Interview with solo traveler, Leyla Giray
Leyla Giray left her job and life at the age of 43 to backpack solo for six months in Africa. She was gone for more than three years, returning home after two dozen countries on four continents. Here she shares her perspectives on solo travel.
Why did you decide to take a major trip in mid-life and mid-career?
It’s something I had to do. I didn’t go backpacking after college, like so many of my contemporaries, so in a way it was my turn. It was also timing: nothing major was happening in my life so it was a good time to go, a great excuse, in fact. Maybe you’ve felt that before – that something is inevitable and that you almost have no choice? That’s what I felt.
How hard was it to leave everything behind?
It was a lot easier for me than for the people I left behind. My mother was getting older and my family wondered whether they’d ever see me again. My friends were in turn scared, awed or jealous, sometimes all three at once. My employers were stunned and convinced of my utter insanity. I have to say that when I stepped onto that first flight to Cape Town I had never, ever felt so free.
Were you afraid?
I was petrified! A big part of me was pushing me to stay but I just couldn’t. The pull was stronger. I did plenty of research so I felt I wouldn’t be traveling completely in the dark. I took self-defence courses, not that I’d use them but they helped me feel better about my body and my strength. I got introductions to friends of friends – remember, this was pre-Internet and pre-couchsurfing. And most of all, I knew that if I didn’t go I’d regret it for the rest of my life.
We hear of murders overseas of women who have traveled solo. How dangerous is it really?
You know, the media – and I speak as a former journalist – have a way of focusing on the most sensational stories. So when something does happen, that’s all anyone talks about and the story, however sad, gets blown utterly out of proportion. Yet statistically you have a greater chance of being raped, robbed or murdered at home. Really, you do. And a vast majority of violent crimes against women are committed by family members or people they know. So no, I don’t think solo travel is dangerous, no more dangerous than any other kind of travel and in fact no more dangerous than staying at home.
How do you decide what to take on your travels?
When it comes to clothes, find out what women wear at your destination. This won’t always be the case but often you’ll benefit from wearing local clothing. In Bangladesh I wore a salwar khameez the whole time – it made me look thinner but was also a lot cooler than more constricting Western clothing. The same in Myanmar, where I wore the local longgyi (although no one told me I’d chosen one for a man rather than a woman – the Burmese are far too polite). I also never leave without my trusty rubber doorstop, a simple item that’ll prevent anyone from entering your hotel room uninvited.
What is a favorite memory from your travels?
There are so many! I once met a Ugandan gentleman who sewed on a street corner for a living. I had fallen and torn my trousers so I took them to him for repair. When I picked them up, he shook a finger at me and said: “You know, Madam, it is not a good idea to leave your money in your pocket.” I checked and sure enough my forgotten $500 stash was in my hidden pocket. It would have been enough to keep this tailor and his family fed for many months. He could have easily taken it and I wouldn’t have known the difference.
What is your top tip for baby boomer women who want to travel solo?
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you to stay home – not if you really want to travel. And especially don’t listen to anyone who mentions the word ‘age’. Remember, I was in my mid-forties when I took my big trip and along the way I met people of all ages, from 17-year-olds to travelers over 80. Remember Dervla Murphy, the Irish writer who has traveled solo well into her eighties and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Was it worth it?
It was a transformative experience, absolutely the most important thing I’ve ever done for myself. It taught me self-confidence and made me see I could go anywhere and do anything, however different the culture. By the time my trip was ending I was ready to get back into my ‘other’ life with a vengeance. I was energized, hopeful, optimistic and hungry for the future. I was grateful for everything I had ahead of me, and grateful for what had just passed. I felt like the luckiest woman alive.
If you’ve ever thought of traveling independently, Leyla’s new travel book for baby boomer women, Women on the Road, will demystify solo travel for you and get you on your way.
Photos courtesy of Leyla Giray