Beth Whitman, author of Wanderlust and Lipstick and two books on women’s travel, and is the women’s travel editor at Transitions Abroad is best known for her writing on solo women’s travel. She insists that women don’t have to sacrifice adventure for safety. She says, “A man who is unaware of his surroundings at a “safe” destination can be more at risk than a woman who has her act together in a place that might be considered dangerous…if she’s taking all the right precautions she can avoid most potentially dangerous situations.” This philosophy is reflected in some of the more exciting experiences that she’s had in her 22 years of travel, which include riding a motorcycle alone from Seattle to Panama, contracting giardiasis in Southeast Asia, and having a hand grenade pulled on her by drunken Cambodian soldier while crossing the country in the back of a pickup truck.
I emailed Beth to ask her about her inspiration, favorite writers, and the dangers of solo travel.
Matt Gibson: What was your first solo trip?
Beth Whitman: When I was in college, I took a semester off in my senior year and traveled around the country for 3 months. I drove from New Jersey, down the east coast, across the south to San Diego and then up the West Coast and across the center of the country.
That trip was what really what hooked me on travel. I had been staying with friends who were in colleges across the country and in youth hostels. At the hostels I met people from all over the world and I just knew I needed more of that in my life.
MG: What jobs did you have before you started writing professionally?
BW: Oh gawd. Early in my travels, I would cobble together a few jobs at a time in order to save as much money as possible so that I could then leave for a few months at a time to travel. In those days, I worked office temp jobs, delivered pizza and was a DJ at an easy-listening radio station. I also worked in Bristol Bay, Alaska (very remote) processing salmon in order to save money to travel to India, Nepal and Thailand for 3 months.
Just prior to diving into the travel business full-time, I was working in sales at a company that was, to say the least, ethically challenged. I was making oodles of money but really hated the job. One day I got fed up and just gave my notice (much to the surprise of everyone) and decided that I would never work for someone else again.
MG: Most women are warned not to travel alone. Were you frightened?
BW: Well, I do remember my legs literally shaking on that first road trip around the country, but my desire to go was stronger than the fear. And, I have found that to be the case on every journey since. Not that my legs still shake, but there’s always a tiny bit of concern on many of my adventures – but the fear of NOT going is always overridden by the desire for new experiences.
MG: How did your experience differ from your expectations?
BW: I had no idea I was going to meet so many people on that journey. Of course I was in awe of this beautiful country we live in, but the experience was enriched by the people – both the locals I came in contact with and the foreigners that I met.
MG: What’s the most popular post on Wanderlust and Lipstick? Why do you think that is?
BW: One of the more recent popular posts was one I wrote about 6 months ago about TSA body scans. I had no idea what a storm this topic was going to stir up but my timing was great. By the time everyone was searching for info about body scanners, my post had ranked relatively well and I was getting traffic from around the world.
MG: What is the most frightening experience that you’ve had on the road?
BW: Well, early in my travels I was in Cambodia. This was in ’92 when there were few travelers there (and I mean like 6 of us) and the government was in disarray. I was traveling overland at a time when it was actual illegal to do so (for good reason, it turns out) and had a hand grenade pulled on me at a military-post stop in the middle of nowhere. It was definitely the scariest experience of my life.
MG: Do you think that your being a woman was part of the reason this happened?
BW: Definitely not. It was simply because I was a foreigner in a place I wasn’t supposed to be.
MG: Are there any destinations that you would recommend that solo women travelers avoid? Are there any you recommend they visit?
BW: Nope. Some people might say, “Come on, Beth, what about Afghanistan?” Sure, I wouldn’t go there myself, but I have a friend (in her 80’s!) who goes there once a year to do volunteer work – supporting orphanages. Do I think she’s crazy? Definitely. But I’d never tell her not to go.
MG: Has traveling alone as a woman ever limited your travel experience? In what way?
BW: Probably, but I pay attention to the ways that being a woman opens opportunities up for me.
MG: Most cultures have much more traditional ideas about gender roles than are found in the United States. How do you deal with sexism on the road?
BW: I’m not one to be super aware of sexist issues and how I’m treated differently than men. If there’s a rare occasion when it does happen (such as an India waiter ONLY talking to my husband in a restaurant and ignoring me), I try to let it roll off my back. I’m in their world and have to accept the circumstances – I’m just passing through.
MG: What are you asked most often by first-time solo female travelers? How do you respond?
BW: “Don’t you get lonely?” No way. As I said early in this interview, meeting people along the way is one of the biggest perks to traveling solo. There’s never a shortage of people to connect with.
MG: You are now a role model for solo female travelers around the world. Who inspired you?
BW: First, thank you for the compliment. I don’t necessarily see myself that way. I’m just doing what I love to do and feel fortunate that I can make a living doing it.
I’m not sure that I can point to a person that inspired my travels. It was more likely the pages of National Geographic (which my parents subscribed to) that sparked an interest.
I do remember my great Aunt saying she always wanted to travel but she didn’t want to be on a plane when someone else’s time was up. In other words, she was afraid to travel! I was likely just as motivated to not stay at home as I was to travel the world.
MG: Which travel blogs, if any, do you read?
BW: While there are a lot of great travel bloggers out there, I’m actually more inclined to regularly read blogs that are off the travel topic. Some of those that I enjoy include Vegan Lunch Box and Just Bento.
MG: Who, in your opinion, is the most successful travel blogger (from a business perspective)? Why do you think that is?
BW: I can’t really say. There are some popular bloggers out there such as Nomadic Matt and Gary Ardnt but I haven’t seen their tax returns to know if they are actually financially successful (Gary is famous for not wanting to necessarily make a ton of money from his site). Meanwhile there are some travel bloggers I know who are making $5K+ a month on their blogs because they’ve managed to figure out the SEO world and are selling a crazy amount of products through affiliate programs. These are blogs you’ve likely never heard of (and I don’t think they’d want me to reveal who they are).
MG: Who are your favorite travel writers? What are your favorite books?
BW: I’m a big fan of Pico Iyer as well as the cultural anthropologist, Wade Davis. My favorite books change every month and they likely won’t appeal to many others. More recently I read a book about Papua New Guinea called The Last Men, which is, in my opinion, the best book written about the country and its tribes.
MG: What are your favorite blogs?
BW: See above
MG: What equipment do you carry for working on the road?
BW: I have an Asus Eee netbook which I use for work. Although I carry my iPhone with me, I rarely use it. I also carry an SLR digital camera with 2 lenses, a small digital camera and a video camera. I consider all of these integral for my business.
MG: Is there a particularly good book, article, or author that you read recently you’d like to recommend?
BW: Well, since you’ve asked a number of questions about travel writing, I would recommend Tim Leffel’s book, Travel Writing 2.0. This is an excellent resource for both beginner and established writers.