A Woman Alone Around the World

At the end of 2016, I quit my job, moved out of my Berlin flat, packed all my belongings into the basement, left everything else behind and went to travel alone around the world. In the three following months, I visited both coasts of the USA, got lost in the Canadian winter forests, wandered in the rainforest of Vietnam and the concrete jungles of Hong Kong, watched the sunrises in Cambodia and spotted a koala and Kiwi birds in Australia.

I started my world trip being a very tired activist. I felt responsible for leaving everything behind, everything I built up the last ten years in Berlin. On the other hand, I was so exhausted, that the only thing I wanted was just to switch my cell phone off.

The trip taught me a lot. It taught me that I have true friends. That I can’t run away from myself. That you don’t have to travel to the other side of the world searching for a change, you can find the answers to all the questions at home. Still, travelling around the world was one of the most fascinating things I ever did in my life and I am happy I was courageous and adventurous enough to follow this dream of mine.

Nomadic Days' guest author Oleksandra Bienert, Ukrainian-born and Berlin-based researcher and activist. Studied European Ethnology and Public History, and is community and human rights activist in Berlin. Oleksandra co-created and coordinated such initiatives as: "Ukrainian Film Club Berlin“, "PRAVO. Berlin Group for Human Rights in Ukraine", "Euromaidan Guard Berlin“ (i.a.). Currently she is writing her PhD on the topic „Women Biographies: Lives of Female Writers, Artists and Intellectuals from Ukraine in Berlin of the Interwar Period” and working in the field of the urban development.

How to pluck up the courage to leave

Was I afraid? Yes, I was. That fall, as I was dispensing my books, quitting my job, handing over my projects, I was anxious from time to time. I was asking myself if I'm doing everything right. I was afraid of what would come up next after I return to Berlin. To give you an example: to find an affordable flat in Berlin is unrealistic.

But then the new colleague who took over my position suggested that I could rent her flat, once I come back. That moment I understood that everything would be fine.

On the road

Actually, I was not planning to go around the world when I started my trip. I didn’t know where my journey would take me then.

First I took a flight to Boston. I only had a one-way ticket in my pocket as I dared to visit my former big love on the other continent. Nothing worked out from that meeting. My big love was a real one, but it stayed in my past. If I learnt anything then, it was that we should not try to go back into the past.

So, I left my past dreams, gathered the shattered pieces of my broken heart together and was on the road again. As it turned out later – I was on the trip around the world. To gather the courage to travel is similar to making any important step you are anxious about. You should just start. Even big changes start with small first steps.

Oleksandra Bienert - Alone around the world

How to travel alone as a woman

Before I started my trip, I read many reports of other solo female travellers. It helped me a lot. I made copies of the most important documents, I also scanned them and stored them on the cloud. I made a laminated card with the name of my contact person at home. I kept my money and my documents apart. I took a knife with me - a present from my father. In the end, I used it only to cut things, never as a means of self-protection and bought a small lamp which I didn't make any use of at all.

You should be careful on your trip – the way you are careful at home. When I searched for a couchsurfing or housesitting I always choose a woman or a family as my host. I tried to use only lit roads coming back to my hostel in the late evening hours. The safest I felt in Vietnam and Cambodia. And the only time I got really scared was, as I met a group of drunk guys somewhere on the seashore of the Australian Gold Coast in the evening. But nothing bad happened there either.

You still can get into dangerous situations. In Vietnam, I went on a hike alone into the mountains and got into a heavy monsoon rain. The water was rushing down the mountain and its slopes looked like a waterfall. Not only did I get completely drenched, but it was also clear to me that if I slipped and twisted my ankle, it would be hard to get out of there. I was lucky enough to meet a couple of other hikers. We went down the hill together and they also offered to take me to the next village in their car.

People I met on my trip

In some cities in the US, Canada and Australia, I was warmly received by the people I knew from Berlin and Ukraine. Elsewhere, I've tried couchsurfing, housesitting, or lived in hostels and budget hotels. I was almost never alone. Travellers are constantly introduced to someone.

I met some wonderful people on my trip. In San Francisco, I met a volunteer Judy, she retired and spent her days telling the history of the city to its visitors. In Portland, I stayed with a Vietnamese-American doctor. We had been talking about migration and identity all evening long - this meeting prompted me to go to Vietnam. In Sydney, I encountered activists who advocated for the rights of refugees in Australia. Then I met Thomas – he was on a hunger strike to apologize to the Aborigines for all that his British ancestors had done to them.

In Cambodia, I was fortunate enough to find a local family hostel through booking.com. I lived there on the outskirts of the city with a cheerful English teacher’s family. His daughters danced with mops in the evenings, and at daytime, they rode their bicycles to school, watched tarantula together with the other children of the village, and were the happiest people I encountered on my way.

In Hong Kong, I was sheltered by a Ukrainian girl who organizes screenings of Ukrainian films – just the way I do in Berlin. I actually got to Hong Kong by accident - my application for housesitting was accepted by two American teachers. They went on vacation to Thailand and were looking for someone to look after their cat Quinny.

Along the way, I met different people - acquaintances and strangers. Sad, cheerful, rich and poor - when I spoke to them, I felt that the world out there was much better and better than what we see in the news. Many of us dream of the same thing, no matter what hemisphere we live in and how much money we have in our wallets. Money is still just paper, it really is not as important as our loved ones, our health and having a roof over our heads that does not leak.

My trip comes to its end

The last country on my itinerary was Cambodia. I spent a few weeks there, however, I was originally planning to stay way longer - almost 3 month - and teach a critical thinking course at a girls' school. But it didn’t happen. I had to confess to myself that after three months on the road, I was tired and wanted to go home. The trip has taught me well that we - the activists - should take good care of ourselves and listen to our needs. Sometimes we give ourselves too much of a dive into the field of responsibility and forget that if we don't care for ourselves, no one will. After all, as my best friend says, what kind of world will we build if we ourselves are not happy there? And she's damn right!

Oleksandra Bienert - Alone around the world

Traveling also taught me that the road itself is not a panacea. It will not change you dramatically. People change slowly. It takes incredible effort, to change yourself. You will not solve your problems when travelling if you take your problems with you.

But you will see the world and learn more about yourself. You will meet wonderful people who will inspire you. You will become a little more confident. You will understand how important it is to talk to the 'others', and how little we actually talk to those who have a different opinion from ours.

You may wake up one morning in Cambodia, see the sun shining on the surface of a red lake and realize that you are happy and that it actually takes very little for happiness.

2 years later

I am writing this text two years later. I have loyal friends, a good job and a cosy apartment. I continue to travel, learn new things, started a PhD thesis I long-dreamt about. I did not completely leave the activism, and at the same time, I try to care more about myself. This means, in particular, not to be exhausted, to have enough time to sleep, to do sports, to say 'no' when I feel like it more often, to listen to myself, to spend more time outdoors and eat healthier food.

Do I regret that I went on a trip? Not a minute.

The bad news is that there is no 'paradise'. Even in Australia which I always imagined being one. If you really want to change your life or your environment, it may be better not to flee but to change your life at home.

And the good news is that the world is wonderful. Our lives are worth living and we are worthy of being loved.

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