“I hear you’re leaving us.”
“Yes indeed. I’m off to South America for six months. ”
“Good for you but Amy, please try not to fall in love with everyone you meet. I can see it now, bone through your nose, baby on each tit.”
Sadly this conversation, which took place with my Line Manager, wasn’t the first completely absurd (and offensive) piece of ‘advice’ I’d been offered since announcing my plans to travel alone from Buenos Aires to Bogota.
The minute I decided to go to South America, family friends, colleagues and near-strangers suddenly got very chatty. It seemed everyone had a nugget of wisdom they wanted to share with me, be that through pulling me aside at a family party, emailing me YouTube videos of violence, or sliding terrifying articles across meeting room tables at me about military coups, sexual assaults, kidnappings and *insert terrifying event here*.
I shrugged off the negativity. After all, some of it was hilarious and besides, if I’d chosen to take everything on board, I’d currently be holed up in a bunker somewhere, terrified about being a citizen of earth.
What was more difficult to dismiss was the assumptions that were being made willy nilly about why I was travelling, how I would handle it, and what might happen to me as a solo female traveller. If I hadn’t travelled before, these assumptions might have put me off doing it entirely.
In the name of encouraging you to book that ticket, today I’m addressing the typical assumptions made about solo female travellers and explaining why other people’s ideas shouldn’t stop you from having the adventure of your life in South America.
Assumption 1: You’re in constant danger.
Before I set off, people either told me I was brave or foolish. There was little in between. Having to listen to people’s (weirdly specific) ideas about the dreadful things that might occur was a major bummer at a time when I should have only been excited for the adventure that lay ahead.
It’s true that there are dangers in South America, just like with anywhere you go. You have to pay attention, adapt and make sensible decisions. Mistakes will still be made, but that’s a huge part of travelling solo – making mistakes and figuring out how to do things better. I messed up. I panicked and perceived danger where there wasn’t any. I naively sauntered into risky situations in Buenos Aires and Cartagena and a couple of times I got the fright of my life. Note: a couple of times. 99% of the time I felt safe, secure and happy.
Travel is about learning, and when you’re the only one to blame for your mistakes, you quickly identify how to improve. Don’t let what might happen stop you from seeing the world.
Assumption 2: You’ll miss your creature comforts
Spoiler: not all women care about creature comforts. The less mirrors I have to look in per day, the better. Women may like champagne but we also like bargains. When offered a roof over our heads and breakfast for just £3, the vast majority of us would break into a happy tap dance. People who’ve never stayed in a hostel may have over the top ideas about how terrible they are, and yeah some can be grim, and attract the odd weirdo – this is why TripAdvisor and your instincts exist. Sure, hostels aren’t where you’d want to spend your honeymoon – but they are a lot of fun and where you meet the fellow travellers that make your trip special. Just because a place doesn’t have a Jacuzzi and complimentary dressing gowns doesn’t mean you should stay at home. Just remember to pack earplugs.
Assumption Three: Women only travel to find love.
“Ooooh…hoping to find a hubby?”
“Don’t get pregnant!”
“Long way to go just to find a boyfriend isn’t it?”
These were all actual comments I batted away before I set off. It was as though people genuinely thought I was flying to South America just so I could discover what the penises of men on another continent looked like. Romance was not my priority, but it was certainly a fun slice of the enjoyment pie, and that was no one’s business but my own. I met a man in the Amazon who was so manly he made hearts pour from my eyes. I watched him handle tarantulas and boa constrictors and tried to pass off the expression on my face as terror rather than complete and utter lust. I allowed myself to be swept off my feet by an impossibly handsome Portuguese artist who wanted to read my future. I had a good time.
I wasn’t looking for love. What I was looking for was answers about what I want and need, and those answers came via the medium of scenarios I wouldn’t have been in had I not been travelling. I don’t believe women travel to find love, but by doing so, hopefully, all of us can understand what love means to us.
Assumption Four: You’re going to get lost
Getting lost is part of the fun. I got lost loads. I also managed to cross an entire continent successfully. Really we should focus on that. You will wander down the wrong street because it looks or smells nice. You’re in new places every other day; you can’t be expected to always have your bearings and if you did, you might miss out on discovering hidden corners of places not found in the guidebooks. I wrongly thought I could walk the entire length of Lima in one day, not factoring in that it is the third biggest city in South America. I had to stop for a lie down under a tree. However, if I hadn’t grossly overestimated my walking speed and sense of direction, I wouldn’t have chanced upon Lima’s Cat Park now, would I?
There’s nothing wrong with losing your way. You’ll find it again. It’s part of the fun. Having a poor sense of direction is no reason to tear up a plane ticket and to spend your life on Google maps.
Assumption Five: You can’t do stuff because you’re a girl
It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, you know what you’re capable of and what you can and can’t do. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I carried too much, went for ill-advised hikes in the midday sun, trekked through the jungle, and climbed Huayna Potosi, a 6,088m mountain in Bolivia. I may have hated every living second of it and thought I was legitimately going to die for six straight hours, but I could do it. I climbed that mountain. So can you.
Travelling is the perfect arena for challenging yourself. Once you do so and learn what you’re capable of, it’s not something you just forget. You carry that knowledge with you and because of it you’ll always push yourself to achieve bigger and better things.
People will make assumptions about solo female travel. Let them get on with it…but don’t listen.
Choose to ignore the negativity and go in search of some life experience. Be up for the challenge. Choose to see what can happen, what you can learn, and who you can become rather than just guessing from the comfort of your couch.
People’s assumptions don’t matter. Your experiences do.