We’re joined by a very special guest author – Valerie Singleton!
My friends have always been surprised that I like to travel on my own. Some of them say they would never dare to and think I am incredibly brave.
But I’m reminded of a friend who was on holiday in Barbados and had heard it was a bit dodgy travelling alone in some of the more remote parts of the island. She’d hired a car and wasn’t entirely happy with it, but was told another wouldn’t be available for a couple of days. She set off to explore anyway and before long realised she was being followed. Trying to get away she went faster – twisting and turning – but it made no difference.
The man in the car was still behind her. Getting more and more nervous she finally slammed on her brakes outside a small country house and was about to rush up the path for help when the other car pulled up behind her. “I’ve been following you for miles,” the driver called out. “We’ve got this replacement car for you sooner than expected.”
I think this demonstrates that the tales of horror one sometimes hears about a country and travelling by oneself are often much worse than the reality. I’ve driven around Barbados in an open sided jeep and apart from getting very wet when it rained, I never felt in the least bit scared. There will always be someone to warn you of the perils of a particular destination, but let’s face it, I am just as likely, or unlikely, to be mugged in London as I am in a foreign land.
I’ve made many journeys on my own, occasionally with a tour group but mostly making my own plans and arrangements, often hiring a car, as I like to explore off the beaten track. Looking back on some of my trips I wonder how I dared to be so enterprising, but I’ve had some wonderful adventures!
Perhaps selfishly I like, ‘doing my own thing’ and get talking to people – especially local people – in a way I never would if I was travelling with a companion. (Note: if you like doing your own thing, take our solo traveller quiz to find a destination to suit you)
Taking simple precautions
But I do think it’s wise to take some simple precautions. I try and wear appropriate clothes for the country I’m visiting. I’m surprised at how thoughtless some tourists can be in brief shorts and revealing tops when it is obviously offensive to the local culture. Travelling in one African country I got it wrong and thought it was my arms I was meant to cover. In fact it was my bare knees that caused consternation amongst the restaurant staff. I didn’t make that mistake again! Now I read up on the country’s customs and familiarise myself with a few words of the language. English is pretty wide spread but it’s not always spoken and making an attempt, no matter how bad my pronunciation, gives people a laugh and is usually appreciated.
I always ask in my hotel for advice on areas to avoid. I never wear expensive jewellery or flash a Rolex watch (I don’t have one to flash anyway!) or weigh myself down with valuable camera gear. My purse isn’t crammed with all my money and I try to put it somewhere on my body that is a little inaccessible.
I do have an old wallet which is stuffed full of out of date credit cards and notes that are no longer in use or perhaps from a different country. It looks like the real thing and hopefully would fool a mugger while I made my escape.
In St Petersburg, on an architectural trip, one of our group was wearing a ‘bum bag’ at the front, thinking it would be safer. Some young Russians surrounded her selling trinkets. “I’m not interested,” she said, pushing them away. In no more than a few seconds they were gone and so was her purse, leaving only a gaping zip. Practised thieves can be as good as magicians.
I’ve found it isn’t only in busy areas that one can be pickpocketed. The very few times it has happened, or nearly happened to me, or other people I’m with, it has been in almost deserted streets – sometime in as short a time as walking from the bus across the pavement to the restaurant. So it’s sensible to always be a little on one’s guard.
One thing does make me very cross as a lone traveller and that is paying the price for two for my accommodation and then being given a cupboard to sleep in. It has happened, though I’m very happy to pay extra if my room is spacious enough for two. Travelling solo but this time with a tour group to Egypt, I came out one morning from my pokey room overlooking a back wall and the generator in our Cairo hotel, to hear a married couple in my party talking about their glorious view over the Nile River. I asked if I might take a look. The view was stunning and I went straight down to reception to request a similar room. I got it too!
Dinner for one
I do find being alone in rather upmarket hotels can be difficult sometimes. Especially when it comes to dining in the evenings. I feel uncomfortable being surrounded by families and honeymooners and with the lighting so low that taking refuge in a book is impossible.
In some countries women on their own can be a little unsettling for the local men. A few years ago on holiday in a lovely hotel in Tunisia I turned up for dinner to have the maître d’ demand in French, “you are alone?” When I replied I was, looking horrified he relayed, “she is alone” to the next waiter and soon cries of “she is alone… oh mon dieu” echoed from waiter to waiter around the vast restaurant. Not the best way to make your guests feel welcome, but tables for singles just didn’t exist. Puce with embarrassment I was seated eventually with a fun crowd of Americans. There were other tables where I might not have been so lucky.
To avoid these kinds of incidents I now choose my resort and hotel carefully, somewhere simpler and less expensive. If I eat out in local cafés or restaurants I arrive either early or late so there is likely to be a table, rather than risk being turned away.
Sometimes the hotel dining staff, concerned about my solitary status, try to find people for me to join. As one of the joys of travelling by myself is that I can read my book while I eat, I have to be firm and always politely say, “I am very happy to mingle with other guests over coffee but prefer to dine alone.” It can be done. But only of course if you want to eat on your own. Many single travellers love to join up with others and so do I, but when the choice of companions is mine.
My father considered reading a book at meal times very bad manners and he was probably right. But it is a delicious luxury.
Travelling about I rely very much on my gut instinct when I get into conversation with strangers and so far it has worked…almost. There was one time when I was perhaps a little naive. Driving up the awesome Highway 1 in California, I pulled on to one of the scenic lay-bys overlooking the ocean. There was just one other car there and I went across to ask the driver, a man, if he knew what time Hearst Castle opened. As I approached the car I saw he was quite breathtakingly handsome. But he couldn’t help and I drove off.
A few miles further on, realising I’d missed the entrance to the Castle I turned into a side road to reverse back. To my surprise the handsome man pulled in behind me and announced he was “coming with me.” Goodness, had he thought my question about opening times was a ploy to pick him
up? I decided not to wait and find out. I put my foot down, roared off and lost him.
But I have to admit that just for a moment – it was tempting.