell your hotel you’re traveling alone and they will make certain you know any risky areas in the city; many also go out of their way to make sure you arrive home each evening. Bartenders only need to know that you’re concerned to take you under their wing. The same goes with waiting: At bus stations, when I have hours of sitting around, I will ask other groups if I can sit near them (or I’ll just do it). Recognize that you being alone is often a choice, and telling the right person gives you a network of people also aware and concerned for your safety.

Choose When You’re Solo

Finding ways to get comfortable once you land, and know that you don’t have to be solo even if you are traveling solo. I often take a free walking tour on my first day or two in a capital city. These tours offer a lot of history and all of that, which is fun, but there’s often cultural information included too, which helps me understand where I should put my attention. And what’s more, walking tours are filled with other travelers visiting for the next few days or weeks. It doesn’t always work out that I meet someone I want to do something else with, but sometimes I will at least meet with tour people for food/drinks/daytrip another day. Even more, I have paid for one- or multi-day tours when I just wasn’t in a state of mind to handle things myself. If you arrive abroad and don’t love how things are going, book a tour, buy your peace of mind. If you mentally set aside a bit of budget to cover it, just in case, then it’s there if you need it.

Stay Aware

One reason I sleep for a week straight when I go home is because my brain is taxed after months of maintaining awareness of everything around me. When I’m walking down the street, there’s only one brain mapping the city to make sure I can get back to my guesthouse. On buses, if I’m solo then I’m likely not asleep. To date, the only times I have had issues is when I pair up with another traveler and both of us relax in ways we never would otherwise. We lose awareness and we forget things, get lost, allow ourselves to be surrounded by touts, etc. As a solo traveler, you need to assess and make decisions constantly. This post on how to build situational awareness is brilliant. Read it. Borrow a couple of those books from the library before you leave. And though it’s written from a male point of view, the descriptions of how to teach yourself to continually assess new situations is a valuable skill on the road.

Stay Sober

This is a personal choice and it dovetails with stay aware. While I love a good beer, and while enjoying drinks in dive bars around the world is a backpacker rite of passage, I don’t ever get sloshed when I’m solo. My stance on drinking when I’m with others varies depending on the time, place, and situation, just as it did when I lived in Los Angeles.

Know Basic Self Defense

Before I left in 2008, I spent four months learning Krav Maga, an Israeli form of self-defense training. The gym was near my home in L.A. and I booked an unlimited package so I could rapidly build my self defense skills before I set off solo. Self-defense training for women is important, not only do you learn reflexive defense skills, but it’s a huge confidence booster. I have never used my Krav Maga training, thankfully, but every day I am the road I carry that knowledge. I know how to properly punch, and I know how to push through the exhaustion-barrier in a fight. Again, while I’ve never needed it, and there is every reason to believe that you won’t either if you are aware and cautious, there is no reason you shouldn’t research local classes and learn the basics. Many local YMCAs, libraries, or women’s group offer affordable classes. I highly recommend it. Will it save me if someone truly means me harm? I don’t know, probably not—but I like my chances better for knowing it.

Stop Being Too Nice

Say no to anything that makes you uncomfortable. I read once that men who want to do harm prey on the societal expectation that women are polite and accommodating—many of us were taught to give indirect and polite noes. Reading that changed how I approach interactions that make me uncomfortable. Because I did that, all the time. There were times in my early travels politely listened, or tried to gently ditch to an over-eager tout, cautious of being perceived as too aggressive or mean. Now I just don’t care if I’m rude, and you shouldn’t either. I would never be rude in the general course of life, but if it’s something unsolicited and I feel uncomfortable, I go for blunt and immediate. You don’t owe them your kindness, you owe your instincts and gut your attention.

Carry Travel Insurance

Since we’ve honestly looked at the safety issues, the biggest threat is actual bodily harm from traffic accidents. I carry travel insurance every time I leave the U.S. Although I have never used it—I paid for the Laos hospital visit out of pocket since it was only $80—I feel safer knowing I can call on medevac or a hospital visit if I am in a serious accident or very sick. This post thoroughly reviews options and gives a detailed breakdown of how to pick a good company; or just head to World Nomads if you’re a backpacker and looking for the best policy my research has found, with decent rates to boot.

Carry a Doorstop and Safety Whistle

My travel friend Jodi highly recommends both, so although I carry only the whistle, I know several solo females who feel a lot safer with both.

Pay for Your Safety

Take a cab. Spring for the closer hotel. Plan enough of your day that you’re not left risky areas after dark and you’re not riding on an overnight bus. Traveling on a budget often puts us in a mind-frame of penny-pinching and it’s easy to get caught up in the notion of saving every dime possible. Before I left, I vowed to myself that if I caught myself in a moment when I was about to make a decision that valued my money over my safety that I would reconsider the choice. I take the cab when I’m lost, unsure, or have far to go, even though a cab is surely not very “backpackery” of me. I schedule my flights to arrive in a new city during the day, if possible, and I book easy transport to the hotel if not. Uber is now in most major cities around the world—download it, set it up, and be ready to use it in a pinch (and of course, buy a local SIM card when you land so you can summon said Uber).

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with my assessment of the safety or have any other tips and resources for solo women?

Other Entries in the ALA Travel Fears Series:

  • Why I Decided to Travel the World: A close look at the personal motivations for my 2008 round the world trip, as well as what made me want to stay on the road all these years.
  • How We Make the Big Decisions: How do you know if you’re making the right choice in your own life? This piece takes a look at how we should make the big decisions in our life and where the risks and questions lie.
  • Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely: Many readers have emailed about if they should take off on a solo trip, and this looks at what it’s like to travel solo, as well as why it can be a life-changing experience.
  • On Health and Travel Sickness: Getting sick on the road is a primary concern for a lot of travelers; this post takes a deep-dive on where, when, and why I’ve been sick on the road, as well as tips for staying healthy.
  • On Fear, Vulnerability, & the Less Sexy Side of Travel: This is the intro piece about why I started the Travel Fears series on ALA.

Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your trip—a great policy provides coverage in case of medical emergencies, lost luggage, adventure sports rides, and more. I’ve used World Nomads since 2008 and highly recommend it!

If there is ever anything that I can do to help, please do reach out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and let’s talk about how we can make your travel dream a reality.

A Little Update… Twenty Questions, Jordan Style

Regular readers may recall my ever-so-brief plan to visit the Middle East last fall – it was a goal, an ambition really, because I’ve always wanted to travel to the Middle East but didn’t make it there on my RTW trip, nor my travels since.

Six months later, as I wrap up my time in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the Middle East still beckons. And as fortuity would have it, the Jordan Tourism Board invited me to spend nearly two weeks in the country as their guest. I couldn’t say no to that offer, so I head to Jordan this week.

Spud the Bagpiper in Scotland

A Little Anecdote… Hitchhiking Misadventures with Spud the Scottish Bagpiper

Spud the Piper in Fort Augustus, ScotlandIce cream dripped down my hand as I made my way to the small Fort Augustus bus stop—I was staring down the barrel of another long and drawn out travel day. I had strapped on both my backpacks, and with 20 minutes to kill before the bus arrived, I made my way to the grassy hill where Spud the Piper piped away to dazzled tourists.

Spud spotted me immediately, finished a tune, and then came over to chat. Since it was instantly obvious I was leaving town, he asked where I was headed next.

I sputtered out a vaguely incomprehensible answer, “Um, a really small town . . . Grey-something. With an “s” in there too . . .”

At his increasingly inquisitive look, I floundered even more for an answer, for the name of this tiny Scottish town where I would head next. I had randomly chose this next town because there was a cheap and well-reviewed hostel, and because it sat at the entrance to the Cairngorms National Park. But it was firmly off-the-beaten-path and I feared he would think me nuts not only for heading there, but for not even remembering where I was going next!

“Near Aviemore!” I exclaimed, the name of a nearby town coming to me as I fumbled to take out my small notebook.

“Grantown-on-Spey?” he proposes.

“Yes, precisely!” And then in the way of weird coincidences, Spud tells me that not only does he live in Aviemore, an hour-and-a-half away, but he’s from Grantown-on-Spey and plays the pipes there nightly.

Without pausing he asks, “Do you want a lift there?”

Oh the quandary I now faced. If I was willing to wait two hours then he would drive me to Grantown-on-Spey and actually drop me off at my hostel. Otherwise it was a looong day and multiple buses to reach the small town.

The only obstacle: I don’t believe in hitchhiking. Not even a little.

As a solo female traveler, I think hitching is unnecessarily dangerous and not worth the money saved. I actively tell other women hitting the road that they should be willing to pay more for their safety.

Buuuuut, circumstance also plays a role in any situation. Here were the thoughts racing through my head:

  1. Hitchhiking is fairly common in Scotland.
  2. I’ve known Spud for several days now, so it’s not exactly hitching.
  3. He’s wearing a wedding ring . . . that marginally counts for something.
  4. I really do not want to take a bus to a bus to a bus to get to Grantown-on-Spey in five hours when it could take just two.
  5. I have the time and the money to take the bus and I am a smart woman and should just politely decline, walk over to the bus stop, and take myself safely to the next town.

Conclusion reached, I answer.

“Um . . . sure, that sounds great actually.”

Did I just say that? Crap. We arranged to meet up in a couple of hours by the grocery store-cum-café-cum-restaurant. As I walked away, I tossed my empty ice cream stick into the trash, meandered past the bus stop, and pondered my options.

I had time to take the bus, and I was beginning to convince myself that this change in the plan was a terrible idea—warnings my dad had issued to me for twenty years echoed in my head.

Well, crap. When it came down to it, I was going with my gut instinct.

Two hours later, I dropped my main backpack into the trunk and kept my laptop bag with my passport at my feet . . . I mean, I still had to be cautious, after all.

Spud peeled out of the parking lot and as we cruised past the “Welcome to Fort Augustus” sign,  Spud’s announcement caused my heart to thud in panic.

The town had receded into the distance, when glanced over at me with a mischievous look, “Now, I’m going to tell you something, and I don’t want you to get scared.”

Everything inside of me dropped to the floor. The sound of my heartbeat pounded in my ears I as thought, “holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!”

Although we rode at full speed, the doors were still unlocked so I casually crept my head toward the door handle.

Then Spud finished his thought. “This road is small, curvy, and I like to speed.”

Oh my god! I laugh-sighed my relief, and then told him to never say those opening words to a solo, trapped female ever again.

As for the car ride? Oh boy did he speed. We whipped around curves as he candidly told me about his life, and informed me that he was a bit famous in the area (and internationally) because he played the bagpipes for Madonna at her Highland wedding several years earlier (which the internet verifies as true!).

Scotland viewpoint

We chatted the time, comparing notes and thoughts on America—because everyone has an opinion on my country. By the time I left his company, I’d had one of my most positive experiences and personal interactions in Scotland. Although there is great natural beauty in this country (the Isle of Skye comes to mind), and so much history (William Wallace in Stirling), it’s getting to know a local’s perspective that made me feel most connected during my Scotland travels.

Spud is a genuinely nice guy and I’m so glad that I went with my gut instinct and accepted his ride. Although I’m still dead-set against hitchhiking solo, I also reinforced my conviction that all rules can be broken at some point, under the right circumstances.

If experiencing new countries is about meeting the locals and having one-on-one personal encounters (which I think they are!) then I couldn’t have made a better choice. So, thank you Spud if you read this, for the ride, for taking me out of my comfort zone and helping me trust my instincts, and for being a really neat guy. :)

View of Pushkar and Sacred Lake from Brahma's Temple

A Little Sunset… Hiking to Brahma’s Temple & Battling Monkeys

Monkeys in India are unkind. In fact, as cute as they may look from afar, they are downright nasty. Monkeys don’t wander the mountains and towns back home in Florida, so I didn’t realize that it’s not fun and quirky to encounter a monkey while traveling, it can be harrowing. What would have been a challenging but meditative hike to the top of one of the hills surrounding Pushkar became an obstacle course fraught with lunging monkeys with bared teeth and booming cannons.

On my camel safari into the desert around Pushkar, I spotted a towering hill outside of town. A temple peered from the mountaintop. My curiosity was piqued and I questioned my camel guide. Local Indians (and spiritual seeking goras  — white people) hike the hill to Brahma’s Temple in the late afternoon. It’s a pilgrimage for some, and a chance to watch the sun set over Pushkar. Exercise has been hard to come by these past few weeks, so my cousin and I pulled on our hiking boots, filled our water bottles, and headed out. I am an unenthusiastic hiker. I like the idea of hiking, and I generally have favorable things to say about a hike after it’s over, but during the hike my face turns an alarming shade of splotchy-red and I start wheezing as soon as the incline gets too steep.

View of Pushkar and Sacred Lake from Brahma's Temple

No amount of conditioning has ever increased my stamina, so I accept the blotch-red look and just go with it. But it’s rarely an issue since I generally manage to make it to the top of whatever hill I may be hiking, and I’m in high spirits too — after all, it’s downhill at that point. But in India, everything is worth a remark. Especially a white woman heaving for her breath. My meditative hike became a parade of vicious monkeys and overly supportive Indian women with the vicious monkeys. It was a long, long way to Brahma’s Temple.

There path to the temple is straightforward — one steep path snakes up the hillside. My cousin and I started hiking later than many of the locals, which meant a parade of people descended as I huffed and wheezed my way up. My cousin’s in better shape, so she left me after I took too many “contemplative breaks” to look out at the pretty scenery. It was a nice view, and I photographed the desert while the blood slowed its pulsing and throbbing in my temples.

To be clear, this is a normal hike for me. I don’t fuss or make an issue, and I always keep one foot in front of the other. But the unofficial hiking motto of India must be something close to “just keep going. Every single Indian woman passing me as they hiked down the hill had to weigh in on my situation. Every. Single. One. As I rested, the woman would pause long enough to bodily push me into a standing position, and then propel my body higher up the hill. Few spoke English, so it was all physical with a lot of smiling and encouraging hand motions. And I am not over-exaggerating when I say that my face turned all shades of splotchy, blotted, pinky-white-red. At times, I thought I might hurl. And the closer I got to the top, the less they let me rest.

It was just one older woman who realized that — perhaps —  I did, in fact, need a rest. I was panting so hard that she showed genuine concern that I was breathing ok. She couldn’t speak a lick of English, but she crouched beside me and demonstrated a Lamaze-style breathing technique I suppose was designed to help me catch my breath. It was sweet, although also unwelcome. Especially when she ended the breathing session by gripping my arm. She looked at me with a serious expression. And she had true conviction too when she chastised me with something in Hindi, and then shooed me up the hill, with waving arms and a big smile.

India is a wacky country.

The whole way up the hill I felt claustrophobic will the attention and touching. But then all I could do was laugh. Those women were bound and determined to get me to the top of the hill by sunset. Instead of letting the bubbling frustration win, I surrendered to the absurdity. Even as I huffed, I kept a steady pace on the final stretch, whispering out enthusiastic and breathless Namaste greetings to everyone making their way downhill.

Monkeys at Brahma's Temple, Pushkar monkey at pushkar brahma's temple  Brahma's Temple monkeys

pushkar sunset hike to brahma's temple pushkar india

But then there were the monkeys. Let’s talk about the monkeys on this stretch of mountain. Because some people bring food donations, the monkeys have learned that the steps are a prime area for pilfering food. As I climbed closer to the top of the hill, more black and white monkeys dotted the path. I am always looking for a picture opportunity, so the first time I saw a cute one I whipped out the camera and started snapping some shots. At about that moment, I heard a distinct shriek from higher up the hill. My cousin was alarmed by something. I put oomph in my step and rapidly ascended to find my cousin clutching a rock in her hand and guarding herself from an aggressive monkey that had just charged her.

Once she bent down to pick up the rock, the monkey scampered back. But that was the beginning, we could see clusters of the monkeys on the rest of the path. And you would think that the monkeys would suffice with the food offerings left in the temple, but they are smart creatures — they know that the people carry that food in the bags they carry up the hill. With so many monkeys on the path, we decided there was safety in numbers and continued the climb together. Naturally though, the whole thing couldn’t be that easy. A mother, father and baby monkey were hanging out on the steps right by the entrance to the temple. We had dropped our rocks, so we approached slowly, hoping that they would scamper off.

Wishful thinking. The father monkey charged us and we swung our purses at him to keep him from attacking us. Just as we thought all hope might be lost, one of the temple employees set off a loud fire-cracker. The sound reverberated across the hillside and echoed into the desert. The monkeys wigged out and scattered quickly.

We earned the chance to plop down in the wicker chairs to admire the view. It’s a spectacular viewpoint on Pushkar and the sacred lake. The sunset was hazy, monsoon season hasn’t arrived yet, which leaves the air think and heaving with dust that filtered the light into a faint orange glow. The temple bells ring on the hour, and my cousin and I relaxed in the lazy breeze ruffling the mountaintop.

Makhania Lassi ingredients pushkarI recommend doing this hike if you are in Pushkar. It’s about moderate difficulty. Little old ladies passed me coming down the mountain, so it’s possible for most people. It’s also a nice afternoon break from the touts, scams, and bustle of Pushkar. Once back in town we stopped at our favorite restaurant, Rainbow Restaurant, and ordered our two favorite lassi. They are the best we’ve had in all of India. The Makhania lassi is curd mixed with saffron extract, almond extract, cardamom, and rose extract, then topped with cashews, pistachios, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and a sprinkling of coconut. I know, ah-mazing. It was a well-deserved treat after the strenuous hike. And there’s always something fun happening in Pushkar, so we caught a random parade in the streets on our way back to Tulsi Palace (my hands-down favorite hotel in Pushkar). I am not sure what they were celebrating, but it was loud, noisy, colorful and chaotic — perfectly Indian really!

Video from Brahma’s Temple in Pushkar, India:

[flickr video=3458619321]

A Little Marvel… Jumping for Joy at the Splendors of the Taj Mahal

It was a little painful to wake up at 5:00am, but we had no choice but to catch the morning train out of Jaipur after the Holi Festival of Colors revelry. My cousin and I dragged ourselves out of bed, slung our pre-packed backpacks onto our shoulders, and trudged to the train station — it was early. It also hadn’t quite hit either of us yet that we were on our way to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal.

I mean, can I just repeat this one more time: the TAJ MAHAL! Once we arrived at the train station, I sipped my milky masala chai with wafers of steam floating into the space in front of my face. A maelstrom of thoughts raged wondering what the day would bring.

jumping shot taj mahal

Arriving in Agra by Train

On the recommendation of our fantastic travel agent in Udaipur (he hooked us up with some amazing deals on trains and flights) we were not going to spend the night in Agra.  Instead, our four hour train from Jaipur to Agra would put us into the city around 10am.

Then the plan was to check our bags in the luggage room at the train station and then wander the city for 14 hours until our next train at 12:18am — we weren’t thrilled at the prospect of staying in the city without a place to hunker down and rest, but other travelers had concurred with the travel guide that you just don’t need to stay in that tourist-trap of a city for more than a day.

So, a bit groggy and a whole lot of hungry we landed at the Agra Fort train station all prepared to check our bags.  We caught a lucky break at this point.  The luggage storage man asked to see our onward ticket and informed us that our midnight train departed from the other train station. Yeah, ok. Another train station, we knew that. … With that we caught a rickshaw to the other station and were saddened to discover that this luggage room was way more sketch than the previous one.  With that in mind we found an empty room, closed the door, and began a massive reorganization of our packs.

One of the downsides of carrying a computer is that I always have to be super cautious of where I am leaving my backpacks.  Normally, in this situation Helen and I would have just carried them for the day, but as luck would have it you are forbidden to carry electronics into the Taj (or books for that matter — how ridiculous is that).

best views of the taj from agra

With a clear picture of the questionably safe luggage room in mind we pulled out my Pacsafe. This contraption is a steel mesh net that fits over my big pack, and then I chain it with its cord to stationary object. I haven’t used it very often on this trip, but it has been priceless the half-a-dozen times I have had to use it. I put both mine and Helen’s laptops in my big backpack, repacked, and then headed to the luggage room to check our bags and get on with our day.

The two guys I used as protection for Holi in Jaipur gave us a stellar recommendation for a rooftop restaurant with views of the Taj and a relaxed atmosphere where we could hang out for several hours when we needed to recharge.  The Saniya Guesthouse and Restaurant (which may not be the best place to sleep, but has a really decent rooftop restaurant) gave us our first glimpses of the Taj standing proud and gleaming in the bright mid-day sun. We had a delicious lunch of vegetable jalfrezi, naan, and some sweet lassis to prepare ourselves for the touring of Agra Fort and the Taj.

Exploring Agra Fort & the Taj Mahal

Agra Fort is one of the best Mughal forts in India.  This spot is a UNESCO World Heritage site in its own right even though it’s hard to pay attention to the Fort with the Taj Mahal visible just in the distance from nearly every corner. The Fort channels the look of the Tah and much of the Fort is built in vibrantly red sandstone but later additions were done in the same white marble that makes the Taj look so magnificent.

The Taj Mahal itself was built by the Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his wife who died in childbirth. That must have been some intense love, right! He built her one of the most spectacular monuments on the face of the earth.  The entirety of the Taj is built in symmetry and the wife’s body lies at the very center.

agra fort agra fort

view of the Taj Mahal

inside the Taj Mahal picking up the taj

We took a guide around the Taj and were able to learn a lot about the history of how it was built as well as some of the neat optical illusions that were built into the design.  I really don’t know how to describe the Taj so I will concur with the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, he poetically describes the structure as “a teardrop on the face of eternity.”

As a sad part of the whole story, Jahan, the emperor who had the Taj commissioned and patiently waited the 22 years for its completion, was imprisoned in Agra Fort by his son shortly after it was completed. Jahan was forced to spend the last eight years of his life looking at the masterpiece from across the river and through the Fort’s windows: his view until the day he died and was then put to rest beside his wife.

Our guide spoke great English and wasn’t pushy at all like so many of the others we had encountered and, in the end, I was really glad we forked over the five bucks for him. Although it’s spectacular on its own accord, it’s doubly spectacular if you understand the architecture and special peculiarities.

One of the things he pointed out was a discrepancy. All of the dozens of columns around the Taj are in an angular design, but although the Taj is designed with perfect symmetry in mind, the creator felt that nothing can acheive perfection except for Allah (God) so he made one round column at the back:

taj columns taj columns

exploring the taj mahal with my cousin

Also, having a guide made my cousin and me less of a spectacle while we were guided about. As soon as we wandered alone, we were immediately and frequently accosted by groups of Indians begging for “just one picture.”  They invariably are never satisfied with one picture. Many a time we were stuck taking pictures for several minutes as we posed with each member of the family.

To counter some of this attention whenever groups of young guys would approach us we requested that they dance for the picture.  Some charming kids we met in one of the early towns taught us the phrase “tom naacho” (will you dance) and we used it often and much to the hilarity of all those who heard Hindi words coming out of our very, very white selves.

It worked a couple of times, and one enthusiastic Indian guy began the popular, one hand in the air, one hand on the hip thrusting and hip jutting moves from his favorite Bollywood hit. My stomach hurt from the giggling. It was hilarious, and my I happily clapped along and then smiled big for his picture; he earned it!

I also took a bunch of shots with this family — the little boy was seriously cute! And they had all never really seen a white person before.

photos with random families swingging a little Indian boy family photo time

sunset on the taj

For a while, as we wandered about and relaxed on some shady benches we were pretty much convinced that we had the worst luck ever.  We had been at the Taj for hours and the sun didn’t even make a sneak peek from behind the clouds!

I had heard so much clamour about the changing colors of the Taj’s white marble and as we were walking back across the extensive grounds, resigned to have dinner at Saniya, the sun peaked out from the clouds and we were fortunate to watch the white marble of the Taj turn impossible shades of peach, tangerine, and golden yellow. Spectacular.

We capped it with dinner overlooking the Taj and then headed back to the train station to wait out the remaining three hours.  Up next is the longest train ride yet, 17 hours on the 2nd class sleeper section of the train. You don’t know intensity until you’re the only Westerner in the commuter section of an Indian train.

Currently Reading: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. I am loving reading this as I continue to journey through India. Oh, and my India Lonely Planet is pretty much the best purchase possible. It has come in so handy.


A Little Confusion… Adventures Getting Lost Hiking Wentworth Falls in Australia’s Blue Mountains

I loved my first long hike through the mountains, which ended at the Giant Staircase in Katoomba. Katoomba is a cute mountain town with stunning views out over the mountains and valleys. It’s also the main town in this area and the starting point for most major trails. After that beautiful trail, I decided to try a different one the next day. As always, I got lost, but that is par for the course for me. My first hike was such fun and such beautiful trail that I knew it would be tough to rival the beauty. The Giant Staircase hiked ended with a glowing ochre sunset over the Three Sisters rock formation. But Ross promised that my four hour hike to see Wentworth Falls would equal the beauty.

The hike to Wentworth Falls is much like the hike that ends in the Giant Staircase. They both have similar forest and pathways, but the Wentworth Falls hike brims with waterfalls and streams at every turn. If we passed a dozen waterfalls on the first hike, we passed two dozen on this hike. The weather cooperated, which is one of the key reasons I visited Australia in the warmer summer months—I’ve read that the Blue Mountains can be very cold, wet, and overcast at other times of the year. But our hike had the weather gods smiling down upon us. The strong bright sunshine fractured in every direction on the mists wafting from the waterfalls. Every droplet of water became a multifaceted rainbow.

Wentworth Falls

My hiking buddy and I found Wentworth Falls within the first two hours of the hike. One of my favorite part of this trail is the structure. The trail forces visitors to hike across each section of the waterfall before you reach the base. When we reached the bottom of the rainforest, we looked up and saw each of the three individual sections of waterfall. These waterfalls align down the cliff face, and the waters from each nourishes and strengthens the one below it.

The waterfalls are quite spectacular. As we stood below, our eyes traced the path our bodies had taken. We had hiked under, around, and behind nearly every part of the waterfall. So neat! The misting spray of the waterfall coated our faces in reflective droplets. We had reached the wider base of the water and allowed the mist to cool our our face as we hopped on stones to get to the other side of the river.

All of Wentworth Falls Wentworth Falls

And as much as I loved the hike, I was jibing with my hiker partner again and I really loved having a chance to chat and swap stories. In fact, we were both so engrossed in the conversation that we got lost again! But this time was worse than the previous disorientation. This time the trail had disappeared. Since we hadn’t left a breadcrumb trail, we had no idea how we would retrace our steps back to the main trail.  Our first clue that all was not well started when we began to hike through, under, and inside of waterfalls. We thought there was a faint trail in evidence, but really it wasn’t until the trail led us to a slippery, steep cliff face that we turned around. The teetering—it was a near miss that I didn’t slide over the edge. Seriously.

We tentatively started charting a course back along the “path.” As we passed back through the drenched rocks, I slipped and fell down hard. I have two huge mottled-colored bruises on my thigh to prove it! At this point we slowed our pace because we both realized that we were definitely not on a marked trail. Things were getting a bit out of hand.

I own up to my lack of direction, while I can always retrace my steps, I can’t usually orient myself within a larger setting. I argued with him a bit as I looked out at the vast swathes of green valley and dense trees in every direction. But he made a compelling case for the way to get back to the hostel. Couple all of that with the fact that I was shaken by this time, and I asked Christian to completely take over the navigation to get us back on track. He was right about the direction of our path home, and he got us both safely back to town, onto the train, and safely back to the hostel—all with deep darkness slowly encroaching.

By the time we got back, we both acknowledged that it was a good thing we had heeded the warnings. On my first day in town, Ross explained to me the two cardinal rules of hiking in this area: never hike alone, and always tell someone your planned hiking route, as well as when you expect to return. Also, I just might carry a compass next time I head out on a long hike!

For a more detailed how-to on hiking this region, head to the end of this post where I explain How to Independently Explore the Blue Mountains. If you’re heading to Australia, check out my free online Australia Travel Guide, and use the most recent Lonely Planet plan your trip. And if you’re planning long-term travels, I have an extensive list of world travel resources here.

"Look Right" Sign so that they can stop scraping tourists off the sidewalk in Sydney, Australia.

A Little Anecdote… Honing My Survival Skills on the Streets of Sydney, Australia

"look right" street sign in Sydney When I dreamed of traveling youngster, I conjured exotic scents and foreign colors. I heard in my mind the lovely lilt of unknown dialects. I tasted in my dreams the cuisine of far off places. Never did I think about the practicalities of traveling through cultures, countries, and places foreign. Foreign by definition means strange and unfamiliar, and it’s that lack of familiarity that nearly got me run over.

As I’ve explored Sydney these past few days, I walked on autopilot at times. My attention fluttered between window dressings, into cute cafes, and up to the tops of towering skyscrapers. Throughout all of that, I was pretty cocky about how I was doing as a solo traveler these first days on my own, out there in the big world. And I also consider myself a bright girl — I only need to make a mistake once to learn from it.

And yet, I have the very real, very daily problem of blinding stepping off curbs in Sydney’s downtown. How many times do I do this? Oh, let me count the ways. I cannot seem to fight the ingrained habit of looking right first when I cross the street. They drive on the left in Australia, and this really shouldn’t be that hard for me. I safely navigated the UK when I was a cautious 21-year-old. But now?

Several strangers have reached out to physically stop me from walking into oncoming traffic. Not one, not even two. It’s every time I leave the hostel.

It’s a bit funny. I know that. But it’s also serious! This is a pressing safety concern, and it’s not one I had ever considered when family warned me of the dangers of solo travel. I am thanking the powers-that-be because the touristy parts of Sydney painted reminders directly on the roads. They did this for the Sydney Olympic Games, and it remains useful for idiots such as myself.

As I heighten my awareness — I have no desire to be side-swiped by a car barreling past — I am correcting my instinctual response. At this point, I am training myself to physically pause at every street corner. Then I take a deep breath and consciously look “right, left, right.”

One of the funnier moments happened this morning. I bodily smacked into a gorgeous business-clad Aussie hustling down the sidewalk. I face-planted myself into his chest. The blame for this delightful little encounter falls squarely on this predicament I am having. I I dodged right to get out of his path, and he dodged to my right too (it was his left, so it was the natural move for an Aussie). Wham! Instant collision. He was genuinely baffled about the situation since there was plenty of space on the sidewalk. But being a gentleman he apologized profusely. My response was a stammering mess. I giggled a bit, blushed a little, and then ducked around him and continued walking. Looking back though, maybe there is an upside to all this left-right confusion.  ;-)