It's a Thursday evening in October, I'm typing on a laptop, and I'm drinking my second coffee of the day which, if history is any indication, will deliver enough caffeine to create a combination of stretching my eyeballs very wide in their sockets and making my body want to expel out of its skin.
All of this is happening on a plane upon which I am traveling alone. I'll be just as high in the air and alone again on Monday, on Tuesday, next Saturday, two weeks after that, and again at least three times in November when I make my way back to where I started. I don't know the exact number of times I have traveled by myself in my life, but it is somewhere between a lot and very many, and enough to cause certain people to make remarks. Such people refer to the act of being a woman and traveling on her own as brave, courageous, and/or bold. Some have even been so forward as to label me an Independent Female Traveler, an impressive title which I can only timidly inhabit and continue to try to live up to.
I actually don't consider myself to be very brave, courageous, or bold when it comes to getting on popular international airlines and visiting areas to which I know many other women have gone before. It simply tends to happen often because I live in a different place now from the one in which I was raised. And because my mom lives in two other altogether different places from that original one where my parents raised me. And because most of my friends from the places I have lived previously do not live in the one where I live now. And also because I'm not married or in any formal way attached to any traveling partners.
I remember the first time it happened. I was sixteen and on my way to attend a high-performance volleyball camp in North Carolina, which was an experience that made me feel not very high-performance at all since most of the other sixteen year olds there towered over 6-feet and had already been signed on as juniors to play at the university level no less than two years later. No one had yet thought of asking me to do anything two years in the future, and to this day still no one has. I don't remember any of the details of that flight, which maybe serves to show you how many unremarkable solo flying experiences have occurred for me since then. All of them happen in this way: you just take some sort of transportation to the airport, or if you have kind friends sometimes one of them will drive you, and then there is some waiting and perhaps drinking and/or snacking, then more waiting, and then you're in a seat in the air flying towards your goal, which could be visiting another one of these kind friends or maybe a family member or simply some new surroundings that you've been longing to see. And if you do all of this and happen to have identifying womanly features, you too might be labelled an Independent Female Traveler (IFT).
However, after some consideration, I have surmised that these rudimentary drive/wait/fly/wait/drive again steps are not all that needs to be done to earn the title. For example, the woman seated in the same row as me is traveling alone as well, but I would argue that it cannot be said that she is traveling independently. I think the difference between us can best be explained by providing a comparative description of our traveling styles.
But before getting into it, let me interject that she has been more than generous to me by first offering a stick of gum for myself plus an extra piece for the “cute guy sitting across the aisle from me” who is, in fact, very cute, but who will not be receiving this offering since I am not in the habit of chatting up dudes on planes and since any follow-up conversation might severely decrease the joys of traveling solo which include peaceful solitude and doing productive activities. Secondly, she has said that, if I get a cup with ice, I can enjoy the rest of her Coke. And thirdly, she has gotten two bags of chips (Popcorners and the Terra sweet potato kind) to allow me to try a variety of snacks on this three and a half hour flight, a gesture which I appreciate because for some reason the JetBlue snack baskets this evening are full of kettle corn so I accidentally grabbed one of those and am of the opinion that kettle corn is one of the absolute worst flavors of popcorn chips, second only to barbecue.
Niceties aside, I will admit that it was with a slight bit of dismay that I approached my seat and found this particular person in the spot next to me due to the fact that I had already experienced a separate encounter with her earlier in the airport bathroom. After stopping outside the ladies' room to fill my water bottle and then turning inside to search for an empty stall, I heard someone behind me calling out “Miss” over and over again. After confirming that the hollering was directed at me, and thinking that I had dropped something, I turned around to discover that she was wondering where I had filled up my water bottle and if they had any water available in the airport. Since I was feeling very understanding and working toward conjuring only positive thoughts about others in order to bring blessed fortune upon myself, I repressed a sizable eye roll and considered that perhaps this person does not travel very often because in almost all airports that I've visited, they do indeed have water fountains and these oases are nearly always located directly outside the restroom. So later when I found her seated next to me on the plane I thought, oh, here is the familiar face of someone who perhaps is unaccustomed to airline travel. Since that moment of discovery, our relationship has progressed in ways that I generally prefer relationships not to progress with strangers sitting next to me in public places. In our short time together, she has asked me to help her set her phone to airplane mode, direct her back to her music collection, turn on the volume of her in-flight entertainment, flag down the flight attendant to figure out said entertainment, and translate said flight attendant's non-New York accent when he patiently explained that the entertainment was not working for anyone on board right now after she exasperatedly exclaimed that “NOTHING WORKS FOR (her)!” on this flight. I have continued to hear grumpy oh-my-graciouses coming from her direction although I have since applied my headphones with iTunes at a hefty volume. I am expressing my own silent gratitude at having been able to manifest an empty aisle seat next to me which allowed me to move out of the middle and into it. A little space can work wonders in many of life's trying situations.
From this example I have gained the slightest bit of elitism at the IFT title since not all who are female and traveling on their own can fully fit into its definition. So, I assume it is because I tend to disengage with the world around me and avoid talking to others or asking questions in airports and would simply not consider pressing the call button on a plane for anything except a) being projectile vomited upon or b) facing imminent demise, that I have laid more claim to the haughty label of Independent Female Traveler. Brave. Courageous. Bold. It's really none of these things and more just something that you do if you a) enjoy traveling and b) don't have anyone to go with you because they either have real jobs or don't enjoy traveling or you believe they wouldn't be into your top hobbies of most of the time walking aimlessly and the rest of the time being lost and trying to figure out where you are.
All points considered, I do not even consider myself to be one of the most independent of the IFT's I know. I have participated in many guided group tours and retreats, which subtly provide a comfortable travel setting to give you the feel of being alone while actually being safely surrounded by a group. When I'm really on my own out in the world, I usually stay at very westernized hostels where I am sure to meet other English speakers and find reminders of safety and home. Compared to friends who have been on solo road trips or year-long backpacking adventures, I am a watered down version of a strong woman blazing a trail for other ladies and future ladies of the millennium. I am an amateur IFT on a trail that's been blazed for me, but an IFT nonetheless. I guess fitting in with the title comes down to a trust thing—you accept that you can only prepare so much and then you sort of trust yourself to make the right decisions within the universe's boundaries and then trust the universe to unfold the rest.