It was a total pleasure writing this guest post for God+Wanderlust. It is a wonderful blog that focuses on what it is like to travel the world as a solo-Muslim woman. It is incredibly insightful and has built a strong community of fierce Muslim women who want to go farther than they ever have!
You can check out the original blog post here and read an excerpt below!
You will become more aware of your identity.
I have always been pretty “girly.” As a kid, I didn’t wear pants until the second grade, and now I can’t live without mascara (only because people mistook me for being sick when I am au natural). However, I never felt defined by my femininity until I went abroad. The way I thought about myself changed once I was walking through another culture. I felt new eyes upon my body and look at me through different perceptions. I was out of the environment that raised me and understood me to be the many-layered individual that I am. Now, the world could only see me in a box. I wandered the world for the first time as a “white woman.”
In certain areas, I felt that my skin tone stood out like an elephant in a herd of antelopes. But then in areas of my heritage, I blended in like a zebra, unable to be distinguished from the locals. In non-English speaking countries like Germany, Sweden, and the Czech Republic, people would approach me and immediately begin to speak in their mother tongue. The would talk with a rapidness that expected me to understand the nuances, the ironies, or innuendos in their message. I would respond with a contorted face and reply in a grammatically unstructured sentence, “No speak- American!” My cover was blown. Their body would repose, smile and break out in flawless English, as I internally grumbled at my country’s lack of interest in speaking other languages.
It’s a sometimes uncomfortable feeling when you are perceived as an in-group, but you know you don’t belong. That was something I never felt back at home. It was the first time I felt like I didn’t belong somewhere, which I know people in my own homeland feel more frequently than I do. It felt like a spotlight was following me, highlighting to everyone around me that I wasn’t one of them.
Overall, I would say out of all my identity labels, being an American was the most interesting. People responded differently to me in unexpected ways. My nationality was often used for random things. One time, I was crossing the border on a bus from Greece to Albania. I was with a group of women on the bus, and we needed to pee. We got off the bus and walked to this dingy border crossing shack that had one bathroom. The owner wouldn’t let us use the bathroom unless we bought something, but since we had just come from Greece, we had no money to purchase anything. One of the Albanian woman took me and shouted at him, “She’s an American!” like it was some kind of “pass Go, collect $200” card. Needless to say, it wasn’t worth that much, as I popped a squat behind the shack.
It was a moment where I reflected on how silly it is that some nationalities are perceived to hold more clout when at the end of the day everybody pees the same.
You make so many more friends than you thought
When you travel in groups or pairs, you don’t seem as inviting. You are socially satisfied, and it is harder for an outsider to penetrate a tribe of two or more. I once traveled with an ex-boyfriend for two months throughout Mexico. I hardly made any spontaneous friends from that time because, together, we didn’t seem as approachable. I made more friends the day we forever parted ways than the two months we traveled together.
I personally find the most freedom when I travel alone, and that opens me up to more people.
Additionally, when people recognize that I am traveling alone, they tend to be curious about me. This curiosity has helped me meet a range of people, from hitchhiking with a gaggle of English gals throughout Ireland to long beach walks with Costa Rican locals I met under a waterfall, to sleeping on the floors of London with new friends I had met in Italy weeks prior. The world is filled with almost 7 billion people, and there are hundreds of soul-mates, partners in crime, and lovers out there, waiting for you to find them.
When you travel alone, you become more open to the adventure of meeting new people and letting it see where it takes you. Like the time I hitchhiked from Amsterdam to Eindhoven in the Netherlands. I got picked up by a South African man, Roan, who spoke English, and he was living in Eindhoven at the time. He asked me about my adventures and why I was hitchhiking. One thing lead to another and an hour later we ended up in this warehouse turned artist’s residency outside of Eindhoven that was having a huge open house. There were endless rooms of random interactive art installations, food carts, and sleek styled fire pits in a courtyard where everyone was drinking beers and gluvine. I ended up having a great time with him and his friends, and they laughed when I told them how we met. “ Typical Roan!”, they said, and threw back local brews.
We had such a great time that he let me stay at his place. I ended up chatting with him and his roommates about Morocco until 4 in the morning. Then he got ready for work and dropped me off at the airport. I have yet to see him again. But I will never forget the adventure he gave me.
You become more centered within yourself.
When you travel alone, you see yourself and your actions outside of the influence of others. You are never in a complete vacuum and will be swayed by the chaos around you; however, you get to choose where you want to go for whatever reason, even if you have no real reason at all. You don’t never need one.
I have found that when I travel alone, I am able to submerge myself mentally in a space. I become more observant of my surroundings whether it is walking through the Guatemalan rainforest, biking through the streets of Rome, or boating on the small strip of sea that separates Spain from Africa. I am able to be in the moment and not have it obstructed by someone else’s opinion, perception, or distractions.
I’m allowed to let my body aimlessly wander in no particular direction and let my legs have a life of their own. They end up bring me to corners I might have missed if a travel companion wanted to turn around. I can go as far as I want for as long as I want. There are no compromises, no juggling between needs, waiting around for someone else to get ready, or disagreements over what to do. You are allowed to be completely selfish. Which also means you have to be completely self-reliant. That is where the real fun begins.
If you are lost, you got yourself there, if you are found, you got yourself there as well.
When the chaos of your life and world falls away, you are left with just yourself- you see which sides of you are essential and which can soften. The endless bus rides, conversations with new people, and time spent away from home shows you the potential of who you can become. The outside expectation that make up your home dissolves, and you are able to clearly see what drives you.
You learn that you can take on the world.
I learned more about myself in the first six months I traveled on my own than the 4 years of college.
I vividly remember the moment I got health insurance by myself when I was living in Prague. I was part of a six-month study abroad program when I was 20 and our health insurance had to be renewed 5 months in. I took a tram to a part of town I rarely visited, applied and paid for health insurance while speaking in broken Czech, a language so fragmented already I’m sure my ineptness didn’t help, and walked myself home.
When I was ten minutes away from my concrete communist styled dorm, it settled that I had just bought health insurance in a foreign country on my own. That was so easy.
Granted my future travels have also shown that travel is often not a smooth ride, but it gave me the belief that, if I can do that on my own, I can probably do a lot more. What gets me through the bumps is my determination to conquer the world.
The world is more protective than predatory.
This notion surprised me the most. In the beginning of all my travels, I always think people are out to get me. That I’m standing out like a vulnerable antelope that walked into a lion’s den. But again, people are more curious than malicious and once they realize that you are alone they become more protective than predatory. There was one time I was hitchhiking in Germany and this older couple picked me up. The woman was driving, and she said she was so worried for me, which is why she pulled over and told me to get in.
“Oh, it isn’t like in my day where you could easily get a ride from Berlin to Munich. People are dangerous now.”
But how did humans become more dangerous when statistically we are in the longest moment of peace? I believe that the advent of 24/7 news cycles and the velocity of social media has skewed our perception as to what the world is like. Now we can find out about a hurricane in Puerto Rico, a nuclear plant exploding in Japan and a famine in India all within three minutes of each other.
In actuality, most people are boring and live mundane days, but our brains are wired to remember the anomalies, the horror stories, and the bizarre happenings. So, we end up believing that things are worse than they really are. My travels have always been based around the benevolence of complete strangers who took me into their homes, fed me, let me wash the world off my body, and join in their company.
“But, you picked me up,” I said to her. “And you’re not going to try to kill me, are you?”
I try to show them the kindness within themselves.
If you want to read more of my interviews, check out my post with Digital Travel Guru, all about how to be a solo female traveler.