I’d Always Dreamt Of Solo Travel — But I Didn’t Realise It’d Be Different As A Young Woman Of Colour
It wasn’t long after I’d graduated from high school that I jumped on a plane to see the other side of the world, all by myself. As many hopeful, adventurous young people do, I dreamt of leaving Sydney and seeing the world. I romanticised it for so long, waxing poetic about my pursuit to “find myself” abroad, and I’d based it all on the testimonies of countless women online. Every Instagram photo, every vlog, every book on solo travel ⎯ I devoured them all, and dreamt of the day that it would be my turn to do the same.
I planned to jet off to South and Central America first, before heading over to Europe to see as much of the continent as I could. I was impatient, and I convinced myself that I couldn't see the world fast enough and that it had to be now. All in all I planned to be away for a year, and had the naivete to even imagine that it might be so wonderful, I'd never return.
When I took off from Sydney Airport, I carried my expectations of glamorous international travel with me ⎯ but it didn’t take me long after I’d landed to realise that I might’ve made a big mistake. All the inherent maturity in the world can’t always prepare you for a real-world experience, where your race, age, gender and sexuality have an impact on how you experience travel and life in general.
As a young woman of colour, I’d often relied on the wisdom of my elders and community to guide me through difficult situations growing up. When I struggled to use my voice or to be seen in a crowd, I had family and friends who understood my challenges and helped me overcome them. Growing up as a female Asian-Australian meant that I already found it hard to speak up in a lot of spaces where the dominant culture around me was white, and where very few people could appreciate the unique cultural position I was in. But being completely alone, in a foreign country and with only a few months of adulthood under my belt, my voice felt smaller than ever.
In the hostels too, groups would naturally form as young people tried to cling to the people they could relate to. But even in these spaces, I felt isolated. Despite almost finding myself in budding female friendships a few times or joining in on groups of young people at their dinner tables, I could never truly relate to anyone around me, as people aren't inclined to make space for outsiders. The other Australians assumed I wasn’t Australian and everyone else often assumed I couldn’t even speak English. As I watched other people make friends for life, I ended up walking the streets of new cities alone.
As I ticked off all the things on my bucket list — climbing Machu Picchu, trekking through the Amazon, sitting under the Eiffel Tower and going out clubbing in Berlin — I started to realise that these things might only be as good as the people you're doing them with — or at least as good as you feel about yourself at the time. What was the point of all these beautiful sights and experiences if I couldn't find the joy in them myself?
A limited budget and a fear of getting into trouble — and having no one close by who would know to come find me if I didn't show up at night — also kept me from confidently exploring new places. Not having the reassurance that older, white or male travellers often do, I found myself feeling wary, looking over my shoulder constantly, and saying ‘no’ to a lot of fun things. And the few times I did relax and let my guard down, I ended up in some pretty scary places. I recall running away from a club in Peru in the middle of the night, trying to get away from an expat who'd taken my desire for companionship and conversation in English the wrong way, and wasn't very interested in taking no for an answer.
All in all, I felt pretty cheated. What had happened to all those wonderful expectations I’d had about travelling solo? The ones that I had gotten from the women who had told me it was the most empowering thing they’d ever done? It took me a while to realise that there were some pretty big differences between me and the women I’d been trying to emulate ⎯ my assumption that I would feel as safe and confident on my own trip was because I had failed to recognise some of the privileges of economic security, cultural status, and a presumption of language and skill that they inherently had, which I didn’t.
Women of colour have to walk more carefully through the world to avoid harm, and this is true of anywhere in the world. Being armed with street smarts and a confident sense of self are key to not just feeling safe, but to having a good time while travelling. When you're travelling somewhere you know, there's a sense of security that despite what you face, you have people and places to turn to. This is obviously not guaranteed when you're alone, in unfamiliar territory. This is not to say young women or women of colour can’t enjoy travelling solo ⎯ I’ve certainly heard many success stories since, despite my own negative experience.
Looking back, I realised I went travelling by myself for all the wrong reasons. I went because I was looking to escape all the limitations that my age, gender and race had placed on me back home, only to be met with them wherever I went. Turns out that wherever you go, the one thing that will always be the same is you, and the positive and negative ways that the world perceives your existence follows you too. As much progress as the global community has made as a whole, there's not a single place on earth where your identity as a woman of colour doesn't impact everything.
Looking back, my experience created a unique opportunity for me to face a lot of what I’d been running from, and to look more closely at both myself and the world. Despite all the disappointments I faced on that trip, it made me stronger and smarter, and the life-affirming moments I did get were worth so much more. Now I can reminisce on the memories of that experience and, in hindsight, finally enjoy them ⎯ the vistas I saw, the mountains I (literally) climbed, and the people I met along the way that did recognise the brave and incredible thing I was doing.
And with a bit more experience behind me, maybe I'd be ready now to travel the way I’d once dreamt of.