When I arrived at university at the age of 19 I was quickly given the nickname Sandra Dee by my new friends. Unfortunately it had nothing to do with an amazing singing voice or the ability to pull off a pair of leg warmers.
Firstly, it was because I didn’t seem to own a single top which wasn’t pink and secondly, because they thought I was so naive about the world.
Most of the people I lived with in student halls had taken a gap year or had travelled in some way before coming to university; I’d never even been on a train by myself. I still remember the first time I had to make the two hour journey home from Newcastle to Scarborough. I was so nervous about changing trains in York. How would I know which platform to go to? Would I have time to find it in the ten minutes available?
Fast-forward 12 years and I have spent summers working at a camp in America and an orphanage in Costa Rica; I’ve backpacked through south and central America; I’ve visited Asia and have just completed a nine month round-the-world trip. Although I’ve been joined by friends on some parts of those trips, the majority I have done by myself.
Travelling solo has literally changed my life. I’m braver for it. I’m smarter for it. And I’m a million times more grateful for the life I have because of it.
So that is why I fully support the #WeGoSolo movement which has been started by @Breathedreamgo on Twitter. Its aim is to promote and encourage women to travel safely and to shine a spotlight on the real problem: world-wide domestic violence against women.
One of the first things people usually ask them when I tell them about travelling solo is: “But is it safe?” Because I’m only 5ft tall strangers often think I’m younger than I actually am (they’re obviously not looking too closely at the crow’s feet) and often seem surprised to hear about the countries I’ve been to by myself.
I’m always careful about how I answer the question though because I don’t believe you should be blasé about it. Of course, some countries have their dangers and it’s important to be aware of them. In some places you will always be a target for thieves, simply because you are a tourist and are probably carrying a camera which is the equivalent of a year’s salary to them. But I definitely don’t think that is a reason to avoid them. You can be a victim of crime in your own country, but that doesn’t mean that you never leave the house.
Instead you are smart. You don’t walk alone at night. You don’t leave your handbag at the table when you’re dancing in a club. You don’t accept lifts from random people.
Exactly the same rules need to be applied when travelling solo. If anything I am more careful in another country than I am at home. For example, at home I’m quite into fashion and love my handbags, but when I’m travelling I always carry a bag which goes across my chest, rather than just over my arm. I never go out alone when it’s dark and I try to avoid taking taxis by myself. Whenever I check into a hostel I ask the staff on the front desk to point out any places on my map that I should avoid going by myself. They’re usually very honest and it makes you feel safer that you’re not going to stray into dodgy neighbourhoods.
And here’s a confession – which is something I always get teased about – but I’m going to tell you anyway: I own a bum bag (or fanny pack to all of you Americans out there). I know, I know, it’s totally uncool but in my defence, it’s one of those ones that tucks inside your trousers rather than one which needs to be paired with a 90s shell suit. But I always feel so much safer when I’m crossing borders or travelling on overnight buses just carrying a little cash in my bag and putting my passport and the rest of my money in my bum bag.
Travelling solo is about balance. Sometimes you have to trust others and I have had so many instances on my trips where I have really discovered how kind people can be when you need them. But you also have to be sensible. I’ve met other travellers who seem to think that being away from home makes them invincible. I’ve seen people taking such huge risks and wondered whether they would do the same in their own country.
But I would never tell another woman not to travel solo.
I remember a couple of days before I was about to go on a three week trip to Colombia, a friend of a friend called me. He was Colombian himself and spent the whole conversation telling me I was crazy and warning me about every potential danger I would face. By the time I hung up the phone he’d essential told me not to even leave the airport and I was absolutely terrified.
But then I went and had the most amazing time. The people were so friendly; the sights were beautiful and best of all I got to go to the Miss Colombia Festival! And I actually felt safer there than in many of the other South American countries I’ve visited.
The way I see it, if you stayed at home because of the fear of danger you would miss out on so, so, many fantastic moments. So be smart, be safe and join the girls of #WeGoSolo.