The life-changing magic of seeing the world solo is well-documented. Travel bloggers and influencers reel off its virtues as an empowering and life-affirming act; one that opens our eyes to the world’s dizzyingly diverse cultures. But, despite travel’s power to widen our worldview, there’s a distinct lack of diversity in the voices that dominate the discourse around solo travel. Scroll through posts tagged ‘solo travel’ on TikTok and Instagram and it seems the majority of artfully framed sunset shots and travel tips videos tend to feature a certain type of traveller: young white women.
But, as these three inspiring women prove, solo travel is for everyone. Dorothee Hildebrandt is a 72-year-old grandmother cycling from Sweden to Egypt to influence people to travel sustainably. Kiyonah Mya Buckhalter is a Muslim Niqabi woman carving a space out for herself in the predominantly white world of travel influencing. And Jessica Nabongo is the first Black woman on record to travel to every country on the planet – all before she reached 36. For International Women’s Day 2023, we spoke to them all about their experiences of seeing the world solo.
At the age of 65, Dorothee Hildebrandt decided to devote her retirement years to travelling the world and fighting for the environment. In 2022, aged 72, she successfully cycled from her home in Sweden to COP27 in Egypt. She’s now on her return journey.
‘I grew up in Germany after the war, so we didn’t have a lot of money. But my father would take us on bicycle trips during the summer, and we biked all over Germany and Switzerland.
As soon as I retired, I began travelling the world. I set off in November 2015 and was hopping around New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the USA for well over a year. Two years later, I explored Mexico and Belize.
In 2021, I did my first climate trip, cycling to COP26 in Glasgow. I have always recycled, but seeing Greta Thunberg on television in 2018 was a reminder that things had gotten worse; that we have gotten wealthier, but our consumption hasn’t gotten smarter.
This time around, the journey is much longer. But because I had done it once I never doubted that I would make it.
I never doubted that I would make it
Since I set off from Sweden in July 2022, I’ve covered more than 10,000 kilometres. I use a pink e-bike that I’ve named Miss Piggy. My goal was to cycle to COP27 in Sharm El-Sheik, and I made it one day before the conference started.
I don’t expect people to cycle that distance, but I do think we have to take climate change seriously and do everything in our power to turn it around.
The most amazing experience I had was seeing the Siwa Oasis [in Egypt] in real life. It was exactly like the pictures I remember from my childhood, but right there in front of me.
Now I’m in Israel, waiting until April when the next ferry to Cyprus leaves. I’m eight months into my journey, which is usually when I get homesick. I miss my little apartment. The plan is to be back in August, but because of the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey, that might change.
There isn’t one country I enjoyed more than others. It’s always amazing to see these cultural monuments and nature you didn’t expect, and I never felt unsafe.
What I remember the most are the people. In Turkey, a driver offered to take me over a steep hill and then continued to drive me to the next village. I’ve been invited for dinner several times or to stay over. Even Miss Piggy has received help and been fixed for free.
I don’t feel my age. I hope I can continue to make plenty more long journeys
On Facebook, so many people have asked if they could send me money and left encouraging comments or connected me with locals. Now I am asking people to donate €1 for every kilometre I’ve travelled to charities supporting children impacted by the war in Ukraine.
I don’t feel my age, and I hope I can continue to make plenty more long journeys. With the bicycle, I might do shorter periods in the future. As long as your body and mind make it, travelling like this is doable. It might not be so easy, but there are other climate-friendly ways to travel. As I see it, 72 is no age anyway.’ As told to Miriam Gradel
Kiyonah Mya Buckhalter is a Muslim woman who wears the niqab (the Islamic garment that covers the face) and travels the world alone. Calling herself ‘The Veiled Traveler’ on social media, she is making waves as an influencer who embraces seeing the world while practising her faith.
‘My family introduced me to a love of travel. From family vacations and trips in Puerto Rico to summer vacations in the Caribbean, it always felt natural to look forward to my next big trip.
But it wasn’t until I studied abroad in Florence, Italy for six months my sophomore year of college that I realized this is what I wanted to spend my life doing. That’s the wonderful thing about Europe — it’s so easy to fall in love with travelling the world when it feels like the world is just a few train rides away. I was jetting off to England, Germany, and Spain for sometimes as little as €15.
I dined with strangers, followed locals on their daily excursions, and let my gut be my tour guide for every new city I traversed. One adventure always led to the next and I fell deeper in love with travel than I had ever before.
Around the same time, I started to fall in love with Islam. My mother was Christian and my father was a member of the Nation of Islam, so I had always grown up around religion, but I found myself gravitating toward Sunnism through the mosques I’d frequent as an undergrad.
At first, it was about finding a community for myself. But as I spent more time in these mosques listening to the sermons and being surrounded by other Muslims, things just clicked for me.
One Ramadan, I decided I wanted to fully commit to my religion in any way I could. I decided then and there to begin wearing a niqab — a Muslim garment that covers everything on the face except for the eyes.
While my passion for travelling never changed, my experiences did
I knew that wearing this new identity out loud would change my life. But my love of travelling didn't stop, and I didn’t want my new, physically Muslim persona to change that. So I continued to travel.
Fast forward to today, I’ve traveled to 28 countries — most of which I visited alone. And while my passion for travelling never changed, my experiences in these countries did.
I was now a visibly Muslim Black woman travelling alone. And while Islamophobia played a role in the diminished amount of people who would help me out with directions or be willing to bring me along their daily route, I noticed my niqab itself was affecting my interactions.
I was wearing a veil on my face that kept others from being able to tell if I was smiling or scowling. There’s a lot of fear in the unknown, and I could tell that people were afraid to approach me or start a conversation. The difference was drastic, and I sometimes find myself internalising that fear too.
But the way I’ve grown accustomed to travelling requires putting myself out there and taking risks with new people. Aside from figuring out which hostels to stay at, I never really pre-plan my trips. I show up with a few key destinations in mind and allow conversations with locals to influence what I do or see next. How can I do that if I continue projecting the fear that others put on me?
I’ve never let others’ perceptions of my identity hinder my travel
I may need a pep-talk or two before approaching strangers in a new country, but I’ve never let others’ perceptions of my identity hinder my travel. I’ve spent most of the past few years travelling around countries including Korea, Morocco, Greece, Dominican Republic and more all while wearing the niqab, and I’m grateful for every experience I’ve had. I’ve gained a big community (both Muslim and non-Muslim) that has helped me along the way.
My dream is to help other Muslim women do the same. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it.’ As told to Syeda Khaula Saad
Jessica Nabongo is a writer, photographer, entrepreneur, travel expert, influencer, and public speaker. In 2019, she completed her journey as the first Black woman on record to travel to all 195 countries around the world – and she’s not stopping anytime soon.
‘I’ve been travelling since I was four years old. My parents really built a love of travel in me, and as I got older and became financially independent, I put a lot of my money towards travel. Shortly after turning 35, I ended up visiting every country in the world – I am the first Black woman to do so.
I have experienced discrimination because I appear African, more so than being Black generally. My issues mainly came with immigration. If I was using my US passport, often officials would think it was fake. If I used my Ugandan passport, people thought I was going to be overstaying my visa.
Although there is the global anti-African sentiment, I always say: governments and people exist on two different planes. For example, in Pakistan, I had an amazing time when I was in the country, but had one of my worst travel experiences trying to get out because they thought I was a drug smuggler.
My biggest goal is to use my storytelling to reduce bias
My biggest goal is to use my storytelling to reduce bias. In June I published my book with National Geographic, and so much of that is telling stories about how strangers have led to my beautiful life. I travelled to 89 countries solo and that was only possible because of the kindness of strangers.
People have said [solo travel] has helped them see countries in a new light. I love travelling with my friends, but I think solo travel is special because I get so much more immersed in the culture. As I’m alone, I end up talking more to strangers. Even when I’m at home, if I hear someone’s accent, I’ll ask where they’re from, because we can always connect. I remember once in New York, my Uber driver was from Algeria, and I said thank you to him in the local dialect. He couldn’t believe I knew that word. People are always so excited when I tell them I’ve visited their country.
Just because you don’t read about somewhere in mainstream travel media, it doesn’t mean it’s dangerous or not desirable. I love Namibia, Senegal, Ghana, Mozambique, Madagascar, Jordan, Oman and Lebanon. The Middle East and Africa are probably the two regions that people stay away from, but they’re actually my favourite.
I don’t think of travel as a radical act. I just want to live this life to the fullest
I still travel about twice a month now, and my next trips are to visit Cuba, Scotland and Wales. For me, travelling isn’t about getting a passport stamp. It’s just going somewhere and taking the opportunity to explore and to learn. I feel like the world wants us, as women, to be so afraid, but I’ve had so many amazing experiences.
I don’t think of travel as a radical act. I just want to live this life to the fullest. I hope that what people get from my journey is… to just go! Be outside, visit the places that you want to visit, and don’t get so caught up in what could go wrong.’ As told to Charlie Duffield
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