I’ll never forget the day I checked in for my flight to Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was at South Africa’s O.R. Tambo International Airport and had been waiting in line forever. When I finally reached the counter, the agent took one look at my ticket and asked why I was going to the DRC. When I replied, “For vacation,” he laughed.
I admit, my vacation choices aren’t always conventional. I can’t remember the last time I stayed in an actual hotel—the kind with hot running water, fluffy towels, or any real amenities aside from a can of bug spray next to the bed. During a recent trip to Chad, I didn’t have a room. I spent 19 days sleeping in the great outdoors—and going to the loo there, too—while crossing the Sahara Desert. I showered twice in 21 days: the morning I left the capital city of N’Djamena, and the afternoon I returned. For the first five days on the road, I didn’t have soap to wash my hands with. A novice at camping, it never even occurred to me to bring any.
But none of that mattered. I loved every single minute of the trip, and was desperately sad when it came to an end. True, having a mixture of sheep, goat, and donkey poo splashed all over the pants I was wearing—one of only two pairs I’d brought with me and would have to continue wearing for another week—was not awesome. But that was a small price to pay for the chance to experience the vast, eerily beautiful nothingness of the Sahara, or hold a 370-million-year-old fossil in my hands, or a tool carved from stone that connected me through time directly back to the person who created it, some 7,000 years ago.
I went for a week without showering when gorilla tracking with pygmies in the Noubalé-Ndoki National Park. But unlike in Chad, in this pristine, two-million-square-mile rain forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was given a bucket of water to wash with each night. I also used this same bucket as my en-suite toilet in the small hours of the night, not because I didn’t want to walk alone through a forest filled with wild animals, but because of my abject fear of the outhouse filled with maggots and large flying insects.
I travel to far-flung places of my own volition, for the same reason a chicken crosses the road. If you want to see the world, you have to put up with in whatever digs the world has to offer.
I’ve been traveling my whole life, and I prefer to do so alone. I made my first solo trip abroad to Mexico when I was 12 years old, to visit a girl I barely knew. We’d become friends a few weeks before her family left my hometown of Bethesda to move back to Mexico City, where they were from. A year later, a blue airmail envelope arrived with a handwritten note inside, inviting me to visit for the summer. Despite not knowing the family, or having heard from them since they’d left (it was 1980 and therefore pre email, SMS, or Skype), my mom agreed to let me go.
Spending the summer on my own in Mexico was a revelation (her parents, both diplomats, were largely absent). Everything was an adventure. Each day meant something new to discover, a challenge to overcome, a riddle to solve. I roamed the city alone, inhabiting the life of someone who belonged there. I felt invincible and unstoppable, and by the end of summer I knew unequivocally what I’d always suspected: I was born to wander the world alone.
Travel, especially by myself, and particularly to unusual places (but really, anywhere) is a salve for my chronic restlessness, curiosity, and fierce independence. I never feel more alive, and more full of wonder, joy, gratitude, and pride than when I’m exploring somewhere new. Traveling demands I do what comes unnaturally: face my fears, make incautious decisions, and eighty-six my comfort zone, all of which I consider a privilege. Learning to make decisions for myself, figuring out what I truly like and want to do, and pushing myself harder and farther than I ever thought possible is, to me, the definition of absolute freedom, and it can be as unnerving as it is addictive.
It’s not that I won’t travel with other people. I have, and I will. But unencumbered by the preferences, needs, or energy of a traveling companion, the shots are mine to call; the risks mine to take. I am free to throw myself with abandon into uncharted circumstances and let serendipity lead my way, whether that means whiling away the hours drinking beer made out of sorghum (which looks and tastes exactly like vomit) with a bunch of Ethiopians who speak zero English at a local bar the size of my bathtub, missing every sight I’ve traveled so far to see, or climbing hand-over-foot up the highest mountain in Slovakia’s High Tatras with someone I met a few hours earlier, using socks for gloves, and climbing shoes and clothes procured en route to the mountain, just because it sounded like fun.
When I travel on my own, overcoming even the smallest obstacles (for example, managing to figure out what bus to take) and handling head-on whatever comes my way fills me with such disproportionately immense amounts of joy that it’s hard to explain to anyone over the age of three. It’s as if whatever fear-conditioning the world at large has tried so hard to drill into my tiny little brain is extirpated by the exciting deeds, physical challenges, and hilarious (mis)adventures I find myself triumphing over.
People always remark how brave (or crazy) I must be to travel on my own, especially as a woman, which has never resonated well with me. If I’m a confident, focused, capable problem-solver at home in New York, does it not stand to reason I would be the same everywhere else? And because I’m a single woman, must I only vacation in countries that are free from State Department warnings? Sorry, but I’m not buying it. If I listened to every State Department (and/or guidebook) warning, there’d barely be a country left to visit.
I understand the world is an inherently dangerous place, and traveling carries a certain amount of risk, but I refuse to accept that these risks are any greater because I’m a woman. The formula for safety is the same for all sexes, whether you’re in Palm Springs, Paris or Pyongyang: Don’t be stupid. I am no more susceptible to harm than the person standing next to me if I have prepared properly, and taken steps to mitigate unnecessary risks.
So unless we’re talking about an errant cockroach that runs across my stomach while I’m sleeping (thank you, Ethiopia), a rat that sneaks into my room during the night and eats my toothbrush (thank you, Kenya AND the Philippines), or a beetle infestation that sends me screaming from my room (thank you, Sri Lanka), being scared is just not something I’m afraid of. It’s a price worth paying for once-in-a-lifetime-experiences and adventures, and having explored 85 countries and counting, I can say with some authority, it’s absolutely worth it.
As British travel writer and explorer Freya Stark, who was the first Westerner to travel through many regions of the Middle East, wrote in her book, “Baghdad Sketches”:
Like Stark, when alone in a strange new world, I am not filled with fear, because I do not know “what’s in store” for me. Instead, I am born again. I am a blank slate, I am a catalyst, and I am an electric force for change. You can’t ask for much more than that from a plane ticket.
Wendy E. Simmons lives in Brooklyn and is president of Vendeloo, a management consultancy she founded in 2001. Her book, My Holiday In North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth, will be be available from May 2016.