A little old lady sat next to me at gate number 24 in the Lima, Peru airport. She seemed anxious and leaned over to ask me if that was the right gate for the flight going to Santiago, Chile. I wasn’t feeling very talkative after my nine hour overnight flight, and so I simply nodded. I still had one more connection to my final destination in Argentina. Yet, the friendly, well-put-together little lady proceeded to ask me personal questions about my trip and background. Five minutes later we were engrossed in a casual conversation about her travels, living in the U.S., Peru, and her current home in Buenos Aires.
“Are you traveling alone?” She asked. Her curious tone made me feel judged, and so I lied. “No, a friend is waiting for me in Mendoza,” I said. I’ve already experienced how my friends and family react to my solitary lunches, dinners, and outings in New York City. I have been going to museums, parties, and restaurants alone for a few years now. It’s not out of lack of friends or company. Those who know me are aware that I have a very social life and personality. I’m also blessed to have a handful of good friends who are very social and available to join me most of the time. Some folks commend me for doing things on my own, but I can see a flicker of concern in others. I learned the hard way that Latin Americans and most of society punish those who do things on their own in several ways. If you look at most travel packages, tours, and hotel room costs–you will notice that the price for double occupancy is way cheaper. We actually pay more for “single” occupancy.
I learned that my new friend’s name was Cristina. “Can you look over my purse and bags while I go to the ladies room?” She asked. I stared at her in disbelief. Being a New Yorker makes you suspicious of everyone. I agreed reluctantly, because who else would she ask. When she came back, Cristina gave me tips and activities that I should do on my trip. “My husband and I love Argentina. You and your friend will enjoy it,” she said. Then tears started flowing down her wrinkled cheeks. “He died six months ago, and I miss him so much. We travelled all over the world together. This is my first trip alone,” she admitted sadly. I felt terrible, and so I gave this complete stranger my condolences and a hug. She admitted that she started traveling in his memory. He wouldn’t want her to stop. The little old woman and I went around the airport together as if we were old friends.
Cristina made me realize that I had done the right thing by traveling to Latin America on my own. I had the opportunity to meet and be around people like her. I learned so much about her life, and if I had been with someone else that may not have been possible.
Anyone who has been to Europe knows that the culture is used to lone travelers. So far, I’ve experienced that most of the world isn’t. Therefore, on this trip, I learned to be more assertive. One restaurant actually sat me at a corner table away from everyone else. They also placed a newly-made friend at another corner table. After that experience, I asked for the best table at the establishment.
I had another experience that troubled me on a tour to the mountains. There was a couple that we picked up towards the end, and there weren’t any seats left that were together. So, they were split. I chose to sit at the back of the van by the window just in case I got nauseous. The guide looked around and asked me to give up my seat to the couple. I said no. She looked at me in disbelief. How dare I not let this couple sit together? However, there were other passengers that she could have asked to move. There was a single man that was sitting in front of me that she never asked. The guide tried to move me throughout our entire tour. I realized that it was because I was alone, and a single woman. I didn’t have a man to speak up for me. At the end of the day, she commented on my successfully “holding” my seat for the entire day. She kept mentioning that the poor couple was split up. I then told her that I’m diabetic, and that the reason I chose the seat by the window was in case that I got sick. The guide felt guilty and told me that I should have said something. I then told her that there was no need to give her my medical history, and that just because I was single and a woman did not make me “move able.” She apologized.
I feel comfortable traveling all over the U.S. by myself since I’ve had to do it for work. However, this was a culture not used to a “single” woman asserting herself, and asking for the best service reserved for couples and men.
For the rest of my trip, I was constantly asked how it felt traveling around alone–after the confused or admiring stares–I replied that I was having a blast. I woke up when I wanted, chose the tours that I would enjoy, and there was no negotiation on meals. It was liberating to walk out of places when I got tired, and not feel forced to stick around. I made new friends, and had great conversations with strangers. I heard my own voice, and I enjoyed it–also literally when I went to a karaoke bar. At first, I brought books, pen and paper with me, but then I just went with my own self. There was no need to appear occupied.
After this trip, I look forward to more lone travels, and to continue teaching society that “lonely” and “alone” is not the same thing. I will continue to expose to others that a woman can do things on her own, not because she has no one, but because she chooses to enjoy her own company.