Despite what the much over-hyped film (not the book) Eat Pray Love would have us think, solo female travelers did exist before Elizabeth Gilbert. The difference, I think, is that now that Julia Roberts is starring in a movie about it, it’s suddenly viewed by mainstream America as “okay.”
And that’s okay. I may be a bit annoyed by the fact that Hollywood is responsible, but at the end of the day, who cares? It’s just great that experienced independent travelers will get less grief, and women who might not otherwise attempt a solo trip are now inspired to do so. The sheer volume of women-oriented travel companies has been steadily rising over the last five or so years, and now it looks like we’re hitting the tipping point.
While traveling alone is never easy for a woman, it’s comparatively a piece of cake now, compared to what women of even my mother’s generation must have endured. Yet, as a 41-year-old American female, I’m often amazed by how concerned other people are about my marital status (or lack thereof), my plans for my uterus (or lack thereof), and how I can afford to travel/who’s going to take care of me when I’m older/when am I going to grow up? I can handle these questions when there are cultural differences involved (sometimes with gritted teeth, like when I was 32, and a young Israeli male told me I’d better “find someone to marry quickly,” before I was “too old and ugly.” Sweet.).
I’ve never been one to give much of a hang about what others think, or else I wouldn’t have been able to put up with the comments denigrating my lifestyle. I hear them less now that I’m somewhat older (read: approaching end of child-bearing years), and because travel writing is now my profession. Unlike countries such as Australia or New Zealand, where a “gap year” of travel before university is a rite of passage, most Americans still tend to be constrained by what they view as adult, or gender-related, responsibilities.
Things are changing, of course. But the release of a book-turned-movie appears to have done more for the advocacy of independent women’s travel in one summer than I’ve experienced in a decade of travel journalism. A recent CNN article citing Eat Pray Love as inspiration profiles two women: a widow taking an early retirement, and a 32-year-old, now-frequent traveler who bit the travel bullet after being laid off in her late twenties.
I should hasten to add that I don’t consider myself a feminist (for a multitude of reasons that have no place on a travel blog), and I’m fond of describing myself as “spiritually bankrupt.” I don’t travel to be a “strong” woman, or find enlightenment. Travel is a highly personal thing, and everyone has their own reasons for doing, or not doing, it. I don’t care why other people travel; I just applaud the fact that they do, as long as they’re respectful of other cultures and the environment. I travel because it’s the thing I love most: it’s what motivates and inspires me, both personally and professionally, and I find it endlessly fascinating, even when things are going awry. I love learning about different cultures, trying new foods, seeing new landscapes. I love riding a bus for 24 hours, because it’s part of the experience. And yes, I prefer to travel alone.
Am I running away from something? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Will I ever settle down and stop traveling? Um, no. Am I ditching adult responsibilities? Nope. I have a home base, pay my bills on time, work a couple of “stationary” jobs, because travel writing isn’t lucrative. I’m in a long-term, committed relationship, I have plants. Sometimes I get burned out on travel, or have a disastrous trip. But within a day or two of arriving home, I’m always ready to plan the next adventure, and get on the road again as soon as possible. I do gain confidence from traveling alone, and thrive on its challenges. It’s a reminder that I can accomplish the goals I set for myself, For some, that might be called self-empowerment. For me, it’s just a lifestyle choice.
Not everyone is programmed to live the life society dictates, and plenty of people living so-called conventional lives, including mothers, find ways to make travel a part of their lives. Here’s to a national cultural shift that supports the exploration of the world outside our own bubble. Whatever set of gonads you happen to possess.