Toby Israel Solo female travel advice

How to Become a Solo Female Travel Vagabondess! Interview with Toby Israel

by Ellie Cleary

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There’s travel and then there’s travel

The type that challenges us, re-arranges our thoughts, conceptions, and ultimately our way of operating. The type of travel that changes you. Solo female travel is definitely that kind of travel – and there’s a reason why more women than ever before are hitting the road in search of more. 

I first “met” (via the interwebs at least) Toby when she was an Editor for Indie news site Elephant Journal, where I was doing an internship in publishing and social media in 2015. She edited some of my first travel articles and was instrumental in my finding the courage to start this blog the same year. In 2018 we finally got to meet in person, in Costa Rica, as we explored the concept of transformative travel there. 

Toby is a long-time solo female traveller, who believes (like we do) that travel can be our greatest teacher. She’d currently based in Costa Rica, involved in a range of initiatives from teaching self-defence for women, to mindfulness practices and yoga retreats, and of course – travelling. She’s recently released her new book – Vagabondess – which is the guide she wishes she’d had when she started out travelling alone over 10 years ago.

Vagabondess: A Guide to Solo Female Travel is a book for women—and all people!—who want to travel solo, face their fears, and live the adventure of their dreams. 

I caught up with Toby to ask her more about the book, what she has learned from solo female travel – and (most importantly) what advice she’d give to current or would-be solo travellers!

Photo – Toby Israel

Learnings from 10 Years of Solo Female Travel

(Ellie) What made you decide to start travelling solo? Was there one specific event that made you want to travel more, or how did your journeys come about? 

(Toby) That’s an interesting question that I never actually thought much about before starting to talk more about my book. Starting to travel solo just seemed like a natural progression in my life journey. I was fortunate to grow up traveling a fair bit with my family (to Italy, India, China, and England, to name a few), and did several summer programs abroad during high school. By the time I was 18, I felt confident about my ability to navigate the world on my own. So, when I won a scholarship to study in Paris for a year after high school, I seized the opportunity—not just to live abroad, but also to travel solo around Europe every chance I got that year. 

I think I’ve always had the travel bug. And, I’ve always been stubborn and independent. Solo travel just made sense. 

Photo – Toby Israel

(Ellie) Have your family and friends always supported you? How do you handle it when perhaps some people close to you doesn’t agree with your decision to travel?

(Toby) Pretty much yes. My family hasn’t always agreed with my choices (and sometimes they only find out about them after the fact—e.g. hitchhiking, bungee jumping), but they have always loved and supported me through them. I think I am incredibly lucky to have a family that has always encouraged me to be my own person, make my own decisions, and live my own life. Sometimes they’re proud of me. Sometimes they might worry about me. But they have never tried to make me be or do anything different. 

As for my friends, at this point many of my friends have similarly unorthodox lifestyles, so we connect from a place of shared values and experiences. But when I started out with my solo adventures, I think I was “that one crazy traveling friend” everyone has. Maybe. I feel blessed to have a truly supportive global network of friends who love me no matter what. Even when years pass without being in the same physical place, we are able to pick things up like we just saw each other last week.

When people ask me for advice about setting out to travel, I often tell them that they shouldn’t worry about missing out on things “back home.” If or when they come back, everything will be almost exactly as they left it. At least in my experience this has usually been the case.

As a writer who publishes frequently about her solo shenanigans, I do sometimes face pushback from the internet. I think it’s unsettling to the social order when women are not afraid (like they’re supposed to be) and don’t stay in their place. A lot of the myths we tell about women’s safety are designed to keep us scared, small, and static. When we start to travel solo and unlearn so much of what we’ve been taught, we become brazen, big, and dynamic. That’s dangerous.

solo female travel with a view
Photo – Toby Israel

(Ellie) How do you stay safe when you travel alone? Do you have particular safety tips that you stand by? 

(Toby) Yes, I have a few! Today I answer as an empowerment self-defense instructor, but I also managed to stay safe on the road for about 8 years without any self-defense training, and I don’t think it’s necessary per se (although it certainly doesn’t hurt!). 

My number one tip for staying safe is to stay aware of your surroundings. Keep your nose out of maps or electronic devices, skip the headphones (so you can hear what’s happening around or behind you), and move like you know where you’re going, even if you don’t. Awareness translates into strong, confident body language, which is the best self-defense. 

Number two is intuition. We all have it, and it tells us when a person or place is dangerous (or safe). The more we practice listening (I talk a lot about this in my book—there are tons of ways to hone our intuition!), the sharper our intuition becomes. We actually do know when we’re at risk and when we’re safe. If we trust that voice, we’ll be able to stay away from (or leave) dangerous situations when they arise, and relax into all the safe situations that fill most travel experiences!

And it is a good idea to be prepared. Showing up in Kolkata at 1 a.m. with no guest house booked was an objectively bad idea. So was assuming that the Phnom Penh airport would be open all night and arriving at midnight to wait for my 6 a.m. flight, only to find them locking the doors! Doing a little bit of research ahead of time can help you avoid unnecessary risks like that.

Something I’ve really taken to heart from Empowerment Self-Defense is that we don’t need any extra tools or gadgets to stay safe. Things like whistles or pepper spray might be nice extras, but we don’t want to rely on them. Your voice, body, and brain are all the weapons you need—in the rare cases that you may actually need to use physical self-defense. Most solo travelers face subtle boundary-crossing much more often than actual physical assault. Times when a firm “I said no,” is the only “weapon” we need.

Toby Facilitates Self-Defence and Empowerment in Costa Rica (Photo Toby Israel)

So, practice saying no. Practice listening to your intuition. Practice carrying yourself like you can and will defend your space. The world isn’t as scary as people tell us. I don’t actually believe we’re at higher risk as solo travelers than we are “at home” (this is why), but the above pretty much sums up my safety strategies.

(Ellie) How do you balance being cautious when you travel vs travelling with an open heart and assuming the best of people? 

(Toby) I tend towards openness and optimism, always. Knowing that I have the tools to set and enforce my boundaries when necessary (and everyone can do this, it’s just a question of exercising our voice) allows me to relax and open up 99% of the time. In other words, when I know I can say “No!” it’s a lot easier to live in my “Yes!” 

I have always been an optimist, and my travels over the past ten years have just about always confirmed that bias. Most people, everywhere in the world, are generous, hospitable, kind, and sincere. An invitation to dinner is an invitation to dinner. An offer of a ride is an offer of a ride. A smile is a smile… Of course, intuition is key. If my gut tells me something is off, it probably is. (One of the first rides I ever got while hitchhiking immediately gave me that “icky” feeling in my stomach. The driver started asking a lot of personal questions, and I got out at the first red light.) If I feel like I can trust someone, I probably can. (The man I met on the street in Istanbul who invited me to dinner really just wanted to share his stories and introduce me to his culture. I never felt uncomfortable, and he never crossed any lines.)

At the same time, it’s exhausting to be totally open all the time. I like my alone time a lot, and I don’t always feel like engaging with people. I think for long-term solo travel it’s critical to learn to take space when you need it. It’s okay to say no to any invitation, conversation, or other interaction if you don’t sincerely want to engage with it. That must be one of the most important lessons I’ve learned… as a solo traveler, and as a woman!

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Click here to read solo female travel tips and advice from a  10 year+ solo female traveller

(Ellie) Tell us about one of your most memorable adventures, and the impact it had on you:

(Toby) In 2012 I spent a month doing independent research on tourism and development in a small village on the Annapurna circuit in Nepal. During my visit, my host invited me to take part in a yak slaughter. The three yaks slaughtered would provide food for the village for a significant amount of time. At the end, my host ushered me over and offered me a cup of fresh yak blood, part of the tradition of the slaughter there. 

That moment was my reinitiation into ominivory after many years of vegetarianism. It challenged me to truly live my principles about travel, cultural relativism, and always, always trying new things. I no longer refuse food, ever, when I travel. I have my dietary preferences, but I prefer to accept my hosts’ generosity in any form that takes. That moment in Nepal had a lasting impact on my relationship to food (I’ve tried a plethora of unusual foods since then), my perspective on eating meat (I believe it is essential to know where our food comes from and get comfortable with that source), and my commitment to integrating my beliefs, words, and actions, especially as they pertain to experiential travel.

(Ellie) Where’s your favourite place in the world to travel, and why? 

(Toby) Oh this is always one of the most difficult questions! I have been based in Costa Rica for the past two and a half years, and I absolutely love it here. Not just because of the biodiversity (rainforest, wildlife, beaches, mountains, oh my!) and the incredible fresh produce (every fruit you can dream of, and a few you’ve never heard of!), but really most of all because of the amazing humans who have become my community here.

I also travel every winter to Guatemala since moving to this region, and Lake Atitlan is a special place. They say it’s the bellybutton of the world, which somehow makes perfect sense when you’re crossing the lake on one of the lanchas (motorboats).

And Italy. It stole my heart when I was ten years old, or somewhere around there, and I’ve never fallen out of love. It’s probably the place I’ve revisited most, and where I’ve traveled most extensively. I studied Italian, WWOOFed in Sicily, and dated an Italian, or several. In Italy I’ve witnessed a widespread appreciation for life and flavor and pleasure and slowness that resonates deeply with me.

transformational travel in Costa Rica
Ed: One of our favourite views in Costa Rica: Playa Carillo

(Ellie) How has travel changed who you are? 

(Toby) Travel has made me who I am. Solo travel has taught me both radical self-reliance (you have to figure things out for yourself) and true interconnectedness (you have to surrender and trust the people you meet on the road). It has showed me cultural relativism in a visceral way, whereas my Anthropology degree only gave me the words and theories to frame it. That is, we cannot judge another human being’s beliefs, practices, or values against our own. Rather, we accept that each individual, community, or cultural group is a system that makes sense to itself, even if we do not understand or agree with it. It has taught me to ask better questions, hold more than one truth in my hands, and participate fully in the unfamiliar.

Travel has made me more myself. In every journey where I push the outer reaches of my comfort zone—walking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago, fasting for four days and nights on a solo Vision Fast, crossing India on a 40-hour train ride—I discover new or hidden qualities that had not stood out before. Resilience. Tenacity. Santosha (contentment). The more I travel, the more nuanced my relationships with others, Self, and environment become.

Travel is a fundamental part of me. Feeling a sense of belonging not to a specific nation or identity group, but to the world… and to myself. Finding freedom and fulfillment in movement, adventure, solitude, and the unknown. Nurturing my curiosity, my courage, my vulnerability and my independence. So much of me has matured through travel.

And I don’t think any of these experiences are uniquely mine. I truly believe anyone can taste the same or similar processes!

(Ellie) What advice would you give to women wanting to travel and learn more about themselves or grow spiritually? 

(Toby) Don’t let anyone stop you. If you don’t go out into the world (or in, into your own psyche), you will never discover all the layers of yourself waiting to come into their own. We all carry so many archetypes, so many versions of Self, within us. Every culture, place, person, challenge will call a different facet to the surface. The more you explore, the more you push beyond your comfort zone, the more you will come to know—not just the world “out there,” but the universe within, too.

But travel is just one path. The key is to find your path, and follow it to its outermost edges. Whatever calls to you, do that. Don’t let fear of failure or self-doubt stop you. You are powerful, capable, and limitless. Anything you can dream is within reach.

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What do you need to know before solo female travelling? Click here to find out!

(Ellie) What would you say to a friend, or anyone who’s on the verge of booking that flight to go somewhere new, alone, but is just not quite sure if it’s going to be ok/safe/worth it?

(Toby) Just go! It is definitely worth it. It will be better than okay. It will be better than you can even imagine! Go ahead and go through the whole decision-making process. Weigh the pros and cons. Sleep on it. Try to talk yourself out of it. But if the idea has gotten under your skin, it’s a question of when you go, not if. So trust the call to adventure. Go. 

(Ellie) Why did you decide to write Vagabondess? 

(Toby) The idea for Vagabondess popped into my head in December of 2017. I had been editing, writing, and ghostwriting for other brands, organizations, and entrepreneurs for years. My inner voice started to ask some questions: Isn’t it time to write my own book, and put that energy into my own passion project? Isn’t it time to make something bigger than snappy blog posts and live videos? Isn’t it time to take all the insights you’ve gathered traveling solo and package them into something useful for the other women who ask you for advice or encouragement? It wasn’t quite time yet.

In 2019 I finally sat down to write.

At the core, Vagabondess, is about meeting ourselves and the world through travel and adventure of all kinds. It’s about facing our fears and discovering what makes us come alive. I wrote it to inspire other people (especially women, but not only) to take more risks, cross more borders (real and imagined), and claim their power. I am beyond excited to see this vision finally take root!

You can order your copy of Vagabondess here!

order vagabonds solo female travel book here.

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