Monday, April 9, 2012

Published in Travel Ideas Autumn 2012 pg. 26-27
I love traveling alone!  People always ask me questions like don’t I feel unsafe? Do I feel lonely?  Do I get harassed or embarrassed?
Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy traveling with a friend to build our relationship and to share memories. Being with my husband is great, especially in romantic spots. It is a joy to explore new places with my son, as he brings fresh perspective. However, the bliss of traveling solo is unrivalled.
I always meet interesting people, and chances are they might not engage with me in the same way if I had a traveling companion.
With regard to being harassed, it does happen, but I find a kind, assertive response declaring that I prefer to be alone, deters all but the most persistent Italian man. Recently in a Boutique Hotel in Nelspruit, a large, burly man came up to me and started interacting with me. I thought, “oh no”, as he simply sat down beside me at my table. Well, I was pleasantly surprised. He was a delightful Afrikaans farmer, who was in Nelspruit to sell fruit. I was shown a picture on his cell, which I expected to be his wife or sons, but was a photo of five impala which he had shot on a hunting trip. He had a good sense of humour and we happily dined together.
 The well-dressed elderly man, strolling in a relaxed fashion with his Borzoi, stopped when he saw me peering at my map. He was as aristocratic looking as his dog. My sensible shoes and unfashionable traveler’s clothing must have revealed my tourist status in Basel as he said in impeccable, lightly accented English, “May I help you?” I asked him if there was anything nearby which was interesting to see. “Are you on your own?” he inquired. Normally a woman traveling alone would be wise to avoid answering such a direct question, but I blithely said, “Yes I am”. “That will not do on New Year’s Eve!” he declared. “You must join us for Sylvester”. He held out his hand and shook mine firmly as he introduced himself as Samuel
His luxurious home was in contrast to the clean but Spartan Hostel where I was staying. I was swept into a marvelous, memorable evening with interesting, well-read people, who welcomed me to their elegant home. Samuel’s wife, Marianne, was an impressive woman about 20 years younger that him. She was exceptionally beautiful and wore a string of black, baroque pearls, the like of which I had never seen. The lavish spread of food was especially welcome after my diet of rolls with cheese or sardines. Their guests enlightened me about Swiss mores and my tales about Africa fascinated customs and them.  Shortly before midnight, Samuel read a traditional story about a personified old year departing and a New Year coming arriving. We then drank champagne and ate fresh pineapple (an expensive winter treat for the Swiss.)
One of the major reasons I am passionate about travel, is to meet the people. It constantly amazes me how readily folk open their homes to a total stranger. In Jerusalem, I was exploring the Arab quarter, when I noticed a door painted with a cross. Impulsively, I knocked. A woman in Arabic clothing opened her door and responded warmly to my question about the cross. “We are Christian believers,” she informed me. “Please come in and join us for a meal”.  I was treated like an eagerly awaited guest and large, round trays laden with Middle Eastern delicacies were placed before me. Amongst many other topics that memorable afternoon, they gave me their perspective of the inflammatory situation in Israel.  The women took me into a bedroom and dressed me in their clothing, explaining how to wear each item. It was a warm, intimate time of giggling and sharing, with much sign language from some of the older women. I felt utterly accepted. What a rare joy to have a glimpse into a rich culture, so different from my own. I learned much from their shy revelations about how they see womanhood and how they experience Arabic traditions in Israel.  It was an opportunity for me to realise again, just how many different ways there are of understanding any issue. My mind was broadened and my concepts challenged that precious afternoon.
I have often found that the most hospitable people are those who do not have very much for themselves. It is routine to be offered Chai in slums of Bombay and grainy, sweet coffee in the backstreets of Istanbul. In Malawi, when I was hitchhiking, I once had to wait 9 hours before a vehicle of any kind passed by. It was a marvelous time of being entertained by enthusiastic locals. From nowhere, a chair was produced so that I could sit comfortably under a roadside tree, while a lady boiled water for tea. Similar magic was performed to bring me grilled mielies, to sustain me during the unpredictably long wait. When a truck finally appeared, it was laden with sand and already bore about twenty passengers, with their sundry luggage. I was shepherded to the front of the vehicle, but declined that honour and tried to climb onto the sand, to join the group of people. They hauled me up, grabbed my backpack and proceeded to ensure I was comfortably ensconced between two large, brightly clad women. For the rest of the journey they cared for me by sharing their food, drink and opinions. It was a companionable time where I felt enveloped in their relaxed warmth.
Kindness and generosity can be found all over the world, irrespective of culture, wealth or location. I eagerly anticipate encountering those who may invite me into their homes.  My life has been enriched by what I have learned from a spectrum of people on my travels. For those special moments when I am taught something new, I am embraced into someone’s life. I have come to depend on the kindness of strangers, who respond to me when I am traveling alone.


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Gillian Mclaren Travel and Science Writer