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 challenging. My 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 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.