A look back at 2018, my first year of solo female travel and proof that all things heal with time.
It’s been more than a year since I broke up with my boyfriend on the road and adopted the mantle of “solo female traveler.” And despite a rocky (and rather terrifying) start, oh, what a year it has been.
From trekking to holy glaciers while on the verge of death, to waking up to seeming exorcisms on a rooftop near a massive Sufi festival, to boating into the Amazon jungle to photograph patients for an international NGO, this year has taken me to all kinds of places I never expected. Literally and figuratively, emotionally and physically.
I’m not one for reflecting out loud. Usually ruminations are saved for the darkest depths of night when I can’t fall asleep—or when I’m in the shower—but after posting about breaking up and my transition to solo-dom, many of you came forward to say you were also struggling with relationship problems or starting solo travel. You were happy to hear you weren’t alone.
Speaking from experience, it’s reassuring to know other people have been through similar situations… and emerged alive and well. This sequel to my emotional tale is partially a look back at 2018, but mostly serves as an example of how yes, things do get better with time.
(Besides, it’s the New Year, THE time of year for rosy reminiscing. Who am I to resist sappy social conventions?)
During this past formative AF year of solo travel, I…
… put myself out there, and was met with warmth and hospitality.
Finding the courage to emerge from my prison cell-like room after New Year’s and set out into the world on my own took days. Mustering up the motivation to head off to a new (and very conservative) country, Bangladesh, took even longer.
But once I threw myself into the deep end in February, I was met with an overwhelming amount of kindness. Because I was eka, alone—as a girl, egads!—people in Bangladesh took me into their homes, introducing me to their families, force feeding me phenomenal quantities of food, checking in or traveling with me to make sure I found my way safe and sound.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing—Bangladesh ain’t the easiest place to be a woman. Between medieval attitudes, marriage proposals, and mischievous men, I did encounter problems as women (unfortunately) often will. But the good interactions I had far outweighed the bad, and knowing that I had the strength to survive the highs and the lows was the confidence boost I needed to prove to myself I was capable of this solo female travel thing.
… faced long-lasting fears, and overcame them in style.
As I carried on with my travels, my confidence only grew. If I could get over my initial fear of traveling on my own, I reasoned, what was stopping me from facing other fears of mine?
After crashing a scooter in Thailand back in 2012—and thus needing surgery and years of physical therapy to recover fully—I was too afraid of biking to get back behind the handlebars. But this was a year of reinvention, of challenging my status quo, and so it was time to tackle this fear head—er, wheels—on.
Keeping in line with my habit of pushing boundaries in slightly complex patriarchal lands (masochism is cool, right?) I learned once more how to drive a motorbike in Pakistan.
After a few terrifying tutorial hours spread across several days, I found my bearings, and began setting out on bike adventures both near and far on my own. Sure, I encountered a few salty men in the process, but most people were enthusiastic (after getting over the initial shock). Besides, I was too preoccupied with not dying to care. Much.
Motorbiking, once a serious fear of mine, is now a total addiction. All it took was the courage to step out and try, just like solo travel.
… found new friends easier than ever before.
Meeting people on the road is much, much easier when traveling alone compared to roaming as a couple or group of friends.
There’s something inherently vulnerable about being on your own that puts others at ease. People are often more motivated to interact with lone travelers. Add to that the fact that you can do whatever you want with whomever you want, and you have a recipe for solid socializing.
I floated down rivers and biked along beaches with a guy I befriended on the roof of a gritty Kolkata guesthouse. Poked around old universities and shared chai with a girl who messaged my blog out of the blue. Zipped through mountainous valleys on the backs of motorbikes with men I met on by simply walking outside. Road-tripped through the desert with a friend I made through Instagram mere days before.
There were plenty of times I was alone—and/or lonely—but I also met far more people than I ever did traveling as part of a couple.
… kept doing what I love, and it paid off.
During those dark and lonely first few weeks post-break up, giving up on the blog—or at least shelving it for a time—was a tempting notion. Rebranding as a solo blog was intimidating enough, let alone figuring out how to keep on doing badass shit on my own in the worlds of men I so love.
Nevertheless, I carried on, and all my efforts finally started to pay off. My favorite accomplishment? Over the summer, I boated into the Brazilian Amazon to photograph eye clinic patients for a fantastic vision NGO, OneSight. Not only that, they loved my work so much that they brought me on another clinic of theirs just a few months ago. On the Thailand-Myanmar border, I photographed their clinic for internationally displaced people from Myanmar.
How I ended up with such a fantastic opportunity and organization is still somewhat of a mystery; most of the time I feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants. All I know is that I’m glad I didn’t give up and quit in my darkest hours/weeks/months.
… took time for myself, and became better because of it.
Of course, this year wasn’t all about crazy foreign escapades. Though I went on several adventures of a lifetime, I also spent more time back in my home country, the United States, than I have since I moved away more than five years ago. Surprisingly (to me), it was exactly what my body needed.
I always avoided going home unless absolutely necessary while on the road. Hailing from stereotypical Americana suburbia with little love for my origins, going “back” seemed like a cop-out, a failure. I am Adventure Woman! I eschew the Western World in favor of wild escapades in developing countries!
Just kidding. Turns out I’m a normal human after all.
After months of severe culture shock (that I may not be entirely over), I gradually realized home was somewhat therapeutic. For the first time in years, I properly reconnected with some friends and family. Learned to appreciate more about my homeland than just its extensive Netflix offerings. Regained some health after months of primarily surviving on cheap, oily roti, sabzi, and chawwal (flat bread, vegetables, rice).
Though it’s the least exciting lesson, I think it’s the most important I learned this year: solo travel builds strength and confidence, but it’s okay to take time for yourself and slow down, too.
Time is everything
So whether you’re freaking out over the idea of solo travels, feeling isolated or alone on the road, or coming to terms with a rocky relationship or breakup, be strong. Let this serve as a reminder that things will not always feel so bad; from the bottom, the only way you can go is up.
If you’re simply reading this because you’re awesome and enjoy creeping on my life, rock on for making it this far. I’d give you my firstborn if I ever planned on bearing babes.
Every person’s situation is different, and I don’t have an answer for everyone (though I do my best to help when people ask). But cliché as it is, something that’s always proven true throughout my life and travels is that time heals all. You just have to be patient.
Difficult or dangerous as it sometimes seemed, this year’s transition to traveling alone has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my lifetime. It took time, but I wouldn’t have things any other way. Whatever your current situation, I hope you, too, can find similar satisfaction in your life in the coming year.
Happy New Year, y’all.