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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.