Get ready for another fascinating round of Unpacking Solo Travel. This week we’re talking with Toni Gonzalez. Toni is a police sergeant living in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. During our conversation, she explained how she got into traveling, how she overcame her fear of traveling alone after her divorce, and how she developed a deeper appreciation for life after a health scare. She also shared advice for other women considering solo travel. I hope you enjoy this interview with Toni and find her as inspiring as I do.
What is your background with travel and how did you transition into solo travel?
My parents, both of whom are from Puerto Rico, didn’t speak English when they moved here. They were like immigrants, coming to a whole new place and having to learn new customs and a new language. We never traveled because they were focused on working and making sure we had a great education and everything we needed.
So after I got married and had my son, I decided to do the opposite with him. We started traveling when he was small because I wanted to make sure he would see a lot of things. But after 18 years, in 2009, I separated from my husband and things changed. I felt like I was never going to be able to travel again.
I started reading books about traveling, and I realized that there was no better experience to give me more confidence than to just travel and do it by myself — to be that ‘weird person,’ because sometimes people do look at you a little weird when you’re traveling by yourself.
I just started doing it. My son is in the Navy, so the first trip I took was to visit him in Virginia, seven years ago. He has actually become the motivator for me to travel the world because he goes to all these beautiful, exotic places and then I decide, “I’m going to go there!”
I have found that we all have emotional hurdles we need to jump during our solo travels. One of mine has often been, ““What if I don’t like being alone with myself?” What were some of your emotional hurdles?
I’m not going to lie to you, people put all this fear in your head when you travel like, “Don’t stop at that rest stop because it’s dangerous.” And so all these crazy, fearful thoughts were popping into my head. But then I was like, “Screw that. I am doing this. I can protect myself.” Those were the first few thoughts, and then I started getting excited about the plan and reality of it all. “Here I am, traveling by myself. I can do whatever I want. I can stop as many times as I want and I don’t have to ask anybody for permission to do anything.”
It’s very empowering to go somewhere by yourself and plan out your whole day and not have to really plan for somebody else. You’re just doing things you want to do, grounding yourself and getting to know yourself.
It might sound crazy, but you’re having these conversations with yourself and it’s so therapeutic. Not only do you see your weaknesses, but you also see your strengths, all in one.
Women often ask about how and if they will meet people while traveling solo. What has been your experience with this?
A lot of people look at me and think, “She’s a confident woman. She’s a police officer. Why would she need someone to travel with?” But as a woman, you always have this feeling like you need someone there to actually share that experience with. But what I have found, when I travel, is that I meet really great people along the way, and I have really deep conversations with people. I don’t even know their names sometimes.
What has been one of the most memorable solo travel experiences?
My son was stationed in Naples, Italy for nine months, and I am so proud to tell you that I traveled to Italy by myself. First, I went to Rome for three days and stayed at the Napoleon Hotel. It was the best thing I ever did. I went to the Vatican by myself, and I took a bus tour (actually it left me behind at one point, but I managed to make it back to the hotel).
Then I took a train to Naples. It was very confusing, everything was in Italian, and I was worried I would get lost, but people are really nice. When they see you traveling by yourself, or learn you’re an American, they try to help you. They help you with their little bit of English that they have, and you use the little bit of Italian you have.
What has been your favorite solo trip?
Going to Dallas was one of my favorites. About a year and a half ago, I had to have brain surgery, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to see again. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to travel, and realized I was taking my life for granted. I thought, “Oh my God, what if I can never look at beautiful colors and see people’s faces?” I was already feeling really liberated after my divorce, but that woke me up and made me realize I don’t have to wait around for someone to be able to travel the world. I realized that I can be my own perfect person.
Once the doctor told me I was going to be okay, I was determined to find a place to go as soon as possible. I decided to go to Dallas, Texas for a group meet-up. It was so last minute that I didn’t have anywhere to stay. The organizer helped me find a roommate, and she quickly became one of my best friends. I walked all over Dallas. It’s so beautiful. I’m actually planning another solo trip there — I just want to explore a little bit more. They have like all kinds of bands, and a ton of bookstores and coffee shops.
What advice would you give other women who are considering solo travel?
if anyone’s reading this and they want to travel to another country by themselves, please go and travel to at least one place by yourself. It is such a confidence booster. It really is. And it makes you feel so good about yourself because you’re taking the time to honor yourself and say, “You know what, I’m important enough that I’m going to do it by myself.”