Almost everyone loves to travel, but there is one solitary belief that distinguishes a traveler from the tourists: ‘It is always the people and their lives, not just monuments and views, that make a place memorable’. Various travel communities and associated websites and apps provide the platforms for the locals and visitors to meet and interact. One could choose to stay with a local host or just meet up to explore, have a meal, learn something, volunteer or attend events. Couchsurfing, AirBnb, BeWelcome and MovingWorlds are a few popular examples of such platforms. For solo travelers, the contrasting fulfillments in finding wisdom in solitude and friends in strangers remain the biggest takeaways.
In this unfortunately-not-so-ideal world, the female solo traveler has to have more preparation, courage and tenacity than their male counterparts. In my personal experience of hosting, meeting, hanging out and traveling with such women from different parts of the world, I have listened to scores of stories narrating both their delightful and harrowing travel experiences. In these interactions, I could also suggest to them a few alterations that could help them take back more cherished memories.
This article aims to provide – on top of the tips and advice you invariably need from experienced women travelers – a set of guidelines from the other side. As a man, this is my list of ten dos and don’ts for your next trip regarding interactions with people from other countries and cultures.
WHAT TO DO
Find Common Interests – When you are meeting a person for the first time and planning to spend time together, a spontaneous initial conversation is often the most incisive icebreaker. Sharing common interests not only makes this easier, it may also build an immediate sense of kinship. It helps both of you to feel relaxed, gain a different perspective on a topic close to your heart and move on to newer topics. It provides the perfect combination of soil and climatic conditions required for the seed of a new friendship to germinate. To conclude, even though you would want to meet people who think and do things differently to reap the best rewards of traveling, it is always nice to know of a couple of things that can fill up unexpected, awkward silences.
Learn and Teach – No, this is not about learning a skill. The greatest lessons in life are not learnt in classrooms or lectures, but finding inspiration in other people and wanting to emulate them. The more you interact and observe, the more likely it is for you to discover an impressive side of your new acquaintance. Question and probe further to absorb whatever you consider as a new learning. When the tables are turned, ensure you are not too eager to forcibly teach something in exchange to complete the loop. If you resist the temptation to sermonize, it provides the space and scope for the other person to find something they want to learn from you.
(Traditional cooking, regional movies with subtitles, sports and fitness are almost always effective if you are interested in acquiring a new skill or taste.)
Check Previous Feedback – This is of utmost importance, especially if you are looking for someone to host you. As a woman traveling alone, even though if you have prior experience staying with locals, this is something you must consider afresh, for every single stay; even more so if your host is of the opposite sex. Please note, staying only with women or families is a common piece of advice you will hear, but it neither guarantees safety nor fulfillment. Friendship and camaraderie are gender-less concepts.
Go through the profile descriptions of potential hosts and also look for feedback from previous guests matching your profile. Do not forget to confirm that the host is not only interested in hosting single women and there is a fair mix of guest profiles. Ask questions (location, accessibility, internet access, housemate/family situation, sleeping arrangements, etc.) and inform what your expectations are. Communicate clearly before the trip to understand what the host seeks by offering his house to travelers.
Remember, this is a very important juncture in your decision-making. It is easy to walk away from an unpleasant situation if you are meeting someone in public. But if you are staying at someone’s home, it is always better to seek clarifications before you arrive.
Research, then Ask – Assuming everything has turned out positively so far, it is time to get your questions about the destination answered. If you are someone who likes to go with the flow once you reach a place, you are all set. But if you like to have a little clarity (remember, the moment you have a daily, hour-by-hour itinerary to cover all 23 top attractions, you are back again in the tourist zone), do some basic research before asking for suggestions. ‘Can I cover all of Sultanmehmet in one day?’ is much better than ‘What should I do in Istanbul?’ ‘Which among the oldest restaurants in the Old City has the best Mutton Biryani?’ is easier to answer than ‘What to eat in Hyderabad?’
In today’s age of incessant information online, it will always help if you make it easier for the locals by doing some basic research first.
Give Importance to Vibes – When you are meeting someone for a few days, or planning a day or evening out in shared exploration, an instant connection goes a long way to make these experiences memorable. Go with your instinct and feel the vibes even if it is your initial exchange before your travel. One may not connect favorably when sharing time with even the nicest person and there is little time to settle in and open up. It is better to take a chance with someone who you feel a general positivity about over someone whose details and feedback look more impressive.
In the same vein, watch out for the negative vibes as well. Ensure there is clear, unambiguous communication in the beginning. Asking personal questions, talks of partying and good times, compliments on your display picture are some of the common signs of people who think of these platforms as dating apps. Worse, they also assume that is what you think as well. Watch out for these obvious signs.
WHAT NOT TO DO
Generalize – This is the most common impediment in making friends with someone from another culture or background. You, for example, do not fit the stereotype the rest of the world has about your kind. During travels, we meet different people who are unique and often contrasting, what if they share the same background. This is especially true if you have an unpleasant experience. It is unfair and hampers your own experience if you blame everyone in the town or country for that incident. You may have to teach yoga and explain what constitutes vegan food to your Indian host, who may know more about punk rock and European fashion labels than you do. The euphoria of traveling is revealed through these unexpected experiences. I had a guest from Chile who almost shed tears of joy when I brought up Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Close Yourself Out – While it is important to stay safe and draw limits, especially in a cross-gender experience, shutting off and being unapproachable is not the way to do it. It is also unfair on the local who keeps the home ready for you to bump into a cold shield. It kills all chances of a good experience for the both of you, and even the most gracious host would, given the chance, be glad to even pay for your bed in the nearest hostel instead. Any host would prefer a warm person with clear, straightforward communication to a polite, yet enveloped by airs, guest. While all of us love our views and beliefs, coming across as opinionated and closed to any counterpoint is an instant killjoy.
A willful culture and experience exchange with a hitherto unknown person can only start with an open mind. You can always step back and close out if it comes to that, but use this approach as a reaction-mechanism instead of at the first greeting.
Expect or Abuse Privilege – Talk to seasoned travelers about their experiences, or read references of your next host – you will always find astonishing stories of generosity. It is likely, especially if you are traveling to a completely different culture, to meet people who treat you with utmost kindness. Even if they genuinely feel privileged that you chose to stay with or meet them, do not start believing in it. And definitely, do not expect or demand the same special care from all your future hosts.
It is also normal to be overwhelmed by such unexpected treatment and you may not be able to know the reason why. Instead of skepticism, return such attention with gratitude, gracefulness and reciprocation. Helping in the household chores, paying for a meal, leaving a heartfelt note on a postcard, staying in touch even after your trip ends – there are many options.
Live the Same Life – If your only idea of fun during your travel is the same as what you do back at home, or what you did in an earlier trip elsewhere, you will invariably miss out on a lot of fun. You may not be able to technically start your day without your 6 AM run, but it is OK to leave the habit for a few days if the place you are visiting blooms fully at nights. A temporary departure towards dressing differently need not make you feel defeated, especially if it opens up a novel experience. I have had travelers accompanying me to musical performances in religious shrines that have fairly conservative dress codes for women, but none of them has talked about anything but the music, ambience and energy afterwards.
If you are completely inflexible about your normal routine, habits, food and relaxation, you could be making things complicated for your host and also end up with a less memorable visit.
Panic (Caution is OK) – Even before you have thought of the places you would include in your next trip, the warnings start pouring in. Family, friends, travel website users, the passenger next to you in the flight – they all warn you of the dangers lurking ahead. Media reports about foreign countries rarely make for pleasant reading: focused, as they are, to worsen already dire reputations. Staying safe is paramount and non-negotiable; you really do not need anyone’s input on that. But panicking often tends to unreasonably magnify visuals in the mind. And by continuing to panic often, one may be too ‘generally-stressed’ to register the gravity of a situation that actually requires one to act.
While it is sensible to not knowingly step into chaos and turmoil, every part of every country has enough open-minded people with kindness in their hearts and compassion in their thoughts. By doing your homework, paying heed to what the locals suggest and keeping your mind calm and senses alert, you can surely join the tribe of travelers who rejuvenate, replenish and rediscover themselves through travel.
AND, WHILE WE ALL WAIT…
As an unforeseen pandemic continues to topple normalcy and cripple life as we know and want it, its impact on the deeply affected Solo-Traveler escapes the discussion-radars. People who live on, work overtime, struggle, save money and wait to wander in unknown lands for months or years, financial implausibility and travel restrictions rob them of the purpose of living. Things stand more significantly solemn for the woman traveler, whose travels offer greater liberation, bigger learning and wider perspectives.
Nonetheless, this small community that has gladly traded roots for wings and luxury for endless miles with a backpack, continues to wait for their respective next destinations. When traveling is a bona fide vocation, social distancing is unacceptable and work from home is meaningless. Virtual travel meets, at most, offer solidarity. There is, and will be, no replacement for the joys in mysterious lands, kind strangers, exposure to the elements, unknown tastes and unforgettable stories.
“I am OK with home-quarantine,” said one nameless, nondescript traveler, “but the world is my home.”
(Written by Samarjit Acharjee who gives his advices as an expert host and an meet up events organizer in Hyderabad, India.)