I’m not quite sure how the Around the World idea came about, but once it was in my head it was impossible to get it out. There was something about the concept of flying around the globe in a perfect circular way, making stops along the way that appealed to my inner Gemini. This trip was groundbreaking in many ways and quite a change of pace from my previous trips.
Each stop was dramatically different from the next, and some were not places that I’d recommend to a solo female traveler to go — which made it that much more of a task and achievement. Traveling carry-on only was the hardest here.
Different climates and cultural norms regarding dress made it a challenge unlike any other. I had a lot of lugging to do in between hotels and airports, but I made it work and was better for it in the end. It also gave me a source of pride flying home, having lived out of that little container for so long in so many places.
It was an incredible trip that I’m eternally grateful for, but I’m not going to lie — there were growing pains and not just wardrobe ones — all along the way. I started to think I had bitten off more than I could chew. As the saying goes, what you resist, persists. I was in family denial. It was the kale in my teeth that everyone saw except me.
Up until this point, I wore singlehood as a proud Girl Scout badge of honor.
I felt sorry for married people and assumed they were insecure or hadn’t read the fine print. Marriage was co-dependence. People who were tired of trying to be someone on their own got married so they could commiserate under a socially acceptable umbrella of mediocrity. Or at least that’s what I thought. Until the Spanish Inquisition started and persisted relentlessly on every leg of this trip.
Why are you alone? Aren’t you scared to travel by yourself ? What do your parents think of you traveling alone? Why aren’t you married? Why don’t you have kids? Why are you a big fat loser? How do you answer that? I struggled with being single and childless. Why here and why, now you ask? Because 10 of 10 people I met would ask me if I was married with children, and why not.
All of a sudden political correctness was out the door and big, invasive life questions pushed in like a gale-force wind.
I wasn’t sure if something was wrong with me or if an insecurity was sparked in them. In retrospect, it was probably both: 50 shades of envy and pity.
I was shocked at how far I thought women had come and the reality of how far we still had to go.
It really wasn’t OK to be man-less and childless out in the world. And surprisingly,it was other Westerners (Americans in particular) who probed the issue. In Vietnam, I met a really cool American couple and nice French couple, both of whom were stunned that I was there alone. “I would never do that!” they remarked in horror. “Aren’t you afraid of being by yourself?” “Aren’t you afraid if some- thing happens to you?”
Hotel staff also struggled with my solo check-ins. In one case, I was led to the lobby for ginger tea. After about a half-hour or so, I checked back with the receptionist to see if the room was ready. She said, “Oh yes, it’s been ready all day. We’re just waiting for your husband.” You and I both, sister. It felt like everywhere I went and every conversation I had, was about one thing: the audaciousness of me being a single woman, traveling alone.
My life as a travel femme fatale was losing steam. I felt lonely. I even missed my love avoidant ex-boyfriend.
Even he would have been a step in the right direction from where I was. I was also tired of being jerked around by cab drivers and people thinking that I was a prostitute eating alone in restaurants. I missed ordering shared plates and a bottle of wine at dinner. For the first time ever, I truly felt alone in the world.
Traveling through eight consecutive countries that don’t necessarily view women’s rights as human rights, and where women are not valued as equals, opened the door to a kind of sadness and depression that I had never felt before.
It was a shot to my spirit. It seemed that being single, regardless of gender, was not an option in these places. Not having kids is the second scarlet letter, and having a creative career and traveling alone would be a jailable offense if someone had considered that it might actually happen.
I took pride in being independent and not needing anyone. But an awareness started to seep in. Being counterdependent in life was a choice that was no longer serving me. I could do it, clearly, but not contently. Especially if I wanted to order multiple breakfasts and pass them off as my partner’s. Reluctantly, I’ll admit that having someone who had my back would have come in very handy here and would have made this trip infinitely more comfortable and enjoyable. While enlightened life coaches eschew comfort as the anti- growth drug, a woman does deserve a break every now and then.
The feeling that a woman’s place in the world was nowhere was starting to consume me. I felt alienated not from just the place I was visiting but from humanity as a whole. From West to East, women were defined, acknowledged and judged by their looks alone, and the fear of a woman being anything more than just an aesthetic servant was palpable.
I missed my tribe, my people. I felt that I was scratch- ing at the earth and having very little success on a large scale. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps even the wrong century. It was impossible to evade these issues on this trip. They were too much in the forefront — not only about where I was geograph- ically, but they made me wonder about the rest of the world, too. Was it better and had we really advanced elsewhere? Seeing women’s roles defined as subser- vient to men’s, hidden and the property of somebody else, forced me to ask: “Why am I here?”“Why was I put here in the first place?” I began contemplating whether or not photography was my true life purpose.
The trip began normally enough. Istanbul was a great start with its wonderful hospitality, amazing fine dining and a burgeoning contemporary art scene. It was probably the most westernized city of the trip and I felt fine here. I especially loved exploring the up-and-coming neighborhoods on the verge of becoming mainstream.
Israel was fascinating and full of contrast, and it was here that I started to feel like a fish out of water and pushed beyond my comfort zone. Tel Aviv was so liberal, had delicious, fresh food on every corner, crazy donuts with spoons to carve out the middle, phenomenal Bauhaus architecture, great art museums and artists. Comparatively, Jerusalem was a shock to the senses.
I sheruted (Israeli shuttle) there from Tel Aviv, a 1.5-hour journey but a world away. The religious conservatism on all sides was staggering, as was the melting pot of three major world religions descending on precisely the exact same spot. I felt for Jesus Christ because all of Jerusalem is uphill — figuratively and literally. I also never realized that all three major world religions have the same affection for black polyester garments. I rode in the special Shabbat elevators, ate unrefrigerated leftovers from the hotel, and took a taxi into the West Bank where my Palestinian guide showed me the cage Jesus was born in.
What? Yes, it was a cage. Perhaps not unlike the one I felt I was in, being a single female traveler. Getting in and out of the West Bank, a relatively short distance, was like a CIA mission. I had an Israeli driver bring me to the wall, then a Palestinian driver pick me up on a side street. The wall was gratified with the words “Whatever” facing Israel. I carried on to Masada and the Dead Sea, down to Eilat and did a land crossing over the border into Jordan.
I was proposed to by a Bedouin gypsy in Petra who invited me back to his cave. I was stared at like a porn star in my North Face burka in Qatar. I was tested in many ways in Vietnam, the longest leg of my trip. At one point, while staying in Hue, the hotel staff (which was extremely lovely) went off in mad search for my husband. Words cannot describe staffers’ looks of confusion when I told them I was traveling alone.
China proved immensely different from my previous trip — a country that had transitioned in so many fundamental ways politically and structurally. Japan was beautiful and much more in line architecturally and design-wise with my passion, so it was fun to get back into shooting there.
The scariest moment of the trip was traversing from Aqaba to Amman on the Kings Highway in Jordan. I hired a private driver from my hotel, thinking I would be safer that way. About an hour outside of Aqaba, the driver stopped and another man came into the car. I was sweating bullets in the backseat praying to God, Allah and Abraham that I would make it to Amman. I started talking about my “husband,” who was waiting for me at the hotel, and my imaginary child. Leave it to me to not have enough imaginary children, which caught their attention immediately. I had only one child who was female. Pity changed their demeanor and they wished me and my husband luck and many sons to come.
Choosing climatically diverse countries with very different cultures/religions and little aspect of human rights or solo female travelers all at one time, was an interesting and poorly thought-out choice on my part. Doing this with carry-on-only luggage and camera gear was ridiculous. Cathartic, but ridiculous. I was done with travel for a while after this trip. (At least for a full three weeks anyway.)
It was time to go back to places where women had a little more power in the world, even if only on the surface.
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