Our very own Hannah Pearson takes the next spot on our blog series 'Why Every Woman Should Travel Solo'. She's our expert on how to maximise your budget without minimising your fun, and she will be dishing out loads of advice at the Asian Women's Empowerment (AWE) Conference happening early November.
Hannah's passion for travel was developed at a very young age. Having lived in northern France, Guangzhou, China, and now KL, Malaysia, she's developed a keen sense for finding the right travel experience for the right person, be it luxury or adventure travel.
A self-professed train nerd, Hannah knows her way around Europe by train like the back of her hand. She's also backpacked home from a year in Guangzhou returning to the UK overland (without a single flight), which further expands her knowledge for train travel.
A few years after graduating from Oxford, Hannah began working for Sedunia Travel, a travel agency based in Kuala Lumpur, as the Sales Manager for the Leisure Division. Her aim is to revolutionise the Malaysian travel market by encouraging travellers to go for a more independent style of travel.
Occupation: Sales Manager, Leisure Division
Interesting facts about yourself (bad habits are welcome): I’m an unashamed fan of cheesy pop music, renowned for knowing all the lyrics to MMMBop.
3 things you won't leave home without: Passport, Dairy Milk Caramel Chocolate & my moneybelt!
'Travel' smells like: Early morning on a summer’s day, whilst the temperature is still cool – you just know it’s going to be a wonderful day full of surprises.
Guilty travel pleasure: Eavesdropping on other travellers’ conversations – you can create entire soap operas around one overheard sentence.
Once upon a time
When I was little, I was lucky enough to have parents who would take me and my sisters over to France camping for the summer holidays every other year. Meeting kids from countries like the Netherlands was so fun and I soon became a major geek for learning languages. The thing about learning languages is that to get good, you’ve got to travel to practise: and that’s how my love of travelling really got started.
I travelled solo first when I was 20 and had spent the majority of that year living in northern France. I think that was the final push of confidence to have a go on my own: I knew I could survive in another country. Up until then, I had the same silly fear of being alone and also not knowing whether I would be able to keep myself entertained with no other company for 2 weeks. I went to Greece and had the perfect time there, geeking out on all the ancient ruins and museums full of sculptures and vases that I had studied at university. However, my parents still did their bit to freak me out before I left, insisting on taking a photo of me in all my backpacking gear in the back garden, "just in case" they needed to give the police a recent photo of me when (not if) I went missing!
I think what is so great about solo travel is that people open up to you, especially as a woman. A bus ride I’ll always remember was whilst I was living in China. I was just going a short distance, to a nearby city, when a lady sat down on the bus next to me. It turns out she was a solo traveller herself of sorts, coming from Taiwan to visit her son. Through a mix of pidgin English and Mandarin, we had a chat about our lives, and as she left the bus, she gave me one of the coolest presents ever – a pair of retractable stainless steel chopsticks in a neat little container. They came in pretty handy on my Trans-Mongolian trip for all the endless instant noodles we ate! If I’d been with friends, I’m sure that I would never have got talking with her and would be chopstick-less.
The greatest challenge I’ve faced whilst travelling was in Russia: the language barrier made you want to bang your head repeatedly against the wall some days. As I was travelling through Siberia, where there are less tourists and being white looked a little Russian myself, some of the babushkas were very unforgiving when I couldn’t speak more Russian than "3 train tickets please". I resorted to writing everything down in Cyrillic and holding up the piece of paper to the ticket counter, often only to be greeted by "Nyet" (no in Russian). But at the end, I really felt I had achieved something: with my small group of friends, we had travelled 5,642km across Russia, just with a few train timetables and a guidebook. I did have to eat chicken’s heart along the way though, after pointing randomly at the menu and it arriving at my table, which was not cool.
Welcoming the weird
Not one of my scariest, but definitely one of the weirdest experiences was while travelling on my own on a sleeper train to Beijing from Guangzhou. The total journey time was 20+ hours, so I had plenty of time to myself. The funny thing was as perhaps the only foreigner on the whole train, I was convinced other people were coming through my carriage just to have a gawp at me. So it was kind of weird being the entertainment. Unfortunately for them, I wasn’t too entertaining: just looking out of the window or reading an apt book for the journey, Eat, Pray, Love – definitely a great read for solo female travellers!
If I were to take that train again tomorrow and be in the same situation, I’d probably stock up on a few more snacks to offer the locals as they came through the train: at least then I would’ve got to have practised my Mandarin and had a few more stories to tell on arrival!
No. 1 precaution
Taking a moneybelt and wearing it constantly. When I was travelling on the Trans-Mongolian train I took a huge amount of comfort at night knowing that although someone might take my bag, I had my passport and money and they’d have to really dig deep to get at it! Moneybelts aren’t the sexiest item you can wear (mine’s a fetching shade of beige), but they’re worth it for peace of mind. I wear mine whenever I’m on holiday, whether it’s a European city or even just to Penang.
Alone does not mean lonely or boring
Many women think that they won’t have a good time alone. Many people are worried they won’t have anyone with whom they can reminisce about their holiday. Actually, you might not have anyone to remember it with, but I can guarantee that the memories of your holiday will be a hundred times more vivid than if you travelled with a group.
And for those who are scared to leave the house, I’d tell them to just do it: no matter how scary it seems, you’ll survive in one piece. As trite as it sounds, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the ones you did do. And to give a little perspective: last weekend, I met some expats who are scared of going out and about in KL, in case they are assaulted or robbed. I mean, really, seriously terrified. And that made me feel heartbroken that they are missing out on so many experiences in their own backyard. So my main message is:
"If you're confident going around your hometown solo, then why not another city?"
If you feel uncomfortable, just leave
Knowing that empowers you to approach new people, travel to new places and try new activities. And if you find you don’t like them? Then at least you know for sure, rather than spend the rest of your life wondering “what if”?
I think travelling alone has made me much more confident: I know that I can rely on myself, on my instincts. It’s also made me into a more demanding traveller: now I know what I like and what I don’t. And the best bit about solo travel is that you get to do all the things you like and none of the things you don’t.
"You hold all the cards."
What the future holds
The ultimate would be to climb Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. My friends and I have made a pact that we’ll climb it when we turn 30, followed off by a safari to celebrate. I turned 28 this year, so that means a couple of years left to get fit – and I’m starting from quite a low fitness threshold so I guess I need to get started soon! Just the idea of seeing the sunrise from the top of Africa is too tempting to let the dream die.
What do you think of Hannah's travel tales? Share with us your comments below.