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Talking to Kelly Lewis, Professional Solo Female Traveler
Kelly Lewis is the founder of Go! Girl Guides, a company that writes and publishes guidebooks for solo female travelers, as well as a beloved friend of mine.
Kelly Lewis: Big things are happening now, I’m so excited.
Lindsay King-Miller: YES, tell me about big things. I mean, we can do this the formal way, I have questions written out and everything. Or you can just explain why you’re awesome.
KL: Maybe a little bit of A and a little bit of B? Where do I start?
LKM: Want to talk a little about how you first fell in love with traveling?
KL: Oh boy. When I fell in love with traveling, I fell hard. I didn’t actually get to start seeing the world until after I graduated from the University of Arizona. I wanted to study abroad, but financially couldn’t make it happen, so when I graduated, I moved to New Zealand for a year, and it was one of the best years of my life. I lived with incredible roommates, all from England, who taught me how to snowboard and showed me how small the world was. They would keep me up at night with stories of their adventures in other countries, and I started realizing that traveling is as simple as just making it happen. I fell in love with them, with the world, with New Zealand. I worked for a company that did Lord of the Rings tours, and when my visa was up, I came back to the States, worked three jobs, and was in South America four months later. From there, I’ve been insatiable.
LKM: What’s one of your favorite travel memories?
KL: I think the thing that I love most about traveling is that it really reinforces your faith in humanity. When I’ve really needed help abroad, strangers have always stepped in. It’s confirmed what I’ve always believed: that people are mostly good, and that help is always there if and when you need it. I have a story for you.
KL: Once, I was traveling to Chile from Argentina on a bus solo. It was Easter weekend (which means the entire country was traveling, which was crazy enough as is). I had arranged to stay with a guy from Couchsurfing, who was supposed to pick me up from the bus station when I arrived at 6. Problem was, the time changed that weekend and I didn’t know it, until I arrived at 3 am to a really sketchy part of Valpariso. I was terrified. By myself. There were drunk people yelling at me. And then, a couple that was on the bus with me turned around. The man asked me if I was alone and I said yes. He shook his head and said “No, no, you can’t be here alone. What is your name? I’m going to take you to that gas station, tell the attendees that you’re my friend and to watch out for you.” And he grabbed my hand and led me to safety. And THANK GOD for that. Because at one point, a couple of men started rushing at me, and the gas attendees pushed them away. I started talking to them, and at this PEMEX on Easter Sunday, they shared their stories, their ham and cheese sandwiches, and their tea with me. It could’ve been a really bad experience, but it turned into a really beautiful one, all because a stranger grabbed my hand. They told me about their kids, their wives, their lives. We made videos and laughed while the sun came up.
LKM: So when and how did the idea of publishing guidebooks occur to you?
KL: Ooh, that’s a good story! I didn’t actually know that I would end up doing guidebooks when I first started traveling. Again, it was a matter of fate and serendipity. At the time, I had just returned from six months in South America. I got those same three jobs back again, and I was working 6 days a week, but had no plans to travel. Then one night, I had a dream that I was looking at the cover of a travel guidebook (called Go! Girl Guides) made for women. In the dream I was kicking myself, saying “This totally could’ve been your idea, you should’ve done this!”
I didn’t actually remember it until mid-day the next day, when I was in my cubicle editing for a company I couldn’t stand, and it hit me like a lightning bolt. Right then, I started researching, saw it hadn’t been done, got a lawyer, formed an LLC, and three months later I was in Thailand writing our first guidebook.
LKM: So these guidebooks offer advice unique to solo female travelers.
KL: Some of the advice in there applies to both genders, but much of it aimed directly towards female travelers. I like to think of it as the kind of book I would want to give my best friend before she goes someplace: not sugar-coated and fluffy, but authentic, and full of practical information that I wish I had known before hitting the road. Real talk!
LKM: What are some of your favorite travel tips/secrets for ladies?
KL: I have a million travel tips! Our biggest ones are: 1) For the Love Of God, Don’t Get Drunk (drink, but don’t get sloppy) 2) Stay off the beaches at night. Always. Without exception. 3) Be aware. And that sounds so common sense but when you’ve been on the road for a few weeks or months, it’s so easy to lose your focus on your things, or your surroundings. And that’s when you’re more vulnerable to encounter issues.
LKM: How many guidebooks have you published now?
KL: We’ve done Thailand, Mexico, Argentina and London (e-book), and Costa Rica and New York City will be released this Spring. We’ve grown to a team of over 40 writers online, who write about their adventures and share their first-hand travel tips from around the globe. That’s why I’m always saying “we.”
LKM: It seems like among other things, you’ve created a community. Was that your intention when you started out?
KL: I think I always saw this venture as a community project, but I didn’t really set out to create it… Originally, it was just the guidebooks. And then I started meeting women, who were just so into the idea of travel, and a community formed itself naturally. That’s why I’m so excited for the Women’s Travel Fest.
LKM: How did you come up with the idea for the festival?
KL: Well, I’ve been working on Go! Girl Guides for about three years now, and when I moved to New York I did a big cross-country book tour. On the tour, I was speaking to women across the country and the energy was just electric. Women were bringing their daughters, granddaughters, and their lust for travel and adventure to bounce questions back and forth, and I started thinking about doing this on a bigger level.
In New York I had the great fortune of meeting two incredibly talented, well-connected women (my co-directors, Mickela Mallozzi and Masha Vapnitchnaia, both travel bloggers and travelers themselves), and knew it was time to take another step.
LKM: What will the festival be like for attendees?
KL: It’s a one-day event that aims to inspire women to get out and travel. We’re bringing together everyone from pros like the Travel Channel’s Samantha Brown (one of our speakers) to women who just want to be inspired to get out there, to talk openly and honestly about the things that hold women back from traveling, and how to bust through those barriers. Our speakers will address everything from traveling the Middle East as a solo female to traveling with kids, women’s safety, and birth control issues abroad.
LKM: What are some of those things that hold women back?
KL: I think women are often afraid to get out and take on the world. I can’t tell you how many women I meet who say “It’s so cool that you travel, I’d love to go somewhere, but…” But I’m scared, but I have a job, but I can’t leave my partner.
LKM: What do you say to that?
KL: I say, “If traveling is something you feel pulled towards, run with it.”
LKM: How have you personally dealt with issues that come up in solo travel?
KL: I’ve been through the wringer as a solo traveler. It would’ve been awesome if someone had told me there are no tampons in Buenos Aires, or that sometimes, you just have to be rude to get rid of cat-callers. When I first started traveling I didn’t want to be perceived as a “rude American,” and so I let things go, with men, especially, and that led me to trouble often. I’ve been spied on in the bathroom, pushed up against a wall by men, pulled into alleyways… Luckily, I always got myself out of these situations, but they’re rattling, absolutely.
LKM: Do you find that you encounter that kind of situation more as a traveler than at home? And if so, why do you think that is?
KL: Yes, it’s really not so much a traveling thing as much as it is an issue of vulnerability when you’re in a place you don’t know. It depends on where you go, of course, but for the most part, I think traveling abroad is far more safe than traveling in some areas of this country. I’ve never been robbed abroad; I have at home. And I also think it’s important to note that none of my guidebook writers have ever had issues either.
LKM: That’s great to hear.