Travel Women: The wise woman's guide to going solo

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The Independent Travel
"My main fear is the loneliness, missing my boyfriend, Tim, and the idea of being on a plane and not knowing what to expect - and not having anyone to run to should things go wrong." Like thousands of other recent graduates, Alicia Saunders is planning a solo round-the- world trip.

To many parents, the idea of their daughter setting off alone to far- flung places is terrifying. Past tragedies quickly come to mind, such as the fate of Johanne Mashender and Linda Vockins: British women who set off independently through South East Asia, but were raped and murdered when travelling in Thailand and the Philippines respectively.

Yet women have been going it alone for decades, bringing home tales of adventure - from the stories of 19th-century heroines such as Isabella Bird, to contemporary travellers like Sara Wheeler, whose account of her expedition to Antarctica, Terra Incognita, has just been published by Cape.

Many women would agree that the best way to have an adventure is by themselves. But what advice would they give to Alicia and others? We talked to four women who have travelled alone over the past four decades.

Ella Barker travelled round Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia in 1991.

"I'd just broken up with my boyfriend and I woke up one morning and thought, 'Right, I'm going to get a ticket, buy a book and I'm off.' It was a personal challenge and I had some great experiences. On one occasion I spent the whole day snorkelling in solitude and it was amazing. Ironically, that was also one of my worst days. This guy invited me back to his place and ended up trying to grope me. That's definitely one of the disadvantages of being a woman on your own; men see you as an easy lay.

"I never felt threatened in Thailand. Malaysia was more of a problem because they're strict about women showing their bodies. The women who did have trouble were those who didn't respect the laws.

"I'd advise women on their own to consider the climates of their destinations: the weather dominates your experience. Go easy on drugs and alcohol because in other climates things affect you differently. You'll be around strangers and you want to stay in control."

Kate Roberts was 19 when she went Inter-railing across Europe in the late Eighties. She is now a graduate trainee at Ford in Glasgow.

"It was purely circumstantial that I went travelling alone. That summer, no one else was in a position to go away. I didn't have any fears about travelling by myself: in fact, I got quite a buzz from it. I felt so ridiculously free.

"My worst experience was when I travelled on an overnight train to Florence. I locked myself in the compartment, put my money in a bum bag and hid it under my pillow.

"I woke up to find that the door had been forced open and that my money had been stolen. Apparently a gang of thieves, who used narcotic gas to knock out their victims, were operating on the trains. Anything could have happened, I was so vulnerable.

"I'd advise women on their own not to travel on public transport overnight but pay the extra, stay in a youth hostel and wait till the morning to move on."

Mabel Perez left Paraguay, her native country, in 1975 at the age of 19. She travelled alone for 10 years in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. She now lives in Bristol.

"When I left Paraguay, my family and friends thought I was crazy. It was unthinkable for a woman to travel on her own. But it was my call in life, and I didn't want anyone to go with me.

"During my travels I felt surrounded by danger. I was afraid of the cold, of rape and of being homeless, but the more you travel, the more you realise that dangers exist everywhere.

"The only time I had real problems was in the Middle East. The constant harassment got very upsetting. Another of my worst experiences was getting ill and being alone. I came close to death with cholera in India and with malaria in Africa. I felt like an abandoned child.

"I wouldn't travel on my own again because I've fulfilled that need. But I'd like to go back to all the places I've visited and make a film for young girls in Paraguay, to show them there are so many different ways of living."

Louise Paterson travelled to Belize and Guatemala in the mid-1960s when she was 22.

"I chose to go alone because I wanted to do something different. I didn't know much about Belize and I went in a fairly unthinking way. At that time, going to Central America was unusual, places were less accessible and there weren't guidebooks like the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. Going to places that were so unlike anything I knew and glimpsing at how other people lived was probably one of the most positive things I've ever done.

"I did occasionally feel vulnerable but never in any real danger. As a European woman, riding on a bus alone you were stared at. But you're never completely on your own as you always meet people. Women travelling alone should be aware of their limitations so that they don't get themselves into unpleasant situations. Knowing that you can live with yourself and that you're not going to crack up if you haven't got your friends around you is important. A lot of people travel to finding themselves, but you need to know yourself well before you set out."

SOLO TRAVEL TIPS

Don't arrive at an airport late at night

Don't drink or take sleeping pills on the flight to help you sleep - you need to be alert when you arrive.

Have some idea of where you're going, even if that means just looking at the guide book on the plane. If you see other travellers at the airport ask them how they're getting into town.

Make sure you have medical insurance.

Make sure family and friends know where you're staying.

Provide yourself with items of female hygiene - not always available in other countries.

Never go out in a place at night until you're accustomed with it.

Don't do anything on the basis of peer pressure, it cuts you off from your common sense.

Never carry too much luggage with you. It will make you tired and therefore less alert. Most importantly, as a woman if you get into trouble there is no point in sitting on the floor and weeping you have to deal with it. However, if you don't think you'll be able to cope don't go alone. It's not a competition to see who's the bravest.

WOMEN'S DEPARTURES

Female visitors to Russia are warned in the latest edition of the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable that reservations for sleeping cars are allocated "irrespective of sex, family ties or other requirements". One solution for single women, albeit an expensive one, is to book a two- person "coupe" for the journey.

Bus travel in the United Arab Emirates is segregated by gender, with clear "Women Only" markings on the portion at the front. Note, however, than non-Arab males may be regarded as honorary women if they are accompanying a Western female.

"Getting Going and Staying Safe" is the title of the next Women and Travel seminar, taking place in Bristol on Saturday 5 October. Call 0117- 929 4123 for more details of the event, which costs pounds 29.50 (pounds 25 concessions).

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