A Travellerspoint blog

April 2020

Maybe think twice before travelling with friends!

Solo travel - updated

I decided pretty early on that solo travel was for me! As a curious 19-year-old, I set off to Amsterdam, for my first trip alone. Being my first attempt, the Netherlands was not too far away, and if I enjoyed the experience, what was to stop me travelling further afield?


Traditional old Dutch style houses

Checking into the Vondelpark youth hostel on that misty October morning, I quickly realised, I was far from alone. So many others were coming and going, backpack in tow. Connecting easily with fellow hostel dwellers, I got chatting to a South African woman, travelling around Europe. This was the first year Black South Africans could apply for a travel visa, and Denise was taking full advantage. On visiting me in Glasgow, she returned the invite to Johannesburg; not needing to ask twice. Being quick to realise, if travelling with friends, not having that same urge to connect with others, opportunities would be missed. Johannesburg was a remarkably interesting visit, albeit dangerous at times. Also invites to Soweto and down to Cape Town, meant I got a flavour of different towns and people’s lives.


Cape Horn where the Atlantic meets the Pacific

This has now morphed into a fear of travelling with others. Following a recent trip to the south of India, a friend urged, "we really need to go away together!". At that point, the gut instinct kicked in, fear and panic, thinking, no we really do not! Whilst I love my friends, travel is an opportunity to escape the familiar; friends, work, in fact anything about my life.


Out and about in Tallin, Estonia

Not wanting to compromise, if the urge takes me, I can sit outside a cafe, people watching all afternoon, being free to do so. We quite often have unique needs, interests, fears, and go along at different paces. Eager for the thrill of new cities, I do not particularly want to spend valuable time bickering over plans and activities. Travelling at my leisure, has led to experiencing the world as a rich, eye opening, perspective building cultural experience. Having no fear of the unknown, I simply experience people to be people the world over. Lone travel has lent itself to interactions with wonderful people around the globe. Random encounters with strangers, leading to invites for lunches, dinners, and to social events. The fear of being locked into a routine and not able to escape is the real fear, maybe you also feel like this?




I would need to stick to a plan or routine. I enjoy wandering off randomly, getting excited by places and people met along the way. Sauntering around cities taking photos, stopping for coffee, gaping in awe at spectacular sights. All decisions are mine and mine alone. A travel companion would soon get bored, whereby I could not relax into my default snail mode.


A stroll around Nyhavn, Copenhagen

The whining about being hungry and spending ages looking for a restaurant to suit everyone. Preferring to eat when hungry, I have usually pinpointed a few food joints in my meanderings. Eating alone can sometimes be challenging. Quite often in Mysore, the whole cafe would stare, slack jawed, scanning every move as I went into my bag or purse. Maybe I was going to pull out a rabbit! I found strategies to tackle this, like choosing a table with my back to other diners. But in a city off the mass tourist track, we need to accept people are just being curious! I know it is not easy!

So, we can come and go as we please, avoiding the hassle of organising routines and plans with others in mind. This extends to the finer details, like choosing what time to get up in the morning. Waiting around patiently for friends to get ready when it takes me all of ten minutes. We can go back to our digs and chill for an hour or so. Choosing Airbnb when travelling,means sitting around chatting with my hosts, learning about their lives. The knowledge of Airbnb hosts, is in my opinion, far superior to any travel guide. Whilst in India, they arranged yoga classes at local rates, put me in touch with friends who founded NGO’s, booked an Ayurveda massage, and suggested exciting places to visit, excluded from guidebooks.


Hanging out in Mysore

I will not be lonely! Those not inclined to travel alone, often feel sorry for you, thinking you have no friends. Almost like you are forced, rather than it being a choice to explore on your own. Or that you enjoy your own company so much, you want to be isolated in a bubble during your travels. Almost like you will not connect with others and be nothing less than incredibly lonely. These ideas could not be further from the truth. As others have said before me, you can be lonely in the company of others. Striking up conversations with locals and others I encounter, is at the root of why I find travelling interesting. The beauty however, is you have the ability to disengage easily from strangers, not that simple with friends. I do like time on my own, to recharge my batteries and read. People who go to Spain every year with their extended family, will never know how liberating solo travel can be. But we all go abroad for different reasons and if that is what you enjoy, that is fine too.


Around Sofia, Bulgaria

People often call sole female travellers brave. I believe bravery is when you fear something, but push ahead anyway. Whilst understanding that some lone females are brave, having varying degrees of fear on that initial voyage, this eases over time. Fear of compromise, being inauthentic and locked into a routine, are what concerns me. .

So, I would recommend solo travel for all women and men, young and older at least, once in your life. It is such an liberating way of stepping out into the world, many opportunities will arise, and if your instinct is in favour, your life could be transformed.

Booking an Airbnb or another homestay, means you will be well looked after and have a good sound base. Ditch the guidebook, otherwise you will be directed to attractions that are mobbed, and you have probably seen on TV or in a book anyway. Do you really want poked in the eye with an extended selfie stick?


The old town Kaunas, Lithuania


No words necessary!

Ditch the capital cities in areas of mass tourism, instead plump for second cities. Not only will they be less crowded and unique, everything is a lot cheaper. Eastern Europe a relatively low budget destination, with many first cities off the tourist track. The Baltic States, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia are not only quirky, stunning and rich in history, they tend to be more lenient on the purse strings. Try to travel off season, to avoid the crowds in capital cities, while benefiting from cheaper flights. Riga is one of the more popular eastern destinations. Whilst travelling in January, I entered a winter wonderland, in a city scant of tourists.


Riga in January

Prior to visiting Geneva, everyone who had not visited, exclaimed it is expensive!!! Almost like we should only travel to ‘cheap’ countries, to ensure good value for money. Sad to say this is not how it works. This is where home stay's come in handy, having the luxury to cook meals, if required. It is possible stick to a budget wherever you find yourself. You could go to say Riga (a low budget city) and spend a fortune eating and drinking daily in prestigious hotels, or holding on to cash instead, by frequenting lower end food joints or supermarkets. Not finding myself starving to death with a near empty purse in Switzerland, there was no need to visit the supermarket. Things were a bit more expensive, but what the bearers of bad news could not know, having never been, was the quality delivered, was worth every Swiss franc. So, what I am trying to say is many of us do not travel to countries merely because the booze is cheap, that does not even come into it.


Old Town Geneva

Travel has really changed over the last 30 years. Pre-social media, backpackers gave detailed accounts of places visited, swapped tips, along with humour humour. Now Lonely Planet, Trip Adviser, Rough Guides etc have increasingly become the essential go to, when embarking on a journey. Relying solely on these resources however, often results in less interaction and face to face communication. The guidebooks can also put the fear of god into people, when they read the 'dangers and annoyances' section. Unfortunately, it is the dangers many keep at the forefront of their mind, wandering the streets clutching their bible close to their chest. I have observed people arguing over 20p with rickshaw drivers in Vietnam, because Lonely Planet warns these men will try and rip them off. Rather than promoting independent travel, these guides can produce fearful travellers. When visiting developing countries, it is important to try and put things into perspective. A rickshaw driver may earn $5 a day if lucky, so what is 20p to you? Be kind (but savvy) do not go about like a stuck-up Westerner with a superiority complex, looking down your nose at people with contempt.


An elderly women selling incense at a temple outside Ho Chi Minh City

Widespread access to the internet also provides a virtual platform to review and critique every part of your travel. From your accommodation, to the food you ate, in what particular restaurant, how regular or comfortable the buses were, right down to what you thought of the Great Wall of China. Whilst understandable to read some reviews, for example, if planning to stay in a less than reputable hotel, or to book local transport, but is it actually the best way to decide that it is not worth seeing the Mona Lisa, because a review deemed it size of a bit of A4 bit paper?

It seems some people do not like to take risks or relish in surprise when travelling. There is that burning need to know how others rated the restaurant before you go in. People we do not even know and whose tastes and expectations could be the mirror opposite to ours. As an Airbnb host, I get reviewed, while most are positive, you always get that few who like to complain about something. Reviews often describe events or non-events from disgruntled people, one did not see the Northern Light’s on that trip to Iceland, is it a given that those colours sweeping in the sky, will miraculously appear? Apparently 61% use online reviews before making a decision on a purchase. However, recent research found 40% of reviews we read are unreliable, so it might be unwise to use them as validation.


Down by the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

I know many people enjoy planning their travel itinerary in detail and feel secure having that structure in place. Not being a big planner, I maybe have an idea of a couple of places I fancy, but mainly go with the flow. I take pleasure in taking time to become familiar with the local area, then edge further into the city. I like to keep myself open to any new suggestions from Airbnb hosts and others met along the way. The local yoga class in Mysore, led to a chance encounter, when someone told me about Thai Pushyan, the 10-day long festival of pain and trust, that blew me away.

Through meeting Stanley from Odanadi, the NGO supporting young survivors of sexual exploitation, I was invited to their Republic Day celebrations, marking 50 years of India’s independence. The most offbeat encounter was with Rev. Fr. Raj from the 'Montford Father's Society, whilst returning from a hotel that did not offer swimming to non-residents after all. Looking a bit out of place with his clerical collar, carrying bags of groceries, he invited me to the celebration for a priest, returning from a long stint in Papua New Guinea, as a missionary. When we arrived at the Victorian mansion, the dining area was buzzing with priests and nuns, from all over India, delving into feast. It was the one time I savoured beef in India, being 'illegal' except for Christians.


Thai Pushyan


The very busy bus coming back from Thai Pushyan


Festival security


Free food for all festival goers


Waiting to dance


Wee dancers


International Red Cross Museum, Geneva

Something else that has changed, is the terminology around of travel. People now ‘do’ countries. Almost like a banal tick list! A friend’s daughter went travelling for a month and proudly said she ‘did’ 20 countries! Yeah, she may have spent a night in the airport, but she ‘did’ Dubai! When chatting to her I was reminded of the ‘travel moaning’ we hear from people. "It was so hoooooootttttt!", "They didn't have wi-fi in the jungle", "The people were sooooo rude!" - well were you rude to them? And the list goes. This constant whining is far worse, of course, when it comes out of the mouth of a travel companion. And do not even get me started on the dropped prepositions, you do not travel around Europe anymore, you travel Europe!


Human rights exhibition in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Finally, I had a friend visit when I lived in Vietnam. She came armed with her Lonely Planet. As we approached a bar, she quickly flicked the pages gasping, "Oh we can't go there, it’s not in the book"! And people wonder why I travel alone!!!

Happy travels!

Posted by katieshevlin62 23:04 Comments (9)

Taking the fear out of solo travel for females!

Solo travel

One of my younger colleagues has been following my travel writing with interest. Although enjoying her two weeks in the sun each year with her boyfriend, she has an inkling to travel solo, being a little hesitant, she commented that my writing alleviated her fears. This made me realise that one of the reasons I enjoy writing, is to show other women that solo travel is not only possible, but enjoyable and transformative. For those of you who have read my previous blogs, you will notice I like to reveal a new or different side to a destination - so you won't get any descriptions of a visit to a tourist cafe in the main square. I'm not a 'typical' tourist who makes a bee line for the 'must see' sights, What excites me, is interacting with local people and learning about their unique lives and traditions. If you go more with the flow, you can take up exciting opportunities as they arise, as opposed to sticking to a planned itinerary.


River boat taxi's on the Mekong, Vietnam

The main concern about travelling alone for females seems to be around safety. Women often trawl the internet, to identify countries 'safe' to visit. As you set off, friends and family take their hats off, calling you 'brave', for stepping out into the world on your own. Whilst I wouldn't deliberately step into a war zone, realistically, I believe a woman can visit any country she desires, just like men. India is considered to be the most dangerous country in the world, for women to be born. Being a staunch patriarchal society, women are often considered the property of men. Although preference for male children appears to be diminishing in the cities, femicide and honour killings still occur in the more rural area but not unknown in urban locations. While the mere fact of being born female can be fatal for Indian women, foreigners flock to the country in abundance unaware of this deep rooted misogyny. Although when countries are deemed to be dangerous for women travelling alone, it means that danger comes from men.


Piper at dance competition in Nis, Serbia

I find that women mainly face 'annoyances', as opposed to 'dangers', when travelling. Men (and women and children) will constantly stare at you gape jawed, especially in cities and countries, off the beaten track. Yes, sleazy men approach you from time to time, that we'll discuss later. Foreigners in general, can often become frustrated, when they encounter different cultural responses, when trying to get their needs met abroad. Orderly queues are out the window, or you are in the middle of being served, when someone jumps in front of you and chats to the shopkeeper; in a language you can't understand. The service in restaurants is deathly slow, compared to what you are used to in New York or you find the waiter clueless. I once ordered a vegetable curry in Dharamasla, India, only to notice, about half an hour later, the 'waiter' returning with arms full of potatoes and spinach! Many get irritated, feeling they are target prey for relentless shop owners. We just need to get used to it and stop stressing, after all we must accept the 'bad' along with the good, whilst emerging ourselves in new, very different environments. However, don't be one of the people who consider it too dangerous to visit developing countries, because any gross misconceptions soon vanish once you are there.

Some countries get a huge thumbs down, to the extent that women are advised against lone travel, at all costs. Egypt stands out as a country high up on the 'no go' list. Women often report feeling intimidated, men, eyes brimming over with lust, are said to leer and hiss at foreign women. Having lived in Cairo as an English teacher, I regularly heard fellow teachers complain about Egyptian men's atrocious attitude to women. Of course, I witnessed and experienced the guys hanging round street corners, whistling and jousting for my attention. The best advice, ignore, don't make eye contact and keep walking. Appear confident at all costs, looking like you have purpose and know where you're going - even if you don't. Don't pull out a map in the middle of a busy street, find somewhere quieter and look there. Its always wise to conform to local etiquette especially in Islamic countries. Whilst you are not required to wear a hijab, burqa or chador, dressing conservatively not only shows respect for the local culture, it can divert unwanted attention. I believe the pornography industry has a lot of answer for in their depictions of foreign women. In the minds of many men, this translates into we are somehow 'loose' and always up for it. As a women I became friendly with in India put it "all the men love the blue movie".


Street scene Marrakesh

Every other day when when we open the newspaper, we read reports about rape and sexual assault. However, it doesn't mean won't leave the house, does it? No, we tend to be more careful at certain times of the day and take precautions. I believe it's the same when we travel, be savvy, be streetwise. If you feel threatened in any situation abroad, the best strategy is to approach a local women and seek help. It's just unfortunate the focus is on women to deter sexual violence, as opposed to drawing attention to the perpetrators. New Zealand and Australia are always up there at the top of 'safe' countries to visit. Even there however, lone female travelers have been murdered in both countries in recent years. In other words, safety cannot be predicted anywhere so unfortunately, we must navigate the same safety strategies we put in place at home.


Holy man in Mysore, India

As females we are socialised to care for others, be kind and avoid conflict. So as a woman, what do you do if a man approaches you and asks a seemingly innocuous question, 'What country are you from?' Do you stop, smile and respond? Quite often, if this is your reaction, you will get locked into a conversation and find it difficult to disengage. If you completely ignore the person, avoid eye-contact and keep walking, they will go. So you see, it might feel rude or uncomfortable taking this approach, but it avoids becoming embroiled in problematic situations. Another tip, if you like to read travel guides such as Lonely Planet or Rough Guide to plan or familiarise yourself before you go; don't concentrate too much on the 'dangers and annoyances' section. These books breed fearful travellers, many become so pre-occupied worrying with getting 'ripped off', robbed or scammed, it affects their overall experience. I've seen people clutching their 'travel bible' close to their chests, while arguing tooth and nail with rickshaw drivers in Vietnam, over 20p! Relax, there is a good chance it might not happen!


In the park - Karachi, Pakistan

For those who are really itching to travel alone, I would suggest booking a flight to a destination closer to home. For starters. At the tender age of 19, I took a flight to Amsterdam and checked into the Vondelpark youth hostel. You realise, very quickly, that you are not alone, when you meet other solo travelers from all over the globe. So any fears around being lonely or not meeting fellow travellers, soon vanish. Although the memory is quite distant, I remember sitting in the common room of the hostel and began chatting to Denise, a Black South African woman. This was the first year Black South African's could apply for a travel visa, and she was taking full advantage. One thing led to another, she visited me in Scotland and I travelled to South Africa the following year. Not only did I visit her home town Johannesburg, but also had the opportunity to spend time in Soweto and Cape Town. I quickly realised that if with friends, I wouldn't have struck up this conversation and there'd have been no trip to South Africa. On the occasions I've travelled with friends, there's not the same inclination to interact with those you meet along the way. So you do miss the benefits, such as invites to other countries and an insight into people's very different lives


My coffee pals in Mysore, India

As the years passed, I began to outgrow the hostel scene. Wanting a bit more privacy, I decided to try airbnb and have become addicted to this homestay experience ever since. On my recent trip to Mysore, I lived like a queen with a local family. For £7 a night, I had a daily freshly made breakfast and my own little apartment in a sun trap, above the main house. But its more than that, you get a real insight into cities, as well as learning about the local customs and traditions through interactions with your hosts. In fact, you don't need 'Trip Adviser' the family become your very own guide to what's happening in the local and surrounding areas. Overall, airbnb has always given me a good solid base, with people who care about their guests wellbeing and go who go that extra mile. However, I understand that younger travelers, as I did myself, often prefer the hostel scene, and all the frolics that go along with it. Therefore, I just wanted to make people aware of the benefits of homestays, as well as highlighting the low costs and the boost to local economies. I loved the ethics of this sharing economy so much, I became an airbnb host in my hometown of Glasgow. I have met the most interesting people from all over the world and feels like I'm travelling, even when I'm not!


With my airbnb host in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Another fantastic way to travel is to become an English Teacher. I completed the Trinity ESOL certificate in 2003 and was jetting off to Taiwan shortly afterwards. Being based in Taiwan, meant that countries closer to 'home' shifted from Europe to Asia. Taiwan itself has a hugely unique natural beauty. The subtropical volcanic island is more than 70% towering, jagged mountains that in some places rise nearly straight out of the Pacific Ocean. Weekends were great times to visit the natural beauty of Taroko Gorge and other wonders. When based in Taipei, I spent a week in Henan Province, China, to visit a friend I had worked with in Scotland. This was during the incredible Chinese New Year festivities. Knowing I was only across the Taiwan Strait, she invited me to celebrate the authentic year of the monkey with her family. I also nipped over to Hong Kong and Thailand and visiting Bangkok, Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam, was my next stop for teaching. From there, I traveled north to visit other cities in this diverse and vibrant country. During school holidays, I crossed the border into Cambodia twice, falling in love with the people and culture. There are also lots of other travel crazy teachers so you will find a friend to travel with, if you don't fancy going it alone.


Monks at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Unfortunately, I don't have any digital photo's from my earlier travels. This was back in the day when you put your spool into the chemist and waited excitedly for a week to pick up your photo's! However, I have shown a wee selection of photo's, some of the very lovely men I met on my intrepid travels. Be clear, it is the minority of men who cause a nuisance to women when visiting developing countries. You will meet friendly and engaging men, only they won't approach you in the street. You meet them in a range of social situations, including homestays.

If you are a female or even a male who is a little reluctant to travel on your own, tell me why. What is your main concern, is it around your personal safety? Are you afraid to eat on your own in a restaurant? Is it the fear of being alone? Do you plan an itinerary packed with activities to do every waking hour? Are you afraid of being with yourself?

Finally, you realise you have skills, perhaps previously unknown to you. You can navigate your way around cities, communicate with people even if there is a language barrier, you plan, your book, you multi-task and make decisions multiple times a day. You realise exactly just how independent you are! There are plenty women who are living proof that it can be done and it can transform your life! Exciting opportunities arise, you make new friends who can change your life, you just don't know yet what amazing things are in store for you!


Entering the Sinai desert

Happy travels!

Posted by katieshevlin62 02:41 Comments (9)

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