The prospect of travelling alone can be daunting, and women often carry an extra layer of trepidation. Years of socialization and media reports tell us it isn’t safe to set off by ourselves, so many women who want to travel but don’t have a companion simply don’t go.
Then there are the fearless—along with the women who wade through their doubts and take the plunge anyway. You can read about some such travellers in two new books by B.C. and Canadian writers. One compiles personal experiences from around the world and the other retraces the steps of Emily Carr on Vancouver Island.
Better known as an artist, Carr was in fact an “epic traveller”. That’s according to Laurie Carter, author of Emily Carr’s B.C.: Vancouver Island (Little White). As the book jacket notes, Carr “covered more than 20,000 kilometres in British Columbia during a time when women rarely set off on their own—certainly not with the intention of visiting remote aboriginal villages”.
Carr, who was born in Victoria in 1871 and died there in 1945, travelled by train and coastal steamer with her art supplies to sketch and paint forests, landscapes, and indigenous settlements. She arranged her trips on her own, usually travelling with her dogs, and drew on her contacts to stay with everyone from missionaries to lighthouse keepers. “She was such a fearless spirit,” says Carter, on the line with the Straight. “She was single-minded. Once she decided she was going to go to these places, she went.”
The book covers Carr’s journeys around the Island from Victoria to Quatsino in the north; a second volume on mainland B.C. will be released in 2016. The Kelowna-based travel writer tells Carr’s story from a modern perspective as she visits the places that inspired Carr’s art. “She was just such a personable individual,” Carter says. Although Carr couldn’t communicate in indigenous languages, she managed to get along with people and explore remote communities.
Vancouver-based writers Miriam Matejova and Sarah Paynter are two of the 23 contributors to Vici Johnstone’s This Place a Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling Alone (Caitlin Press). The book covers destinations from France to Egypt to Kenya but reflects more on the writers’ inward journeys. There’s no sugarcoating here: the women lay bare their fears, insecurities, joys, and triumphs as each travels with her strengths and emotional baggage.
A few of the stories address the risk of gender-based violence head-on. For example, in “The Alchemist” Elizabeth Haynes tells of how her thoughts reeled as her male guide set up a single pup tent for the two of them on the first night of a trek into the Bolivian jungle. (She opens the piece by quoting a Lonely Planet warning against solo women hiring a guide rather than going as part of a group.)
In “Welcome to Canada/Speaking My Own Language”, Desirée Jung tells a lighter tale of discovery during her first hours in Vancouver as a home-stay student. She had come from Brazil to escape her parents, who were stuck in an unhappy marriage. And in “What Are You Most Afraid Of?” Yvonne Blomer boards a plane to a writers’ conference in Lithuania with a mixture of guilt and relief about leaving her husband and six-year-old special-needs son for two weeks.
This Place a Stranger will resonate with any woman who’s had mixed feelings about travelling alone. The common experience of exiting your comfort zone, both geographically and emotionally, is somehow reassuring, and ultimately inspiring.