So many women dream of traveling alone – and so many hesitate, for many reasons, most of which come down to fear. So how to overcome fear and travel alone after all? You’ll find some great answers, empowering inspiration and last but not least amazing stories in this interview with the founder of Women On the Road, Leyla Giray Alyanak.
Below is a transcript of the interview as well as links to all the resources that Leyla shared there. Since it’s quite lengthy, I invite you to Download the entire Transcript, Resources as well as Key Points that you can print out and use for future inspiration here.
HALINA: Hi everyone, Halina here, and it’s my great, great pleasure to present to you my friend and also someone I admire:
A world traveler and a writer
Leyla Giray Alyanak has spent more than forty years as a journalist and foreign correspondent and now works in development assistance to feed her passion for travel and improving peoples’ lives in developing countries. Now hear this: at forty-three she made a major decision to reinvent herself and travel the world solo for six months. She was gone three years and found time to get lost in a Mozambique mine field, paddle her way out of a flood in the Philippines and get stampeded by an elephant cow in Nigeria. Born in Paris and raised around the world, she writes a popular website for traveling women, Women on the Road, and is the author of Women on the Road: the essential guide for baby boomer travel.
I can truly recommend both! I read every single blog post that Leyla shares with her audience and her e-book helped me when I went to the U.S. last year.
So after that long introduction, welcome Leyla! I’m so glad to have you here.
LEYLA: Thank you, Halina. I’m delighted to be here.
HALINA: Wonderful. So Leyla, because I read your blog, I noticed that just a few days ago you published a post that was titled Managing Travel Loneliness and I’m sure it’s something that the audience here at SoloSouls.net will be super interested in hearing about and reading all thirty-five tips that you have there.
But obviously, I wanted to hear much more about your travel and how you deal with the challenges that can come up and how you see other people deal with it.
But before I do, I really wanted to know something more about what happened when you turned forty-three…
How it all began
LEYLA: Well I had a mid-life crisis, doesn’t everybody? And I was fortunate because a lot of people have families and children and, you know, it’s very difficult for them to pack up and leave and I was just in a place in my life where I thought, “You know, I don’t like where I am right now, so what can I do about it?” And I think that perennial response to something like that is, “Ah! I’ll escape!” So that’s exactly what I did.
It wasn’t actually that straight forward; it took about a year to get from A to point B, but in the end that’s what I did and I decided to quit my job, quit the very not-good relationship I was in, quit the town I was in. I was just very fed up and I needed a new place to go and I bought a one-way ticket to Cape Town in South Africa and thought, “You know, I’ll travel up for six months and then when I get fed up and tired and lonely, I’ll hop on a plane and come home,” because home was Geneva then, so it was very simple. All I had to do was come back up across Africa and more or less in a straight home and I would get home if I needed to, so that’s what happened when I was forty-three.
And as you said in your introduction, I was gone for more than three years– nearly four years. I was having such a good time that I finished traveling across Africa, then I went to Asia and the Baltics and Cuba and I just couldn’t stop and if my little niece hadn’t been born during my travels and I hadn’t had to go home and meet her and, you know, begin the whole bonding relationship with my niece, I would probably still be on the road.
HALINA: Well, you still travel, right?
LEYLA: I still travel a lot. I don’t travel in the same way; I can’t travel for three or four years. But I certainly travel for several weeks to a month, like for example, I’m hoping to go to Kyrgyzstan on my own and that should be an experience. I’ve never been to central Asia. I believe it’s a Cyrillic alphabet there and I can’t wait, I’m going to have so much fun.
Dealing with loneliness
HALINA: That sounds wonderful… So you said that when you decided to travel, you thought that you would stay there until you got too lonely and then you would go home, and since you didn’t go home for the next, like, three years, does it mean that you didn’t get lonely? Or does it mean that you found ways to deal with loneliness? Do you remember that time?
LEYLA: Oh, I certainly do. Oh, I got very lonely but, you know, the thing is, first of all, my first bouts of loneliness were before the six-month deadline and so I was certainly not going to come home before my own self-imposed deadline, especially since everybody had said to me, “Oh my God, you’re going to Africa by yourself. You can’t do that, it’ll be horrible, you’ll hate it, you’ll be lonely,” and all of those things– I was not going to let them be correct and be right, so I definitely had to stay more than six months.
But you know what happened is that I started learning how to cope and a lot of the loneliness, I think, was self-inflicted. It was because I was too shy and many people are too shy and all I had to do was learn how to push myself beyond that shyness and I was only as lonely as I made myself be. The moment I pushed myself a little bit out of my comfort zone and started doing things to end that loneliness, it went away.
So every time I started feeling lonely during my trip, I would put one of these tactics into play and the loneliness would disappear and I’d wake up two months later and still be on the road.
HALINA: That’s fantastic. Now it’s getting really exciting to read those thirty-five tips there… So it sounds like the loneliness, it wasn’t like this heavy cloud, you know, that took up all the sky. It was something that was manageable, right?
LEYLA: Well, it was only manageable after the fact. I mean, it certainly was the sky for, you know, an evening, a day, something like that. It wasn’t a huge amount of time because I’m very good at kicking myself, getting myself up to do things. I don’t like to wallow, so the moment I feel something’s not going right, I’m very much into trying to fix it and get it to go right and so in these cases, oh it was horrible…
I mean, I remember waking up in the middle of the night– I still remember I was in Kenya some place in a village, I was the only foreigner there, there was nothing to do, no food to eat, and I was in a really dismal hotel with the paint peeling off the walls, the door was open because it was so hot and muggy and there were geckos all over the wall and insects flying all over the place. I just burst into tears, “What am I doing here?! Why am I here?! This is so crazy. I could be home eating in a restaurant, seeing my friends, having a good time. Why am I here?”
And then that question actually led me to some answers that I asked myself, “Yeah, why am I here?” And then I went back and thought through, again, why had I come to Africa; why was I doing this trip on my own and al of a sudden it sounded a lot better. I thought, “OK, this is actually a really cool trip and, you know, I’m really having a good time, except today.” And when that hit me that it wasn’t really a long-term thing and most of the time I’d been having a wonderful time, then it became a little more manageable. But at the moment, it was not manageable when it took place; I had to ball out of it.
HALINA: I can imagine… So it sounds like what you experienced is that if you could get in touch with the big Why behind your trip and behind those decisions and behind finding yourself in the situation, that would kind of help you get through it?
LEYLA: Well, that helped me at that time. I think every time I got lonely, because it happened more than once, I would try a different coping mechanism, this is one of them. I did try and remember why I had come because it’s very easy to wallow in the moment and to think, “Oh poor me, poor me. This is terrible. I’m having such a lousy time,” and just to dwell on that, instead of saying, “Well wait a minute– why am I here? Why am I going through this?” And then remember that I wanted to see Africa, I wanted to see the world, I wanted to test myself, I wanted to be on my own and see if I could cope. I wanted to see, you know, what my survival skills were. And so when I went through all that in my head, then all of a sudden, “Oh yeah, that’s why I’m here.” And it felt good.
Dealing with not belonging
HALINA: That’s great! So one of the terrible things in that particular situation that you described was that you were the only foreigner there and I thought, you know, we can list all kinds of reasons why we feel foreign in any situation, I know that there are plenty of people in this audience that do feel different and do feel foreign, even without traveling. Obviously this must have been your experience throughout all travels (well maybe not all, but many of them) that you were the foreigner, the different one, the other one. Do you have any experience that you would like to share with us around that?
LEYLA: Well, I think that that’s partly true, that sometimes I was the foreign one, but many times I wasn’t. I mean, I also traveled in places where the culture was relatively similar to mine and I think more than being foreign, it was a sense of not belonging, which is a bit of a nuance.
I wasn’t really feeling foreign, but it was because I didn’t really have a social support system, I didn’t have friends, I didn’t know my way around, the food was different, people dressed differently– if you add all those things up, it’s more– it was more a sense of not belonging and that’s happened.
I mean, not belonging is probably something I felt all my life because I’ve never stayed in a country for very long and I’ve never had the same friends for more than a year or two, my father traveled all the time so growing up I never had a chance to be in one place and put down roots. Every time I had friends that were good enough to invite home, we would pack our suitcases and leave, so I didn’t really earn that sense of belonging anywhere. So when I travel, I take that with me too, is that I’m always the different one, the foreign one; I don’t belong here.
And I think part of the challenge is trying to steal little moments of belonging, trying to see what are the similarities, rather than what are the differences. And I think we all travel because of the differences, because we want to see things that are different; otherwise we might as well stay home. There’s no point in spending all that money and putting yourself all those tiny seats on airplanes in order to see exactly the same as you’ve got at home. But if you look for the similarities between your culture and yourself and others, you’re always going to find that no matter foreign the society, no matter how different—
I mean, for example, recently I was in Dubai and I was supposed to have just a lovely dinner with an old friend and instead I ended up in a harem having dinner with a bunch of women while the men had dinner in a palace next door. Now this was not how I planned on spending my evening, believe me, but it was a question of quick cultural adaption. This friend asked me if I wanted to come break the Ramadan feast at the palace– I didn’t really know what he meant, but I said ‘sure!’ and I got to the palace and I was the only woman in this entire room of white-robed men, but it was OK because I had been invited and when it came time for the meal, all the men got up and went into a room and I followed them and one very agile man came behind me and very nicely turned me around and said, “Perhaps you would like to meet the family,” and I don’t know what instinct told me at that moment that that the correct answer was ‘yes’, but I said, “Yes, of course, I would love to meet the family,” and he put me into a chauffeur-driven car, they drove me across the compound and I walked into this other feast which was women-only.
So that was about as different and as foreign as I could get, but all of a sudden, these were women; I was a woman, we had a common basis from which to begin. Many of them were educated, we started talking about education and how, you know, what is the education like in your country and here’s what it’s like in my country and so on and so on and as the evening wore on, although we lived in completely different worlds, we still managed to communicate on some level and found so many things in common that– I mean, it was a perfectly fascinating evening. There were a lot of things I would’ve like to ask that I didn’t feel I could and there was only one major cultural difference that struck me that night, it was when I wanted to take a picture of the food and the woman quickly jumped and said, “Oh, please don’t aim your camera at the mirror because we might be in the picture.” They didn’t want to be in the picture because this is not something that their custom allows them to. But otherwise, by the end of the evening we had more similarities than differences, is the point I’m trying to make.
HALINA: That’s a fantastic point! It makes me think that this feeling, as you said, you’ve had this feeling of not belonging all your life and I can relate and I know many people here will relate as well and even when we do not travel to other countries, the challenge is really the same: It is to enter a community or meet people and then you have this almost existential choice; will I be looking for similarities or will I be looking for differences? Will I assume that I do not belong and I have nothing in common and they don’t like me, or will I assume that we can communicate, that we can find things in common? So that’s a fantastic lesson for all of us, I think.
LEYLA: You know, I think it’s also part of your world view. Are you a person who looks at your glass as half-full or as half-empty? When you go into a situation, do you look at that challenging situation as something nasty and terrible that you have to overcome, or as something different and enticing that you need to learn more about? So I think there’s a lot that you can do with yourself, in terms of work on yourself– at least I’m speaking for myself, certainly, to put yourself into a situation where things will be more positive without anything having changed, other than yourself.
HALINA: So would you like to elaborate on how you work with this?
LEYLA: Well I just always ask myself a question when I’m in a situation that’s challenging, which is, “What can I learn from this?” That’s my first question, “What can I take away from this situation?” It’s obviously here to teach me something and I’d rather think that than feel, “Oh my God, this is terrible. It’s going to beat me down and I’m going to have to run home and accept defeat. I think it’s much easier for me to say, “OK, this is not so cool. What can learn from it and what can I do to fix it?” What is in my power to change?
And it’s really quite amazing when you start looking for what you can change, you’ll find things that you can change. There are certain circumstances, granted, in life where you might not be able to change the circumstance, those things happen, but rarely is it impossible to change your own attitude towards it.
HALINA: Thank you! That’s so inspiring. When I have surveyed our audience here, there’s a lot of women here that say that fear is one of the biggest challenges in their life, as is feeling different and feeling lonely. And while there are ways through which you can work with fear through healing, through inner transformation, there are also those ways that you can approach it when you are in the situation and I really love the way you presented it, that you have this invitation from life to stay and face it and see what you can learn from it, but also what doors you can open. In your case, it has opened infinite number of doors in I don’t know how many countries…
LEYLA: But you know Halina, let me say something, is that I am probably the most fearful person you’ll ever meet– I really am very fearful. I’m constantly scared of just about everything I try. So it’s a question of taking that fear and acknowledging and saying, “Yeah, I’m terrified, this is going to kill me and I’ll never survive this. OK.” Putting it on the side and saying, “OK. So that’s the fear, it’s in this box. Now I’m going to look at this other box and this box doesn’t have the fear in it because I put the fear in that other box.” Now, that usually works; it doesn’t always work because sometimes I do have certain situations in which the fear will just lodge itself in my throat and it will just simply not go away.
But even in those circumstances. I read a book many, many years ago called Feel the Fear . . . and Do It Anyway and it was really a life-changing book for me because I realized that I was not the only one who was always scared and I also realized that you could do things, even if you were scared, and until that point, I thought fear was a show-stopper. If you’re afraid, you can’t do it, right? Well, it turns out that you can be afraid and do it. And I think that’s more my philosophy, is that I’m never going to get rid of the fear, unless I do it chemically . So– exactly. you know, who’s going to do that… So instead of trying to get rid of the fears, I try to walk with them, you know. Let’s see if I can make you my friend instead of constantly making you my enemy.
HALINA: This is why you’re inspiring…I mean, if you said, “Well, I’m rarely afraid of anything,” then we could just all say, “She’s made of a different kind of stuff than most of us, so not relevant.” But this is not what you’re saying. You’re saying how you’ve approached it and it reminds me, I’ve read something similar written by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love where she says again, and again and she still says it now, that she’s a very fearful person. And she’s been traveling around and she’s been telling us of all kinds of ways, but I don’t know—do you get more accustomed to it or does it get less fearful or is it just the same? Is fear just the good old friend?
LEYLA: I think that if you keep doing the same thing and don’t get hugely negative results, then I think the fear does sort of drift away– it doesn’t disappear completely. Let me give you an example– I’m very scared of heights. Now, for somebody who travels, that is not a good thing.
I don’t like– I mean, I always take the seats that are in the middle of the airplane so that I don’t have to look out. I end up flying in helicopters because I go to places. I’m a traveler, I end up on top of mountains– all these horrible places! I don’t like being high up. I can’t even open my windows if I’m on a twentieth floor in a building. I have to stand in the middle of the room with my back to the window, so this is not a cool thing.
However, what happens is that I fly a lot, I also end up going up mountains a lot, I’m also in buildings a lot. These things happen all the time, so I just take a deep breath, I do it. I don’t like it, but I don’t shake as much as I used to, I don’t freak out as much. I’m very careful, I’m cautious. I don’t put myself into situations that could trigger panic.
For example, when I go up a mountain you’ll never see me anywhere near the edge. Usually you’ll see me lying face down, flat on the trail crawling forward on my hands and knees. Picture me on the top of the mountain where I’m sitting there saying, “Isn’t this a beautiful view?” No. It’s usually taken by me holding my iPhone up with one hand and keeping my other hand over my eyes so I can’t see where I’m shooting.
HALINA: That’s so funny. So there’s a chance for all of us, then, that we can do this stuff. We don’t have to be heroes.
LEYLA: No, and you have to work on it. The easiest thing to do, I think, is to give into your fear. It’s OK, I’m scared, I’m not doing that– bye. That was simple. Didn’t have to do too much on that one.
Then there’s the second one which is, “OK, I’m scared, and therefore I am going to take 38 Valium and drink a bottle of vodka or whatever it is that people use to get through their fear,” and then that’s not cool because you might fall off the ledge, so I wouldn’t recommend that…
Asking for help
And then there’s a sort of middle way where you say, “OK, I’m really petrified, but I need to get over to the other side of the mountain, otherwise I’ll be stuck here for the rest of my life and there’s no helicopter in this country– so I need to get over there. How can I do that?” And then you come up with coping mechanisms. I have asked complete strangers on mountains to walk with me, to hold my hand so that I can get from A to Z without falling off a mountain. You do whatever you have to do and when you get to the other side, let me tell you, that is such a wonderful feeling of accomplishment, to actually have made it from A to B in what you consider is death-defying, you know, to have made it without killing yourself is just amazing. It’s so empowering.
HALINA: It is. And it also is such a gift, reaching out to someone and someone getting to walk you, right? I really mean that because when we ask for help, you almost always assume, you know, that it’s trouble for someone, we’re bothering them or we’re ridiculous or whatever. But it is a gift to be able to help someone.
LEYLA: But that’s part of the fear, though, too, is that reaching out to people for help, I think many of us are not brought up to learn how to do that. Often we’re brought up to be self-sufficient and asking for help is almost a sign of weakness. I don’t see that at all. I have no compunction whatsoever about asking people for help– none. I really, really think that I can ask you for help because someday you might ask me for help. What comes around goes around and so on.
Making it happen
HALINA: Great, great perspective. You know, I would like to kind of go back to the beginning, if you don’t mind, because the way I find what you do and what you say inspiring is because you are such a reminder of our possibilities, of what is possible not when you get rid of fear, not when you get rid of loneliness, but as you move through it and walk with it and it opens the world to you and in your case it is like, literally, and I know that there are many people that would love to travel more but find it very challenging.
But also even when you don’t travel; in many situations it’s the same challenge, you know, to make a change in your life, to not stay in the same place out of fear. So I was wondering, you said that when you made the decision to leave the place and the job and the relationship where you were, that was a process that took a year. Would you mind sharing a little bit more about that, what that process was?
LEYLA: Well, you know, I’m a great believer in making lists– it’s what I do. When I’m faced with a challenge or something to which I don’t know the answer, I make lists. So let me tell you a little story.
I had been in South Africa for work and I was flying back to Europe and I was flying over the Sahara and normally when you have a mirage, you’re down there on the sand, right? You’re thirsty and you have a mirage and it’s a lagoon. Well, I had a mirage, but it wasn’t that at all. I had this vision and I have no idea where it came from, but there was this red-headed person (I’m a red-head, or I used to be in my younger days). This red-headed person carrying a backpack walking the other way and I had to shake my head and say, “Where did that pop into my head from?” And from that moment I was stuck with that idea that I was going to be backpacking in Africa.
You know, when I graduated from university, all my friends took off and went for a year around the world; they did all these things because you used to do that in the 1970’s. Except I didn’t. I graduated on a Friday and I started working in my first newspaper on a Monday, so I didn’t have that year and I think somewhere I’ve always wanted to and I always missed it. So combining that with that little vision and I thought, “You know what? I need to leave.” So that was the first realization, was that I’m not happy and so I can actually leave. That’s how it all started.
But then I thought, “OK, I can leave, but what do I do? How do I leave? How can I afford it? What do I tell people?” I mean, you know, how does that play out? So I remember getting myself a huge board for the wall and making ten different columns and in each column I had one thing that I needed to do in order to leave and to get to that top line on my board. I listed ten actions that I had to do in order to get to that one goal and I started at the bottom of my list and I started doing the actions. You know, one day I’d do column one, one day I’d do column three– it didn’t really matter.
There would come a point where I couldn’t go any further in that action and some of them were like ‘travel across Africa’, another one was ‘get a job overseas’, another one was ‘go back to university’, and so I would be going through my actions and I would get to the point where the going back to university one simply wasn’t going to work because it cost too much money and I didn’t have it.
So at the end of the day, I was left with only one column on my big board and that column said ‘backpack across Africa’. So putting all that stuff together– the vision that I had, the fact that I had missed out on my round-the-world backpacking trip, the fact that no other avenue was open to me because I crossed them all off my list. And so the end point, the travel by myself, the going away, happened almost in spite of me. I had a strategy, I put it into place, I made it visual, I started taking the steps I needed to do it and I reached the conclusion almost in spite of myself. Does that make sense?
HALINA: That makes so much sense. Thank you so much. You know, there was a time when, I don’t know if it’s still the case, but there was a time when there were many people talking about creating a vision and many people would sit down and try to invent a vision for their life. So they would invent all kinds of paradise, you know, in every possible way, and I never believed that; but I really believe that when a vision hits you, when it comes to you uninvited, there’s an enormous power in that and your story is such a beautiful example that this vision came to you and you couldn’t deny it, but then you committed to do something about it. You really took action and you were committed to go the way until your commitment kicked you out on the road, right?
LEYLA: That’s right. I had no choice.
HALINA: You had no choice because you made one!
LEYLA: I got to the point where the only action left open to me was to travel.
LEYLA: That’s the only action left. I had tried all the others and none of them– all those doors were closing one by one, so I was left with only one open door. Now, you can say that I, more or less, influenced things in that direction– doesn’t matter, maybe I did. But the fact is that I didn’t just jump on a plane and say, “OK, bye everybody! I’m leaving!” It took a year to get to the point where I was going to be ready to leave. So from the moment I made the decision until the moment I actually left was an entire year and all that year was spent putting things into place and, you know, getting myself mentally ready for this crazy thing I was about to do. I mean, I worked for the United Nations– who quits a job for the United Nations to go backpacking in Africa for six months in their mid-forties? Who does that? That’s stupid!
HALINA: I hope more people will do it…
LEYLA: But I had convinced myself that it wasn’t completely insane. So what I’m saying is that there is a process you have to go through to get from A to B, where you’re making these major life decisions. It’s not– I mean, sure, some people make them, go off and everything’s perfect and that’s wonderful– good for them. I’m not like that. It’s not my way of doing things. I have to examine in excruciating detail every little aspect until I’m satisfied that this is really, truly the right path for me, and then once I’ve made that decision, nothing can stop me.
HALINA: That is so inspiring. Thank you so much, Leyla. It is really a great prescription for expanding your life. If you feel that you have all those doors, there is definitely one that is waiting for you to open.
Do you have any final words or final story that you would share? You shared so much that it’s not really necessary, it’s just wonderful to hear you…
The ultimate lessons
LEYLA: Would you like to hear about the time I almost died in that minefield in Mozambique? Because the interesting thing about that time is that that is possibly the most scared I’ve ever been of anything in my life.
I was visiting– it was just after the war in Mozambique and I was visiting a national park which was supposed to be fine, it was supposed to be a nice one-day outing, and I was with a park ranger and we did get lost in a minefield and he couldn’t find his way back and I thought, “My God, if you can’t find your way back, what am I supposed to do?” I’m in the middle of a minefield in a national park in a country on a continent that I don’t know– this is not looking very good. And eventually– eventually– we did find our way out, but when we first found the main road that we were supposed to be on, my first instinct was to throw up. That’s what happened. I was so nervous, I was so relieved, I was so scared– I was in tears, I was sick. He was, too, by the way; this wasn’t just me. We were both in very bad shape.
And what that did is it taught me so much about being grateful for being in that moment. I think until then my life had really been about making plans, about looking at the future, about plotting how things were going to be. When I was in that minefield, it seemed very real to me that I would be blown up and I would die and so you know when they say your life passes in front of your eyes? It did. That’s exactly what happened. I thought of all the things I hadn’t said to people I loved, I thought of all the things that I hadn’t done or that I had done wrong and that all came past me.
And I think when we got through that situation, I was left with that very strong sense of being in the moment and I think from then on I started appreciating where I was so much more than where I was going to be and the present started meaning more than the future and this is why, you know, when I’m talking about loneliness during travel, or something, if you stop for a moment and you look at exactly where you are and what you have, as opposed to where you could be and what you don’t have, life looks very different. It doesn’t take very long to figure that out.
And so for me, that was a complete life-changing episode. Of course, I think it would be for anybody, but it really did narrow life down for me to a way that taught me that, you know, the future is great and you should plan for it, because otherwise you’ll end up old and sleeping under a bridge and that’s not cool, so you do have to make some plans, but you cannot be guided your entire life by what may happen, what could happen. I think parts of it have to be guided by what is happening right now.
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