I love interviewing seasoned travelers with interesting stories, so when I found Zoe Zolbrod, I wanted to learn more about her experiences. Zoe did a lot of solo traveling in her 20s. She mostly wandered about Southeast Asia, but she spent some time in Mexico and Europe, with some coupled traveling in Central America. While she’s no longer in her 20s, Zoe recently wrote a novel inspired by her past experiences. The novel is called Currency, and according to Zoe, it’s set in Thailand and features a Thai man and an American woman backpacker who hook up and get involved in dangerous activities when their money runs out. Learn more about Zoe here and follow her on Twitter at @zoezolbrod.
I hope you’ll read on to learn about the pros and cons of female solo travel, taking risks while traveling, running out of money abroad, and more about Currency.
Q: Why did you decide to take a solo trip through Southeast Asia? Were you scared?
A: At the time I decided to take a big solo trip, I was just getting out of a long relationship, and I had been in another long relationship before that, where we had done lots of traveling together. I wanted to get out on my own, to get to know myself better and to prove that I could do it. At first, I wanted to travel to Central America, but I choose Southeast Asia because I heard it was safer. Also, I liked how exotic it seemed and how faraway it was. I was absolutely terrified for the first few days I was on my own, but then I settled in—and was only scared sometimes!
A: I loved the independence and confidence I gained while traveling alone, and how I could focus outward instead of on a relationship brought from home that needed tending. I mostly loved how open to the world it made me. I met so many people, and so many people were very kind and welcoming towards me—perhaps more so than if I had been a man. But of course, women are more vulnerable to sexual assault and sexual harassment then men, and solo women are especially vulnerable. I constantly had my radar up, and which gets tiring.
I would recommend that any woman who has the desire to go on a solo trip do so. It absolutely can be done, and however much of an oddball you feel when you’re planning your trip amidst people who think you’re nuts, you’ll meet other solo women on the road. You can do it. But don’t pretend you’re invulnerable. Be honest about the risks, and prepare yourself.
Q: Did you do anything risky that you regret? How did you take steps to feel safe without limiting your ability to enjoy your trip?
A: Because everything worked out for me, I don’t have any regrets. In order to feel safer, I was very straightforward in my dealings, and I dressed to downplay my femininity much of the time. That’s not for everyone, but I gained some peace of mind from being sure in myself that I wasn’t giving mixed messages with my appearance. And I was vigilant. I would say I was more vigilant than cautious, which means I used my spidey-sense to suss out situations, and I listened to my instincts, rather than following any set of rules.
Q: You mentioned you had money troubles while traveling. What happened, and how did you resolve them?
A: I budgeted for my trip carefully and had enough cash in my bank account (I was gone about seven months), but I was lax about making payments to my credit card. It just slipped my mind, frankly, especially when I was in places that were hard to make phone calls from, like Vietnam or the Himalayas. I had just returned to Thailand from Nepal, and I found that the bank had frozen my credit card, my only access to cash at that point. Because Thailand was still on a list of drug-lenient countries at that time, there was no quick fix to my problem—my parents couldn’t wire me money, my bank couldn’t transfer funds. So my problems weren’t resolved, basically. I had to rely on the generosity of a guesthouse owner I had met—sort of an ironic conclusion to a trip that had been meant as a celebration of independence!
Q: You said you observed in Thailand and heard of it happening in Bhutan—the practice of women sleeping with their trek guides. What do you think about this? How dangerous is this?
A: I mostly think it’s fine. My sense is that it’s safe, at least as safe as sex can be between any two people who don’t know each other well and who are going to part ways soon. It’s always a little absurd to characterize a whole group of people, but the trek guides I met were basically nice, respectful guys. They were Buddhists (as they would probably be in Bhutan). They weren’t looking to drug or rape anyone; they seemed to take their responsibility for leading a group seriously. But certainly condoms MUST be involved! Condoms, condoms, condoms, even when it’s awkward. Even when you don’t have any and so you can’t consummate despite your bodies’ deepest wishes. Condoms! Which, of course, can’t protect against messy feelings.
Q: What inspired you to write your book “Currency?”
A: My backpacking trip through Southeast Asia was one of the profound experiences of my life, and I kept coming back to it in various ways in my writing. One day I sat down and started writing from the first person point of view of a Thai guy, just as an exercise. I found that he had a lot to say! I guess I had spent a lot of time thinking about what it must be like to work closely with tourists who come and go—to be, essentially, the trek guide who might have the chance to get lucky with lots of Western women, but who is always being left behind. Also, the shock of finding myself in Bangkok without money was a big one, and the “what-ifs” that experience left me with gave me lots to explore in fiction.
Q: What travel goals do you have for yourself? What travel goals have you already achieved, and what do you hope to achieve in your lifetime?
A: I achieved my early travel goals of hitching across the U.S. and Europe, and my later goals of getting to Central American, mostly Guatemala. A big backpacking rip to India was on my list in my 20s, but that never happened, and now that I have kids my ideas have changed. I still hope to get there, but it’s on the back burner, and I don’t think I’d backpack; I’d probably do a yoga trip or something. Now my dream is to go with my kids and husband to Antiqua, Guatamala, or maybe Guadalajara, Mexico, and do a home-stay and study Spanish for a month or two before taking off on a trip together. I’d really like to become functional in Spanish. Also—and this will probably happen sooner—I’d like us all to go to Costa Rica together. And to the south of France and northern Italy, where we have close friends and distant family. And with all the talk about the book, my son, who is nine, really wants to see Thailand. There are no concrete plans for that to happen, but I would love to go back there at this stage in my life. It’s a place I think people can enjoy on many different levels.