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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Be A Traveler, Not A Tourist

Recently I was asked to take part in an online interview about women's adventure travel by a well-known travel magazine . As a long-time adventure traveler, my name was put forward by one of the organizations I frequently travel with as an appropriate person to answer a few questions.
I began my adventure travel journey with Country Walkers, a Vermont-based hiking organization, more than 20 years ago. At that time, I met up with a friend from the other side of the country and we went hiking in Glacier National Park. Then we took other hiking trips together, meeting once a year. Then I started finding other places I wanted to visit, and without someone to travel with me (my friend and I had a falling out), I realized I had a choice of either going by myself or staying home. Clearly, staying home wasn't an option for me. Once I retired and my daughter was old enough to be left on her own, my adventure travels really took off. I usually take eight to 10 trips each year, to both domestic and international destinations.

I believe today's women have more financial opportunities to travel than ever, as well as the self-confidence to travel without a male companion. We realize that we can travel and go on adventures with or without a man, or even without a female travel partner. Women are an integral part of the workforce, and although the glass ceiling still limits our upward mobility at the very top, many women now have successful, high-paying careers. I have met numerous attorneys and physicians on my trips, as well as women with lower-paying jobs who nonetheless enjoy an adventure trip every year.

Organizations such as Country Walkers, Backroads and Natural Habitat Adventures, all of which I have traveled with repeatedly, provide us solo women with safe, well-organized adventure travel opportunities. I love to travel to other countries, but I wouldn't feel comfortable going to Turkey, for example, since I don't speak Turkish. But going with two experienced, English-speaking Turkish hiking guides takes away the worry. Even going to countries where many people speak English, I prefer adventure travel with a group so I don't have to worry about the logistics, finding the best places to hike or visit, where to stay, etc. Women have finally come into their own and want to enjoy the same experiences as males, and the numbers seem to prove it..

I was asked what the experience of being a woman on an adventure trip was like. My experience on more than 20 adventure travel trips has been wonderful. I never have had a bad experience. Some places and some guides I like more than others, but I keep going back for more adventures. I have taken 11 trips with Country Walkers, and I have a 12th trip coming up in a couple of months. I recently signed up for my 9th Natural Habitat Adventures trip, and I have traveled with Backroads at least twice, with another trip planned for later this year.

I always feel safe and well cared for with these groups. I appreciate knowing ahead of time what to expect as far as hike difficulty, mileage, etc. On my first overseas trip with CW, I met another American woman who was traveling solo and who was at the same hiking level as I was. We hit it off, stayed in touch, and have returned to Africa together for the past three years. (She can't go this year due to a health issue). Last year, while on a safari in Kenya organized by a London-based travel agency, I had a tentmate from Scotland. Again, we hit it off, and we will be returning to Kenya this summer, along with a British couple we met during that safari. And we have plans for a trip to Brazil in 2018.

I am an introvert, so sometimes it is a bit uncomfortable at first being with a bunch of people I don't know. But there have always been people who invited me to join them for dinner, or with whom I spent time on the trail, so I usually wasn't alone for long. On one trip three Jewish women took me under their wings. And I have met people who have become friends. I also stay in touch with some of my guides, both domestic and international. 

Solo travel requires a certain amount of pushing myself beyond my comfort zone, and a willingness to try new things, meet new people and experience places that may be completely different from what one is used to. It also requires the willingness to be flexible and to 'go with the flow.' I heard an expression during my first trip to Africa that pretty well sums up the experience: "It is what it is." We shouldn't expect things to be just the way they are in the US. Customs differ, the sense of time differs, the food is different. But that's part of the allure. I am hooked on adventure travel, whether I go alone and meet up with a group, or whether I go with a travel partner. 

Had I not gone on any of these trips, I wouldn't have been able to visit Petra or watch elephants swimming in Botswana, or heard an elephant trumpet just a few feet from my tent one night. I have had so many amazing adventures.

I also was asked why I want to go on an adventure trip rather than just on a vacation. For me, regular vacations are pretty boring. I don't enjoy visiting museums or looking at art or sitting on a beach. I am not one to 'sleep in' even if I could. I don't want to be part of a group of 40+ people. I like a more intimate experience. The camp where I stayed in Kenya last year has just six tents. I want to see new things, have new experiences, explore new places and try different foods. I want to go off the beaten path and be a traveler, not just a tourist. My adventure travels take me most often to places where I can get out of the rat race, enjoy nature and wildlife, and experience things such as river rafting.

I am an active person and I like to be on the move, whether hiking someplace new, going on safari in Africa, or walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. These adventure experiences not only expose me to new and different things in a novel way, but the experiences make wonderful memories. During part of my trip to South Africa last year, our group spent a few hours walking and getting as close as was safe to rhinoceros and elephants. We spent one night sleeping on a raised platform under the stars and hearing the animals at a nearby water hotel. This was a trip for travelers, not for tourists. I don't care about staying in a fancy hotel or going to a spa. Sleeping under the stars and falling asleep to the sounds of Africa is just fine with me.

And as an avid amateur photographer, adventure travel lets me capture things up close and personal. I have some amazing photos of an elephant emerging from the forest in the early morning light, and I have photos of elephants bathed in the golden light of the setting sun reflected in the clouds of dust they stirred up. I have the memories of finally spotting a cheetah family heading out for its evening hunt. I got to watch a family of elephants swimming in Botswana, something I had never seen, much less thought about, before. I saw a Bengal tiger in India carrying off the spotted deer she had just killed early in the morning.

These are adventures. They have opened my mind to a whole new world and made me so much more aware of what is going on in other countries. When I read about the problems of cattle invading the elephant habitat of Lakipia, Kenya, I can relate, because I flew in a helicopter -- with the door open -- over that area. When our helicopter landed on a sand dune in Turkana, Kenya, and we were approached by three AK--47-toting local men, our group leader (who is fluent in their language) was able to communicate with them and then explain to us why they were questioning our presence. One doesn't get this kind of experience from a simple vacation.

As chef and television personality Andrew Zimmern said: "Please be a traveler, not a tourist. Try new things, meet new people, and look beyond what’s right in front of you."

For me, adventure travel is the only way to go!