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My boyfriend recently took a week-long trip to Berlin, all alone. When he returned, he regaled me with tales of how he’d wandered late at night, into the cobalt-blue early morning; of how he’d made fast friends at his crowded hostel; of how he’d spent long, directionless afternoons getting lost among the concrete anomalies of the city.
I was jealous; I’d been stuck in an office while he was exploring. But a larger part of me was jealous of something vaguer, and more significant:
I wish my acute sense of fear while traveling weren’t the case, of course. But it’s a reality that, as recent reports point out, faces many women.
It’s sometimes easy to slip into bitterness over the potential dangers of being a woman, and especially a nonwhite woman, traveling alone. But when I think of all the times I’ve done it, that bitterness fades away. I’ve never felt freer, or more capable, than when I flew halfway around the world to meet my two best friends in Thailand, where we dozed on beaches and ate fried roti every single night. Or when five friends and I traveled to Europe after high school — and we didn’t miss one train, or lose one wallet.
During these trips’ quiet moments, I’d realize just how big the world is, and feel deeply grateful for the privilege to be able to explore it. What’s more:
As many women set off on their own journeys this summer, we asked three writers to tell us about their most defining moment traveling alone. Some of their journeys sprang from loss, others from a thirst for adventure. From snaking through the Amazon jungle to riding horseback in the desert, they all found something they were looking for, and something unexpected, along the way.
I’m still learning how to be less anxious about exploring the world all by myself. For now, these women’s words have given me solace and inspiration. I hope they do the same for you.
For Vienna, a travel guide written by my friend, Haley, recommended the following: Walk along the Danube at night, to the graffiti-splattered walkway where people of all ages drink champagne out of plastic cups and listen to music. Eat cake for breakfast and laze away hours in coffee shops. Nap in parks. Buy lots of chocolate.
For Budapest, she wrote to run up Gellert Hill for the best views of the city, drink coffee with ice cream, loiter in historic squares and crowd-surf at bars. Eat more cake.
The most important thing, she wrote, was to be open. That way, I could meet interesting people anywhere I went, and perhaps they could show me new places — a student art show, a musician’s house party. Traveling alone was bizarre and serendipitous, she wrote. Just go with it.
Last summer, I spent two weeks in Vienna and Budapest, following what Haley had written four years earlier. In the summer of 2014, we had both backpacked around Europe to write for a student travel guide. She traveled in Austria and Hungary, I in Spain and Portugal. Though we were far apart, I felt closer to her than ever before. We shared stories of loneliness, fear, anxiety, frustration. We fawned over the beautiful landscapes we saw. Everything was new. We felt lucky.
One afternoon in mid-July that summer, while hiking with friends in southern Germany, Haley slipped and fell into a whirlpool. The next evening, I learned she had drowned.
I followed Haley’s guide last summer because I wanted to see what she saw. I wanted to eat what she ate. I wanted, somehow, to remember how I had felt that first time in Europe.
I met friends she had made on her journey, and made friends of my own. I visited her favorite Budapest bars and tried her preferred Viennese ice cream. I couldn’t reconstruct her time in Europe, nor did I want to. What I wanted was something intangible, to pay homage to a friend who had been with me on my own journey four years earlier. I wanted to find Haley in the places that she had loved. She took me there.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a strangely specific recurring dream. I grew up in dense urban areas, but in the dream, I am galloping on a horse across some endless plain, all on my own. Until recently, I interpreted the dream as a yearning to be in nature. But a solo trip to Mongolia two years ago deepened its meaning.
I was born and raised in Turkey and am a member of the Crimean Tatar diaspora. Crimean Tatars, a Turkic people indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula, have experienced wars and displacement throughout history — including forced deportation in 1944, which has since been acknowledged by the Ukrainian parliament as genocide.
All throughout history, there were flows of migration from Crimea to Turkey: My own family immigrated to Turkey as refugees after World War I. Being in the country for at least four generations, I’ve always strongly identified with modern Turkish culture. Despite speaking Tatar (and sharing in my family’s distinctive culture and cuisine), I never took a particular interest in my heritage. If it weren’t for the ubiquitous question of, “But you don’t look Turkish, where are you really from?,” I would have probably forgotten all about it — that is, until I traveled to Mongolia in 2017.
As soon as I got out of my taxi from the airport, a woman tapped my shoulder and started speaking to me in Mongolian. As a solo traveler with Asiatic looks, I blended in easily; most Mongolians assumed I was a local. And I found that as I explored Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, there was something oddly familiar about it all. The food — fatty, rich in meat and dairy products — was the closest I’ve seen to the traditional Tatar cuisine I ate at home.
Later, I decided to travel to the Gobi Desert on a whim. I explored the Gobi with a pair of binoculars and slept in yurts; I soon learned that the desert was where many Tatars came from as early as the 5th century. Consisting of nomadic horse-riding tribes, they settled in different corners of Europe and Asia during centuries-long migration flows.
My ancestors, I realized, were forced to leave their homelands, often in harsh conditions. But as a female solo traveler returning to their place of origin, I felt like I was breaking the tragic cycle.
On one of my last days there, I signed up for a horse-riding lesson through the desert. As the wind tousled my hair, I gripped the reins and felt at peace: I’d finally fulfilled my dream. In the end, riding through endless plains on my own was the closest I got to a feeling of infinite freedom, endless possibilities — and it all came from knowing where I came from.
At the turn of 2015, when I was between endings and beginnings, I felt an urge to look out onto the world once more — its immensity, its unknowability — as a way of recalibrating my perspective. I was in the north of Peru, and initially wanted to join a group of travelers for a five-day journey by dugout canoe through the Amazon jungle. Then I saw the map of the river.
It covered the entire wall of a travel agent’s office in Lagunas — the gateway to the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve — and five days would take me barely halfway up it. Instead, I followed the map’s bright blue rivulet right to the edge of the ceiling, where it pooled into a lake: Pastococha. “It’s pure wilderness there,” the agent said. It was a 10-day trip. I decided that’s where I would go, though it meant forgoing the travel group. I just wanted a challenge, an old-fashioned adventure, awe.
I say it now like I made the decision just like that. But I agonized over it. I had seen enough movies to imagine the Amazon’s possible horrors; that there would be zero means of communication after the third day weighed on my mind. Still, the agent had talked about it in terms eminently doable, a safe return seemingly taken for granted. Erring on the side of caution, I asked if he knew a female guide, and was surprised when he said yes. The next morning, I found out that he’d simply asked a guide to bring his wife. You can imagine how it looked: like I was being chaperoned. That was not the kind of traveler I wanted to appear to be. And yet, as a woman traveling alone, you feel obligated to take all the precautions you can.
In the end, I couldn’t imagine the trip without my guides, Santiago and Maritza. The way Santiago teased Maritza about her less-than-stellar fishing skills, and the way she giggled back — it was like they were still in high school. Despite the 80 or so mosquito bites I counted all over my body, despite the flooded cabanas (it was the rainy season; we had to sleep on a roof beam once), despite the fact that we never made it to Pastococha (the weather didn’t ease our way in, and I had limited time), it’s a journey that, four years later, I still think about.
I think about how it’s literally the journey that matters: how the color of the river changed from tea brown to polished black as we went deeper into the jungle, reflecting perfectly the world above; how the “kutu-kutu” plants with their stubborn water roots blanketed the river for miles, so that it looked like we’d been transplanted to some kind of surreal golf course. I think about the many portentous stories Santiago told of dangerous beasts we might have heard but ultimately never saw — a reminder that for a sojourner in the jungle, at least, your imagination might be the wildest thing there is.
Speaking of travel, we’re excited to introduce By The Way, a new travel destination from The Washington Post. The team behind By The Way tapped local journalists in 50 cities around the world to guide you through their favorite neighborhoods, places to eat and things to do. If you love exploring a place like a local — and want to stay up to date on travel news and trends — then sign up for By The Way’s newsletter, which is delivered Thursday afternoons.