The Beauty in Ignorance: My love letter to solo female travel, my thesis, and the Women’s Travel…

March 7th, 2023 | Hillary Soletic

Back in 2020, I found myself feverishly joining Facebook groups for solo female travelers, trying to work up the guts to take my first trip alone. Embarrassingly enough, it wasn’t until a number of years ago that I even realized solo travel was an option. My initial reaction: Go on a trip alone? But why? I had friends and family that loved me (or so I hoped).

But that reaction faded quickly; soon turning into egregious curiosity. If I learned a peer had traveled solo, I would pick their brain until their social cues for me to stop were so strong, I had to give it a rest.

Since then I have traveled to 10* cities solo. And not to be a total ham, but I wouldn’t be the person I am today having not done so. Sure there were a few shared Airbnb’s where I had to read the hosts’ positive reviews to help me sleep at night (please no one share this with my family, it’s just between you, me, and the world wide web); but other than that I had been just fine!

One of my favorite takeaways from solo travel has been the relationship I have built with myself. There is something so precious to me that there are memories I share only with myself. And how being alone in a new place has a way of magnifying the smallest of positive social interactions. A stranger going out of their way to make you feel welcomed or comfortable for a brief moment in time has a way of restoring your faith in humanity. I remember them all. And I strive to be like them.

Willy Wonka looks different on vacation.

Now let me take you to current day, March 2023. I’ve spent the past six months working diligently on my grad school thesis titled “Solo Sisters”, a community-generated travel toolkit and connection app made to support solo female travelers in their journeys. To complete my MFA in Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), I knew I had to choose a thesis topic I held allegiance to — helping women travel solo, it was.

In constant search of solo female travelers to speak with, I attended a meetup event held by The Nomadic Network, a global community of travel-lovers. Little did I know walking into that bar on a nippy November night that serendipity was alive and well. I met one of the hosts, Erica Virvo Hackman, who a few months later became my thesis advisor. A woman who knew solo female travel and the industry like the back of her hand, I was ecstatic to have her onboard. A few weeks into our weekly syncs, Erica invited me to attend the Women’s Travel Fest as her plus-one.

Credit: Women’s Travel Fest, Facebook

I arrived at the Fest bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and green behind the ears — the perfect case for Animal Control.

By the time the weekend came to a close, I was wondering if people had picked up on my rabid raccoon-in-human-clothing energy. So jacked up on the overwhelmingly positive vibes of the fest, I wanted to interact with as many members of my surrounding community as possible. I was just ecstatic to be there. Which leads me to my opening argument — are rabid raccoons really all that bad, or are they, perhaps, just happy to be in your neighborhood? (Heard it’s a great school district, BTW, so props!)

Back to my story. Let me rewind a bit first.

A self-proclaimed extrovert, I arrived at the weekend-long festival not feeling particularly social. Perhaps it was me feeling intimidated, or just burnt out from my thesis, but I was more nervous than usual when it came to breaking the ice [cue 2007 Britney Spears]. Standing before me was a bunch of women that were so well-traveled and knowledgeable about this super cool field. Sure I’ve done some traveling, but not to the point of me posting the “X# of countries [I’ve] visited” in a given bio.

Seats began to fill in before the kick-off speech started. A woman sits down next to me, appearing solo; she hunches over looking for something in her bag — a universally awkward time to ask a person a question. “So, what brings you here today?” I said as naturally as I possibly could. Sure it was a weird start, but it was better than texting my friend about how awkward I felt sitting alone on my phone.

It was at that moment, this extroverted raccoon had its renaissance.

March 4th–5th, 2023 | Angel Orensanz Center, New York City

My new friend Jaime and I were fast friends. And as my courage to engage in conversations grew, I began to notice a trend. With every interaction, I was met with kind eyes, warm smiles, and genuine hugs hello; a hodgepodge of women from all around the world in one place to share their stories. They spoke of the expected tales of geography, but more profoundly, they spoke of those of emotional grit in their everyday life: “where I’ve been, where I am now, and where I hope to be”.

While my initial motivation was to listen to speeches by trailblazing women in travel, I soon realized that the experience of the fest was just as much about hearing from those bright-eyed, laser-focused women out in the crowd.

For what is such a respected event in the women’s travel industry, I admittedly entered the doors of that converted synagogue, ignorant as to what this event was. I wasn’t familiar with any of the speakers and I didn’t know what kind of attendees it drew; I just knew that I’d get something out of it.

Now, let’s not beat around the bush, the word “ignorant” doesn’t exactly have a great reputation. But from those 48 hours, it was made crystal clear — within ignorance lies unactualized beauty. Before I go any further, I should mention that there are two kinds of ignorance: the one that rejects knowledge, and the one that sparks curiosity. But let’s focus on the latter because that’s where the potential [and hope] lies.

For one, my ignorance reminded me how invigorating it is to be a novice. Starting from square one, you are just hungry for knowledge. Because of your ignorance, you ask what — in the wrong community — could be considered a “stupid question”. But you ask it anyway because a) you don’t know any better or b) you have no choice. In my book, a person doesn’t come off as dimwitted if they ask a question out of honest curiosity and intentionality. Lucky for me, I was among a like-minded community of women that embraced people of all levels of knowledge and experience; excited to fill me in.

I was working with a finite set of time at the Fest, and I was on a mission to soak up as much as I could. I took notes frantically, seeing so much of my many hours of thesis research unfold before my eyes. I found so much of what I strived to implement in “Solo Sisters” — intersectional feminism, communal ethics, and inclusion of diverse perspectives — personified all around me. This community has become my tribe, and my thesis, an ode to their beauty.

Funny enough, I’ve found my experience working on my thesis to have many a parallel with that of solo travel. The excitement, but utter trepidation of being in new territory; ecstatic to explore what you love, but intimidated by the discomfort that you know comes with it. After every peak, another trough; things don’t get easier, you just get stronger. The lows are low, but the highs are so high. You emerge resilient; a tougher, yet somehow, more vulnerable version of yourself than when you started.

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