The Long Journey Of Female Travelers

Centuries after the adventures of female explorers blazed a path for us, more (and more!) women are exploring the world. As writer Nina Unlay observes, we’ve come a long way — and we still have a long road ahead.

They say that Amelia Earhart, the world’s most celebrated female traveler, was raised by her mother in the spirit of adventure. Before she famously disappeared in 1937, Amelia sent her mother a telegram saying, “Don’t worry, no matter what happens, it will have been worth the trying.”

Unlike Amelia — but like so many other women growing up in Manila — I was raised with caution. My mother is not a traveler, or so she claims. She has never traveled alone, for fear of getting lost. If she were brave enough, she says, she would walk the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, where thousands before her have pilgrimaged. But thus far, her big solo adventure has been spending a single night alone in a foreign country; in total, the distance between the airport to the Airbnb, as she waited for the rest of the family to arrive.

She did see me off eight years ago, when I first went off to live abroad. My mother, worrying that I would get lost without her guidance, came along with my tita — her faith in the strength of numbers. And so, there we ended up: three Filipinas, warm-blooded bodies bundled up in winter coats, learning how to read maps and Spanish signs in Madrid. We stalled at every bus stop. One such memory is burned in my brain, because in this one, the bus did not come. I remember how we hovered, possibly arguing, over the laminated schedule pinned on the glass partition. It was January, the coldest month in Spain, so we shivered, gave up and ordered a taxi.

But every day we tried again. We left my tiny shoebox of a dormitory room to walk to the fountain of Puerto del Sol, then worked our way outward to map out the city with our feet. We repeated this for several days, until they were certain that I would always be able to find my way.

I haven’t stopped traveling — and, at one point in my career, became very good at it, in the few years that I worked as a travel writer. I’ve navigated the jungle with a bolo knife (albeit with lots of help), gone up the mountains in search of cultural treasures, gone on buddy adventures with my favorite female friends. Usually, I also find my way home.

The memory of Madrid became the Puerto del Sol for the rest of my life, my soft entry into a life of travel — a step forward into the unknown, softened by the companionship of women.

It’s no longer unusual to be a woman and to travel. As a sign of the times, Google reports that the popularity of the search term “female solo traveler” peaked in January 2020, following years and years of growth. And as I think about the way my not-a-traveler mother sent me off, I also think about how far we’ve come.

Why did it take so long? Perhaps because travel has always been a privilege for the powerful — it used to be about men going gallivanting on expeditions, planting flags on foreign lands; men who claimed places and people, who shaped travel as known through history books.

The first famous female explorers came from the 18th century, and they had a long road to make up. Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, had to do so as part of Admiral de Bougainville’s 1763 expedition disguised as a man. In 1888, Elizabeth Cochran Seaman went around the world in 72 days, beating the fictional Phileas Fogg, the protagonist in Around the World in 80 Days — though she did it under the pen name Nellie Bly, as female journalists of her time didn’t reveal their true identities in public. But she did manage to travel solo for most of the way.

In March 1910, the Frenchwoman Raymonde de Laroche became the first woman to earn a pilot’s license. A few months later, in August 1910, an Anglo-Irish reporter named Lilian Bland became the first woman to design, build, and fly an aircraft. There were many female aviation pioneers since then, though  perhaps none more famous than Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic solo.

When I first began to travel, I had no ambitions to be a pioneer of anything — I simply wanted to try. But when I started writing, travel became part of my profession, and I found myself surrounded by adventurous women with the same spirit as our predecessors: They were mountaineers, divers, pilots, scientists, artists. Even in a world where travel was afforded to them, they dreamed of expanding the horizon. And they would go anywhere for the love of the unknown. It changed them, I saw, in a way that made them both brave and comfortable, as though they knew their place in the world belonged to them.

I used to think being a traveler or not was somehow rooted in our identities. Fortunately, even if not-traveling was in my gene pool, I was still afforded the privilege of coming along for the ride thanks to my work. When I met women who inspired me, who wanted to stand-up paddle around the Philippines or chase after whale sharks, all I had to do was go with them. And in coming along for the ride, I found that I belonged with them after all; that traveling was in my identity too.

It is still difficult to claim the label with confidence. Once, I went on a trip to Myanmar with a fellow travel writer. In the middle of a week of teahouses and golden pagodas, we were conned by a man with a rickshaw, who offered us a trip to an offshore island. Feeling brave, we accepted — and found ourselves in the throes of a classic scam that ended with us being bullied into handing over a lot of cash. On the way home, we schemed what we would tell people; we decided that we would pretend it never happened. We felt like imposters, the chasm suddenly widening in front of us.

So many of us women were born with the privilege of being able to travel that we have forgotten that we are travelers, and we have forgotten the long road to get here. But there are still difficulties before us: There are still lurking threats, inhospitable borders, and places we are downright told we cannot go. There are opportunities that aren’t open to some of us. But that also means there are also many more firsts to be had.

Among the places open only to men is Mount Athos in Greece, from which women have been barred since the 10th century. And yet, when archaeologists went digging there late last year, they uncovered remains that look like they may belong to a woman. So, if history teaches us anything, it is that women cannot be stopped.

On the eve of that flight to Madrid long ago, I remember how my mother showed me the way to roll my clothes; it was better, she claimed, than folding them. I’ve gone on many trips since, but I have grown to expect that she will still come knocking, to stuff my suitcase with as many comforts as she can: a sweater in case it gets cold; a pillow for the ride; something to eat, just because there is still room in the bag. And before I take off, a text, like clockwork: “Be safe, take care.” Slowly, I think I am convincing her that we can handle at least a few steps of the Camino de Santiago together.

Written by

Nina Unlay

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