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Ten Years of Women on the Road

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I was 30,000 feet above the Sahara when I saw her.

Plodding in the opposite direction, she had wild red hair and was bent over with the weight of a heavy backpack.

I blinked and looked again and she was gone.

She had been in my mind only. But she looked uncannily like me.

A life of constant travel

I began life as a traveler. At five weeks old my mother dragged me across Europe on the Orient Express to meet my father in Istanbul. At 15, I ran away from my then home in Spain to North Africa, to sip mint tea in the casbah while my father frantically searched for me – I was eventually found.

At university I graduated on a Friday. I began my job the Monday after.

No gap year for me.

Yet it gnawed at me, that missing bite at carefree living. The world traveler I had once been had become buried under promotions and paychecks and professional obligations. I became unfree.

Yet life was not bad – it just wasn’t spontaneous, or exciting, or challengingMy job paid me far more than I needed but put me to sleep. My relationship caused me more pain than joy and the prospect of being on my own kept looking better and better.

As I sat in my office watching the peacocks in the garden (yes, there were!) my mind would drift to places far beyond my window. With a casbah or temple or market tantalizingly within reach, my eyes would sparkle.

My restless soul was in search mode.

Until that day, flying back to Europe over the desert, I knew.

I knew what I had to do.

Fighting off the crazies

Leaving a life behind isn’t a simple thing, even if you’re relatively single.

My work colleagues thought I was crazy. After a decade in journalism, I had landed a coveted job at the United Nations in Geneva in which I could sit in until retirement. I’d never find work like that again, they warned.

My friends were critical or jealous and I could count those who congratulated my decision on the fingers of a hand.

My family was devastated, partly by worry but mostly because they would miss me. In the early 1990s, almost pre-Internet, most people didn’t have email, let alone cellphones or Skype.

But my biggest enemy was… ME. I was terrified. Deep down, I agreed with every single criticism others voiced. I’d never find a job again. I’d lose my friends. I’d be alone and hate it. My bus/plane/train would crash and I’d be raped/kidnapped/killed. Every one of these things would happen in quick succession and my family wouldn’t even know where to look for my body. I was in my mid-forties and was being utterly irresponsible. I was about to ruin my life.

So I did the only thing I could: I bought a one-way ticket to Cape Town.

I never wrote the book

For more than three years I traveled around Africa and Asia and Latin America, at first writing in my journal and for my friends, then freelancing and finally as a newspaper foreign correspondent.

I watched the sunrise over Great Zimbabwe, slept in a brothel in Malawi and tracked gorillas in Uganda. I ate lunch in a nuclear plant in the Baltics whose sell-by date had long passed, crept around to meet with dissidents in Cuba and barely dodged a coup in the Philippines.

And I (almost) never regretted it.

Not when I had to haul water a mile uphill in the heat of the Upper Zambezi just to cook dinner – or go hungry.

Not when I thought my life would end in a minefield in Mozambique or in a hut in the Amazon rainforest.

Not even when I confronted so much poverty and illness I thought my heart would break.

And when I finally came home to Geneva, it was almost by accident.

My sister-in-law was about to give birth and having missed her and my brother’s wedding, I thought I could at least show up for my only niece. A few health complications kept me from leaving (all was fine and my niece eventually emerged strong and healthy) and, as things happen, I stayed. And stayed. Geneva, the land of the $5-coffee, made sure I looked for work.

My days of roaming slid to a standstill. I found meaningful work in fighting AIDS, I finally met that special someone, and life – happened. But my nomadic ancestry would never allow me to sit still for very long.

For years during my travels I had taken notes and I hoped to compile them into a book. Instead, the Internet happened so perhaps, I thought, I could write a… web?

I had to learn all the complicated things that went with publishing a website, at a time when you couldn’t just head over to YouTube for a quick tutorial. I expanded my newsletter, which during my travels had been emailed home to my one friend with email. He then printed and stuffed it into envelopes, dispatching to my less technical acquaintances via snail mail. Surely it must be one of the oldest online travel newsletters in existence.

I learned that I had information other women wanted. Let’s not forget that back in late 2006, when this online adventure was being planned, women were barely a footnote in the mainstream travel guides, a short paragraph labeled “Women Travelers” with basic advice usually proposed by men. The number of solo female travel blogs would have fit into a Volkswagen Beetle.

Fast-forward to Women on the Road

That was just over ten years ago so yes, this is a birthday post.

Had I not taken the plunge and followed my soul to Africa, none of this would have happened.

I would not have launched Women on the Road, my work of passion.

I would have far fewer friends, since many of my best relationships were initiated and nurtured online.

My world would have been so much narrower. I would not have realized how fortunate I was or acknowledged the luxury of being able to make the decisions I made – and how much better off I was than 99% of the world. All of this was hugely humbling.

I would still be seeking a creative thread to follow, because I’m first and foremost a writer. What better way to be forced to write than by having to feed a blog?

I would have missed the deep satisfaction of sharing my travels with the thousands of women who have crossed my path and encouraging them to take that step and get out and see the world, even if they had no one to travel with.

I might even be a blue-rinse retiree, tending my garden and feeding my cats. Instead, at 64, I’m traipsing around the world, most recently to Kyrgyzstan and South Korea, and running this massive property Women on the Road has become. (And let’s face it, without WOTR, how could I possibly justify spending all that money on travel?)

Rather than slow down, I’m keeping on top of social media trends and emerging technology, researching discoveries and destinations and reaching out to hundreds of individuals a week, around the world. (And this from someone who still remembers the arrival of the electric typewriter, let alone the computer.) Of course that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the creaks and groans that come with “increasing maturity”…

I’d like to think the adventure is just beginning.

After a decade, Women on the Road remains my passion project. I may wander away periodically, but I always find my way back.

The joy of loving what you do is just being happy doing more of the same.

What do I do for an encore?

  • So far I’ve visited 82 countries. Let’s see – by UN count, that leaves another… 114. How about I just try to break 100? Or maybe return to all the ones I’ve already seen?
  • I’d still like to write that book, the one I never wrote because I built this website. Perhaps I should retrace my route from Cape to (almost) Cairo – I was stopped in my tracks by the war in Sudan – and contrast and compare? All I know is that I have a book in me.
  • I’d like to walk the Camino. And I just might offer it to myself as a 65th birthday present next year. Not the northern Camino but the route from the south, the Ruta de la Plata that starts in Seville. I won’t do it all – it takes more than two months – but I’d love to walk a month of it. All will depend on whether I need a foot operation for a condition that has now got me limping when I walk.
  • I’d like to visit a few dear friends scattered around the world: Maria in Cuba, Gigi in Mexico, Eamonn in Myanmar, Manuel in Argentina (there be penguins!) and I’d like to see my family more (my brother moved to the US five years ago).
  • I’d like to learn a few more languages – Turkish, my father’s language (if I weren’t so irate with that government I’d probably have started already); Thai (which I have spoken and forgotten but which sings to me); Russian, whose Cyrillic alphabet fascinates me and which I can read out loud – but not understand; and German, which I’ve started and stopped so many times.
  • And I’d still like to lose that weight I keep claiming is so recent.

While I plot and plan, all I can feel is a tremendous amount of gratitude for what I’ve been given, and for the hopes life allows me to nurture.

Like that redhead trudging across the desert with her backpack, I’m determined. I may not be certain of my destination, but I have no doubt at all about my direction.

That’s me on the road, looking very serious as I pretend to be able to see what’s on my screen without my glasses

 

40 Comments

  1. Gaelyn on June 6, 2017 at 9:16 pm

    Thank you. Perfect timing. I can identify with much of your herstory, even though it didn’t take me off the continent. Lately feeling in a slump. Must be time to plan a journey.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 6, 2017 at 9:18 pm

      Yesss! Planning a journey is the perfect antidote to… pretty much anything troubling!

  2. Heike on June 6, 2017 at 10:39 pm

    Would you love to have a companion on the Camino? Then call!
    Heike

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 7, 2017 at 9:52 pm

      How nice of you, Heike, thank you so much for asking! However I think I’m best cut out for solo travel on journeys like this one – but if I do end up going I’ll be updating a lot from the Camino on social media!

  3. Susan Moore on June 6, 2017 at 11:43 pm

    Bravo Leyla!!! What a wonderful journey you have been on so far! Best wishes to you as you continue to explore the world, reuniting with old friends and meeting new ones along the way. I hope we meet in person one day!

    Cheers,
    Susan

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 7, 2017 at 9:50 pm

      Thanks so much Susan, and congratulations on your life as a digital nomad! I love it that we’ve both been to Nigeria… I backpacked across the country for two months in the early 1990s, possibly one of my most adventurous trips. In all that time, I did not run into a single “backpacker” – although I did meet many Nigerians traveling around their own country. Like you, I love going to places that make others shake their heads!

  4. Laurie on June 7, 2017 at 12:22 am

    Congratulations on 10 years! Your travels have been amazing and may you have many more. It’s great to read your blog and know there are other mid 60 adventurous women like me still out exploring. So many blogs are written by twenty and thirty something women posing in their bikinis and looking glamorous. That is so not me and never has been! I’m sidelined for half of this year with the sad reality of our age bracket…a knee replacement. I will be hitting the road this fall however and there will be no stopping me! I look forward to another 10 years and more of “Women on the Road”.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 7, 2017 at 9:46 pm

      That’s the spirit! Yes, we have more setbacks now. I just spent the afternoon getting ultra-shocks (or whatever they’re called) for an ankle problem – one that might prevent me from walking the Camino for my 65th birthday. But I’m not giving up. I’m doing my exercises, going in for that ((*^*&)(!!) therapy twice a week and focusing on the positive – it will be fine and I will get to go. That said, if I posed in a bikini and tried to look glamorous I think that photo would go viral – so perhaps I should consider it!! 😉

  5. Judy Robinson on June 7, 2017 at 1:03 am

    You have always inspired me! I have been all over western Canada whilst still raising my children who are now launched have children of their own. Now I want to see more and am slowly letting go of belongings that are really just as my friend Joyce says Chatchka!
    The unrest in the world is disconcerting but there are still places here and in the south that call to me . I have a friend in Thailand and he says “Come on over! I am thinking seriously of applying for a ESL international teacher position. Little bit of document work but could be an adventure!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 7, 2017 at 9:43 pm

      Thailand is one of my favorite countries in the world, at every level. It’s not too late… as long as you’re able to get from A to B you can travel and as we get older, we appreciate what we see so much more because unlike at 20, we can never be sure we’ll be able to visit again and again…

  6. Mary Catherine on June 7, 2017 at 2:13 am

    Really enjoyed your “birthday” post, and reading about your travels and discoveries. I came late to travelling, aided and abetted by my niece about 7 years ago, in my mid-fifties. My daughter is a world traveller, and between her blogs and stories and my niece’s, I caught some of the “bug”. Just wanted to say it is hugely encouraging and reassuring to know there’s someone out there in her 60’s whose blogs will inspire many of us of the same vintage.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 7, 2017 at 9:42 pm

      Thanks Mary – and there are so many of us! One of these days I’ll pull together a post with a list!

  7. Natascha (WESTWARDS) on June 7, 2017 at 9:56 am

    Wonderful post! Wish you all the best for the future and safe travels.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 7, 2017 at 9:40 pm

      Thanks Natascha!

  8. Dyanne on June 7, 2017 at 3:51 pm

    Congratulations – quite the saga! And yes, yes, I DO think you have quite the hefty book in your head.

    It seems we’ve led somewhat parallel vagabond lives. Indeed, I had one of those handful of “solo female travel blogs [that] would have fit into a Volkswagen Beetle” back in 2004 when I backpacked solo across South Africa and Mozambique. I blogged continuously (well, whenever I could unearth a thin tendril of digital juice at a rare internet cafe) on a then nascent online travel blog platform called travelpod.com. Ironically, just this year I got a notice that Travelpod is finally closing its digital doors after 20 years, and they kindly offered to package up my early blogs (South Africa, Morocco, Bali and Egypt) into a neat zip file which I plan to incorporate into my current WordPress blog at TravelnLass.

    I’m sure you have many more adventures ahead – love your “bucket list”. Proof positive that we dodderin’s are not slowin’ down any time soon! 😉

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 7, 2017 at 9:40 pm

      No slowing in sight at all! Ahh, those old platforms. Just the other day I was remembering my very first email address, the one I first used in Africa… 1013303213@compuserve.com – we were mere numbers then! Love that you’ve been around even longer than me – what an elite club!

  9. Lisa Carnicom on June 7, 2017 at 4:12 pm

    Leyla, I’m ridiculously glad I got to meet you in Bocas del Toro. I have enjoyed and gained so much from Women On The Road since 2007. Now, in this anniversary piece, I love how you express that redhead’s spirit of determination, and her current vision of what maturity can look like. You are so inspiring, bright, compassionate, and a helluva writer. Thank you… thank you… thank you….

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 7, 2017 at 9:38 pm

      Thank you Lisa – I love that you’re still hanging around WOTR and always participating meaningfully!

  10. Ijana Loss on June 7, 2017 at 11:02 pm

    Hello, new reader here! Love love love this website! I’m gonna start reading through your past posts! 😀

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 8, 2017 at 8:19 pm

      Now THAT made my day!

  11. Adam on June 9, 2017 at 12:25 am

    Congrats on a big anniversary. Your journalistic experience shows, as your articles are all well-written. Best wishes for another 10 amazing years!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 19, 2017 at 9:24 pm

      Hah – thanks Adam, although as a blogger I don’t have an editor hanging over my shoulder – and I’m the worse for it LOL!

  12. Sarah Marco on June 10, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    I love this woman on the road! So inspirational! I recently did my first solo trip and how freeing it was! Will be celebrating my 50th next year and am already planning my next one! All this has happened since I found your website! So thank you!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 19, 2017 at 9:23 pm

      That’s wonderful to hear Sarah, thanks so much! Sometimes all we need is a nudge and the belief that we, too, can do it!

  13. Elinor Warkentin on June 13, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    What a great read! Inspiring and entertaining. Hindsight makes a good travel guide but we can’t tell the future so I believe it’s so important to follow our values and not our fears. You set a great example. Thanks for continuing to inspire.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 19, 2017 at 9:22 pm

      Wonderful words, Elinor… Of course the fears will always come along for the ride but as Elizabeth Gilbert would say, they can sit in the passenger seat but they won’t be allowed to drive!

  14. Ali on June 19, 2017 at 9:14 pm

    I’m always so fascinated to hear/read stories about your life. You’ve done some amazing things over the years! Congrats on 10 years of your wonderful blog, I look forward to more adventures!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 19, 2017 at 9:21 pm

      Thanks Ali – and I hope to do many more, as you say!!

  15. Anne Betts on June 21, 2017 at 1:25 pm

    Congratulations on such a significant milestone. I’ve been an avid reader for years, first attracted by your writing style and socially conscious approach to travel. I’ll look forward to the next ten years, and following your adventures on the Camino.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 27, 2017 at 9:54 pm

      Thank you so much, Anne – and fingers crossed for the Camino!!

  16. Jennifer on June 21, 2017 at 10:22 pm

    I met a kind lady in a hostel once while traveling a few months back. We were having a long conversation about all sorts of things and the one thing I distinctly remember is when she said “I think it’s a really good idea to be brave.”

    Thank you for being brave. You and your writing are inspirations to others. I really appreciate this article.
    Cheers, xo

    Jenn

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 27, 2017 at 9:53 pm

      If brave means doing things even when you’re dead scared, then I qualify! :-)) Thank you for the lovely words!

  17. Talek Nantes on June 21, 2017 at 11:23 pm

    Hi. I’m new here. I saw so much of myself in your descriptions. You really touched me. Thank you and congratulations on your 10th anniversary.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 27, 2017 at 9:53 pm

      I can see that from your own writing 🙂 Traveler born and bred!

  18. Andrea on July 1, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    Congrats on all your success … hope the next decade is just as amazing!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 3, 2017 at 10:47 pm

      I hope so too – I have so many plans!

  19. Jaye on July 13, 2017 at 7:08 am

    I’m a mom of 5, the last one will be a Senior this coming year, then onward toward a new journey for me. I can’t wait to start traveling and fulfilling whatever my destiny is from here on out. You are a wonderful inspiration. Thank you so much for paving the way for us soon to be newbies. In the planning and preparing season for now.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 3, 2017 at 10:45 pm

      Sounds like there’s so much excitement ahead for you!

  20. Zascha on August 19, 2017 at 10:25 pm

    Amazing journey Leyla!! It’s so nice that you took that chance and decided to do what you like and it’s a rather impressive story, best wishes for you, I can’t wait to read your next story!

  21. Teresa richards on September 11, 2017 at 4:52 am

    Very critical but nice life experience. your experience gives me much inspiration. thanks Leyla for sharing your experiences.

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