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Watching From the Ground as a Young Woman Spreads Her Wings and Soars


"I'm ready, my wings are spread," 22-year-old Alicia Dunams told me shortly before she embarked three months ago on a solo trip around the world--from L.A. to the South Pacific, New Zealand, Australia, Southeast Asia, India, Nepal, North Africa and Europe, finishing off with a coast-to-coast bicycle tour across Ireland.

We met in August after she wrote me asking for advice about traveling solo. I was intrigued because when I was her age, I never took a trip like Alicia's. To me, travel isn't just about visiting exotic places and seeing great sights; it's about who you are when you set out, and who you become when you get back. At 22, I'd have been more open to new experiences, and more willing to change than I am now. But I missed my chance, which is why I decided to travel with Alicia vicariously, via e-mail.

She'd set up an international e-mail account to keep in touch with family and friends back home during her wanderings, sold her car and left her part-time job as a story editor's assistant at Home Box Office. She had $200 worth of traveler's insurance to cover missed flights, lost baggage, etc.; a $2,300 around-the-world plane ticket and $7,000 to last for a year at least. Her first stop was the Cook Islands, then Fiji, where she'd signed up to crew on a yacht for five weeks, ending in Vanuatu (an adventure she'd found in a youth hostel guidebook). I didn't hear from her until she'd left the boat and landed in Dunedin, New Zealand, where she found an Internet cafe. Here's what she wrote:

Alicia Dunams: I had an amazing time in the South Pacific--from doing an eight-hour cross-island trek in the Cook Islands, to sailing for four days and nights on a stormy sea in Vanuatu, to spending time by myself in a grass hut overlooking the roaring ocean and rain forest. But traveling also has its downsides. I had conjunctivitis in Fiji, and the six people I lived with on the boat had the combined personality of an eggplant.

I've been learning a lot about myself, writing profusely in my journal and taking loads of pictures. Sometimes I feel like I could travel for three years straight; but other times, I have feelings of homesickness, usually manifesting themselves as cravings for Trader Joe's soy milk and garlic-roasted hummus.

One of the things that had struck me most when I met Alicia was her single-mindedness about taking this trip, and her sense that it would somehow define her future. She had scrimped and saved to finance it, and had even avoided romantic entanglements in order to stay free. So I was surprised to hear what she said next.

AD: My arrival in the Cook Islands was anticlimactic. I was expecting fireworks, but instead I was greeted by a friendly Cook Islander playing the ukulele. Then, not two days after I left, I met the man of my dreams, a Londoner named Jason just finishing his around-the-world trip as I began mine. We instantly connected and spent the next two weeks traveling in the Cook Islands and Fiji together, trekking, snorkeling, lying in the sun and gazing at many moonlit skies. This definitely was not expected.

Still, I realized that I needed to be alone now in order to be with someone later. So after two weeks, we parted. One of the last stops on my itinerary is London, where we promised to meet again.

It's the rare travel romance that lasts. So I wonder how Alicia will feel when she sees Jason a year from now. She's definitely got the wanderlust, and an independent streak, as she makes clear.

AD: I've been traveling alone since I got off the boat in Vanuatu, and wouldn't give it up for the world. It is nice not being with the same person every day. You have the ultimate freedom of making your own decisions about what you want to do, where you want to go and when. And you always meet people who want to help you out. So I'm rarely really alone.

Some believe that you don't get close to people when you're traveling. I think otherwise. When you cross paths with people on the road, you can become instantly close because you have less time to get to know them. Just as men and women have chemistry, I believe two women can have chemistry also. My instincts regarding people have sharpened. I find that first impressions are key. And I have been right so far. I've met two girls I really see myself being friends with even though I knew them both for less than 48 hours.

I have a friend I met on a trek in the Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco a year ago, an artist who lives in Scotland. We correspond, but haven't seen each other since then. Still, I feel oddly close to her, as if she knows me in a way no one else could.

AD: Of course, traveling alone as a woman has its risks. I was walking on a deserted country road in Fiji and for the first time really felt my vulnerability. When a cab driver misunderstood my destination, he took it as an opportunity to put me in an awkward position because he knew I didn't have enough money to get where I wanted to go. He said he would take me for free.

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