Travel writer Omniya Fareed Shafik quit her job at a bank to pursue her dream of travelling full-time, and has battled through the stereotypes to become a solo female Arab traveller who makes her living writing about her adventures. In an exclusive essay for Egypt Today, Shafik tells us about her journey — and how the world really isn’t such a scary place.
by Omniya Fareed Shafik
“You’re Arab?” That’s always the first question I get when I meet people during my travels. Although I don’t blame them. There haven’t been many female Arab travellers who take round-the-world trips or travel full time. Our culture has always told women that they can’t travel by themselves or that a girl who travels on her own will not have a family in the future; something that is considered to be a must by many in our society. They think such a girl is always on the road and won’t have time to meet anyone — though I believe you will meet the person you’re supposed to be with no matter where you are.
On writing to travel
My love for travel first came when I started taking trips while working in a bank. The cultures, people and experiences made me really happy and I knew I wanted to do something related to travel. I hated working at the bank and I used to wake up looking for excuses not to go. On the other hand, I love writing and made a steady income on the side. I decided to quit my job and follow my dreams of travelling the world and making money by writing.
I found assignments on a freelancing website, and now I have offers from online magazines that I work with regularly. Even though my parents are very supportive now, they didn’t like the idea at first. After all, I am Egyptian and our society looks at what I’m doing as taboo, whether we like to admit it or not. I comforted my parents by giving them my itinerary, hotel bookings and air ticket info. The more I travelled, the more comfortable they became. I was determined to follow my dreams and that’s exactly what I did. They still worry sometimes, but it’s important to understand that they are my parents after all and what I’m doing is unusual in our culture. Although there are many solo female travellers, most of them are Westerners.
I haven’t found many long-term female Egyptian travellers. I’m still hoping for this to change.
On making friends along the way
Making friends is relatively easy and wasn’t as hard as I expected. People are usually more open while travelling and want to make friends. The world isn’t as scary as it seems. For example, when I was travelling in Japan, I started a conversation with some locals on the train and they invited me for lunch. Not only did I make new friends, but I also learned more about the Japanese culture. They recommended excellent off-the-track places that I wouldn’t have found on my own. I ate at a sushi place in the metro station that had the best sushi in the world. I would have never dared to eat something inside a metro station, but it was amazing and really clean.
On traveling as an Arab woman
The most difficult part about travelling was planning the trip, but the more I travelled, the easier it became. I’ve also learnt not to be so hard on myself on the road, and to make the most of it because I’ll only get one chance to travel the world. My advice for all Arab female travellers is to follow your dreams and not be limited by culture. There is absolutely nothing wrong with travelling and you’re not hurting anyone by doing it. Not only will travel help you explore the world, but it will also teach you about yourself and others. I learnt to be open and understanding of new cultures, to be myself, to be patient and most importantly to follow my dreams. I’ve met some of the kindest and most helpful people in my life while travelling. It’s amazing how people you don’t even know will go out of their way to help you and teach you about their religion, culture and country.
On traveling alone
There is a big misconception that you have to be in a big group to have fun. I’ve been travelling the world for a long time, and going solo teaches you to depend on yourself and be flexible. I’ve met many amazing people during my travels — both awesome solo travellers and groups. I don’t think I would have experienced that if I was travelling in a group.
Solo travelling as a woman can be daunting, but it really doesn’t have to be especially if you take precautions and stay aware of your surroundings. Sure, there are moments when you feel nervous or lost, but this is completely natural for travellers and you learn a lot from it: I learnt to be patient from all the different experiences I’ve gone through. I prefer the freedom of travelling alone. I don’t mind if a friend comes along for awhile, but I like the freedom of being able to move easily wherever and whenever I want.
I will never stop travelling, even when I get married. My dream is to travel everywhere. I don’t think about the future a lot now, but I’ll figure it out when it happens. For now, I’m following my dream and I won’t stop anytime soon.
8 Tips For Travelling Alone
1. Do your homework
The Internet has made research a lot easier — you will literally find anything you need online. Make sure to read several websites and travel blogs before you travel.
2. Make copies of everything
Always make sure you take copies of everything before you go. This includes your hotel reservations, plane tickets, insurance, passport, ID — any important documents. Make copies of the hotel’s address and directions in case your WiFi doesn’t work when you arrive.
3. Try a tour first
If you aren’t comfortable doing things on your own in your hometown, then taking a solo trip might not be the right choice. Take a group tour first so you can get a sense of what travelling is like.
4. Be adventurous
Do things that are out of your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be something extreme like bungee jumping or swimming with sharks. It can simply be something you wouldn’t usually do back home. You never know what you’ll discover about yourself.
5. Meet people
Vacationing alone is an awesome way to do things without any restrictions, but it’s great to be open to meeting new people — especially locals. The world isn’t really a scary place like you see in the media, and most people will go out of their way to help you.
6. Be ready for surprises
When you travel, there is always a chance that things won’t go as expected. Always be calm, patient and embrace whatever is going on. If your plans change because of the weather, there is no reason to get upset — just find something else to do.
7. Pack smart
You really don’t need all those dresses, do you? Packing heavily will make it difficult for you to get around. Take only the things you need like clothes that suit weather conditions, your medications, comfortable walking shoes, etc.
8. Be aware
Personal safety can be worrying, but there is no reason to be paranoid. Don’t wear any flashy jewelry, walk in dark alleyways, etc. As long as you use common sense, you will be fine.