Footloose: Why I Travel Alone

May 9, 2013

Culture, Outdoors

Andean condors (endangered) along Peruvian coast

Andean condors (endangered) along Peruvian coast

Ishama lioness, Queen Elizabeth Park, Uganda

Ishama lioness, Queen Elizabeth Park, Uganda

For the last nine winters I have taken a longish trip to somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, mostly on my own. I got started on my solo trips when I decided to go to South Africa, a country that fascinated me. I harbored some of the same fears that I hear so often from friends or acquaintances. Would I be safe? Would I get lonely, especially at dinnertime? But I think the unspoken fear is much deeper — will I be OK spending that much time with myself, in my own skin, with no work or constant companion to distract and comfort me when I feel sad, uneasy or just plain bored?

Yes, I have certainly felt bored, occasionally a bit lonely but luckily, in nine years, I have never really felt unsafe. I’ve learned keys to who can be trusted and when and have developed good street smarts by practicing them for years. I do take certain safety precautions like not being outside in dark areas but I have mostly felt safer at night traveling than I do in some parts of the Bay Area.

Traveling by oneself creates opportunities for adventure. There was my camping trip along the northern Peruvian coast with a famous wildlife photographer to see condors, the days I spent in a small village with an older Brazilian woman in Minas Gerais whom I met on the bus from Rio. Or the Moslem women in their family compound in Cape Town that called me into their homes on Christmas Day.

Goofing off in Giza

Goofing off in Giza

A woman traveling alone, especially one of a certain age, is sure to elicit sympathetic and curious responses from fellow travelers and locals. Invariably I am asked if I am married and have kids. When I say no and explain that is exactly the reason I can visit their country and spend money in their restaurant or guest house the reaction sometimes is wide-eyed wonder and even an occasional, “Oh I wish I could do that.” For most women in the countries I am visiting, traveling alone is never a financial option, unless they are going to take care of a sick or dying relative.

But for some women, especially the more adventurous, I have decided I am modeling what a woman traveling alone can look like. And what do I look like? I almost never fade into the woodwork, because of my skin color and status but also, perhaps mostly, because I am clearly and blissfully alone.

Verraux's eagle owl, Samburu National Park, Kenya

Verreaux’s eagle owl, Samburu National Park, Kenya










This piece also appeared as a KQED Perspective. To read more about Karen’s adventures, read her travel blog.

About Karen Hester

Karen Hester is a community activist and events coordinator who lives in North Oakland in Temescal Creek Cohousing. Her event productions website is She lives and breathes the fight to stop more billboards in Oakland and started

View all posts by Karen Hester

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