Welcome to another fabulous solo female travel story! With this column it is my aim to show that solo female travelers come from all corners of the earth and from all kinds of backgrounds, so you’re not just hearing from the same white American girl all the time!
Today I want to share the story of See, a solo traveler from Malaysia who, like me, is quite fond of hitchhiking!
Before I started hitchhiking, I believed that it was an unsafe and scary way to get around. But when I finally tried it in China I found that it was exhilarating and it gave me an amazing peek into the culture, plus it taught me so much about human generosity. But no matter how many times I share that opinion, it’s just one girl’s thoughts, so today I’ve invited See to tell us her experience too.
Here’s See in her words:
Tell us about yourself!
My name is See Yin. Most friends refer me as See, except for my grandmother because in her Chinese dialect it would mean death, literally! I am born and bred in Malaysia, a Southeast Asian country blessed with multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual influences. For that, I am a polyglot with the ability to speak five languages: English, Chinese Mandarin, Malay (Malaysia’s official language), and two other Chinese dialects commonly used in different parts of China. Language has always been an amazing toolkit to carry around when I travel solo, and sometimes, reminds me of who I am.
Contrary to most people who quit their corporate jobs to backpack the world, I was fortunate enough to have started my little-big solo backpacking journey before I enrolled myself in the life of working adulthood. After moving abroad to Turkey for a student exchange program, I hitchhiked and couchsurfed my way through 7 countries in the span of 7 months.
What motivated you to travel alone for the first time?
I can never tell my travel story without mentioning my love at first sight with a mosque-like church (or church-like mosque) I stumbled upon in one of the architectural books I’d read years ago. It was Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, an orthodox church turned mosque during the Ottomans’ occupation and now a museum. It’s a rare monument with two worldly influences co-existing with each other harmoniously. I signed up immediately when I knew that Turkey was in one of my college’s student exchange programs, and went crazy with several part time jobs at that time knowing that my parents wouldn’t be able to afford my expenses. Albeit having had mixed reactions from friends and family on my decision to study in Turkey, especially the concerns of my personal safety, I knew it was THE chance that I will have to jump onto no matter what it takes – I remember my young heart pounding so hard, so hard that it actually hurt, but so eager to see the world at the same time.
I was 19 then. I witnessed Hagia Sophia with my own eyes, shook, awestrucked, emotional, and I fell in love once again with the many possibilities that I could interact with the world. Finishing my studies in Istanbul, I booked a one-way flight to UK. Started with bunking at a few friends’, I then tried Couchsurfing as a way to travel cheap. Couchsurfing turned out to be the most amazing support system I had when I travel to new cities and countries alone – some hosts went all the way to tour me around, prepared local dishes, made sure I felt like home, and we exchanged stories of our worlds. For this reason, I was motivated to travel to see more, and to meet more interesting people as I collect their narratives of the world. I ended up couchsurfing from UK all the way back to Turkey, bunking at more than 10 couches in different parts of Hungary, Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece in the span of more than half of a year.
What are your favorite Couchsurfing and hitchhiking memories?
One of the many favorite encounters on the road was with a Canadian traveler who’d been on the road for years at that time, she taught me hitchhiking. “The tip to hitchhike for a female solo traveler, is to be fearlessly confident – people can feel it when you are fearless and brave”, she said; I followed her tip and had managed to save all my transportation costs by hitchhiking, crossing borders in huge trucks, fancy sports car, and a chocolate candy van (was showered with free chocolates!).
Another favorite was my couchsurfing experience in the western Romania, a mountainous village in Salasu de Sus, where my couchsurfing host had built the house himself right next to a river. There were no running water, electricity, and toilet in the house. The toilet as big as a phone-booth was built outside the house in the woods, in a makeshift fashion with four wooden walls around it and a hole dugged a few feet deep to the ground as the ‘toilet bowl’. Using the toilet was an amusing, odd, and not the most pleasant experience for me, and I remember having constipation for the few days staying at this beautiful house (other than the toilet!) in the countryside! Also, brushing my teeth at the river in the freezing winter days was another experience!
Which misconceptions did you have about hitchhiking as a solo female traveler that you now realize were untrue?
Growing up in a typical Asian family, I was taught to never trust strangers. Sleeping in someone else’s couch? That’s insane. Jumping in a stranger’s car? A big no. Of course I was skeptical with what the Canadian traveler told me about hitchhiking, and was actually scared the first few times trying to hitch a ride in the foreign lands. I had a traveler’s knife with me for emergencies (while hitchhiking) but fortunately, never had the chance to use it! The drivers who stopped for me were all amazing humans, who were purely happy about giving the girl a ride and some even bought me lunches at the stopovers. I think traveling solo is hard if there were no trust with strangers. My hitchhiking and couchsurfing experiences were all so beautiful because of this little leap of faith that I learned to invest in every stranger that I met along the way.
What are some of your advice to solo female travelers out there who want to give hitchhiking a try?
I won’t say that jumping into a stranger’s car is completely safe and I would think that my experience is subjective to my own plus a little bit of good luck – after all, there were also unfortunate episodes of hitchhiking stories that you should take into account before trying it out. I would give you the advice that was given to me by the Canadian traveler (her name is Alissa by the way!): be fearless, you know how the predators can sense the fear of their preys and they feed on those fears? Secondly, take the most used routes with a lot of traffic, avoid shortcuts and all the off-the-beaten routes! Next, bring a map with you and know where you are going – I relied a lot on my phone’s GPS to know where I was going and that I was on the right path. There are a lot of tips that you can refer to on hitchwiki.org (yes, there’s a wikipedia on hitchhiking!).
What are some unexpected benefits of traveling alone?
I realize that the more I travel, the less I know. I never knew traveling could teach me so much about being humble, and I have never felt so small! Among many other lessons, traveling alone taught me a lot about tenacity. There were episodes and moments of hesitation, fears, and loneliness being alone on the road, but they were also the sources that fueled me through the journey. They kept me walking and pushing boundaries, allowed me to discover not just the world but my true self whom I wouldn’t have confronted in everyday life or if I were to travel within my comfort zone (with someone I know).
Thank you, See, for sharing your hitchhiking adventures with us! If you’d like to read more stories, check out Wangechi from Kenya, Archana from India, Julie, a not so young woman abroad, and Becky, a traveling single mom.