Some people wouldn’t consider sitting in Starbucks alone. Others think nothing of travelling solo across a continent or sailing an ocean single-handed. I suppose I am somewhere in between. I like the idea of travelling alone but in reality usually end up getting a bit lonely, or with too much time to think, a bit gloomy. People always insist you meet others more easily when you’re alone, but that only happens if you’re being sociable and open – and unless you’re a natural extrovert, it’s hard work to keep that up after a 12 hour bus journey or a day of museums has plunged you into the depths of despair over the human condition. (Some amusing thoughts on making friends while travelling here.) Then there’s the sheer inconvenience of it all: without a friend to mind your bags while you go to the loo you end up tackling a long-drop and urine-soaked floor by trying to hook your backpack round your neck as you squat and cover your nose and mouth from the smell.
And then, as a woman, there’s the mere fact of not being a man. For anyone, travel can feel like an endless succession of decisions on who to trust and who not to trust. For a lone woman – especially the young, white, (relatively) rich-looking kind – you’re always something of a target. But a target of opportunistic rape and plunder? Or a target simply of attention and interest – someone exotic to talk to and maybe sell something to? The taxi driver in an unlicensed cab, the man who wants your phone number, the tourist guide, the helpful passer-by – every time, you have to make a decision about trust.
I’ve travelled alone in Europe, Latin America and China, but never before in Africa. Having been here a few months now, I feel fairly confident that it won’t be any harder here. People are either used to seeing foreigners, even the weird ones who like to do things alone, and barely pay any attention; or in a remote area, they’re excited to see you and treat you as a special guest. It doesn’t stop men asking your phone number, your age, how many children you have, etc. Women, meanwhile, can appear rather reserved at first. But if you ask for help, people give it. It says something about the friendliness of the people here that I already know I’ll find people I can trust near me. I may still be nervously memorising the taxi driver’s features so I can identify him later in an ID parade, and yes, I’ll be taking on board some of the usual tips for women travellers. But I’m happy to say that on the whole Africa has reinforced, not diminished, my trust in my fellow human beings.
Then again, I haven’t actually started my journey yet. Let’s see what the next 2 weeks bring.