Single Black Female: My guide to successful solo travel
2019 really was the year that I became the person that I've wanted to be for a long time. I'm a lot more independent and this was due, in part, to me embracing my Oui! Si! Yes! mentality and deciding to solo travel. I was extremely fortunate that I had a flexible work timetable. I was certainly the envy of my co-workers; as I worked Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays for a grand total of 12 hours per week! Not too shabby is it? I was on a pretty good salary teaching English in Spain and I had heaps of free time, it was as if the universe was calling me to travel.
One of the main reasons I travelled so frequently, and often solo, was because I had a lot of free time. Most of my friends didn’t have the same timetable as me and despite enjoying group travel I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity of potentially travelling for 4 days per week. Before taking my first trip alone I had a lot of anxiety about travelling, I was nervous about meeting new people, navigating new places and generally not having a good time. I feel like each time I’ve travelled I’m slowly breaking down any anxieties that I have.
My main aim for this year was to put myself out there a lot more, and one of the ways that I’d hope to achieve this goal was to expose myself to other cultures whilst travelling. This year I’ve explored different cities- and even taken my first ever international solo flight. It may not seem like a big deal to most people, but for me- as someone who had a lot of anxiety about taking a train up from Manchester to Durham, this was a huge step. This year alone I visited Madrid, Zaragoza, Toledo, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Santander and Lisbon all by myself! I’m quite proud of myself for having the guts to take these flights, buses and trains and in this post I’m going to talk to you all about why I think you should solo travel.
Concern #1: Travelling whilst Black
This often comes up on a lot of news articles or feeds that I read. This year I’ve discovered a really cool social media movement called #blacktravelmovement which is encouraging black individuals like myself to pack up and take the opportunity to travel. As a child I was extremely lucky to have been able to visit a lot of diverse and cool places with my parents: Cuba, Jamaica, Barbados, Turkey and many others. For me, travelling whilst black had never been an issue- I had always been surrounded by my parents who had always masked me from hidden prejudices, hence I was somewhat in a miniature happy go lucky multicultural bubble. As a child a lot of the places we had visited were Caribbean islands, therefore the demographic was mainly People of Colour. As I’ve gotten older and travelled across Europe a bit more I started to see that often I’m one of the few Black tourists. Initially this used to bother me a little; I’ve grown up in Manchester and I’m used to being surrounded by a lot of racial diversity. Nevertheless I haven’t let this deter me from travelling. At times I would get stared at, but now I don’t see this as a negative thing because it usually doesn’t come from malicious intent.
When I first moved to Valencia and started to work in my pueblo of Paterna, I could feel the eyes of the locals staring at me. I used to feel very self-conscious and uncomfortable even just walking down the street. However, after a year or so of travelling I’ve realised that just as I am venturing into a new place and experiencing new cultures, for locals it often is their first time encountering someone who looks like me. The stares come more from a place of curiosity rather than condemnation. Most of the time, locals are extremely kind and welcoming when you visit their hometown, especially if it isn’t usually a tourist destination. Whenever I go to a new place, I always try to be respectful and courteous, after all you are a guest in someone else’s home. When I first started travelling I put this huge burden on myself to kind of be an example for all Black tourists; almost as though I was a representative for every Black person. In hindsight I can see that this is quite a damaging thing to do, and as I’m sure that white people aren’t set that standard, so why should I? I always try and keep in mind what my parents taught me: kindness and respect. With those two things you really can’t go wrong.
For any people of colour who are afraid or a little cautious of solo travelling I would say, please don’t be too worried. Unfortunately racism and discrimination still exists everywhere, although often it is more covert than in the past. Nonetheless, please do not let this discourage you from broadening your horizons and seeing new places. We cannot change the colour of our skin, however via travelling we can expand our viewpoints and perspectives. I’m a firm believer that travelling can breakdown barriers of ignorance and prejudice, for both the traveller and locals.
Concern #2: Travelling as a female
My parents were more concerned about me travelling alone as a young woman rather than as a Black person. I can understand why, there are certain precautions and things that I have to think about, which men have the privilege of never experiencing. Most of these tips are pretty self- explanatory or self evident, but the key to being safe is to always be aware of your surroundings. Don’t put yourself in a situation that will put you at even more risk. It is really crappy that as women we still have to bear in mind the minute possibility that things could turn sour. For example, avoid taking late night public transport if you are on your own. Paying for a taxi or uber might be a little bit more expensive but also could be safer. If you are heading out to somewhere, always let a friend know- even if they’re not in the same country as you. I always used to tell my friend Paige where I was going and what I was doing just to take extra precautions.
Cat calling is still a real problem, especially for young women- I face this a lot in Paris at the minute. Most of the time I try not to engage with them, I have headphones in, even if I’m not listening to music or I just look past them. I will never understand how a guy thinks that by beckoning a woman in a disparaging and crude way will make us automatically drop what we’re doing and pay attention to them! Has anyone ever seen this tactic work? It honestly astounds me that we live in a world where this behaviour is a part of daily life! In terms of accommodation, I’ve stayed in hostels with mixed rooms, but when I can I like to stay in female only dorms. I’ve met a lot of amazing people in mixed dorms, however in a female dorm it isn’t really about safety but more about meeting other girls and having some downtime and some girly conversations!
General things that I’ve learned whilst solo travelling
Even though you are solo travelling, you’re never truly alone.
On my trip to the North of Spain, I was pleasantly surprised that I made friends with the people who stayed in my hostel. Hostels are a hub of social activity- there are usually a lot of common spaces and you can come across all times of people in your dorm. In Bilbao made friends with an Israeli called Guy and German girl, Andrea and we got on really well. So much so that we did a walking tour together and went out for drinks one night. I made friends with a group of Australian girls in my dorm room in San Sebastian who invited me on a night out and we shared lots of tips for things to see and do in the city. Even if you are looking for a detox and a bit of time to recharge, there is always a social element to solo travel.
Tailor make your own itinerary
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I’m a fiercely independent person, I love to do things on my own and make my own decisions. I think that this is why solo travel really suits me because I have the autonomy to create my own plan. As much as I love group travel, it is nice to not have to compromise with other people on what you want to see and do. I love heading to art galleries and museums so I always designate time to do those things when I travel. I also get burned out if I’m travelling a lot, therefore when I’m on my own I have no problem with taking a rest day and doing something a bit more chilled out.
Time to detox
Following on from my last segment, I’ve also learned that solo travel is a great opportunity to check in with you and your own mental health. I love to journal and write and I always try to capture my thoughts and feelings in the moment- even if that’s just by jotting down a few thoughts in the notes section of my phone. Travelling allows me to take the time to do the things that I love the most, reading and writing. There is no right or wrong way to solo travel, that’s why it’s so great- it’s down to the individual. When I went to Portugal it was immediately after my grandfather passed away. I was uncertain about how I was going to cope travelling alone in a new place. However, travelling is the best thing that I could have done- I was able to take my mind off the situation yet also have some alone time to cry and come to terms with my feelings. It was kind of like a mini retreat for me- I could recalibrate and then come back to Valencia mentally and emotionally stronger.
Take photos- but make sure you’re in them too!
When I first started to solo travel, I would hate having to ask strangers to take my photo. I didn’t want to bother them whilst they were enjoying their holiday. But then I realised, its all well and good having picture of Parque Retiro and the Miradors of Lisbon, but in order to really solidify the memories, don’t you want to be in the photo? My tip is to ask politely in the language of the country that you are in, if that fails try and resort to English. Most of the time people will be more than happy to take your photo. If you’re really specific about how you like your shots, follow suit of my friend Paige who lines up the shot, holds it in place for the photographer and then jumps into the shot. That’s how you know that you’re doing Instagram right!
Final hacks for solo travel:
o When out and about if you want to keep your possessions safe, you can either wear your rucksack on the front to your body or lock the zips together. I prefer the second method and I carry the key either in my shoe or on a chain around my neck.
o Take a water bottle and fill it up throughout the day - all of that walking is tiring and you’ll definitely work up a sweat.
o If your hostel offers free breakfast, take advantage of it. Even if you have to pay a small contribution fee, stock up on snacks for throughout the day- I like to take a few muffins and a piece of fruit with me.
o If your hostel offers a free walking tour or organises pub crawls- take the plunge- say Oui! Si! Yes! and do it! There have been many times that I’ve been anxious to join in on a night out- but I’ve met some really cool people along the way. If this is too much for you, even just hanging out in the commons spaces is cool- you’re sure to strike up a conversation with someone interesting.
o Use the apps “airbnb” or “meetup” to find social events and free things to do. Often groups will organise language exchanges or a meet ups for other international travellers.
o My must haves for travelling are a portable charger, earplugs for the hostel and an eye mask. Dorm life isn’t for everyone and I’ve definitely encountered a lot of snorers in my time.
So there you have it folks- my comprehensive guide to solo travel. This of course isn’t an exhaustive list, these a re a few of the things that I’ve found work for me. I’m sure I’ll expand my list too. My best piece of advice is to go out there and do it- don’t let the fear hold you back You never know what experiences you’ll have or who you’ll meet if you don’t try!