I’ve lived in a bus — as a single woman, travelling almost exclusively alone — for over three years. Here are 5 things I’ve learned.
1. Trust your gut
It’s late, you’re tired, you want nothing more than to pull over, stop driving and go to sleep, but you can’t quite find the right place. Right, for me, means safe, private, not pissing anyone off and — ideally if you can find it — not illegal. Safe is right up front for good reason.
There’s something quite wonderful about the connection to place you get as a nomad. Everywhere you go there’s a communication between you and that location. A deep instinct, a gut feeling, tells you if this place is OK or not. If you have even a tingle of doubt, you leave. Drive away, find somewhere else. Immediately.
It doesn’t matter that your bus is a safety shell, it matters that you’re not putting yourself in harm’s way. There are enough risks out in this big dark world that you simply don’t need to chance it. Listen to your gut. Find somewhere else. If your bottom line choice becomes ‘this place which is safe but illegal’ and ‘this place which is legal but doesn’t feel safe’, then break the rules. You’ll find, as I have, that all but the most bitter security guards/police agree that safety is more important than a bit of ninja-parking now and then.
2. Otherness is bliss: own your right to be different.
Mostly I find people love my bus and are gently curious about my lifestyle choice, but sometimes I’m faced with the ‘get off my land’ types. Instead of simply bowing to their superiority, I like to challenge this. Not to be belligerent, but because I genuinely seek to understand what causes their bigotry, and, if at all possible, encourage them to question that mindset in themselves.
In Europe nomads are labelled Gypsy or Pike, both derogatory labels used to describe lower-class, disreputable people who (simply due to their otherness) must surely be mistrusted. Nomads are no more dodgy geezers than your house-dwelling next-door neighbour who never manages to put their rubbish in the bin and always plays their music loud on a school night. Sure some travellers have the audacity to do their laundry in public, literally hanging their knickers on a tree to dry in the sunshine, but seriously… is that so terrible?
The world is full of diversity, in landscapes and in human kind. We are all oddballs; unique in our similarities, connected by our differences. Contrary to the way our mainstream media, film and TV industries would have us believe: otherness is the norm, globally. Celebrate that; own your otherness.
3. Sexism can sometimes work in your favour.
I try to be respectful and park away from residences — makeshift neighbours can be funny old protectionist beans. It’s amazing the number of times rangers or security get called to come investigate the stranger parked on a public street. I’ve been woken in the early hours more than a few times by loud aggressive banging on the outside of the bus. Not just a gentle rat-at-tat on the front door, but a booming reminder echoing through your metal home that YOU ARE WRONG. These bangs are always delivered in multiples, the community bodyguard encircling the bus ensuring you are aware of their domination.
When I, a bleary-eyed woman, open the door that aggressive masculine stance more often than not rapidly falls away. You are not the bloke they were expecting and they’re not quite sure what to do about it all any more. Their eyes say it all; they find themselves stuck between their paid role, which demands they defend the self-imposed rights of the local rate paying residents, and a deep-rooted instinct to help a woman in need.
While patronisingly old-fashioned, this is helpful for me. I don’t want to have to pack up and drive off before I’ve had a reasonable sleep — in fact it’s inappropriate for anyone (even a policeman) to ask you to drive when you are not properly rested. You could cause an accident. Run with that. Discuss the situation with them. You don’t need to play any kind of nonsense weak and feeble girly card or step up to match their aggression. Just be calm and rational — and human. Politely, but firmly, explain your situation “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you couldn’t park here, I’ll leave first thing in the morning”. And then both do so and don’t go back there again; you’re clearly not welcomed round those parts.
4. We have a basic human right to The Commons.
Not all nomads are tourists. Not all of us are on holiday. And not all of us have budgets that enable us to stay at a hotel every night. When we Brits colonised Australia we brought with us a whole raft of English and Welsh laws… except The Commons. The Commons doesn’t really exist anywhere any more in these dark ages of greed and privatisation, but it used to mean that everyone had the right to access and use land and waterways, equally. The only stipulation was that your use couldn’t negatively impede anyone else’s right to the same use. This shared ownership was the foundation of our legal system, except, it seems, when claiming other countries as our own.
It’s my belief that The Commons should continue as a basic human right, and I live daily in precarious ownership of this right. Caravan parks are for holiday-making families, not for nomads (unless you maybe need to do some washing and fancy access to a hot shower every now and then).
5. Random conversations with strangers are the absolutely best thing about nomadicy.
It’s easy to feel an outsider, other, when travelling. Especially alone and especially as a woman. You know you’re already vulnerable, living on the streets (albeit in a more protective shell than a high street doorway), but that doesn’t mean you should hide away and reject possible interactions with other humans. There’s nothing I love more than sitting on my bus’ doorstep having a coffee in the morning. I smile at the locals passing by, sometimes they catch my eye and smile back, and sometimes this results in a conversation.
I’ve had so many lovely exchanges that I started sharing them online. Sometimes they result in tips about hidden gems of suggested parkups, sometimes fresh homegrown veggies, herbs and eggs still warm from their delightful chooks. Sometimes they’re homeless people wanting to recharge their phone on my solar rig, or just curious about the bus and why a woman is travelling on her own in it. The great British tradition of ‘a cuppa’ is a fantastic social lubricant, always offered and often accepted.
. . .
So do I think it’s ‘safe’ for women to travel solo? Of course I do. Sure I’ve had rare moments where my definition of safety has been challenged, but I have had those when I lived in bricks and mortar too. Despite our otherness from mainstream society, we women are not the problem. The problem is a homogenous patriarchal enclosed system which tells women what we should and shouldn’t do with our minds and bodies and tells men it’s OK to dominate, threaten and rape women simply because she ‘shouldn’t have been there in the first place, never mind wearing those clothes’.
Some people are assholes, but for every single one of those douchebags there are thirty more who are astonishing examples of the human race’s generosity, curiosity and otherness. When I was eight years old I would go tromping through the Welsh mountains accompanied only by my dog, a miniature wire-haired dachshund called Barney. When I was thirteen I would roam the streets of London while my mum was in business meetings. I have always and will continue to unapologetically walk through unlit parks late at night. I don’t own a gun, rape alarm or any other form of device which some corporate marketing company tells me will make me feel ‘safe’, I just use my common sense and gut instinct.
Buslife isn’t for every woman, or every man, that’s for sure. But it’s the only life for me, regardless of what hangs from my chest or doesn’t hang between my legs.
This post was originally published via the “5 Things I learned” channel on Medium, thanks to an invitation by Matt Locke of Storythings. Matt was the first person to commission me as an artist via my old company, the-phone-book Limited, a verrrrry long time ago. I’d really enjoyed his kick-off contribution, “5 things I learned working as a short order chef“, and messaged him to say so. His reply? “I’d love to read ‘5 things I’ve learned riding a bus around the world for 3 years…’”.
I’ve always known there would be a book/film/transmedia-something-or-other to come out of reallybigroadtrip. I’m even getting to the point where that’s beginning to take its own shape, but I still don’t feel ready to distil three years (and a complete change of life, perspective, everything) down to five things. At least, not yet. I thought maybe ‘5 Things I’ve learned from hammocks‘ and left my subconscious to mull it all over.
A few days later a friend posted about the #viajosola hoohah, which went something like this: 1) Solo women travellers get attacked. 2) Society tells women they shouldn’t travel alone because they only have themselves to blame for getting attacked. 3) Twitter gets involved. 4) Women respond with outpouring of why we should do what the bloody hell we want. 5) Fee gets cross and throws her hat in the ring, realising this makes a perfect “5 things” post.
What’s been so wonderful for me is that since it’s been posted I have had so many people (particularly, but not exclusively, women) contact me, both publicly and privately. They have told me how reassuring it is to have their own beliefs confirmed; how encouraging it is to hear this positive perspective just before they embark on their own solo buslife adventures; how even British Citizens didn’t know about The Commons and what we’ve lost through enclosure and capitalism.
Women have shared their own experiences of life on the road. Men have told me they’d never considered how women have to be extra-vigilant while telling me of times they too have found situations where they had to quickly devise their own safety mechanisms. Phrases like “renewed hope”, “inspiring and reassuring”, “liberating and empowering”, “reigniting the dream” have been filling up my inboxes and newsfeeds. One woman even told me that after struggling with isolation and then reading my post, she actually sat outside her bus with her morning cuppa and a smile, resulting in several delightful conversations and possible new friendships! Wonderful!
What this has helped reveal for me personally is that after all these years struggling with “Am I an artist? If so, what kind?” I’ve become reminded that I have always dearly loved writing, but have never given myself permission to own that role. “I’m not poetic enough”. “I know so many astonishing writers, I could never ever be that good”. And of course “I’m #TLDR” and all the other imposter syndrome nonsense. The multiple responses to this post have been so complimentary that I’m now exploring more writing opportunities outside my own blogs. In writing more, working with editors and reaching broader audiences than my own niche communities, I aim to hone my voice and maybe even bring in some income from it *gasp*.
Thank you to everyone who’s read that post and any of my other rantings over the years, you rock x