“Wow! Lara, huh? That’s an unusual name. Where did it come from?”
As the driver pulled up, he didn’t get out of the car to help me with my bags. Slightly annoyed, I opened the trunk and threw in my pack. I was in the middle of two days of travel on my way to Peru. More importantly, I was pre-coffee, which meant that no one should be talking to me. For their own sake.
I climbed into the back of the car. In the driver’s seat was an overweight man, probably in his mid-60s with grey hair and stubble framing his face. He looked like a classic Texan, worn jeans with holes and grease stains, suspenders tightly clinging to his belly and a grey t-shirt. His eyes look back at me through the rearview mirror.
I looked back at him in the mirror. “Have you ever seen the movie Dr. Zhivago? That’s where my parents first heard the name.”
“So it wasn’t just a misspelling, huh?” He chuckles. “Where are you headed?”
“I’m on my way to Peru. I had a layover in Dallas and I’m back at it today.”
“Peru! Wow. You must be an adventurous woman. You remind me of my daughter. She took a year after college and saved up to go and travel Asia. She spent three years over there! It was impressive to watch her take great care in planning and preparing herself. In the year leading up to it, she took scuba lessons, wilderness classes, practiced camping and the whole bit, so that she was completely self-sufficient once she got there.
“One of my favorite stories was when she was in Kazakhstan. She had planned a backpacking trip that was going to take three days to hike in, one day to stay over and three days back. So she was carrying seven days worth of food with her. Turns out that once she got on the trail, it took her six days to trek in instead of three. So halfway through her trip, she ran out of food. She decided to take the ridges of the mountains back because that was the most direct route, but also dipped down into the valleys to try and find people who could possibly give her food.
“At some point, she did find a pair of women who lived in the valley and had a garden and plenty of food. She didn’t speak the language so she tried to communicate through hand gestures that she needed food. The women watched her politely, but then turned their backs and went back to work.
“Rachel knew that she would need to provide a gift in order to open up communication with them. So she started searching through her backpack to see if she could give them anything in exchange for food. And you know what she found? A tin of Earl Grey tea. So she pulled them out of her pack and offered them to the women.
“’Earl Grey tea!’ they exclaimed in English.
“She was amazed that they knew what it was and immediately their entire demeanor change. The two women not only offered her a meal, but also food to take with her to finish her journey.”
Needless to say, he got me smiling after I heard that story. His enthusiasm was contagious and he made me laugh more than once. We chitchatted for the next 20 minutes and it came up in conversation that I had grown up in Beijing. We talked about all the countries that I traveled as a kid and compared notes to the ones that his daughter had visited. I had asked him if he ever felt nervous with his daughter traveling all over the world, especially since it was at a time where email was just becoming popular. He told me that he didn’t really worry, because all he could do was pray and hope that it would all work out. And it did.
What a refreshing conversation. Not once did he tell me that I shouldn’t be traveling or to be careful because I am a woman. He was encouraging. Because it was such a different pace for me, it struck me how much time I typically spend explaining myself to people on why I do what I do. It’s exhausting to feel like you are constantly justifying your choices, especially when you see your male counter parts traveling all across the world will little to none of the same intense questioning. Almost across the board when I tell someone that I am going to XYZ country, their very first question is, “I hope you’re not going alone, are you?” It was a breath of fresh air to have such a lively and wonderful conversation and not to be scolded for being independent. He was genuinely excited for me.
It was with this kind of attitude in which I was raised. My dad was constantly trying to ship me off to other countries when I was a young teenager (duh, who wouldn’t want their thirteen-year-old out of the house), in addition to our family vacations all over the world. Never once was I told as a kid that I shouldn’t go somewhere to do something. I remember my brother and I taking a train down to Hong Kong with his girlfriend’s family and spending the day exploring Macau, just us kids. Or the time that my dad took a bunch of my friends and I to hike the unrestored parts of the Great Wall because I had to prove that I could do anything my brother’s could. With that kind of background, it’s been a battle to have to deal with that so much push back on traveling alone as an adult.
Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that every person who has worried about me traveling has completely good intentions. They are concerned for my safety and their worry comes one hundred percent out of love. Even my own mother, who is not one to typically worry, has voiced her concern about me traveling. I give her credit though, because she will always tell me once that I should be careful and then just lets me do my thing. She learned a long time ago that I cannot be controlled and if anything, when someone challenges me by telling me I can’t do something, it lights a fire under my ass to want to do it even more.
Here is the thing that I always come back to. Women are going to travel. Even if it wasn’t me, there are plenty of adventurous women out there traveling the world, experiencing new things and exploring unchartered territory. And the more of us who are out there, the safer we all are. Whether it be living van life, traveling the US, being a nomad, backpacking across South America, or whatever it is that she wants to be doing, there is strength in numbers. Do we really want to let men have all the fun and explore all the new places?
I have met some incredible women on my travels and they are the ones who I keep in touch with. One women who I met in Guatemala last year, went home after that trip, finished saving up to meet her financial goals, quit her job cold turkey and is now traveling the world. All on her own. Because of meeting her, I now have an open invitation to visit her at any point in her travels. Right now she is in India, which is one of the places that I’ve wanted to go to most since I was ten years old. That invitation exists mostly because we were two single women hiking in Guatemala and hit it off. That kind of connection or bond wouldn’t have happened if I had been traveling with someone else. Naturally, when you meet women like that during your travels, there’s an unspoken agreement that we have each other’s backs.
I want us all to be smart when we travel. Not just women, I want us all to prepare, be strategic, plan and make smart choices. I also want to challenge us to set aside our worry and put that energy instead into calling upon whatever higher power or energy or deity you believe in, so that we are all surrounded with positive energy as we embark on our adventures. The last thing I need when headed out into the wilderness for days, is to feel like everyone around me is worried. How much more empowering would it be if I knew that everyone around me was cheering me on? Invest in the positive energy. It’ll pay off in much greater dividends, I promise you.