On the “Solo” in Solo Female Travel: Reflections on Love and Lessons from the Road

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I’m back from my three months of winter abroad, folks. After two months in Belize and one in Jamaica, it feels good to be home again (although I admit, I had the itch to go somewhere far away again when I boarded my connecting flight).

I returned home with no laptop – my three year-old Mac Pro crashed on me at the tail end of my trip. It didn’t bother me that much, ironically. I was only lamenting the fact that I had an unplanned major expense once home. Why wasn’t I too upset about it? Because in the grand scheme of things, I learned a major life lesson from my time away and offline while in Jamaica – perhaps the biggest lesson altogether from my travels. I realized this over the past couple of days at home as well, with no internet and no laptop. I had time to look deep within and at the “solo” journey I’ve been on since I left my job in 2008.

See, I’ve always felt that my path in life was unique from everyone else’s. I know that sounds cliche because we’re all different – but my upbringing definitely was. And that feeling came very early. The fact that I was raised abroad, the fact that I spoke French even though I’m East African, the fact that I loved West African culture, a culture not my own by birth. So many different things about me. As a teenager, I struggled to accept my unique background as a gift (I would hear my mother making fun of my Ethiopian accent; it’s actually quite good I’ll have you know!). It wasn’t until law school that I embraced who I was and realized my difference would get me far in life.

When I thought about one of the most memorable moments of my winter abroad, one evening came to mind.

A couple of months ago while I was in Belize I had a conversation with a friend – a fellow traveler and someone I consider to be a kindred spirit.

She said to me: “Who’s to say that we’re all supposed to have the same path in life? Who’s to say that all of us women should marry or that we all have to have or raise children? We’re all different, and >> so are our paths in life. One shouldn’t be considered better than the other.”

We were discussing our relationships – she’s been married many years, I’m single. We both are the same age range. She was struggling with finding balance in her life and time for her family, and I was struggling with the lonely feeling that creeps up on a woman who’s on the road for a while.

The ‘solo’ in solo female travel – it’s an issue you won’t read about much on our travel blogs. Yes, you hear from the couples who hit the road together, or the ones who met the love of their life on the road and are happily coupled (although this piece from a solo male traveler Nomadic Matt is interesting).

But you don’t hear about the rest of us (those of us who have never married and are in our 30s or 40s, and not in the 20s dating scene), other than the stories of where to go, what to eat, how much fun we had and how to plan your trips. You don’t hear about the dating – let’s face it, it’s a part of life – or the loneliness, the moments when we wish we had someone who shared our passion for travel, the moments when we wish we were settled down and had some sense of normalcy or stability, the moments of doubt, the voices in our heads that tell us that the future is uncertain and we’re getting older.

I admit, in the past year I’ve struggled with the lonely side of solo travel. I’ve heard my fair share of the “how will you meet someone when you’re constantly on the road?” comments. But I lived in Washington, DC for over a decade and never met my soul mate so for me, traveling long term was no less of a riskier attempt. Neither did I see myself going online and searching for a partner (not knocking it, but I know myself and I have no patience to sift through hundreds of profiles).

But I do think about love and travel, like any woman my age. And lately – since late last year, I’ve started wondering – should I pick a country and just stay still? Should I keep traveling? What if I get older and I end up alone?

Gulp.

Yes I’ve dated along my travels – the most significant was a recent long-term relationship. A relationship that came to a head after about a year of constant travel and countless emails and phone calls and visits. There were unpleasant discoveries about the man I thought I knew so well and spoke to so often. The person who asked me to stop traveling long-term, move countries and “settle down.” After six months of hearing the same offer and declarations of love but ignoring them, I had decided to at least hear him out. And what I discovered, by some form of divine intervention, is that he was leading a double life.

Why am I sharing this? Because after the outrage and the tears, in the midst of a calmer and introspective state, the other truth – my truth – hit me: I had settled for less all along. I wanted to “fit in” with everyone else.

More than once, along the way, I’d questioned whether he was my ideal partner, or the man of my dreams. I’d brushed it off by calling myself “picky” and “difficult.” Doubts existed yet I had settled in dating him because it was easy, it was comforting to have someone abroad who reminded me of my travels and somehow connected with it by the fact that he himself was an expat. And maybe, yes maybe it was even soothing away those voices about settling down. Maybe it was time for me to just say yes.

Horror of all horrors – I had let age be a factor. I never let age influence my decision when I left my job three years ago to find myself and my true passion and purpose. Why would I do that with a lifetime relationship, one of the most important decisions in a woman’s life?

And that, my friends, was the biggest lesson I learned these past months – to not allow societal pressure or any of those factors like age shadow what my heart is telling me. No, I don’t have a conventional life, but I’ve always been different. I choose to continue to live my life fully and settle for nothing less than the best, because tomorrow isn’t promised. I have faith that love – the kind of love that every solo female traveler wishes for deep down – will show itself at the appropriate time.

All my Belizean friend did was remind me of a simple truth, but in three months of countless conversations on the road, those words stayed with me the longest. We don’t have to have the same path or the same timing – whether in love or work. We’re all here for a different reason and it’s when we embrace that reason and follow our unique light that everything will start falling into place.

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Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning, Ethiopian-American travel writer, photographer and author of several Caribbean guidebooks for Moon Travel Guides, including Moon Belize, Moon Belize Cayes, and Moon Dominican Republic (October 2016). Her work focuses on Caribbean culture and adventure, and has been published in AFAR, CNN Travel, BBC, Delta Sky, The Guardian, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, and Every Day With Rachael Ray, among many others. Lily is also the 2016 recipient of the Marcia Vickery Wallace Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism for her Caribbean coverage, from the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Lily calls herself a “culture-holic”–she speaks four languages fluently and has lived in Cote d’Ivoire, England, Jamaica, Belize, the Dominican Republic and traveled to some 30+ countries around the world. Last but not least, she is a former corporate attorney who ditched her Washington DC office for the road in 2009 to pursue her dream of becoming a storyteller. Lily holds a Bachelor of Arts in French and Spanish (summa cum laude) from the University of Maryland at College Park, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law.

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17 Comments

  1. Jay 27 March, 2012 at 8:51 PM #

    Great read GG

  2. Erin De Santiago 27 March, 2012 at 9:13 PM #

    Lily, I’m glad you wrote this post. I completely agree that we don’t all fit into some great life’s path or mold — I am so tired of the comments I get about the fact that I don’t have children or what am I doing with my life, etc.

    And couples travel is not always what it’s cracked up to be — especially the fluffy, happy posts some people share. I love the blog, 1000 fights, because they are bringing the reality of couples travel to light. And while very personal, you’ve brought to light many of the issues and fears with solo travel — especially as a woman.

    I am so sorry to hear the crossroads you ended up in, but it obviously was a blessing in disguise. I hope it brings some comfort knowing you have made the right choices for you, and this jerk definitely didn’t deserve you.

    Had you not chosen the initial path you did in 2008, you probably would’ve never ended up in Belize, the Road Warrior program and all the doors, and opportunities that alone has opened. You are a remarkable person, traveler, photographer, and friend — stay true to who you are as that is your “life’s path”.

  3. Lindsay Hartfiel 27 March, 2012 at 9:26 PM #

    Lily – what an excellent post. A friend and I were just talking about this same topic the other day. I am in my late 20s and have the very same thoughts. I feel all of my friends are settling down and having kids. While I myself don’t want to be in that state, there is still pressure from society to just live in one place, accept the job you’re at and just “be happy.” Woman often settle in relationships and in life. Fortunately, I think many of us solo travelers are changing that. Kudos to you!

  4. Christina 27 March, 2012 at 10:08 PM #

    Thank you for writing this post and for being so brave to share something so personal to you. I’m sorry about your recent break up.

    You have articulated something that I too have been sorting through recently – the realities of solo travel and living an unconventional life. It’s not always easy but it’s worth it. Continue to follow your heart.

  5. Toy 27 March, 2012 at 10:24 PM #

    CO-SIGN!!! Lily you know you gave me some of that same advice when we first met! I never settled in relationships but I struggle with letting everything else (career etc) happen when it’s time. If I can be patient about the relationship I want and deserve, I have to learn to be patient about everything else.

  6. Lebawit Lily Girma 27 March, 2012 at 10:34 PM #

    Jay – Thanks for reading!

    Erin – Thank you my friend, you are one remarkable person (and fellow traveler) yourself! I really appreciate your kind words. And I agree with you that couples travel isn’t always rosy either. I guess at the end of the day, it’s about finding what works for you and what doesn’t. Travel teaches us so much about that, and faster than if we stayed at home, in my opinion. And yes, if I hadn’t pursued this path, I wouldn’t have had the amazing past 3 years of travel and new friends, new opportunities, new passions like photography, and much more! Everything has its time.

    Lindsay, thanks for sharing, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one thinking about this! 🙂 I do agree with you that SO many women settle for less. And everyone has a different reason why – I won’t judge at all. I know, however, that if I couldn’t settle for less than being 100% (or at least 99%) happy in my work, I certainly can’t settle for less than being completely sure and happy about a potential life partner.

    Christina, thanks for reading. I don’t write personal posts often but I think that this is one of those often overlooked topics among solo female travelers. It’s hard to talk about, but it’s already helping to share views with you all. So thanks for contributing! It’s an unusual path we have, but definitely worth it like you said.

  7. Lebawit Lily Girma 27 March, 2012 at 10:47 PM #

    Toy – It’s great to hear from you, and you are so right! Aah yes, that’s another one that can take a long time to figure out – your dream work or career. Some of us are born knowing, and some of us have to keep digging and searching for some time to reach that point. Again, we all have different paths, and trusting in God’s timing or in yourself is what makes it all bearable.

  8. Joanna Arellano 28 March, 2012 at 12:06 AM #

    First off Lily — that is a gorgeous photo. I took a couple seconds just to imagine how you must have been feeling when you pressed the shutter.

    I am so glad that you decided to return to Belize after your stint with the Road Warrior program. If nothing else – you will not have to suffer “what if” moments because you KNOW! Much love sista!

  9. Lebawit Lily Girma 28 March, 2012 at 10:12 PM #

    JO! Thanks sister friend! 🙂 On the photo and the kind words. I’m glad I went back too – because otherwise I wouldn’t have had the chance to get know you and your family. That alone was worth the trip. You are a wonderful person! Much love!

  10. Diana 29 March, 2012 at 12:40 AM #

    Thank you for echoing the contents of my mind, a solo traveler in her 30’s. Thank you for sharing your story so bravely with us. As a kindred spirit, I am here for you. We are here for you through this weird, scary, spiritual and thrilling connection called “travel.” Stay on your path Lily and TRUST that everything is just fine.

  11. Leyla Giray 29 March, 2012 at 2:08 AM #

    Lily, you aren’t alone! There are hundreds, probably thousands of solo women traveling and blogging about it. For example, Jodi at legalnomads.com left her job as a lawyer in Montreal and has been traveling ever since. She’s young but hugely thoughtful and mature. Her latest post on loneliness will demonstrate that. There’s Sherry of ottsworld.com, who is a bit older than Jodi and a photographer and writer. There’s Kirsty at nerdynomad.com who lives in Kigali but is now volunteering in the Philippines. And the list goes on and on. I often post about these women on my facebook page (www.facebook.com/womenontheroad) so come on over and meet them.

    Relationships on the road are never easy. I have traveled for long chunks of time – once over three years – and my relationship fell apart in Year 2 and yes, lies were involved. I met countless women in the same situation. Yet we followed a more defined muse – the desire to see the world and uncover our own place in it and these pains faded into the background and the joy of the road took over.

    A quick word about age… I was in my mid-40s when I took that three-year trip around the world. I once woke up in my dorm room to the sight of an 80-year-old man getting ready for his day of backpacking. And think of the Irish writer, Dervla Murphy, who into her 80s still traveled with a vengeance (perhaps she still does!)

  12. Lebawit Lily Girma 29 March, 2012 at 6:52 PM #

    Leyla,
    Thanks for stopping by and sharing! I absolutely agree with you that there are many of us women who are past 30 and still traveling solo. I follow the bloggers you mentioned and I’m just discovering your site (thanks). I think, however, that love on the road is one of those rarely discussed topics – even in broad terms. But I agree that it should not deter us from traveling and following our passion. And for some of us love will knock anyway, for others not. That’s the thing, we all have unique destinies. 🙂

  13. Siya 30 March, 2012 at 5:04 PM #

    Hey Lily,
    The message is very much on point. I admire your courage. Keep living your life to the fullest. Welcome back.

  14. Lebawit Lily Girma 30 March, 2012 at 6:00 PM #

    Thanks, Siya! Life is too short not to do just that. 🙂

  15. lovenia 10 April, 2012 at 11:56 AM #

    Okay, I LOVE this post. I can totally relate and it is encouraging beyond words. I will be “late” in life in beginning my journey abroad, and for all my time stateside, I have yet to meet the man meant for me. Like you, I almost settled. But a crisis of clarity opened my eyes and made me realize it. I’m so thankful of your bravery in discussing this topic, because you are right, so few of them do! Thanks for your REFRESHING and INSPIRING post!

  16. Lebawit Lily Girma 11 April, 2012 at 11:28 AM #

    Hi Lovenia, thanks so much for your words and for sharing your experience too! It’s encouraging to hear that this is helping others. I rarely write personal posts but in the end even blogging is about being true to your instincts. 🙂

  17. Shermika 2 May, 2012 at 11:19 PM #

    Wonderful article. Far too often we compare ourselves with others, when in reality we all have our own paths to go down. Inner peace is of the utmost importance.

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