Talking travel with ‘Wanderlust and Lipstick’ author Beth Whitman

Beth Whitman is the Wonder Woman of the travel biz. She began her adventure by backpacking the Pacific Rim for a year. Since then, she’s driven the Alcan Highway to Alaska (twice), hiked through the Himalayas, and motorcycled solo from Seattle to Panama.

As author of the top-selling travel guide for women, Wanderlust and Lipstick, she is an expert on the art of travel, especially solo trips. Her follow-up book, Wanderlust and Lipstick: For Women Traveling to India, comes out next month.

When did you get the travel bug? Looking back, how do you feel about your early years of travel? Did you travel differently back then?

I first started traveling when I was in college. Although I really wanted to get out and about, I can’t say that I really got the bug until I took my second solo trip. I took a semester off from school more than 20 years ago. I lived in New Jersey at the time and drove around the country for three months.

In between visiting friends, I stayed in youth hostels and that’s where I really got the bug. I was meeting people from all over the world. I never looked back after that trip. I think it’s pretty natural that when you start out traveling, you simply wander. I was no different early on. I was just absorbing it all. Now, I like to have more of a purpose when I travel. Writing is one level but I also like to pursue my hobbies when I’m on the road. I’m a huge world music fan so I absolutely must go to the nearest music store to purchase local music or musical instruments to bring home.
You’ve been on a lot of different adventures–motorcycling across North America, trekking in Nepal and Bhutan, backpacking for a year in the Pacific–which one has been your all-time favorite and why?

Every trip has special meaning to me. I rode my motorcycle solo from Seattle to Panama (7,000 miles) and that was an adventure that I look back on and say, “Wow, did I really do that?” My second trip to India less than two years ago was transformative. I was welcomed into people’s homes and witnessed so many amazing acts of kindness and spirituality that it made me come home and really re-examine my own life (not in an Eat, Pray, Love kind of way). I’ve been to Vietnam seven times, so you can definitely count that amongst my favorites but really, I’m such a Wanderluster that every trip is special.

What’s your favorite country? City?

Currently Bhutan because I’ve just returned from there. Favorite city? How ’bout village. I love Bucerias, a little village near Puerto Vallarta. I fear it’s probably undergone a lot of growth since I was there five years ago. It’s authentic enough that you can walk to the local shop and purchase hot fresh tortillas but not quite on the tourist path, yet.

What are your top travel resources online?

I’m a firm believer in paperback guide books. I spend all day on my computer working, therefore, I relish being able to crack open a book at night and begin researching. Having said that, I do indeed research online. I generally begin by searching for specific information, i.e. “Paris markets”. I love the fact that I can find information and personal experiences from people who write quality blogs, such as those on Gadling and GoNomad, as well as articles on sites such as Transitions Abroad. Reading strong opinions from some of these bloggers and then being able to link to well-researched articles is great.

What are five tips for solo travelers who might fear being lonely on the road?

The last thing that solo travel is, is lonely. There are so many opportunities to meet others, if you so choose. Here are my top tips for not being lonely:

  • Stay “close to the ground” as they say. Don’t insulate yourself in a mid-to high-price hotel. By couchsurfing or staying with a Servas host, staying in a hostel or even bed-and-breakfast, you’re exposing yourself to the locals as well as other travelers.
  • Read up on the city or village where you’re staying and frequent cafes where the backpackers hang out. Even if you’re not a backpacker per se, these cafes usually have community tables where people sit together. It’s so easy to meet others this way.
  • Join an organized day tour. You’ll automatically be tossed together with a group of people who probably aren’t from the area and have diverse backgrounds and travel experience. You’re sure to have a lot of stories and information to share.
  • Take your hobby on the road. Love to knit? Bring your gear and knit on long bus rides. Like wearing silver jewelry (like me!)? Seek out silver shops and silver artisans. Combining your passion and interests with your travels gives you the chance to meet others with similar interests and gives some purpose to your days on the road.
  • Finally, take a leap. Even if you consider yourself to be shy, introduce yourself to others. You may never see them again anyway, so what’s the harm? Most likely, however, they will be just as happy that you introduced yourself and will be eager to hear your travel stories.

What about advice for keeping safe (specifically concerning women travelers here)?

When it comes to traveling safely, I could talk about lots of little things a woman can do to ensure a trouble-free trip. However, there are a couple of important key things that I recommend for women:

  • Act confident. I always recommend that if a woman has the least bit of trepidation about traveling, then build up your confidence by taking a self defense course. Learn how to stand up straight, look like you know what you’re doing and avoid becoming a victim simply because you look like an easy target.
  • Always listen to your gut. Even if you think you may be giving up the opportunity of a lifetime, don’t ignore the signs of a potentially bad situation. A good example is being invited to dinner at someone’s home (which can happen often depending on what country you’re traveling in). If you get a bad feeling about it, politely bow out.

You’ve written a book about women traveling in India. What sets India apart? Are there special concerns?

While India is a relatively safe place to travel in that there are rarely violent acts committed against tourists, opportunistic thieves and sexual deviants abound.

As a woman, you’ll notice that men will be eager to chat with you and touch you. If you’re stuck in a crowded metro train, you’d better surround yourself with other women to avoid being groped. You’ll be asked to star in other peoples’ photos and you’ll be followed around markets and tourist sights, simply because you stand out as a foreigner (this is even more so for blonds and fairer-skinned women). Generally, these are more annoyances than they are big concerns.

Having said that, of course we women have to be more aware of potentially disastrous events. We’re used to making eye contact with people when we speak with them. This can be taken as a sign by an Indian man that you are interested in him. Even making light conversation with a tout, shopkeeper or hotel manager can give the wrong impression. Recently, there have been reports of a number of foreign women being raped by hotel employees. And while I certainly don’t blame the victim, it’s extremely important to realize how your friendliness, so common in the West, can be misconstrued by Indian men.

What’s been your worst nightmare traveling solo? How’d you get over it?

I rode my BMW motorcycle solo from Seattle to Panama over nine weeks. While riding through the back roads of New Mexico, shortly before crossing over into Mexico, I had a flat tire. It could have been trip-ending if I had dropped the bike along some desolate twisty route. Luckily, everything was fine. I was able to make my way to a small village (still riding on the flat) and received help from a local boat mechanic, of all people.

He ordered a new tube for the tire, loaned me his car for the night so that I could get back to the youth hostel in Taos and repaired the tire the next day, a Sunday. And, he only charged me $100 for all his work! Even though it was a pretty scary situation at the time, it reinforced my belief that good people are always around to help out a wayward traveler.

Are there places you would warn women solo travelers to stay away from? Iran? Sudan?

I think that we all need to take into account current political situations when researching where to go. I’ve heard amazing things about Iran and Saudi Arabia and these are countries that are probably not high on the list for most solo women travelers. I think under the right circumstances, they could be amazing. I have a friend (in her 80’s) who began traveling to Afghanistan in recent years to help support orphanages there. Who would have thought that would even be possible?

How was your trip to Bhutan (I was just in Nepal). I assume you went as part of a tour?

Bhutan was simply amazing. I actually LED the tour with the help of a tour operator in-country. Because I was so focused on my group it was hard for me to fully appreciate the country. Looking back and reflecting on the experience, it was probably one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. Luckily I’m returning in April ’09 to lead another tour, this one for women only. While I will still be focused on the group, it will allow me to soak up more of the culture and landscape on this, my second trip.

And finally, what would you say to women who are considering their first solo trip overseas? Any words of encouragement?

Everyone goes through moments of fear and doubt before a journey. It’s really important to not listen to negative comments and concerns from family, friends and co-workers – because they will come. Align yourself with others who’ve traveled to the destination you’re considering and ask lots of questions. Don’t wait and don’t let all the negative news about travel keep you from booking that ticket.