Wednesday, October 2, 2013

On week 4 of being a solo woman traveler

Two weeks ago I wrote about the downsides of traveling alone as a woman, about unsettling experiences with ill-intentioned strangers, and the darker side of people.

For my travel monthiversary I want to write about the joys and advantages of solo travel, about the wonderful people I've met along the way, and about how good this whole adventure has been for me.

A quiet, solitary moment on the road to Shangri-La

A few highlights


As I write this, I’m sitting in the back of a rental car with Ursula and Janine, a Swiss mother and daughter I met at a mountain lodge and who generously offered to let me join them on a side trip to Pucón, a volcanic region on my “want to go, but maybe too out of the way to be practical” list.

In my snowboard bag crammed in the back is mountaineering equipment—mountaineering boots, ice axe, and crampons—that belong to Sergio, the owner of the lodge I just left. When I told him my plans to climb Vulcán Villarcia, the volcano that guards Pucón, and asked for advice for where to rent equipment, he spent the next several hours with me setting me up with everything I needed (including his own personal pair of crampons), giving me advice, swapping stories, and making sure I would be careful (but also have fun).
Earlier that day I enjoyed a few hours of conversation and a trip to the local thermal baths with David, a recent grad from Munich spending a year traveling, skiing, and working in Chile.

The day before, I climbed Vulcán Llaima, which would not have been possible except for the group of Argentinians (Stephen, Pablo, Hubert, Karina, and Julián) who let me and David bum a ride to the volcano with them and with whom I spent two raucous evenings drinking wine.

The several days before that were spent in Conceptión visiting geobiology contact and very respected oceanographer Prof. Osvaldo Ulloa, who welcomed me like an old friend and made me feel at home in a city I had never been before. When I left, he made me promise to call him if I needed any help with anything and before I did made sure that his friendly lab group hooked me up with mountain contacts.

And last week was spent in a magical place called Shangri-La out of Las Trancas, near the Nevados de Chillán ski resort with Pipe, the brother of a colleague and his group of mountain guides and friends (Manu, Panchi, Ignacio, Maria, and others). From the moment I arrived at their cabin I was treated like one of the crew, part of the family.

The BackChillan family preparing for a tour in Shangri-La

Part of the family


Nearly everyone here has been incredibly generous, warm, open, and friendly. From the locals—all but a few of whom were strangers before I arrived—who have adopted, fed, housed, directed, and equipped me, given me travel tips and advice on everything from where to go to how to say “leave me alone, creepface”, and who have made me feel so at home here (Ignacio, Macarena, Fer, Coti, Ramón, nameless busdriver, the BackChillan crew, Osvaldo, Sergio, and others), to the fellow nomads with whom I have shared adventures, wine, and meals (Tom & Ellen, the good folks of the Princessa Insolente, the Argentines, and Ursula and others at Suizandina), I have been reminded every single day how lucky I am to be human. How wonderful it is to be part of a big family of organisms that, with very few exceptions, are good to each other, look out for each other, are kind to each other, who genuinely want to connect and share with each other.

Over and over again I think of this piece by comedian Patton Oswalt in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing reminding all of us that, while there are creeps, assholes, and dickfaces, rapists, cannibals, and violent kidnappers, humans are defined not by our darkness but by our remarkable sense of “we’re in this togetherness”:

We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We'd have eaten ourselves alive long ago.”  -Patton Oswalt 

Traveling alone as a woman is special...in a good way


Here I am, alone in the world, the solo woman traveler. Yet I am not alone. Even when I’m alone in the mountains I am surrounded by my human family. I was absolutely right to take the leap of faith that I did and jump into this adventure, alone, trusting in the basic goodness of the people I would meet along the way to make this experience a good, rich, and largely safe one.

In fact, I have come to appreciate what so many other solo woman travelers have said before me: it is a great way to travel.

First, I am free! Free to let the wind blow me where I want to go. Free to join people on adventures or free to go my way alone. Free to go out at midnight and sing karaoke duets with the bartender in downtown Conceptión, or free to sit alone in my hostel room reading a book or editing photos. It is a deeply different experience than traveling with a companion. I have found that I honestly don’t miss conversation—I get plenty with the strangers along the way and those conversations are at least as interesting and less tired.

have felt moments of loneliness. But the people here have been so warm that those moments have been brief. And I am sharing my experiences, both with people I meet here and via contact with the people I love back home through emails, Facebook, and this blog. I feel just as connected as I ever did living as an anonymous face in the megalopolis that is Los Angeles.

I remember debating Chris McCandless's dying assertion that “happiness is only real when shared” once with an ex-boyfriend. I disagree with it: some of my deepest moments of joy have been when I've been completely, utterly alone, left to experience some bit of life's magic as the sole witness. There is something rich about standing alone on a mountain, feeling both small in the big beautiful world and deeply connected to it. Without needing to talk about it, argue the next steps, discuss dinner plans, hear what’s racing through the brain of a person standing with me, I am able to quietly soak in my experiences, and somehow more fully live them.

Sunset in Shangri-La, a quiet, breathtaking moment shared between me and the mountains


Advantages of traveling as a solo woman


Enjoying famous Chilean asado
with new friends in Shangri-La
Also, while a solo woman traveler may be, as Shannon at A Little Adrift puts it, the “lowest on the totem pole in terms of the types of travelers”, there are definite and valuable advantages. The exact traits that I described making me a target for creeps and harassment—my being a petite, friendly, clearly foreign woman—also make me a “target” for good people. I am absolutely non-threatening, so people—families, other women, strangers—trust me when they might not trust a man. My aloneness and young femaleness and foreignness makes people protective of me; people go out of their way to make sure I’m okay and taken care of. A bus driver might dump a guy off on the side of a deserted road at night without a second thought, but might wait around and make sure I have a safe ride to where I’m going. People are generous with me where they might not be as generous with a man. People take me under their wing because I seem small enough to fit there, even when they are fully aware that I can take care of myself.

Being alone also forces me and makes it easier to meet new people. While traveling as a couple, I’d end up in a private double room vs. in a shared dorm with potential new friends. I’d have dinner at a table for two, not ask a group of strangers if I could join them (or at least as often, get adopted into the “family” by a group of strangers). When traveling as a couple there were some very special and memorable times where my companion and I were invited in for dinner or drinks or a place to stay by strangers who took an interest in us, but where that happened maybe once for every month of travel as a couple. It happens to me almost every day here. It’s really cool.

How the experience has been shaping me


I am still cautious. Still deeply aware that even the well-intentioned can behave badly, still careful to avoid putting myself in situations that could turn dangerous, or even just uncomfortable and icky (e.g., no thank you, paunchy disco king on the bus, I appreciate the offer to cook me a very special dinner and drive me places but I think I’ll pass…and I’m going to go sit somewhere else, thanks). But the fear that defined me two weeks ago when I was crying in my locked hostel room is gone. I am still a sweet and petite gringa traveling the world all alone. But I am also a strong and competent adult knows who she is, what she wants, where she’s going, who has no patience for inappropriate attention, and who knows how to stand her ground and firmly say, “Dejamé en paz!” That fear has been replaced by a sense that I may be a stranger here but this is still my world. I feel able to face the unknown with confidence and with my heart open to the shining souls and walking treasure chests of experience and stories and humor of the good people that I have met along every step of this trip...and a willingness to deliver a swift kick to the nuts when warranted.

I am sure I will have more moments on this trip where I don’t feel so strong. But I am certain that those moments will become fewer and farther between now. I am loving, loving, this adventure. And, for the first time in years—maybe the first time since I first crawled down from the beloved mountains of my childhood—I feel like myself again: heart, body, and soul reunited again in Mountain Carie who, in reality, is Whole Carie.

The great big universe, as viewed from my home for the week spent with BackChillan in Shangri-La