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A Woman Traveling Solo

How to Find Freedom and Friendship

By Kerry O’Brien

It is pure freedom. If I could bottle this feeling and sell it, I'd be a millionaire. I am 27 years old, single, and backpacking my way through South and Central America. It ignites my senses, it challenges my instincts, it renews my connections to my spirituality, and it is a daily reminder to me how many beautiful people and beautiful things exist on this earth.

Traveling alone opens you to the world. After a while, one soon realizes that it is not necessarily our nationalities that make our differences, it is the social conditioning that occurs in our national homes. We all have hearts, and traveling helps us to get to the point where interaction can occur at that level. Of course, language is the tool that we use to communicate, and it’s important to attempt to know the language of one's destination. But the key is not a mastery of the language but opening oneself to the culture around you. That said, I have included a few tips for solo women travelers who need an extra push to do it. I always follow these rules.

1. Don't be afraid to ask for help. The answers may not only steer you in the right direction but also give you the name of a friend to look for when you get there.

2. Do your research. Know the general lay of the land before you get to a city. Have at least two or three choices of where to stay. Establishing a home base is important.

3. Pay attention to the way a city feels from the minute you arrive. The way you react to a place in the first few moments will often determine the length of your stay there.

4. Don't be afraid to talk to people on your journey. I tend to shy away from Americans when I see them. I usually exchange the obligatory, "Where are you from?" "How long have you been here?" But we are all on a journey to discover the world and ourselves. We can talk to Americans in America. Talk to the locals, they love to talk to Americans and ask many questions.

5. Be flexible. Always consider that you could potentially be stranded in a place for a few days. And on the other hand, if you absolutely love it, stay longer.

6. Talk to the owners of hostels, restaurants, and cafes. They usually know the best places in the town.

7. Always have a back-up plan in your head in case something happens. The worst thing you can do while travel- ing is to lose your cool.

8. Insist on what you want, but don't use your Americanness to do so. If you want a window seat, say so. If you want the hotel to guard your bags as you walk around the city, ask.

9. Know when to rest. Traveling and planning requires a tremendous amount of energy, and while it is invigorating, your body will tell you when you need to cool it for a few days. Choose a town that doesn't contain many attractions, find a cheap and comfortable hotel, and just relax. Read, reflect, and be thankful.

10. Visit the town’s tourist office. You’ll find the best information about local hikes and natural attractions like hidden waterfalls and hot springs in the area.

11. Always follow your instincts. I always look at a room before I stay in it. If the place doesn't feel right, I leave. And I never make reservations for this reason. I need to get a feel for a place.

12. Travel light. Most things can be bought along the way. I always take lots of books and of course, a notebook and a pen.

13. Reconfirm dates and times on tickets. Ask the people around you, in bus stations, in cafes, on the street. And trust your instincts on whom to ask.

14. Know how to make a decision in a split second. I was once on a bus that was scheduled to leave the station in five minutes. Thinking I had enough time to use the bathroom in the bus terminal, I left my coat and bag on the bus, and went inside. When I came back out, I saw that my bus was halfway out of the parking lot (with all of my things). I went running after it, and the bus driver opened the door and off we went to San Martin de los Andes, Argentina.

15. Trust people. Others return as much trust as you give them. If you trust them to tell you the best places to visit, they'll tell you.

16. Be appreciative. Always show your gratitude and appreciation of the beauty around you.

17. Listen! I cannot stress how important this is. Listen to stories and try to understand how the locals feel. You will discover the most amazing things.

18. And last but not least, be open—open to experience the most unforgettable and mysterious time of your life.

KERRY A. O’BRIEN currently lives in Washington, DC.

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