1) So tell us about yourself. Where are you from and how did you start traveling?
I am from Corpus Christi, Texas (or, as I prefer to call it, Corpitos), but much of my adult life has been spent on the road. (My great-great Uncle Jake was a hobo who saw America with his legs dangling over the edge of a freight train, so wanderlust is encoded in my DNA!) My journey officially began in 1992, when I attended a high school journalism conference in Washington DC that featured a keynote by a rockstar foreign correspondent for CNN. He had covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a whole slew of riots, revolutions, and coups. I was hooked. When he finished, I ran up to the microphone and asked how I could be a foreign correspondent just like him. “Learn Russian,” he said. So I did. In 1996, I jetted off to Moscow and haven’t stopped wandering since.
2) You do the bulk of your traveling alone. How do you keep safe?
I have a black belt in three different styles of martial arts.
Just kidding. I can barely flip a backpack over my shoulder. Here are my top ten tips for traveling sola:
1. Networking. A month before your trip, send an email or Facebook alert to everyone you know with your travel itinerary. You’ll probably be amazed at how many people have old friends/ex-lovers/third-cousins-twice-removed along your route. Ask for their contact information and arrange to meet them for coffee (or chai, or nargileh ) when you arrive to get the scoop on their home turf. Instant connections!
2. Packing. Take only what you can carry half a mile at a dead run. This is the golden rule of foreign correspondents and should be adopted by travelers as well. Lay out everything you think you’ll need, then pack half of it and double the money. A few items I never leave home without: a versatile pocket knife, a strong piece of nylon rope, a flashlight (or better yet, a headlamp), a combination padlock, a rain poncho, good pens, a journal, and earplugs.
3. Contact information. Before you leave, give a trusted friend a folder containing your itinerary, contact information, and copies of your passport, visas, driver’s license, traveler’s checks, and credit cards. Save your passport number, 1-800 credit card replacement numbers, and pertinent contact information online somewhere.
4. Money Storage. Some travelers sew little pockets on the insides of their clothes; others stash emergency bills and contact information in their bras or shoes. I advocate spreading the wealth. I usually keep a copy of my passport, a couple of traveler’s checks, and some money in a hidden waist belt, then store the critical documents (passport, airline tickets, credit cards, bulk of money and traveler’s checks) in a hidden thigh pouch. If theft is a serious problem in your destination, carry a decoy purse – that is, something to hand over in case of a robbery.
5. Male Repellent. Some women wear fake wedding bands and carry photos of hulky men they call husbands to ward off advances. I try to learn key phrases in the local language. (“I’m meeting my boyfriend here. He is a lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps,” is a useful one.) Public guilt/humiliation is the best way to deal with men who molest you on crowded buses or subways. Loudly and firmly, say: “How would you like it if someone treated your wife/daughter/sister like that?” or simply: “Shame on you!” Chances are, your fellow passengers will come to your rescue. (If you turn around and slug him, they likely will not.)
6. Safety. As a general rule, pensions, home stays, bed and breakfasts, and hostels are more “women friendly” than hotels or motels. If that is all that’s available, abide by the following: use only a first initial when checking in. Request a room that is not on the main floor. Take the elevator instead of the stairs. And never leave your key where someone can see your room number.
7. What To Wear. Conforming to local gender roles/social customs can be a challenge sometimes. While foreign women might be forgiven or excused for pushing the limits of local dress codes, it is simply disrespectful to wear tank tops and shorts in conservative or religious societies. Also beware that many cultures take fashion seriously: my mud brown corduroys and hiking boots made me look and feel like an androgynous pauper in Eastern Europe, and my ripped jeans were crudely inappropriate. Flip through magazines and rent contemporary movies from your destination and pack accordingly.
8. Stay healthy. Parasites love to hitch hike. Keep them away by avoiding the following, especially in the developing world: salads and other raw vegetables, unpasteurized products like milk and yogurt, iced drinks, cold meat and cheese platters in Soviet-era hotels (where it’s probably been sitting out for hours, if not days), and shell fish. When choosing a restaurant, check out the bathroom first: if the Board of Health would condemn it, the same probably goes for the kitchen. Give your body time to adjust to local spices before hitting the street stalls, and only patron the busiest ones when you do. If you wind up somewhere even remotely sketchy, go vegetarian – or at the very least, avoid chicken and fish, as it goes bad fast.
9. Tears Work. While I hate to recommend that women rely on their perceived fragility or weakness to get by, there really is something about a lonesome foreign woman crying that magically opens the doors, wallets, and hearts of the people of this planet. It is how I got all of my stolen documents replaced one miserable day in Turkey in record time, without penalty or rush fees. It is how my friend Daphne evaded costly traffic violations across Africa and literally stopped a departing airplane in Angola. Use only as a last resort, but if you’re going to do it, go all the way. If seeking to avoid an exorbitant fine, jail, or getting thrown off the Trans-Siberian train in the middle of the night for not having your papers in order, think: Oscar. Drop to your knees. Convulse. Make such a scene, passersby get involved. If the situation is truly critical, consider fainting (but only if you’ve gotten enough sympathetic people involved that your oppressor can’t just toss your body off the train!).
Another strategy is pretending to get sick. I once read of an elderly expat in China who never left home without his doctor’s business card. Whenever his cabbies hit 80 miles per hour, he would hand it over with an ominous “If I have a heart attack, drop me off here.” The cabbies promptly screeched to a halt. Younger travelers may have a harder time pulling that off, but if your taxi really needs to slow down, shout: “I’m getting carsick!” and heave.
10. Return the Good Sister Karma. Spread the love. Be nice to female travelers you encounter at home, and help out your local sisters abroad. Support female artisans, vendors, tour guides, and taxi drivers wherever you wander. Your money will almost certainly go where it is needed most.
3) Are there any places you would advise NOT going, as a woman on her own?
Morocco, northern India, southern Italy, and the Tokyo subway generally top the list of the most challenging places for women travelers. However, it is important to note that women aren’t always similarly received on the open road. A Bulgarian friend of mine, who has dark Mediterranean features, strolled across Sicily without incident, while a busty blonde American friend got harassed at every turn. I often got cat-called while living in Moscow, but my best friend – who had an elfin haircut and wore baggy clothes – never did. Our perceived race, class, religion, and sexual orientation can have just as much – or more – impact abroad as at home. If you are concerned about the safety of a particular place, Lonely Planet’s Thorntree Forum (http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree) is a great way to get the lowdown. Any question you post will likely be answered within 24 hours by knowledgeable travelers.
4) All right, I think you’ve convinced me. Now what?
Now: GO. So often for women, traveling gets postponed. We wait until graduation to commence our big adventure. We wait until we’ve paid off our college loans. Until we’ve paid off our mortgage. Until our kids/pets/ferns are grown. The root of our procrastination is usually fear. We are afraid of getting lost on the open road. Of growing lonely. Of getting mugged, kidnapped, raped. I have embarked on six major journeys and—in the days before my departure—honestly believed I would never return. So I wrote out my will. That’s right. At age 36, I have six versions of my will neatly labeled and tucked in a drawer. Somehow, writing those farewells frees my mind and enables me to go.
Yet, the scariest part of traveling is everything you must do prior to boarding that plane: quitting your job, buying your ticket, subletting your apartment, shoving your stuff in storage. But once you have physically boarded that vessel, you’re golden. You’re ordering margaritas, flipping through guidebooks, drawing up plans, dreaming. And then you’re stepping off that plane and beholding the jungle, the ocean, the mountains. The glorious people you’ll soon be meeting. Before you know it, you’re traveling; you’re transcendent. You’re one with Mother Road.
5) Mother Road?
Never heard of her? Why, she is one of the most formative teachers around. She will push you to your physical, spiritual, and psychological limits — then nudge you one step further. She will teach you to be self-reliant and self-sufficient, which will in turn make you self-confident. All of my greatest life lessons have occurred on Mother Road.
6) What has been your favorite travel experience?
Probably the year I lived out of an ’81 Honda Hatchback named Bertha, while driving cross-country making documentaries for a non-profit website for K-12 students (www.ustrek.org). Our daily budget was $15, which meant we had to rely on the kindness of strangers for our sustenance. This inspired quite a few adventures. Most profound was the evening my colleague and I got lost on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona half an hour before sunset. We were searching for Chilchinbito, a village so tiny it wasn’t on any map. We had been told that a family by the name of Cowboy might let us crash on their floor there — but they had neither an address nor a telephone. And so, we were relying on faith. Faith that the Cowboys would be home; faith they would share their hearth with weary travelers. Otherwise, we would be stuck in the cold desert for the night. Finally, we spotted a small community of mobile homes and some traditional Navajo settlements. The sound of a single wooden flute drifted out of an open window. We parked beneath it. A woman peeked out the doorway and within moments of hearing our dilemma, she offered us her living room floor. There, an ancient woman sat behind a loom, weaving a saddlebag, while her son played the flute. We spent half the night trading stories. This is why I travel: to share intimacy with the people of the planet.