The Lone Rangeress: On Traveling Female and Solo

Machu Picchu on a misty morning

Some never even try it for fear that it will be a nightmare. Others dive in headfirst and never surface. For me, the road to becoming a solo female traveler was not quite so straightforward. My first taste of it was at twenty-one when, finding myself with a few more months until my year off of college was finished and more money from a part-time job than I had ever had before, I decided to take a risk, pack a bag, and head to Europe for three months. At the time it seemed daunting, but also something I simply had to do to prove that I was growing into not only an adult, but exactly the kind of adult I wanted to be: an independent risk-taker, a street-smart adventurer, and perhaps (although I never would have admitted it at the time), one of those headstrong yet dreamy young women whose wanderings through European capitals I had read about in books from the likes of Madeleine L’Engle since I was a child.

A romance for me was out of the question—I already had an older boyfriend of over two years, and things seemed to be going well between us. In fact, he was partially the reason I wanted to step out like this; he had been on his own European adventure at my age, and I wanted to show him that I had the wherewithal to do it even better than he had. There would be friendships, I told myself, and there might even be those slight, tugging sensations that alert one to an oncoming crush or at least a passing fantasy: I wanted it all. But as much as I wanted to do it, I sort of, just maybe, just a little bit, wanted to have done it already. I wanted it to be over, and I wanted to be home again, patting myself on the back, tucking it away somewhere to brag about to those who would never do such a thing, and to those, like my boyfriend, who already had, just not, I reasoned, quite as well as I would.

What I remember about my time alone and abroad is greatly helped along and in some cases superseded by the photos I took with the last film camera I would ever use. Developed and digitized at a photo studio in Chelsea, they now sit neatly labeled by place and date in a computer folder where I can easily click them open. They show landscapes progressing gradually from winter (Norway in March) to spring (Italy and Croatia). Every once in a while the face and the spirit of a person I met on my travels will come back, and I will wonder what ever became of him, or what her name was. But if one adjective could sum up a good portion of the trip, I am afraid it would have to be harrowing. Simply put, I was unprepared.

I still remember wandering aimlessly, feeling lonely and depressed, not caring what city or town I was in or where I had planned to go next. Everything seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. I was terrified of being alone and not knowing what to do (never mind the situation). I was terrified of not speaking the language (never mind that I was in Europe, where you’re never far from a verifiable crowd of people who speak better English than you do). I didn’t want to figure out what to do every day, when to wake up, how to get my bag from one place to another. I remember hours of walking longingly past restaurants, trying to get up the nerve to go in and request a table for one. I couldn’t eat alone, I reasoned, because that in my mind was a sign of ultimate social failure. Most of all I missed my friends, my family, and my boyfriend, with whom frequent interactions over the phone should have alerted me to the fact that something was going wrong in my absence, or rather, that something had always been wrong and my absence was only making it all the more clear. We frequently hear the older generation bemoaning their lack of perspicacity in those early days, regretting the fact that they were just too naïve to enjoy their own youth, but I’ll admit it, clichéd as it is: I should have known I had it so good.

I have since grown to appreciate the time I spent in Europe, mindful of the fact that, even counting all the bad days, it got me somewhere in the end. Indeed, having once plunged into the abyss and somehow come out alive and unscathed, I knew I could do it again, and it was that confidence that pushed me to come to Berlin, and led me to open myself to the possibility of a life here. Still, I had not done anything like the three-month Europe trip in several years—until a month ago.

On January 22, I departed familiar lands for my second lone voyage—this time to the considerably more daring, less well-known shores of South America. For months I had planned to meet up with a friend in Buenos Aires, but having already been there a few years ago, I was determined to see something new as well. I had always wanted to visit Machu Picchu, and so, Peru it was. My plan was to fly into Lima, spend a couple of days there, then fly to the Andean town of Cusco and spend a few more days acclimatizing to the high altitude before hightailing it to the Lost City of the Incas. Oh and one other thing: I don’t speak a word of Spanish. Six years ago, the idea of going solo in a part of the world where most people—and especially most women—don’t would have been out of the question. That little tickle of adventure I might have felt somewhere in the space between my heart and my stomach would have been completely deafened by my own beating heart and the siren wail of “Danger! Danger!” sounding in my brain. Sure, I had my reservations, but they certainly were not enough to keep me from getting on that airplane. As I kissed my boyfriend goodbye at the airport—a very different kind of boyfriend who I knew, not just hoped. would be waiting there with open arms upon my return—I could feel only gratitude at having this tremendous opportunity put before me.

The ensuing week was like a dream. I remember waking up the first morning in Lima after almost eighteen hours on a plane. I was up at 7 am, thanks to jetlag in the right direction, and stepped out of my private garden room (the equivalent of $14 a night in Peruvian Soles) at a hostel in an old colonial villa to bright sunlight, magenta flowers, and bird calls the likes of which I had never heard before. After months of German winter, I felt like that lucky traveler who has unwittingly happened upon Eden. The sense of possibility was endless. I had never been to Lima before and really didn’t know what to do yet, so I struck up a conversation with a girl from Ecuador I had met the night before, who immediately recommended an amazing boat trip she had taken, and told me just how much money the local taxi drivers should be charging me to get to the port. I was off, and for the next eight days, barely had a moment to sit still or a morning to sleep in. I thrilled to every meal eaten alone as much as I welcomed the chance meeting with an interesting character here or there. I took the time to hear and enjoy my own thoughts, and very often found myself struck dumb with awe, my breath catching in my throat, at one or another of the amazing sights I was seeing. They were all mine to enjoy; since I didn’t have a traveling companion I did not have to think up witty words for what I was experiencing. Although I looked forward to the bizarre reality of meeting an old friend in a completely different hemisphere from the one in which we had known each other, I felt sad that my solo adventure would have to end.

What changed? Was it the time, was it the place, or was it me? Well, it was probably a bit of all three. It is in fact easier to travel alone and on a budget in South America than in Europe. In South America, the people you meet are overwhelmingly friendly and gracious and somewhat curious. In Europe, you’re just another American to them. Now I’m twenty-six and a lot of the self-consciousness I had then has been replaced by a calm self-awareness. Not all of it: I can still freak out about the smallest things, and a minor issue can ruin an entire day of travel for me. But still, this is often countered by a general willingness to be open to the possibilities, to steer clear of a set itinerary, and to enjoy the beauty and pleasure in the smallest moments and the tiniest tastes of a place—like the bowl of hot chicken noodle soup I ate at the local market in Cusco while the cook waved her arms and jumped wildly up and down, trying to chase away the stray dogs that gathered to sample my leftovers, or the huge wheel of salty cheese from which I got just a small slice, eating it as I explored the rainforest path that would take me to Machu Picchu the following morning, or the giant corn kernels I devoured off the husk one by one in Chinchero—at 12,000 feet the highest town I would see on my trip—or that first glorious plate of spiced raw fish called Cebiche, which I would enjoy right on the water as I waited for the boat my first day in Lima.

Last night I dreamt I was back there, and I have a feeling it is a dream I will never be rid of until I’m on the road—blissfully alone—once again.