At 15, Leyla Giray snuck away from her parents’ home in Spain and backpacked on her own to Morocco. It was there, perhaps, as she triumphantly sipped mint tea in cafés by the casbah and watched ships come and go, that her nomadic destiny was decided. Giray could trace her wanderlust to nature—she’s a descendant of the Mongols who swept over Eastern Europe on horseback in the 13th century—or nurture—growing up, she rarely lived in any one country for more than a year due to her father’s engineering profession. Either way, her love of travel was inevitable.
She went on to become a journalist, but in 1996, at 43, she experienced a life-changing satori and left “a perfectly fine job,” all her belongings and an ultimately insignificant other to travel solo for six months. Somewhere along the line, she flipped the script and just kept going, supporting herself for three years by freelancing articles on a primeval laptop for the Earth Times from Africa, Asia, Cuba and the Baltic States, places where the internet and email were a rarity. Her bio provides tantalizing glimpses of her Lara Croft-esque escapades: she survived a minefield in Mozambique, a flood in the Philippines, a stampeding elephant cow in Nigeria and a tête-à-tête with dissidents in Cuba. Oh, and she also “unwittingly sat on an anaconda in Brazil.”
In 2007, Giray combined her twin passions of writing and travel to create Women on the Road, an encyclopedic website that provides “inspiration and advice for women who love to travel solo.” In The Time Before Blogs—or, at least, in The Time Before Everybody Was Blogging—Giray produced a nearly 700-page site stuffed with insight and information on everything from budget hostels, the right wardrobe and self-defense to staying in a monastery, ghost tourism and travel talismans. “Think of this as the everything-you-always-wanted-to-know-about-solo-travel-but-were-afraid-to-ask website,” says BudgetTravel.com.
Giray added a blog to the site in 2012, and although she admits she somewhat hesitantly injects first-person revelation into third-person reportage, she is as charming on the page as she is in person: thoughtful, curious, practical, direct and down-to-earth (a true Taurus, she will tell you). Giray recently added “Author” to her résumé with Women on the Road: The Essential Guide for Baby-Boomer Travel, just published by Indie Travel Media. Hard to believe, but Giray accomplishes all of this during her evenings and weekends; during the day, she works at a development agency in Geneva.
TrekWorld caught up with Giray at her home in Switzerland between trips to talk about the surprisingly biggest concern of solo women travelers, the Sarai Sierra tragedy, how travel has changed her, what she won’t eat and that anaconda in Brazil.
Much of the information, advice and insights in Women on the Road: The Essential Guide for Baby-Boomer Travel is of benefit to anyone. Why do solo women travelers need their own book? What concerns about travel are unique to women?
We actually do travel a bit differently. A man who’s hungry in the evening can pretty much step outside and look for a place to eat, wherever he is. As a woman traveling solo, at times being outdoors after dark could be dangerous. Men aren’t as prone to aggressive sexual advances, or certainly not as often, nor are they perceived to be vulnerable, whatever the reality. So safety for women is a major issue. Cultural norms, too, affect the way we travel. Few people would question a man traveling on his own but in many countries a solo woman is an object of curiosity, pity at times and, exceptionally, anger. These are things we need to be aware about. That said, much of the information in my book is sheer common sense and would apply to everyone. There’s just that little extra twist for women who prefer to travel independently.
The subject of solo women travelers has been in the news recently because of the Sarai Sierra tragedy. Many were quick to focus on the fact that she was a woman traveling alone and suggest that maybe she shouldn’t have been. What are your thoughts?
I’ve been boiling about the reaction ever since it started. What on earth did her murder have to do with solo travel? Hundreds, probably thousands of us travel solo all over the world, all the time, and guess what: according to statistics, we have a greater chance of being murdered or raped at home, by someone we know. Awful things happen, and they can happen everywhere—crossing the street, going to the supermarket, taking a class. Blaming solo travel and calling on women to stay closer to home is ridiculous and sexist. Some of the comments were xenophobic and racist. It’s not the kind of language I want to be anywhere near. Of course I feel deeply for Sarai’s family and the agony they must be going through. But blaming solo travel just amplifies ignorance around what really happened—we just don’t know.
You note that one of the most consistent concerns voiced by solo women travelers isn’t safety or health or fitness—surprisingly, it’s eating out alone. “To many women, eating out alone is the single most terrifying thing they’ll have to do on the road—and I’ve heard this from women who have braved civil wars as journalists or who have climbed major mountains.” Why is eating out alone such a huge issue for solo women travelers?
I do receive plenty of mail about solo dining. It may be due to other people’s perceptions, especially in countries where it’s just not common to see a woman alone eating out. Unfortunately, restaurants themselves can help perpetuate that feeling of unease by not making solo women feel welcome (I’m not talking about North America or Europe, where a woman on her own mostly goes unnoticed.) So it’s part how others react, part where you are, and part our own shyness or lack of self-confidence, where that’s the case.
Several times in the book you suggest asking a teenager for help with technology: If you need help setting up a Facebook account, if you need help changing a SIM card in a cellphone. Are boomers less likely to be technology savvy?
A lot of baby boomers and seniors are hugely tech-savvy, but there’s nothing like a teenager to make it all seem easy. I may know what Instagram is, but it took a 15-year-old to show me how to post photos and use the filters. And I wouldn’t have known about the reverse camera on my iPad without my 13-year-old niece. We should be commended for having learned so much about technology so quickly, but it’s not quite the same as having been born with it.
There’s a very insightful section about how travel changes a person. How has travel changed you?
In so many ways I hardly know where to begin. Certainly it’s changed my attitude towards possessions. I’m much less wed to material things after having traveled for years with no more than what I could carry. Travel also taught me a lot about patience and not getting my own way and holding my tongue and gritting my teeth. About smiling and shrugging off things that would have angered me. About compassion and gratitude for everything I have. About understanding the big picture and my own place in it—and accepting I was not the center of the universe (that was harder than it should have been!). About learning to love diversity and hating discrimination. I could go on for hours because travel is one of the most provocative and life-changing things I’ve ever done. Going to a place radically different from home and staying long enough to get to know it is an experience that will always affect you in some way.
In the book, you note that one of the downsides of solo traveling is the occasional bout of loneliness. Are you ever lonely on the road? If so, what do you do to cope with it?
I have been lonely. There are times you want to share things but that passes quickly or you find a friend and do your sharing there. But loneliness really hits when you’re low, sick, broke or lost. The sight of people together can be really grating then. But the feeling is fleeting and I’m very self-motivated so it never lasted long. I do remember a night here and there crying myself to sleep, usually because I was stuck somewhere—once in Uganda, when I was hurt and stuck in a village for several days with no way to leave, or another time in Kenya in a disgusting hotel with awful food. For me, hungry and tired are a dreadful combination. These are all minor grievances and passed quickly. The trick is to consciously divert that feeling into doing something about it, like getting to places where people congregate, building bridges with other travelers, taking a class, posting on an expat forum for ideas and quick interaction, or even getting on Skype and calling home, an option I didn’t have when I used to travel full-time.
What has travel taught you about yourself that you never knew?
It has taught me that I’m fussy, ornery, impatient, bossy and loud. It has also taught me how NOT to be any of these things to excess and to recognize the onset of silly behavior and nip it in the bud. It has also taught me—contrary to all expectation—that I’m actually quite self-sufficient. I’m hugely social but in the absence of others, I manage quite well, to the point I can say I actually enjoy it.
What have you done in your travels that you never imagined yourself doing?
Sleeping in a mud hut with lions prowling nearby. Driving on deadly narrow roads to extremely high places (I’m scared of heights). Kayaking and jumping off cliffs into water (I can’t swim). Sleeping in a brothel (in Central Africa, and boy were those walls thin) and getting shot at (in Beirut—my fault). Spending days walking through the Amazon. Carrying a rifle (which I never did learn how to use). Going to a Greek Orthodox church service at four in the morning. Crossing half the South African coast in a four-seater plane or flying in the cockpit of a commercial flight (on the jump seat of course). Hitchhiking in the middle of Africa. I do all sorts of things I’m not engineered to do!
What are the biggest differences between traveling by yourself and with your partner?
The biggest difference is how far I stretch myself. With a partner I would tend to stay in my comfort zone and stick to the familiar; I’m content just to get to know a place. On my own I make a conscious effort to expand my circle of acquaintances… I speak to people, approach them, and am more open to them. I get to experience things I never would have by staying open to new experiences. I also get to do what I want without having to take anyone else’s wishes into consideration (I know, that’s selfish…)
The book includes a suggested packing list and you note that you yourself pack as minimally as possible. That said, what three things do you never leave home without that make life on the road easier, more comfortable, more efficient, more fun?
A rubber doorstop, for hotel room safety. A bandanna, for dust and coolness (keep it wet). A mosquito tent (it keeps not only bugs out but larger creatures, too) if I’m traveling where things go bzz in the night.
What’s the most unusual accommodation you’ve ever stayed in?
That mud hut would definitely qualify. A hammock on the deck of a boat up the Amazon would also qualify. The one I loved the most was a luxury tent in the Masai Mara though—I woke up terrified to the sight of a tall Masai warrior with a spear leaning over me! Turned out he was a waiter bringing me breakfast…
What’s the most unusual form of transportation you’ve ever employed?
Being ferried by helicopter around the Niger Delta was definitely fun—but a helicopter flight under the radar from Cyprus to Beirut during the war was a little less amusing. In the Philippines I rode under a tarp in a pickup truck through police checkpoints to sneak into a goldmine, and once I had to paddle out of a flood in a homemade canoe. Flying in the Canadian Arctic on one of those small planes with skis was fun too, and trekking in Ethiopia on a donkey might qualify as unusual.
Speaking of Ethiopia… there was a small plane to Lalibela once that didn’t have enough fuel to both land and take off again and we did have to hit the ground running while the plane was still rolling along the grass airstrip, the same airstrip goatherds were trying to clear with their sticks.
You mention that you once tried broiled snake steak. Aside from that, what’s the most exotic food you’ve ever eaten? Have you ever said, “No thanks”?
Bugs. I don’t eat bugs. And I wouldn’t be able to eat anything I’d consider keeping as a pet. Possibly the most exotic thing is caiman, the small Brazilian crocodile. I didn’t set out to but the indigenous group I was with in the Amazon killed it for a meal and since we weren’t exactly carrying supplies…
Do you have a favorite travel book, film, music, TV show/series?
I’m into oldies but goodies… if it weren’t for James Michener’s The Drifters, I probably would never have gone to Mozambique. And the movie based on Michener’s Caravans… whenever I hear the soundtrack I think I’m in Afghanistan or Iran… I think Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar got me started on long-distance train travel. I read a lot of travel books and love the great ones—but there’s nothing as painful as a poorly written travelogue.
What’s your favorite souvenir?
You mean other than Kermit, my green tin mug?
What’s your favorite destination so far?
Choosing one is impossible but maybe I can narrow it down a bit… Cuba because of its history and because it is changing before my very eyes, and possibly Burma, for similar reasons. I love seeing places in flux before they are transformed. I’m still kicking myself for not getting to Russia while it was still the Soviet Union, and I suspect North Korea will require the same amount of self-kicking. I love places that are a bit offbeat or where I won’t run into busloads of travelers. Bangladesh was like that, filled with color and smells and spice and smiles but hardly any travelers. The mountains of Albania qualify as well but they’ll be overrun as soon good roads are built and Europeans discover it as a destination. So glad I spent three weeks there recently!
You’ve been traveling for many years now and had some wild adventures. Your bio states that you “unwittingly sat on an anaconda in Brazil.” Details, please.
Details?? I sat. It moved. I ran!