By L.Peat O’Neil
When travel isn’t in the cards, nowadays I read about travel. Narratives of a brave solo woman’s trek across Australia with four camels. British adventurers driving through Central Asia in the 1930s. The diary of a scholar’s wife traveling alone through far western China during the post-revolutionary 1920s. The painful exploits of a tough Englishman who walked from Patagonia to Panama. Or the Norwegian immigrant who walked across continental America in 1896. Trips I might have taken, but because of gender or advancing age, convinced myself not to go because they would be too difficult, uncomfortable and probably dangerous.
Embarrassed to be an American?
Back in the day, there was nothing really preventing me from fully embracing the wandering life but lack of money and embarrassment about the retrograde politics of the greedy old white men whose policies made the U.S. of A. anathema to much of the world in the 1960s and 70s. The Civil Rights struggle and Viet-Nam War brought curiosity and scorn, even angry questions from people abroad. During the post-Nixon years, escalating gun violence and U.S. government support of murderous dictators stimulated questions and some cold shoulders. My best response was to explain that the government of the U.S. did not always represent my attitudes or preferences, nor of anybody I knew. It was embarrassing to explain that many, but not all, U.S. elected officials curried favor with global extraction industries — oil, timber, copper and diamond mines — and weapons buyers. How could any U.S. citizen defend the decades of rapacious meddling by self-serving political leaders in America? And what comes after January 20, 2017?
How does the traveler in faraway lands explain the American popular culture industry that profits from films, lyrics, games and images of attacks abasing women as entertainment objects, giving tacit approval through television and videos that it is normal to mock, belittle and assault women and children?
Back then, I sometimes was afraid that an American woman alone out in the world might appear to be asking to be raped or abducted. If American pop culture depicted solo women as prey, I would be at risk. Since I couldn’t afford to hire a vehicle, would hitching rides imply that I was fair game? I was fearful of disease and dust, strangers and their ideas about American women based on movies and television. I worried about isolation and lack of communications. Before the hesitation and embarrassment about being American in the world, I was an over-confident, sometimes careless traveler.
Sub-Saharan Africa: a missed trip
I started out for Africa in August 1972, alone and burdened by a chunky dark green Boy Scout pack. I was a student at York University and carried several hundred dollars in traveler’s checks and a couple of guidebooks. During the summer, I’d received the required battery of vaccinations for travel in Africa. Landing at Flumicino, I intended to see a few landmarks in Rome, then ferry across the Mediterranean to Egypt and head south, maybe to Dar es Salaam or Rhodesia, places I’d read about. Yet I never got further south than Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. Prices had galloped north since my first solo venture abroad in 1966.
A fistful of days after arriving in Rome, there was only money enough for two or three more weeks in Europe. Then I would have to return. The world economy had changed, or maybe it was the difference between being a teenage girl with family friends to stay with and a young woman in her self-important twenties. From being protected by obvious innocence to being fair game with sketchy knowledge about the great continent I hoped to visit. Looking back, my naive ignorance was astounding. Egypt was on the verge of war with Israel; Rhodesia was a tinderbox for civil war. I had no idea how to cross the thousands of miles between.
One wonders what innate quality of self-preservation kicked in to save me from mis-adventure in Africa, for I was totally unprepared, wearing a canvas knapsack in those days before modern hiking gear was widely available. I carried an imitation army-style knife, heavy and already rusting. The high top leather boots already wore blisters on my ankles and toes. I’d read a few narratives and guidebooks, but I lacked basic survival skills.
During that 1972 trip, I hung out with other travelers at the youth hostel in Rome. We drank cheap vino in the evenings and talked. I remember quizzing a Yugoslav about the ivory cross he wore around his neck. My social awareness was so skewed that I didn’t know people in Communist Bloc countries could follow any religion they favored. A few Italian guys followed me and other young women from the hostel when we organized a picnic in the Villa Borghese gardens. Nothing disastrous happened; the city was full of students with well-thumbed “Let’s Go: Europe” guide books.
Lucky me that I gave up in Rome, succumbing to summer heat. I told myself excuses: if I couldn’t tolerate the Roman summer, how could I manage in equatorial Africa. How could I hitchhike down the Nile when I didn’t speak Arabic? Instead of pressing on with insufficient funds and an inflated sense of entitlement, I high-tailed back to London. Lucky me that I didn’t push onwards to a continent with thinner infrastructure and fewer travel resources.
Funds ran out. A guy staying at the youth hostel offered to hitch northward with me. We lucked out: a physician driving a Mercedes sedan took us to all the way to the youth hostel door in Milano. I pushed on alone, thumbing a cross-Europe ride with a taciturn trucker carrying bottled fruit juice from Milan to Belgium, the ferry port at Ostend. Snagged a second-class train ticket to London on the UK side and soon I was hunting the group house of New Zealanders — friends of an Aussie friend — who were working in the UK during a gap year. I crashed there, shared traveler’s tales and bought a cheap ticket back to Toronto at a discounted flights bucket shop. This was long before cell phones and online discount travel sites. A few years later, I did reach Africa via ferries from Naples and Sicily, but I didn’t go alone. I’d learned something: some journeys are best shared.