solo travel introvert female
Slow Travel,  Travel

Solo Travel, Solitude and the Patriarchy

Solo travel is a growing trend that’s empowering women. But finding solitude as a female and an introvert is still often difficult.

I’m sitting with a group of hikers as they try to start a bonfire to grill our lunch. We’re all hungry after a hike through Wadi Degla, a protectorate just outside Cairo with wide plateaus and soft sand. Our group is lively and it’s taking awhile to get the fire going.

I look out at the surrounding cliffs and feel like I’m missing out. The protectorate has sweeping valleys and seashells fossilized in the ground that recall distant eras when this land was underwater. There are views of Cairo’s distant apartment blocks, yellow in the smog.

The afternoon tour I’d signed up for promised a getaway from the city into an oasis of nature and peace. But so far it’s been more about loud laughter, antics on steep hills and selfie sticks. Maybe I could get in a few minutes of quiet before lunch is served?

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Damsel in Distress

I pick up my Nikon and tell the guide I’m going to take a few photos. I walk towards the cliffs and stop to shoot a patch of wildflowers. But the camera is just a pretext. I’ve found it easier over the years to go into solitude when you have a prop, like a cigarette or a camera, that lets people know you’re not just sitting there motionless like a psychopath.

But what I really want more than photos is a few minutes of silence to let my thoughts drift and gaze at the landscape without distractions.

I sit down on a rock and fiddle absentmindedly with my camera. I’m still close enough to see the group, but far enough to drown out their voices. Then I spot a figure at the side of my vision walking towards me. I already know what he’s going to ask.

“Are you ok?” he says.

“Sure. Just getting some photos,” I say. Then silence. He’s expecting me to say more and I can feel him getting uncomfortable.

“I was just checking to make sure everything is ok,” he says. “You liked the hike? I haven’t been here before.”

I answer with a nod, and he looks out into space. Finally he breaks down. “Well let me know if you need anything. And sorry, I have to make a quick phone call.”

He wanders off scrolling on his mobile, and I’m left thinking if I was rude. Wasn’t he just trying to be nice, and aren’t we on a group tour that’s supposed to be social? But I dismiss these doubts because this has happened too many times and in too many places. And it apparently only happens to women.

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The lone female

If I’d ever seen a man approach another solitary man to ask him if he’s ok, or tell him to cheer up or smile, then I could shrug it off. But such questions most often get directed at females. There’s just something about a woman sitting alone that society finds uncomfortable, disquieting or sad.

“What’s a beautiful woman like you doing here by herself?” I was asked at a shisha lounge in Warsaw when I was trying to relax after a long day without resorting to a cigarette.

“You girls don’t look very happy!” I was told in a bar in Laughlin, Nevada, when I went out with my co-worker to complain about our newspaper editor.

And when I don’t answer good-naturedly, the male usually flares up in self-defence. He was only trying to be polite! He was being friendly, no offence!

Even writing this feels a bit self-indulgent. Don’t I have anything bigger to worry about than men asking if I’m ok?

But when I’m not sure if something is sexism or just an overreaction, I imagine the scenario flipped: my co-worker and I walk into a bar in Laughlin, and there’s a corner table where two men in suits sit over beers, their faces heavy after a long day. “Hey boys cheer up!” I yell out at them. “It’s the weekend, smile!”

I can’t imagine that scenario taking place anywhere but in a dystopia novel.

The Virtues of Solitude

It’s not always easy to find solitude anywhere, especially when you’re a woman.

But no quiet-loving introvert has it entirely easy. The language itself used to describe introverts already points to mistrust: loner, misanthrope, anti-social and unsure.

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Extroverts, on the other hand, are outgoing social butterflies, confident and outspoken. And if you’re an introvert, you’ve probably had friends, teachers and mentors tell you that’s the ideal personality to strive towards.

Crippling social anxiety is indeed a real disorder that needs treatment. But not all introverts necessarily suffer from it. There’s a difference between being pathologically shy, and preferring a long novel over a nightclub. Though society doesn’t often see it that way.

And if you love solitude then you’re often left to defend it. You reassure loved ones that wanting to be alone doesn’t mean you don’t love them. You tell random men that yes everything is ok, and your friends that it’s nothing personal when you don’t attend their party.

But being yourself gets easier with age. You accept your personality and realize that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. You care less about proving yourself to others and more about your own happiness.

You’re unapologetic if your idea of happiness isn’t what you’ve been told it should be.

You begin to see introversion as an advantage, and not as a character flaw.

Stars in the wings

Books like Susan Cain’s Quiet have opened up this seldom discussed topic, and noted how introverts make better leaders and athletes because of their ability to focus, empathize and listen. The book opens with the story of Rosa Parks and her famous refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in the 1950s. Despite her courageous act, Parks is often described as timid and quiet.

The Internet has made it easier to find introverted role models. These shy heroes are quiet in meeting rooms or parties, but their voices are powerful online.

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Blogger Sara Tasker makes a six-figure income and has a book coming out – successes that she’s achieved working quietly in the Yorkshire countryside. And while her life does involve meetings in London, she’s garnered a massive following without being assertive in the stereotypical 1980s businesswoman style.

Despite her online success, she’s written about being underestimated in the real world because of her soft demeanor, and suceeding on her own terms without competing in the male-dominated corporate world.

These books and conversations make it easier to realize you’re not abnormal if you’re an introvert. And that your alleged faults and weaknesses just might be your most valuable strengths.

Solo travel

My favorite way to find solitude, rest and quiet is to get away. Book a ticket and spend a few days away from routine, explore the backstreets of a foreign city or spend an afternoon reading on the beach.

When I’m trying to get a break from long work hours and deadlines, the last thing I want is a high-powered vacation with a packed itinerary.

There are times I want to take in all the ancient temples along the Nile, and see the churches of Rome in the comfort of a group with an expert tour guide. I can learn and take in many experiences in a short time.

But there are times I want to be alone, take walks in quiet forests or just watch a silly comedy in my hotel room.

And I’ve seen more and more women hitting the road solo and travelling on their own terms. Solo travel has become such a popular topic that I’ve seen countless blog posts and Instagram photos about how great it feels.

But solo travel doesn’t always mean solitude in these viral posts, and being alone isn’t always the point of travelling on your own.

Blogs and magazines often describe solo travel as an empowering way to gain confidence: book a flight to Tokyo, and feel the euphoria when you figure out the metro system! Meet a family on the metro and get invited for some authentic sushi! Make friends at your hostel that you never would have in a group!

I’ve even seen posts on how to cope with anxiety and depression when you’re travelling solo, as if time away from people would be painful or difficult.

Solitude on the Baltic

That hasn’t been my experience. Some of the best trips I’ve taken have been solo jaunts around my native Poland’s Baltic coast. A familiar enough country that posed no language barrier or culture shock.

I spent a few days in Szczecin, a major seaport that draws in few tourists, wandering the city and the shipyards. After a night in a noisy hostel, I upgraded to an elegant hotel where I spent an evening eating chocolate and reading fashion magazines. I spent days over leisurely lunches at local cafes, strolls through rainy parks and bus trips to a nearby sailing club.

solo travel introvert female szczecin poland

I meditated for the first time one evening when I stayed in a hotel above a train station, clearing my head and hearing for a moment nothing but the autumn breeze and the occasional train.

In Orlowo, I spent a week on the beach. I walked every morning to a spot where the shore became rocky, far enough where I knew few would bother to walk. I wrapped myself in sweaters and read a novel under a tree, or took walks through an eerily silent forest near the coast that made me realize how rarely we get complete silence in the city. In the evenings, I ate salmon and potatoes in the hotel restaurant and often had it nearly to myself.

Complete freedom, independence and quiet.

Taking the plunge

But I’ve only heard of a few women taking solo vacations to enjoy solitude this way. Most recently I saw a woman smoking shisha while lost in a novel one evening at the Movenpick Resort El Quseir. The hotel’s manager proudly told me their property draws in solo female travelers just looking for some me-time.

I haven’t seen this kind of solo travel nearly enough. Is the stigma of being alone still holding introverts back? Do we have a stereotypical view of vacations as rollicking times for friends and family?

At some point, the pleasures of solitude and solo travel outweigh any of the discomforts that come with being a woman, travelling alone or seeking solitude.

And if the thought of an empty beach, a quiet forest or a small cafe fills you with excitement, then book that ticket. Because in the end it’s your own happiness that matters.

And because you’ll never experience those pleasures if you don’t take that first leap.

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A quiet, less-visited place can be ideal for a solo trip. Read more in travel off the beaten path.

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32 Comments

  • Hintsforhappyliving

    Hey Dee!
    I, so much identify with this post…I’m an introvert myself. And I fail to understand why there is so much negativity attached to it. I still remember how kids in school used to call me arrogant, just because I did’nt make an effort to be part of their conversations. It really bothered me back then, how people judge you without even knowing you at all. But, over the years I’ve learned to appreciate myself. And as you rightly said…being yourself gets easier with age.
    What are your tips for being comfortable on your own, you ask? I have just one, which I follow every single time.
    Just try to appreciate who you’re and give less importance to what people will think. Well, whole world is hypocrite- on one hand, it says that for happy living try to enjoy your own company instead of expecting someone else to make you happy and on the other hand, when you try to find solitude, it declares you as sad, depressed and pity you. So, no matter what you do, it’s gonna judge you. Whenever in doubt just remember this, and enjoy your own company! Afterall, what can be better than the fact that you don’t depend on others for your happiness and you can have fun all by yourself. It’s a power very few have!

    • Dee

      Exactly! That’s such a great point about not caring what others think.. At the end of the day, you can’t make everyone happy. And it’s better to go through life with people who value and understand you than to waste your time trying to impress those who never will.. I also find it comforting to remember that others probably don’t give us nearly as much thought as we imagine. Most people are mainly thinking about themselves, their life and how they’re coming off.

      When I’m travelling, I also remember that I’ll never again see the people that I come across, and that they’ll probably forget all about me in a few minutes. That makes it easier not to be too self-conscious or shy when doing your own thing and travelling on your own terms.

  • Scott Marlow

    Cesc Dee,

    This has been a really enjoyable read, an insight to a view of things that resonated with me.
    As an introverted guy who has always enjoyed the solo life a touch more than the group dynamic, being underestimated or thought of as weird is not a strange feeling.
    I suspect that the role we are expected to fulfill within society as humans, by society on the whole, will always try to dominate/intimidate or influence in some way, those of us who can enjoy confidently, those walks or experiences that are not group orientated. Oh well, at least some of us are confident enough to do our own thing ….Thanks for sharing this ?

    • Dee

      Thank you, Scott! It’s true that introverts are often underestimated.. And many activities at school or in the workplace are geared towards extroverts.

      Imagine what could be achieved if people knew how to better harness the power of introverts instead of always trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I’ve recently read that NASA is looking into such practices, because so many introverts work there, but it’s not a very common approach and it was definitely unheard of when I was growing up.

  • Tracey Bacic

    Very thought provoking post. I too am an introvert. I like talking to people, – love it in fact – but am not good in groups, and I love being by myself – taking time to reflect, let things sink in. I think this is confrontational for some people. They might be afraid to encourage silence because then they see what’s ‘in the gap’. Maybe that’s why they try to ‘jolly people along’. You’re right, it’s often perceived as a negative thing but I think being comfortable with yourself is a gift.

    • Dee

      Thank you, Tracey! I can definitely tell by your writing that you’re very observant, and that requires a good deal of contemplating, watching and listening. I agree that on some level people can find silence threatening, especially if they themselves are not comfortable on their own.

      And I think a lot of introverts love talking to people as well, but not when it involves large groups or making small talk. For me there’s nothing better than a long conversation with a close friend over coffee.

  • Robbi Denman

    I really enjoyed your photos and felt drawn into your post. Your words resonate with me and though it seems pretty cliche, after reading it I found myself thinking that I wan’t the only one after all! Not that I really believed that I was, but I especially found your sentiments ringing true around being approached when alone. Sometimes, as you say, its the feigned “are you okay” but usually in an indirect effort by a man to insinuate himself – and as you said, with a defensive, “I was just trying to be nice” retreat. What has been a conundrum for me to break down over the years is that I am very gregarious, engaging, talkative and love to talk with other people. I intentionally choose to make eye contact and smile – most times. Yet I REALLY, REALLY LOVE my alone time and have found that it takes considerable effort to be in a public place and be anything but borderline rude to shield it (like reading a book in a park or restaurant). My daughter gave me a very good insight. She said that whatever one chooses to retreat to to recharge indicates whether they are extrovert or introvert. I thought I was the former but was confused by my craving for alone time. She said that when you need recharging, if you go to a social setting and get ignited by being with people, you are likely an extrovert. If being alone is recharging, maybe more an introvert. I enjoy being with people but totally get recharged in solitude. I recently walked my third Camino de Santiago de Compostela across Spain The first two times I was with a group. This last time I couldn’t wait to be going it alone, yet there were so many other pilgrims, it was quite an effort to carve out my space and I mostly felt anti social, choosing not to join in with pilgrim dinners, preferring to journal/read/get to bed early and also to leave predawn all by myself, usually assuring myself of a good two hours of walking solo. Over the 500 miles, I walked by myself 60+% of the time, but I continued to feel like I was running from something. Although I REALLY, REALLY LOVED every minute – sans the guilt. Weird. At age 60 one would think personal choice would be more guilt free… Thanks for this wonderful and thoughtful submission and beautiful photos, all of which served to transport me into that enveloping, solo mist!

    • Dee

      Thank you, Robbi! I actually hesitated for a couple of weeks before posting this because I thought it may sound a bit crazy. But I was relieved after I posted and a few people wrote to me that I wasn’t the only one either! 🙂 It is unfortunate that a solitary woman is often considered as lacking (or wanting) male company, while males for the most part don’t have to endure those quasi pick-up lines.

      Your daughter’s definition is spot-on, and it’s definitely a lot more helpful than the older-fashioned definitions that I’ve grown up with.. It’s entirely common for introverts to love people, but the difference is in where you draw your energy. I love going out and meeting people – but I find that I burn out quickly if I don’t also give myself some quiet time inbetween to rest. Sometimes it also just depends on my mood.. Sometimes I crave meetings and conversations, and other times I just really feel like staying in or reading.

      Your Spanish adventures sound amazing! There are pros and cons for me to both solo and group travel, and it sounds like you got the best of both worlds there.

  • Snow

    Hi there! What an enjoyable and relatable read.
    I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard “smile!”, “cheer up!”, “don’t jump!”, “lighten up, don’t be so boring!”, “what are you doing here all by yourself, don’t you miss your family?”, “who are you waiting for, did you get stood up?” etc etc etc… Just sitting in a cafe by yourself seems to be a big taboo in many countries, like France for instance. Guys shouting after me on the street, like maybe they think I’m looking for company because I’m alone? I dislike being treated differently if I’m with a man vs if I’m alone.
    I laughed out loud at the idea of turning it around! Indeed, I could never imagine it happening to men.
    I never really put together how being an introvert lands you in these situations until you mentioned it: I guess extroverts don’t hang out by themselves and these things happen to them much less often!
    Like one of the commenters above said, during my school and uni years I too got comments from people saying that they thought I was arrogant, too proud or uninterested and that’s why they didn’t invite me to their parties or why they initially didn’t like me until they understood me better later on. Again, I never realized these were all due to my being an introvert (which I did know I was)… so your blog post and its comments were very enlightening actually!

    • Dee

      Thank you! Yes I’ve always found those “smile!” comments tacky, especially when the people making them hardly look very happy themselves.. I don’t know how crazy you’d have to be to sit at a cafe or a park bench with a smile plastered to your face 😀 And I didn’t go into this in the blog post, but after that incident at the bar in Nevada when a stranger came up to my friend and I to tell us that we “don’t look very happy,” I told him “well you look drunk and depressed.” I guess having a friend with me, and some beer in me, emboldened me a bit, but needless to say it didn’t go over well and the guy got defensive.

      There are so many misconceptions about introverts that I think are only just recently starting to be discussed with books like Quiet.. It’s strange considering that introverts are about half of the human population, but so misunderstood and undervalued.

  • Parikhit

    Now this struck a chord. I love travelling by myself, conversations with myself, sitting and staring and do nothing. But the stares I get! ‘What do you do alone? Isn’t that boring?’ Although I do not reply to these questions and shrug it off with a smile, I silently reply in my head, ‘because I love my company’. 🙂

    • Dee

      Exactly! I don’t remember the last time I was ever bored.. There’s always something to do, and always lots to think about as well.

  • Deepa

    Hi Dee! I loved your post too, and really connected with it. I have been going on solo trips almost yearly for the past 7 – 8 years, usually at the end of the year to reflect on my year, and plan for the next. I experienced much of what you did! From the people assuming you want company and to have a chat with random strangers (I don’t), to just the bliss of doing nothing.
    I think the one thing that doesn’t get talked about enough is the boredom of travelling alone, too, and in my case, the frustration of feeling like you’re not”doing” enough (since I was meant to plan the priorities for my year!). I experienced it many times, especially in isolated locations, but have to come to accept that boredom is sometimes ok! It forces you to feel your frustrations and not distract yourself with activities. And I usually come out the other side with more clarity.
    Thanks for sharing your story, we need more introverts talking and sharing in public spaces like this 🙂

    • Dee

      Thank you! I’m really happy to hear this resonates because I was pretty hesitant about posting it.. And I love the idea of taking some time off before the new year to look back and reflect, and plan for the future. I might give that a shot once Christmas is over with.

      I think boredom is so underrated! It’s really important to have that time to just do nothing and clear our heads, especially if we’re creative. I’ve read somewhere that it’s the time when our best ideas come to us because our minds can wander and they’re not preoccupied with daily worries.

  • Carole Coates

    Oh, you are so right! As if we women aren’t allowed a serious thought (‘Smile!”) or couldn’t possibly enjoy our own company. Good for you. I love slow travel, too, though blending it with trying to catch up on long-awaited vacations is tricky.

    • Dee

      It can be tricky! I try to combine slow travel and sightseeing, especially when I’m travelling to a new destination where there’s lots to do on my list.. So I keep my itinerary light and leave some free time to wander, or I try to be more selective about what I really want to see and what feels like an obligation that I “should” see but don’t really want to.

  • Rekha

    That’s a lovely post. The beauty of solitude and being an introvert. Yes, hate those awkward social interactions which always go along the lines of , so what do you do ? Are you single ? Kids. Why can’t there be better conversation starters. Talking to someone is a very personal experience, and many a times you can’t talk to someone you don’t connect with. The casual chat is just a farce, a distraction. And your thoughts are so meaningful. Keep Writing.

    • Dee

      Thanks so much, Rekha! That’s so true.. and it reminds me of something I read about being an introvert: we don’t necessarily dislike meeting people or making conversation, but we do tend to dislike small talk and empty chatter.

  • Alissa

    Yes! Thank you for writing this. I’m an introvert and frequent solo traveler who rarely gets lonely, and I can definitely relate. Of course I enjoy meeting people as part of my travels but my appetite for it is limited before I need to recharge with some “me time.”

    I’ve sat alone in many places in the world and I will say, whether strangers approach me seems to depend on the culture. In Southeast Asia most people left me alone. In West Africa I was frequently approached by people wanting to talk, and so were the occasional male travelers I met. Each had pros and cons. Noticing these differences from place to place is part of what makes travel so interesting to me, even though it can be frustrating.

    • Dee

      Thank you, Alissa! Yes that’s so true that people’s attitudes and thoughts on solo female travellers often depend on culture and which country you’re travelling in.. And it sounds like I need to get myself to SE Asia. The region has long fascinated me so it’s great to hear that they like their personal space too.

      • Christina Bulley

        Hey Dee. I absolutely loved your post, and a lot of it resonated with me. I particularly loved the part about you wanting to get away from the loud laughter and selfie sticks. I am slowly reading your blog and I love it. Glad to know that there are people like me out there.

        • Dee

          Thanks so much, Christina! I really appreciate that.. Yes it can feel like us introverts are always pushed into being more social, but I think we’re finally realizing our powers and that it’s ok to have this kind of personality over any other.

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