Circling Around Places
2. October 2018
Solo Female Traveler in Focus – Rae Hadley
“That’s the ideal meeting…once upon a time, only once, unexpectedly, then never again.”
― Helen Oyeyemi
Last year when I came back from Hunza, my friend Minhaj Mujtaba made me talk to this wonderful woman Rae Hadley after seeing the spark I had for traveling solo. Rae was in Hunza at that time on her solo bike trip across the world. For me who was struggling to make any travel move let alone solo, it was baffling. Yes I had heard of women traveling alone, even Pakistani women BUT having a conversation with one was very awe-inspiring.
A WOMAN —- ON A BIKE —- SOLO! —- ACROSS THE WORLD was my dream and Rae was living it. I asked her if I could interview her and then post it on my blog. She was very warm about it. The questions that I formed came from my insecurities in general, as woman and a traveler. Not only did I wanted Rae to answer them but also I wanted to have a first-hand experience of knowing someone who had a dream just like mine and overcame fears.
Here is an excerpt from her blog ‘Wide Eyed Views’ that introduces her in the cutest way possible:
‘My name is Rae and I lived on a narrowboat on the Kennet and Avon Canal with my two gorgeous cats, Ginny and Duck, prior to undertaking to going on a bit of a cycle ride … starting the day after the Spring Equinox, 2015. I was late leaving, as usual, and a friend sagely told me that it would be just my luck to have missed the ‘greatest party in history’ because I was running a day late from the start of this very unplanned and ramshackle adventure. I have currently cycled approximately 15, 000 km and am still happiest on my trusty bike, Tilly!’
Amna: What are some of the differences you found in the countries?
Rae: In the course of my 2.5 years of being away from England, I have experienced 22 different countries, all of which have their own specific ideas, beliefs and customs. Countries which do things in their own ways … ways which I, as a traveler, have to find out and adapt to. The further away from England and Europe I have traveled, the greater the distance between my previous life experience and the way of life in the new place. I have also had to adapt to different foods, different temperatures, different landscapes and different clothes. Far from seeing this as an arduous task, I see these adaptations as an important part of my journey into understanding different places and people. It may seem strange to consider some of these changes but since I predominantly travel by bicycle some of these impact on me to a much greater degree than to someone who is travelling by bus or by car.
One of the most important lessons for me while travelling has been to realize and to remember that whilst the external expression of a country might be different than my own, the internal humanity of the people is the same. The most meaningful differences are not those relating to the amount of spice in the food or the words used for ‘home’ or ‘me’, but the way that individuals and cultures treat each other and treat me when I enter their country.
In some countries I have experienced sexual harassment and assault because I have been a woman traveling alone. I have maintained throughout the trip that these instances are always from people who represent the very smallest minority of the people in those countries. Of course these instances shake my sense of safety in those places for a time but I am always able to put them into perspective because the rest of the people I meet treat me with care and respect, thankfully offsetting the awful memories.
I prefer to look at difference with interest but to seek similarity because we can more easily come together globally when we take interest in our differences but not use them to harm each other.
Amna: How do you see yourself as an individual after all the traveling?
Rae: Very interesting question! I see myself as a confident, able woman who has tackled many personal, physical challenges and succeeded. I see myself as more of a global citizen than limited to locating myself in one country. I see myself as an ambassador and proponent of women’s rights to make their own choices and determine their lives themselves. I see myself as someone who will spend the rest of her life thinking about this journey (which is not even over yet!!) and looking for meaning for herself and others in a rapidly changing world.
My understanding of individualism and ideas of a collaborative society move about depending on the culture I am in. I have come from a society which prizes an individual’s intellect and their ability to express their individualism but have now spent a significant amount of time in societies which are (to my mind) much more focused on the ways that individuals can contribute to the social whole. I have been welcomed into large families and given a taste of that dynamic sense of ‘group’. I really enjoyed these experiences, although I sometimes found this quite overwhelming as it is so much at odds with my daily experience of cycling alone as well as my socialized experience of growing up in the UK.
Amna: Would you endorse this type of traveling to women? What would be your key do’s and dont’s?
Rae: I wholeheartedly endorse this type of travelling to both men and women, travelling solo or in a group … The speed of bicycle is just right to be engaged in the world around you and to interact with the people you meet. You are constantly at people’s eye level and bicycles, because of the universality, make people feel at home with you!! They might think you are crazy (and I have heard this from a lot of people) but you will not appear threatening.
In terms of do’s and dont’s …. The main one is Do It!!!! Get a bike and go!!! It is not necessary to carry a lot of expensive kit, you might not even want to carry a tent!! Do it your way, it’s your journey!!! The physicality of the mode of travel helps me to process thoughts and feelings as I move, and leads me to a much more ‘whole’ approach I believe!!! I cannot say it is an easy thing do but it is certainly possible for most people to do in the ways that most suit them!
It is not necessary to go and cycle around the world … it’s much more important to look at how (for example) cycling from one city to the next or from your house to your friend’s house, will impact on your views and the views of the people around you. Will it change your views on the roles, abilities and perceptions of women? Will it empower you and other people? Will it challenge the status quo in a positive way? Will it give you an opportunity to develop your thinking and ‘grow’ emotionally? If the answers are yes then doing something different has a positive point to it … Do it in the way that feels meaningful to you!
Amna: What was your perspective of Pakistan and how it changed (or didn’t)?
Rae: I knew this question was coming!!! In fact this is one I have been answering for many different people since I entered the country and to be honest I find it heart-breaking every time someone asks me to tell my friends that Pakistani people are good people, are not all terrorists and that the popular perception of them is inaccurate.
Firstly, let’s be clear and say that we all know that the western media perspective on Pakistan has not been positive and favorable since at least 2001. We also all know that unfortunately mainstream, tabloid media is predominantly driven to make money or to (re)inforce particular ideas.
I was conscious of my intended route bringing me through Pakistan from very early in the trip ‘planning’ process. I was also very concerned about doing this as a solo woman, with all my preconceptions and fears about how I might be treated and my personal safety, unfortunately Pakistani men, the views of western women (that they are promiscuous/available) and the treatment of women in Islam as a religion do not always have positive connotations for westerners.
I spent hours looking at photos of the Karakoram Highway, route planning and checking out interesting places on the maps. The interest and beauty of the Northern regions especially was never in any doubt but I avoided discussing my intention to apply for a visa with most people because I was sure that their reactions are coming from a place of fear and distrust of a country they only knew through mass media. Media, unfortunately has an insidious effect on even the most clear thinking and can undermine confidence, all of which I did not want.
Once I applied for the visa I was able to tell family and friends of my plans and also by this point I had been travelling alone for nearly 2.5 years … they trust me and my abilities now, much more now than at the beginning!!!
From the very first moment of entering Pakistan, I have been mesmerized and overjoyed by the places I have been seeing and the people I have been meeting!!! I have been treated with such care and respect, although I have also been predominantly traveling with a male friend who has been hitchhiking. I find it difficult to be a solo woman here in this country because it is very evidently challenging the norm. I am conscious that when traveling with a male companion I am often ‘overlooked’ as men will gravitate to that companion and greet him, ask him questions and provide invitations however when I travel alone I get the impression that I am considered as ‘traveler/guest’ first and ‘woman’ second and so still receive those greetings and invitations first hand. This can be difficult for me as a woman unused to having to concede ‘authority’ to a male friend … after all this solo travel, I am very independent, often dogmatic and can be considered quite dominant in my own right!!! I feel very strongly that equality is important for all regardless of gender, skin colour and sexual orientation, but I also consider that I am giving a strong message on women’s ability to do what they choose and prevail just by being here and doing what I do!!!
I made the choice to wear a head covering (it’s currently not mandatory as in the Islamic state of Pakistan) when I was out in public or speaking to people although this has had mixed opinions. I did not see many women outside the home before reaching the southern cities on the KKH (Abbottabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore) but some women I spoke with told me that as a non-muslim, this is not necessary. I have been told that it is appreciated that I show this level of understanding and respect and I have also been asked why I am doing it when I don’t need to!!!! When I walked around the towns and villages in Northern Pakistan and Gilgit Baltistan, I felt ‘slightly’ less uneasy doing this but mainly I feel that since I saw all the women covering their heads I did it out of respect for them.
Unfortunately I also have to report that I have had a couple of ‘difficult, unpleasant’ experiences with Pakistani men whilst I have been travelling. On one occasion, whilst camping, a man who had obviously been drinking alcohol tried to get into my tent and behaved in a sexually threatening manner towards me. On another occasion a man who initially said he was trying to help me took me to a secluded building, it appears with a vague intention of harm, potentially rape however both of these situations were avoided by me keeping calm and managing the situations verbally, not allowing them to escalate to the physical realm.
As I said previously there are many more good people than bad people, it’s incredibly important for me not to allow difficult to taint all my interactions with men, or with people. This is difficult because I end up mentally fighting a stereotype and an experience but it is possible to remain open and safe. In part this is because I have not had to manage any physical trauma and it’s only been ‘minor’ emotional trauma.
Unfortunately because Pakistan has negative connotations for many people these instances only succeed in reinforcing their views. Pakistan in general has a tough time ahead in slowly trying to break these stereotypes and supplanting them with newer positive ones, each ‘bad apple’ undoing the forward steps of the ’good apple’ threefold.
Amna: Lastly, would you want to say anything to the women of Pakistan? The travellers and the non-travellers, in terms of growth as a female.
Rae: Oh my … where to start!!! In terms of female growth … never let others limit you, never limit yourself!! And that you have champions in other countries, do the things you dream and let us all support each other!
I feel that women are in such a universally important position. We have so much more power than we often realize. I want to say that women of the world need to support each other and that we need to speak out for each other and support each other in ways that are meaningful not to ourselves but to the other women.
My belief is that growth is about developing the sense of self as much as it possibly can in intellectual, emotional and spiritual or philosophical ways to create the most ‘whole’ or ‘complete’ form of the individual as possible and we all do this through many and varied means and forms of expression.
For me travel is important, for another having children is important, for another education and a career is important, for yet another a relationship is important. None of these are more or less important than the others. We all live our lives in the ways that give us meaning and we all finally contribute to a universal sense of wholeness.
However we all, as women, struggle with issues of inequality. Women in the west still battle these ideas. The West is not immune from misogyny, it just expresses it in different ways and at a level changed over time, and in the face of any sense of inequality we must develop a sense of solidarity. The right to choose dress, marriage, children (or not) education and career. If women want to wear a head scarf, I will support them in this, so far as it is informed choice not enforced choice. If they don’t equally, I will support them in this. I do not have the right to make those decisions for them but will support other women where I can, in any way that I can. All I can say is that the women in different countries do take an interest in each other’s opinions and struggles and want to engage with each other where ever possible. We are not isolated from each other especially in this increasingly globalized world.