It was 108 degrees and I had been wandering all day.
I was alone, starving, and had no idea how to get back to my campsite. My passport, phone, cash, and credit cards were gone. I’d just been robbed at Kumbh Mela — ironically, an occasion for pilgrims to bathe away their sins in the holy river at the foothills of the Himalayas.
Kumbh Mela, which takes place every twelve years, has been dubbed “the largest human gathering on the planet.” Pilgrims come from all over to meet their guru, smoke ritual charras, chant holy mantras, and eat prasad (blessed food). The sheer number of people (millions) who participate is astounding, and the more time I spent there, the more claustrophobic I became.
The final bathing day is the most important day of the festival and I was anxious to photograph as many areas as possible. There were thousands of people on the bridge, all pushing to get to the main bathing site along the banks of the Ganges. The noise was deafening, and the mood turned violent.
Amidst the chaos, I held my camera over my head to protect it from being smashed. I looked down and saw that my purse was halfway unzipped. I felt a rush of panic rise in my chest as I put my hand inside and found that my wallet and phone were gone.
I knew all the safety issues, yet I was still in shock that this had happened to me, a seasoned world traveler. There were no tourists anywhere, and the majority of people did not speak English. The police were absolutely useless. I was on my own. And I have never been more acutely aware of my sex.
Traveling solo as a female is challenging, but absolutely worth it. Why? Because when you’re the one making all the decisions, handling all the problems, and taking all the responsibility, you learn so much about yourself: your strengths and limitations, your morals and ethics, and your capacity to soldier on no matter what.
My journeys — especially ones I’ve undertaken alone — have helped me figure out who I am as a traveler, a photographer, and a woman. But there are plenty of lessons I’ve learned along the way. Here’s hoping you can benefit from my experience and learn from some of my mistakes:
Ease into it. If you’re new to solo travel, volunteering is a great place to start. It helps you get your bearings in a new place, while providing a community of people you can trust and share your experiences with and can lend meaning, depth, and perspective to your travels, while allowing you to give back to people in need. Group travel is another good jumping off point. It makes it easy to make new friends, and, because the tour company handles all of the details, it’s relatively hassle-free. You’ll also benefit from experts who can guide you through each experience and locale. In fact, I’ve had so many positive group travel experiences that I’ve made a profession of it!
Embrace being alone, but find ways to combat loneliness. Traveling solo for long stretches can be challenging. It’s not uncommon for folks to feel depressed or lose interest in continuing their travels altogether. It’s natural, and will pass. Stay in smaller hostels and hotels to ensure you have more contact with other travelers. Keep up your routines. If cooking centers you, try to stay somewhere with a kitchen. Write in your journal or listen to your iPod. Know when to treat yourself: Get a massage, attend a sporting event, or take yourself out to a nice dinner. Keep in touch with everyone you miss via Skype, Facebook, Twitter — pick your poison — or start your own travel blog. But, most importantly, learn to enjoy your own company!
Take calculated risks. Safety should be your top priority while traveling alone — and women often have to take special care to protect themselves. That being said, travel can be an empowering, even transformative, experience, and you shouldn’t rob yourself of that sense of adventure. Research your destination before you leave and make notes about cultural dos and don’ts. The goal is to blend into, not stand out from, the crowd. Bring a whistle, buy a pocketknife, wear a wedding ring — whatever makes you feel more safe, wherever you are. We’ve all heard about women who have gone missing or have been found dead while traveling alone. While these stories are unsettling and often tragic, I refuse to let them stop me from doing what I love.
Consider the camera factor. Being a female travel photographer means I take on additional risk when I’m alone. Wearing a big, heavy, expensive camera around your neck and a mess of gear on your back can bring unwanted attention. But for me, more often than not, the advantages far outweigh the risks. I am always amazed at the reaction I get from strangers and how kind everyone is to me. I’ve been given opportunities to photograph amazing places and unique situations; I’ve also been invited into people’s homes. Even with a language barrier, a simple smile can often get me in the door. If people feel comfortable around you, they are more likely to let you in photographically. Figure out how you fit in, wait for the magic moment and shoot!
Sometimes one decision can change your whole life, and for me, it was solo travel. Traveling on my own has helped me grow into myself, and has transformed me into a person I didn’t realize I wanted to become. Be bold, be smart, and be safe. But go.
Photojournalist Jill Schneider teaches travel photography to high school students — a gig that has taken her to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Ecuador — as a National Geographic Student Expeditions trip leader.