Sophie Campbell



On the road – the female take

May 22, 2012

This story on solo female travel ran in The Observer in 2002. I’m startled, all these years on, to realise what a wuss I was. Can’t think of anything nicer now than travelling alone. 

“Er, Safi?” said Nasim for the umpteenth time that day, “why you this why you not married you?”. He gave a tug at the nose peg and our camel gave a loud belch. I began to explain again – first generation of mass working women, blah blah, fulfilling career, blah blah, haven’t found the right bloke yet, blah blah – and lapsed into silence.

After all, why me this why me not married me?

As I lurched through the muffled grey landscape of the Thar Desert, mulling over the small ad that I might put in the Jaisalmer Gazette (“English-educated woman, 31, BA Hons, unaccountably passed over, bride price negotiable, caste no bar”), I also thought that had I been married, I wouldn’t have been sharing a camel with Nasim.

I wouldn’t have heard about his own plans to marry in six years’ time – once he’d saved up enough – or about his life taking tourists across Rajasthan on camels. I might not have joined up with Pete and Cathy, deeply serious Americans who had left the Mid-West for the first time ever, arrived in Varanasi and gone into shock (their bedtime trek reading was a book on Eastern philosophy and the polytheistic religions of India).

And I certainly wouldn’t have snogged Fabrice, with his heart-stopping smile, under a harvest moon on the golden walls of Jaisalmer, and ridden off on my camel wearing his scarf, bought for me in the bazaar, like a knight and a maiden in reverse.

Nine years on and many trips later, I have to be honest and say that, given the choice, I probably wouldn’t travel alone. I’m a world-class worrier (plane crashes, mad axemen, sunburn), not one of those women who stride the earth without a care in the world. I often want someone to talk to, though not the sort who invite themselves to join me at my hotel dining table, and I HATE being hissed at by men in souks.

But I’m so glad that I do it. I almost always travel alone for work and for fun I have done bus and train trips, walking, cross country skiing and gap year travelling on my own. Without a shadow of a doubt you meet more people, absorb more, remember more and perhaps get to grips with a country more than when you are in company.

The magical times include Japan – where I have rarely felt safer – being steered into the right side of the public baths by amused attendants and indulged when I turned up in the hotel dining room wearing the toilet slippers (red plastic with “WC” emblazoned on each foot). They include walking through the fairy chimneys of Cappadoccia, in Turkey, during a glorious autumn; a day spent with women in a private home in Yemen (they made me wear their wedding dresses and screamed with laughter from beginning to end); many happy times alone in New York; and turning up at The Danieli in Venice, spinning out one £12 champagne cocktail all evening, and being treated like a queen.

When women say to me – as they often do – that they loathe eating on their own in public places, I think it’s a pity. I watch people avidly when I eat on my own. I come to wild conclusions about their lives and relationships, try to work out where they’re from or what they do. I don’t get wound up about being seated at a lousy table – as long as it’s not actually in the loo – because it allows me to read, write and stare unobserved.

Once I was on a work trip to Quebec, eating dinner in a grand hotel with a group of people, two of whom were drunk and rude to the Quebecois and embarrassing to be with. In the corner a woman was sitting with her food, a glass of white wine and a book, in perfect, self-contained peace, and I remember feeling the purest envy.

On the road, I feel strongly about telling silly stories to explain why you are travelling alone or wearing a fake wedding ring; it’s patronising and can get you into even more trouble. A wedding ring in most cultures means that you are sexually experienced and should not be travelling without the protection of a male relative. I reckon that honesty is the best policy, though often cultural differences make things very difficult to explain.

Then there are those days when something goes wrong and you feel painfully alone; and a tiny knife tip of failure intrudes into your sense of well-being. Being on your own seems sad, instead of brave, and other travellers avoid you like a wallflower at a party.

I took a bus across the northern part Java once, thinking that the route would be a well-trodden part of the despised Asia Trail. It wasn’t and I spent a night in a hotel with men tapping hopefully on the door and hissing when I went out. I fled on a train to Solo, in tourist country, and a female vendor started hitting my head with her tray and telling jokes to the rest of the carriage. I ended up in tears and she was hustled off the train.

It is rare, though, that a problem comes from a woman, unless they think that you are playing fast and loose with their men. In 99% of cases, women are the ones to turn to for advice or help, but they are also the ones who most bitterly resent Western women wearing revealing clothes or flirting with local males. It’s worth remembering that we are generally seen as a cross between Jezebel and Kim Basinger in 9½ Weeks, and that travelling alone, unmarried and without children, can be seen as an overt threat.

At the same time, people are often extraordinarily kind and protective. I managed to get into China without a visa – don’t ask, it was a genuine mistake – with the help of two male guards at the airport, who asked nothing for their efforts but my autograph. I have often had women advise me against certain hotels or shout at men on my behalf, and people who have nothing have offered me everything, including food and a roof.

So, if you’ve never done it before, I would say go for it. Work out your parameters and travel accordingly; if you don’t want to be entirely alone, choose a busy route and meet people; if you’re worried about security, take taxis at night and pay more for your hotels; if you’re really not sure about it, start with something safe, like a language course based in one place. I’ve found that trouble usually comes when you are feeling nervous and out of control, which can sometimes be avoided by careful planning – and luck.

Meanwhile, it was never to be with Fabrice. We wrote, but he was in Paris and I was in London and eventually I wrote to say it wouldn’t work, but that I would always think of him with a smile on my face. Except I put “souris” instead of “sourire”. The letter said “I will always think of you with a mouse on my face”. And I never heard back.

This why me this why me not married me.

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Sophie Campbell

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