Joys and Hazards of Traveling Alone

by Kenita Gibbins

We as women can prevail in the big, wide, wonderful world by ourselves. We just have to follow a few rules.

As photographers we know we must chase the light early and late in the day. I’ve heard more than once “Do Not go out into the dark”. Grr! The environment determines how brave I am – not people.

But I do take sensible precautions.

  • In Krakow, Poland I told the hotel clerk where I planned to go, and when I expected to return. I made an appointment with my friends for a specific time and place at the end of the day.
  • I always have a cell phone armed with the capability of making internationals calls. I tend to get side-tracked and follow narrow paths, so it is important to remember the rule of not traveling with sparkling jewelry. I only wear my simple wedding band. In Poland a wedding band on your left hand means you are a widow. Of course I’m not a widow. A ring just might be a sign not to attack.
  • I don’t carry a great deal of money. I do have a safety bag with a steel band under the strap. I always have a hotel card with a phone number and address. My camera is probably more vulnerable to abduction than my body. I quit trying to carry my Nikon D700, heavy lenses and a tripod on my urban trips. I will lug the big equipment if I’m on a domestic driving trip with my husband George. (He doesn’t like long airplane rides across the pond.)

I love taking people pictures, and I always ask for permission. I can do this in any language: I just point to the person, then my camera, and smile. The potential model is more likely than not to give me permission to take the picture. I will engage in conversation when possible. You simply can’t do this when traveling with a group which is the main reason I like to go off on my own.

Kenita in Fishing Village
Kenita, camera in hand, explores a fishing village. photo by Shelia Wertheimer

It is fun to photograph my neighborhood in Denver, Colorado. The night of the blue moon provided the perfect night to go to Fairmount Cemetery. I asked a friend to come with me because sometimes you need a partner, in the dark, in a cemetery. No, you can’t go into that cemetery at night without tickets for their Historical Society fund raiser. You can go anywhere you want on the grounds without other photographers.

When I photograph children, I always show them their image. People of all ages love it when you share. I will send them a copy of the image if they have an email address. I won’t say or promise something that I can’t do. We are the voice of our country when we travel out of our borders.

My students in Poland always like it when I turn my camera or computer over to them. No child has ever betrayed my trust. They are very careful. Yes, I go to Poland by myself and I always have a purpose like teaching English in rural schools. On these trips, I stay in a safe environment with other Global Volunteers. I’m never afraid to wander in a nearby village or on the country roads. I always tell someone which direction I’m going. It is just good manners not to mention safety.

Once I left a group of Methodists in S. Korea and flew to Osaka, Japan. I stayed in a hotel near the train station. I did my research and made my reservations before I left home. The next morning I got help to get a train ticket to Kyoto. I have no Japanese words, just my pointing and smiling skill. Although many Japanese speak English, they just don’t like to use English if they think their words aren’t perfect. The hotel made city tour reservations for me. The night I went to see the Japanese cultural show and a tour of the Gion district I was adopted by a family of three from Australia.

I’ve observed and experienced that citizens of different countries will go out of their way to visit with a person by herself. The extra plus is I learn more about their lives and feel safer walking back to my hotel. The following day I took a train to Nara. After the tour I still had time to wander back in Kyoto. I walked and walked and found a preschool. No one seemed to mind as I clicked and clicked while the tiny children played and marched around the playground. I doubt if I could have done this in the USA because of so many safety rules for children.

My train ride to Tokyo went quickly. I didn’t talk with the lady sitting next to me because of the language difference plus knowing not all people are as outgoing as I. She smiled and gave me a little umbrella when we parted. I felt honored.

This trip I listened to advice from my friend in Tokyo before leaving for Asia. He said only bring small suitcases. There is little room on the very modern trains and the sidewalks of Tokyo are way too crowded to struggle with much luggage.

Arif and I have been friends for seven years. My daughter-in-law and I met him in Venice, Italy on a photography trip. He is a US citizen from Pakistan, living in Tokyo. He and his beautiful wife Ayako were waiting for me when I arrived at my hotel. They spent two and a half glorious days with me. We photographed weddings all over the city and saw little hidden areas of quiet places. Ayako isn’t a photographer, but she was skilled at pointing out good photo opportunities for Arif and me.

George and I have a place in the Colorado mountains. I can go out by myself and find marvelous creatures. One pronghorn came very close to me. We had seen each other several days in a row. When she approached I didn’t move. She made mew sounds. I felt like she wanted to tell me something. We talked softly with each other a long time – maybe less than three minutes. A couple of days later I saw her with a baby. I like to think we were talking “woman to woman.”

In India I spent two weeks with a photography group. I do like group photography trips because the leaders can get me to places I can’t go by myself. I don’t like to go on any other kind of group tour for the most part. The leaders just don’t get that noontime is lousy to finally say go take pictures.

My Indian friend told me again, “Do Not Go Out Alone”. I said to myself, “Susan, what is a female to do with the dawn about to break?” I did always tell the hotel front desk person good-bye whenever I went out alone. I knew exactly where I wanted to go. Asians are early risers. I saw many people out running.

As “Ms. Directionally Challenged” I did get confused once in the dim light. The people selling coffee at a little shack didn’t look like English speakers. I couldn’t believe my eyes. In front of me stood a police station. I went in and explained where I wanted to go. I came out of the station with simple instructions. I even found a fisherman who invited me to sit down and watch the men fishing with the Chinese net. The nets were first brought to India 900 years ago by an explorer. He explained the entire procedure to me. I’m so lucky, but I also give myself opportunities.

I did not go out by myself in Trivandrum, the capital of the state of Kerala, India. My friend Susan engaged a guide for me. Sashu spent six full days as my guide, driver, and protector, and I grew to like him as a friend. He probably didn’t think of me that way because of the caste system. I did pay him daily. He was so worth the little pay that he requested.

As brave as I may sound, my husband, children and friends know my daily itinerary. I check in by phone or email regularly. Before I leave our country, I register with my government. This precaution brings me emails that tell about a crisis or potentially relevant news. When I was in Warsaw President Obama was there also. I knew where demonstrations were happening. I have many phone numbers typed on paper and in my phone data base. I know where U.S. embassies are located in each country. I didn’t start out traveling alone when I first became an adventurer. I gained experience, many friends around the world, and I have grown in my confidence. George has never told me “don’t go.” I wish he too had the wanderlust. I come home and I’m glad he is always waiting for me.

Remember, as women we can have wonderful times by ourselves. We can prevail in the world of travelers with joy.