Since I was 27 and left home on my first solo backpacking trek across the United States, friends and acquaintances have been telling me I’m “brave.” The volume of such comments increased enormously seven years ago, when I first decided to get on an airplane and visit Argentina by myself for 10 days. I suppose it does take a bit of backbone for a lone woman to travel 5,500 miles, to a country where she knows no one and doesn’t have the greatest facility with the language even after decades of spotty Spanish study.
But this isn’t the big deal it used to be – international travel for women is so common now, I’m surprised to find entire websites dedicated to the topic. Of course women traveling alone are subject to harassment and even rape, and we women and LGBTQ folks share information to keep ourselves secure and sane on the road. My first solo journey to South America was lonely, although I never felt unsafe anywhere, and now when I visit Buenos Aires I feel like a regular at my favorite bed and breakfast and have travel buddies to hang out with, visiting the Sunday craft fairs and the traditional tango milongas.
The most recent compliments on my travel courage came from my wonderful upstairs neighbor friends and landlords, a married heterosexual couple. They could not wrap their heads around why I was going to Easton Mountain, a Radical Faerie retreat for gay men, on Labor Day weekend. Well, I was invited – along with any other person who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer – and it looked like a fun opportunity for growth and something I needed to do for myself. (I’ll save the details for another blog post.)
Bravery is in the eye of the beholder. I was raised in a pretty traditional white, North American nuclear family, with a mother who suffered from anxiety and depression and a father who had his own affective disorders, but did what was necessary to make a living that would support a wife and two kids. Until I was in high school, my mom worked at home, raising my younger brother and me and keeping our house nearly spotless. My dad’s career offered occasional travel in the United States, and our family took annual summer vacations to nearby cities and rural areas, never going farther from our home in the northeast than Washington, D.C. and Toronto, Ontario (in those days, U.S. citizens didn’t need a passport to travel to Canada, and crossing the border in Niagara Falls was a snap for white heteros with children). My mother was afraid to go anywhere by herself, and seemed to feel protected in our lower-middle-class suburban milieu. When my father left her after 25 years of courting and marriage, one of Mom’s brave acts was flying on a regional airline to visit my great-aunt on Long Island for a long weekend.
Granted, flying anywhere was less common three decades ago than it is now. But after watching my mother tripped up and trapped by anxiety, seeing my father off to work each morning in his suit and tie, surrounded by nuclear families like ours in poorly made tract houses in a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs, all I wanted was to escape. My greatest dread in life was ending up like her. In fact, it’s entirely possible that that fear fuels my travels as much as restlessness, curiosity, or a need for adventure does. Although I must admit that visiting Buenos Aires six times in five years is my own version of the cul-de-sac. We all have our safe harbors.