Since I’m male, I feel a little ludicrous leaping atop a soapbox and pontificating about budget travel for women.
But I find it infuriating when I relate one of my travel experiences - a bike tour on Washington’s San Juan Islands, a jungle trek in Central America or a solitary exploration of Croatia’s Adriatic coast - to a female who says, “It’s too bad women can’t travel like that.”
Wrong. Women do travel like that in every corner of the world. No matter how obscure or inhospitable my destination, I’ve always encountered women traveling alone or in pairs.
In Albania, the only foreigners I met besides aid workers and missionaries were two American women hiking in the country’s mountainous northern region. In Chiapas, Mexico, I met two young German women about to embark on a cross-jungle journey to Guatemala that involved a bus ride along hundreds of miles of unpaved roads and a trip in a wooden skiff down the remote Usumacinta River. I’ve also met many women who have traveled alone in India, South America and Southeast Asia.
All these women have told me the same thing: Once you’re on the road, you soon forget your fears.
Says Sarah Lamson, 29, of Santa Cruz, Calif., whose first overseas journey took her alone to Thailand: “After this trip, I realized how easy it is to travel alone. The hardest part is buying your ticket.”
Sarah, who felt safe enough in Thailand to jog alone in the countryside, thinks females must take only a few more precautions than male travelers.
“You don’t walk alone at night,” says Sarah. “You just don’t put yourself in stupid situations. It’s the same precautions you would take in the United States.”
No traveler, male or female, should leave home without common sense; just as crucial, for female travelers, is confidence.
Enjoying a surfeit of both accoutrements is Wally Woodward, 35, of Fort Collins, Colo. Wally will soon embark on the second leg of a solitary bicycle tour that started in Homer, Alaska, and will eventually take her to Ushuaia, Argentina, at South America’s southern tip.
Wally hardly looks like somebody who would pedal alone from one end of the hemisphere to the other. Her face is freckled and sunny, her hair is long and blonde, and her physique seems more suited to a ballerina than a long-distance bicyclist, but Wally radiates determination, levelheadedness and self-assurance.
“I was brought up by women who always told me, ‘If you want to do something, do it,”’ she says.
Confidence is invaluable, Wally says, because harassers prey on those who appear weak and timid. Wally also ensures her safety by regularly apprising her friends and family of her whereabouts.
“The more people who know I’m out there, the safer I am,” says Wally, who considers her gender an advantage, not a handicap.
“When you’re a girl traveling by yourself,” she says, “you get to do more stuff because everyone wants to help you.”
As an example, Wally cites one evening during the first leg of her journey when some Alaskan fire spotters invited her to their lookout tower to watch a meteor shower.
Wally says with a laugh, “People say to me, ‘Do you realize there are people out there who won’t go to movies by themselves?”’ If that sounds like you, you’ll gain considerable confidence by picking up a copy of “A Foxy Old Woman’s Guide to Traveling Alone Around Town and Around the World,” by Jay Ben-Lesser (The Crossing Press, P.O. Box 1048, Freedom, Calif. 95019; 800-777-1048).
Ben-Lesser, 73, has traveled around the world 13 times and has lived in Asia and the Middle East, but her book is appropriate for the most sheepish of travelers. Indeed, the first step she recommends is to see a movie alone. Next, she tells readers how to dine alone in a restaurant, then how to take day trips and, finally, longer journeys.
Echoing Wally’s sentiments about confidence are Ben-Lesser’s tips on safety.
“If I find myself in a neighborhood where I become fearful,” she writes, “I imagine lighted candles on both my shoulders, then stand tall and walk rapidly and purposefully toward my destination.”
Ben-Lesser also describes how she alters her camisoles so she can carry valuables close to her body, how she fared the first time she drove her new RV and how she enjoys Mexican beach resorts without paying exorbitant prices. However quirky, her book will change the mind of anybody who is reluctant to travel as independently and passionately as she does.
“Living is dangerous,” Ben-Lesser writes. “Not to live is death.”