My non-fiction piece entitled "Tumbleweed" is included in this anthology of adventure,published by Go Travel Press in 2016. Read it below:
“You can’t keep me down on the farm,” I joked to my future husband.
“Huh? What farm?” he asked.
We were sitting in a busy New Haven restaurant. Nearby was the Yale Art Gallery, the Schubert Theater, the hustle of traffic on Chapel Street.
There were no farms visible.
“I mean, I’m a born traveler,” I said. “”I measure everything in frequent flyer miles.”
“Oh?” he said, looking wary.
“Is there something wrong?” I asked.
“I’m afraid I’m a stay-at -home kind of guy, ” Douglas said softly. “I used to travel, but now I have health issues. Airplanes are a problem.”
“That’s okay, I’m happy going off myself.”
“Alone?” he asked.
“Actually, I prefer to travel alone.”
Douglas looked at me in surprise.
“I’ve never known anyone like you,” he said.
“Well, now you do,” I said, with a laugh, and more than a hint of feistiness.
The next week I left for a month in Mexico.
Douglas and I had met and fallen in love at a good point in our lives. We were what you’d call “mature”. We’d each been married before and our children were grown. Although we had many values in common, we also had wide disparities in our tastes, lifestyle and personalities. Fortunately, we were old enough to revel in them.
He soon started calling me “Tumbleweed.”
In the fifteen years that we have been together, I’ve taken off for China, Mongolia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Japan, California, the Pacific Northwest, Canada, the Caribbean and India. I’ve walked alone from France to Spain on the Camino de Santiago and I’ve trekked almost 1400 kilometers around the island of Shikoku.
Meanwhile, Douglas stays back in the quiet, familiar suburbs of Connecticut. He has work, family, friends and activities which satisfy him. I have a flexible career and a well-worn passport.
Most importantly, our marriage remains healthy and intact.
I find myself frequently encouraging other women to hit the road, or the friendly skies, or even the choppy waters of a Windjammer by themselves. Whether they are married or not, partnered or not. Whether they are young or old.
Solo travel has its own rewards which duo travel can’t match.
When two or more people travel together they tend to create a private bubble. Whether they are walking, dining, or sightseeing, they often focus on each other. Their reactions impact each other. At the very least they are constantly aware of each other’s needs and wishes.
“I’m hungry” says one.
“I don’t want to eat yet, ” says the other.
Compromise is an understood part of the package. Partnered travel is a two-way street.
Single travel is more of a boulevard or a round-about, sometimes an alley or a cul-de-sac. You just never know.
When I travel alone, my eyes are focused outwards. Who and what is around me? I give out smiles and receive smiles in return. I observe and take note. I eavesdrop like a nosy neighbor,
I welcome the chance encounter, the curious glance of the child, the friendly shopkeeper, the person willing to give me directions or share her city. I practice languages and pick up words in new ones.
Once, on a whim, I took a night bus (cheap!) from Santiago to Bilbao. Who wouldn’t want to see the marvels of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum? But upon arrival, in the early, foggy, hours of the morning, I realized that the bus stop did not seem to be anywhere near the center of town. I wondered which misty route to follow. The one tumbled-down taxi stand was empty, the information booth shuttered with a metal eyelid. Then a fellow passenger, an older woman who had sat behind me on the bus, noticed that I was standing off to the side, shifting my backpack and looking perplexed.
She said something in Basque. I responded in Spanish.
“This is my city,” she said, switching tongues. “Where do you want to go?”
“The museum,” I answered, “but I suppose it’s way too early.”
“Yes, way too early, but it’s a beautiful morning for a foggy walk,” she said. “You’ve obviously just hiked the Camino de Santiago,” she said, “I saw the traditional scallop shell dangling off your backpack when you got on.”
“Yes,” I said, thinking she could probably also detect the ripe odor of my well-worn hiking boots.
“I’ll lead you on foot to the center of Bilbao,” she said. “It’s a few kilometers.”
I quickly looked her over and made a snap judgment. Her manner was frank, but pleasant. She was neither well-dressed nor poorly dressed. She was articulate, but speaking slowly, aware of my foreigner’s Spanish. She had a book under one arm and a small bag.
The book sold me. At least this was a person who read. She was bound to be interesting.
I accepted her offer with gratitude.
We walked and walked, at one point stopping to rest in a city park where workers were sweeping up the trash from a festival which had taken place the night before. Every once in a while, I caught a whiff of garden soil and the scent of the distant sea.
She produced an orange from her bag and handed me a few plump slices. I offered biscuits and dried fruit. A shared breakfast.
She told me about the pain of growing up as a child under Franco, confessing her love for the Basque language, once forbidden. She pointed out landmarks in the slowly lifting fog.
There was something almost conspiratorial about our conversation. We talked about being wives, raising children, the deaths of our parents, our work and our frustrations. Through her eyes, I got to see Bilbao waking up, stretching and starting its day.
Would she have helped a group of travelers? Probably not. Most people consider groups to be self- sufficient. Would she have come to the aid of a couple? Maybe. But I like to think that she identified with my solitude.
I think the secret to successful solo traveling is to cultivate an open attitude. Not naive, not gullible, but welcoming to others. It’s the opposite of the “Do Not Disturb” sign on a hotel door. As a woman traveling alone, I want someone to knock on my door, so to speak. Not literally, but emotionally and socially. Whether I am on a train or in a restaurant, I welcome people asking me where I’m from, striking up a conversation and sharing a piece of themselves with me.
And I want to knock on the doors of others.
I don’t hesitate to initiate conversations. Am I rebuffed? Sometimes. Am I discouraged if I get no response? Not at all.
If someone ignores me or snarls or gives me an eye-roll, I just figure that they’ll be a friendlier person in the next town. Or maybe in the next five minutes.
Of course, I need to convey just the right amount of accessibility so that others engage with me in positive ways.
And obviously, social connection is easier in some cultures than others.
Once, on a voyage to Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica, I had placed my bag on the beach while I dipped my toes in the Pacific. A capuchin monkey had rifled through my belongings and strewn them along the sand. As I was picking up sunglasses and sandals, I smiled at a young couple passing by. They laughed at the situation. The silly tourista who left bananas in her bag. They stopped to help me get my possessions away from the determined creature. Nuria and Juan were local “ticos” enjoying the National Park. We got to talking. Their friendliness, combined with a laid-back Costa Rican sense of time, meant that we wouldn’t part company for another few hours. We hiked together all morning, then they introduced me to a friend who rented kayaks, after I had expressed my interest in a short paddle on the Damas River.
I bumped into them later as I was returning to my hotel.
“Josimar says you flipped over!” said Juan.
The embarrassing news had already reached their ears.
“And he says you lost your sun hat,” added Nuria. “It floated away!”
We chatted for a while like old friends. The day ended with my being invited to Nuria’s mother’s house for a supper of beans, rice and fresh dorado.
We solo female travelers often take pride ourselves in our independence. But too much independence can limit our social interactions. I find that asking for suggestions, getting help, accepting invitations, and leaning a bit on others is a critical part of traveling solo successfully.
While on a visit to Varanasi, I got it into my head that I would ride a horse along the Ganges. From my hotel, at the top of one of the main ghats, I could see the wide sandy flats on the other side and distant figures of horseback riders. I waited until the locals had finished their morning ablutions in order to hire a rowboat. I was determined to feel the wind in my hair and the reins in my hands.
Fortunately, on my way down from the hotel, I traded smiles with a delightful couple,Sunil and Hetal, who were sitting on a bench waiting for relatives who had gone to the Hindu temple. Both families were on holiday from Delhi.
I thought I’d ask for advice.
“Yes, of course it’s possible to rent a boat to take you over there, but you must agree on the round- trip price beforehand and make sure the boatman waits for you,” cautioned Sunil.
“Otherwise, no one will bring you back unless you pay 2000 rupees. Or more!” added Hetal.
I hadn’t thought of that. I assumed the rowboats went back and forth easily like taxis.
“Like taxis, yes, ” said Sunil, “but they will see you’re stuck and will take advantage of the situation.”
“I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is,” he said in his lilting English, smiling at me with a full set of teeth the color of piano keys.
We talked about Indian bargaining, the Varanasi touts, and the pleasures of buffalo milk ice cream.
Hetal, for her part, had a ton of direct questions for me. My nationality, my age, and my reasons for being in India.
Primarily, she wanted to know if I had a husband.
I struggled to explain my situation.
“So your husband is home doing laundry and getting his own meals, ” she asked, “while you are here trying to ride a horse?”
“That’s true,” I said.
I didn’t expect Hetal to really comprehend my lifestyle.
Even American friends back home sometimes shake their heads.
“Doesn’t it get lonely, traveling by yourself?” people will ask.
“I guess it helps if you like your own company,” I answer. “And if you have an outgoing personality.”
The truth is that I’m not self-conscious eating alone in a restaurant or walking down the street or checking into a hotel. The world is full of people just like me. I don’t think of my “singleness” as an anomaly.
“Who do you talk to?” some people ask.
Now, for me, one of the pleasures of travel is learning and practicing foreign languages. I know five or six well enough to function. But there are plenty of places I travel where I can barely mutter “Please” or “Thank You” in the local lingo. Yet I always find ways to communicate.
Once I took an eighteen hour train ride from the southern provinces into Beijing. Since I can’t spit out more than a few words of Mandarin, I knew I would need to rely on my wits and universal gestures if I were going to have any social interactions. With a little luck, by the time the trip was over, I had played cards with strangers, given a few English lessons, learned a song in Cantonese, and exchanged snacks with seat mates. Upon arrival, I was exhausted, but far from lonely.
“Well, you could have read a book,” said a friend when I told her about the experience on the Chinese train.
“But if I had been reading, that would have changed everything.”
Sometimes I see a solo women traveler with her nose in her journal or a novel or a tablet. I wonder why. Yes, it’s true that sometimes one needs and welcomes a quiet, reflective space, but all too often the reading/ writing traveler is merely erecting a barrier between herself and others. Perhaps she is feeling awkward occupying just one seat at a table meant for two. But her book or phone keeps others at bay. As if she is saying…
“Leave me alone. I’m deeply engrossed in Barbara Kingsolver or Haruki Murakami or opening up an email from my insurance company.”
In my opinion, it’s often better to just sit peacefully alert. Make small talk with the waiter, or savor your food.
Keep the “Please Disturb” sign in an obvious place around your neck.
For these reasons, I like to frequent restaurants during the off-peak hours when the wait staff isn’t frantic and the locals are no longer jostling each other for a precious table. Often, when I am in Paris, I go to a popular crêpe shop in the 6th arrondissement as soon as the lunch crowd begins to thin out. Even the owner has the time to talk to me about his source for sarrasin. He offers me some cider on the house. It helps that I speak French, of course, but none of this pleasant contact would happen if I kept my head buried in the headlines of Le Monde, or my eyes glued to my iPhone screen.
Of course, people often ask about my sense of safety.
“Aren’t you afraid, all by your lonesome?”
I don’t put myself purposely into dicey situations. I’m not looking for drugs or contraband or a one-night stand. I’m always aware of my surroundings. But that’s just street smarts. For anyone. Male or female. At home or abroad.
I think that the trick for solo female travelers is to balance self-protection with healthy risk. Life is risk. If we don’t stick our big toe or our leg into the water, we’ll never get bitten by a shark or dragged by the undertow. But we won’t find a starfish either. One has to learn to assess danger, read signs, and behave accordingly. I’m not hesitant to change train or bus seats if the “vibe” is wrong. I’m not afraid to venture down unknown streets, but I’m wise enough to reverse my direction if I’m being followed.
Just common sense.
As a solo traveler, I am often asked if I miss having someone to share my experiences with. Of course there are moments when it might be nice to lean into the arms of my mate as the sun sinks like a stone into the canals of Amsterdam. But it’s also exciting to come home to a warm welcome, with stories to tell and photos to share.
“I can’t wait to see you!” texts the husband, like a new lover. “I can’t wait to see you too, ” I write back.
Sometimes he’s bought fresh flowers.
Whenever I have a perfect travel moment….a vista or a meal or an encounter…I just try to absorb the good feelings. Really absorb them. With all my senses. Breathe in the moment, like the bouquet of a fine wine.
How lucky I am to work and travel the world, to enjoy other cultures and customs. Taking in a beautiful sunset, whether shared or not,contributes to my well-being. So does traipsing through the cloud forest of Monteverde or eating the first asparagus of the season at the Beelitzer Spargelfest. It’s all good, in and of itself. It can’t be bottled or exported, just internalized.
Travel makes me happy. Uncovering new faces and places gives me tremendous satisfaction. It links me to the rhythms of life itself. It shapes my spirit, and by extension, it molds my marriage. When I return to the steady habits of Connecticut, I come back with a renewed zest for living and a deep appreciation of home.
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