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Ladies Love London

The idea of traveling to a foreign country by yourself can be pretty scary, especially if you don’t speak the language or you’ve never traveled alone before.

That’s why it’s a good idea to cut your travel teeth on a city that’s welcoming, easy to navigate, and exciting as hell.

If you’re not exactly the risk-taking type, but you still crave the adventure and promise of a solo vacation, start by taking solo day trips to destinations near your hometown. Once that feels comfy, you can work your way up to weekend getaways and mini-vacations by yourself.
When you’re ready to venture abroad, London is a surefire bet for first-time solo female travelers. According to the solo female travel experts at Londontopia, London is “definitely one of the safer major cities in the world, and allows for a lot of freedom as a woman.”

If you’re an English-speaking Westerner journeying outside the U.S., Canada, or Australia for the first time, a London holiday offers the perfect blend of non-scary familiar stuff (“People speak English!”, “I can read the street signs!”), and just the right amount of exoticism (“Holy crap, is that Stonehenge?!”).

Here are 3 ways to make a trip to London feel like wading into inviting travel waters, NOT diving face-first into a freezing cold ocean of “I wanna go home!”

1) Dress for Success

Forget toting expensive designer fashions along on your London trip, and opt instead for some practical protection from the weather.

No matter what time of year you visit, there’s likely to be some rain (even smack dab in the middle of summer!). I spent 4 weeks in and around London during the month of July and enjoyed a smattering of rain and clouds most afternoons.

First of all, cloudy skies and raindrops set against a backdrop of beautiful stone and brick buildings just oozes romance. Factor in all the glorious tea you’ll be consuming and the dreary weather won’t bother you in the slightest.

Second, you’ll want to pack some waterproofed footwear for all the walking around you’ll be doing, along with a water resistant coat and cardigans. My friends at Travel Fashion Girl have created a bunch of helpful infographics that you can use as your visual packing list for London.

2) Fly Into a Regional Airport Rather than a Major Hub

Have you ever flown into Los Angeles, by chance? If so, you know what a nightmare it can be to get from LAX to…well, anywhere else in the city. Locals who live anywhere near the Valley will always tell you to fly into Burbank. Sure, it’s more expensive, but it’s also much more convenient and you’ll have much better access to the real LA (as opposed to the tourist LA).

The same goes for London. When it comes to airports, you have far more options than just Gatwick and Heathrow. Flying into a smaller airport like Stansted will allow you to see much more of the Greater Metropolitan area, include the suburbs of London where real English people actually live!

By avoiding the regular tourist traps and exploring the areas outside of town, you’re far more likely to meet locals and have an authentic experience (in the charming English countryside, no less!).

Besides, there are a slew of transportation options available that connect all of the London airports with the center of the city. Whether you land at Gatwick, Stansted, Heathrow, or Luton, you’ll enjoy easy access to a variety of buses, trains, and elegant Black Cabs. For instance, if you’re getting dropped off at Stansted Airport by a friend or a cab, you’ll enjoy free shuttle buses that will take you directly to your departure terminal.

The “getting there” part of travel is usually a pain in the tuckus, but London makes it as easy and convenient as possible for first time solo female travelers.

3) Get Social!

I spent 8 months traveling solo throughout Asia and 3 months traveling with a partner (who’s now my husband, holler!!). As awesome as it was to travel with King, I met so many more people when I was traveling solo!

When you’re on your own, you make a bigger effort to connect with other travelers and locals. You’re naturally more open and everyone around you responds to that. Don’t be surprised if you get approached by other travelers, couples, and locals with invites for lunch, outings and activities. But don’t take my word for it – even the travel gurus over at Hubpages recommend reaching out to other travelers for tips, advice, and ideas.

Just make sure to extend your friendliness to locals as well – there’s no point in linking up with a bunch of travelers from your home country and never chatting with a bonafide Londoner!

4) Get Ready to Spend!

I don’t want you to even think about experiencing London on a budget. Sure, it’s possible, but what’s the fun in visiting one of the priciest cities on earth only to fret about your budget the whole time?

No, if you’re going to cut your teeth on London, plan your solo trip for 5-6 days and live it up!
Normally I recommend staying in a destination as long as possible in order to cut costs. The longer you stay in one place, the more great deals you’ll discover on hotels, restaurants, sightseeing, and more. Simply by staying put and opening your ears, you’ll hear about great local bars, interesting coffee shops, the most cost-effective option to get around town, and stuff the guidebooks don’t tell you.

HOWEVER, if you’re cutting your solo travel teeth on London, I do NOT recommend staying as long as possible! Better to stay for 5-7 days, blow a bunch of moola ($2-$3000 on the low end, $5-$6000+ if you’re not the hostel type), have an AMAZING time, and start planning your next solo trip.

A month in Nepal, anyone?

image credit: msn.com

My Scariest Moment as a Solo Female Traveler

“Destined to be an old women with no regrets.”

I hear the sound of an engine cut out and see a motorcycle parked up above. They are back.

Panic fills me as I grab a few rocks from the ground. I see him approach. He is staring at me intently without any hint of emotion, the exact same way all Indian men look at me.

I feel naked, and his greedy eyes undress me as he gets closer. I quickly run up the small hill I had climbed down moments before for a pee break.

I say “go away,” again, as fiercely as I can, and hold up my rock. He doesn’t come closer, but he doesn’t back away either.

I reach the top of the hill and see his friend, who has parked his motorcycle by my bike. He has that same nasty cold-blooded look in his eyes. I feel my insides shrivel as anger rises up inside of me.

There is no doubt in my mind about what they are planning to do to me, and I have never been so afraid in my life.

India's children: a reminder of Heaven

India’s children: a reminder of Heaven

I grab my bike and quickly pedal away, unsure of how to proceed. They pass by me, staring as they always do. I hope they are gone for good this time –  I have been playing this scary game of cat and mouse for forty minutes now.

I’m at least twenty kilometers out from the main highway, trapped on a small road I thought would be a shortcut. “A shortcut to hell,” I think to myself now.

And that’s when I see them, six of them. They have multiplied. The two men who have been following me have brought reinforcements. Their three motorcycles are parked by the side of the road and they are all waiting for me to pass.

I stop. There are too many of them, they can easily overpower me. One starts to approach me and my heart beats faster inside my chest, I am trapped.

I beg the next couple who pass on a motorbike to stop.

“Help, help me, please!”

I am lucky, there is a women on board, a rare sight in this part of India. And she speaks enough English to translate. I quickly explain my situation as the pack approaches. She tells them to go away but it is no use, they look at her with that same slimy look they give to all women. We aren’t respected here, we are second-class, unworthy. Disposable. I have never felt so angry.

The Sikh people were Shirine's saviors time and time again

The Sikh people were Shirine’s saviors time and time again

She flags down the next older gentleman who passes. Like her driver, he wears a turban that shows he is Sikh, a gentle group of people I have come to trust and respect throughout my stay in India. She explains to him that I need an escort and he readily agrees. My followers are dispersing now, they realize their fun has been ruined.

I follow the man for a few kilometers before he speaks. He tries to ask me in Hindi where I am going, and I struggle to explain that I don’t know. It’s 5pm and almost dark out. I have never been caught this late without a place to sleep, and given my last hour of hell, there is no way I’m sleeping in my tent tonight.

He signals me to follow him to his house and I immediately feel relieved, I have a place to stay. He is kind and gentle, the type of man any child would be proud to call their grandfather. I arrive at his house were his wife, daughter, and granddaughter are surprised yet elated to greet me. I am saved, and within the next few days, I will find heaven in hell.

They serve me a cup of steaming chia before I even have time to change out of my dusty cycling clothes. A neighborhood child peers over the fence, shy yet curious about this newly arrived Westerner. The family later tells me that they have never spoken to a white girl before.

solo-female-traveler

No one speaks English, but as always, I get by with a few words of Hindi and a lot of charades. They invite me to eat dinner, a meal of delicious Indian curry and rice, before taking me next door to meet the neighbors. I am proudly shown off to everyone in this small village, and pretty soon, they have all demanded that I spend at least one night with each of the different families.

As I sit on the ground next to the ladies they talk and laugh, and though I love seeing their smiling faces, it is hard not being able to understand what they say. I get up and find the children instead as language is never a barrier with them.

They warm up to me quickly and within minutes I have one on my back, and a child grabbing each hand. They show me their rice fields and their cows, and I stop to play with the smallest calf. He is soft, only a few weeks old, and nuzzles me to pet him. I’m in heaven, surrounded by playful children, laughing women, and a cuddly cow.

My anger slowly fades as I spend the next few days enjoying this family’s hospitality. I take a motorbike ride through the rice fields and taste my first stalk of fresh sugar cane. I spend hours with the children, and find myself happily in charge of the one year old granddaughter.

I sleep every night with the grandma, an arrangement I am more than used to now after staying with countless families as a solo female traveler.

The neighbors come over and I am ordered (nicely) to visit them daily. They are all incredibly hospitable, handing me cups of hot tea and different traditional dishes at each and every visit. It is overwhelming at times, the sheer hospitality and kindness, but every minute of overwhelm is worth bearing because of the amazing experiences I come away with.

solo-female-traveler

After four days I decide it is time for me to continue on my way. They beg me to stay, but eventually relent and let me ride out with two of the men as an escort.

The girls hand me beautiful earrings and necklaces as I leave, and though I am trying to thank them, they end up thanking me. They have relatives forty kilometers away and have already arranged for me to stay with them for the following few nights.

I arrive at my next homestay to find a beautiful sixteen year old girl who speaks nearly perfect English because she attends a private English boarding school. She shows me around, tells me about her secret boyfriend, and immediately makes me feel like family.

I cook with the oldest sister, go out with the teenager and her friends, and visit the Sikh temple with the whole family. Once again I am treated like a queen. I stay a few more days before eventually heading out. They are worried about me so I promise to find a pay phone and call them that night. When I do, they tell me they miss me and that I should give up my bike journey to live with them. I have never felt so welcomed in any other country.

India. It’s heaven and it’s hell, and you are sure to experience both journeying as a solo female traveler.

You will see the savage brutality of inequality and you will learn to stand proud as a woman. You are sure to be taken in as a daughter, friend, and sister by countless amazing families.

I have stayed in a slum, with multiple farming families in the villages, and with wealthy families in different cities. In each and every home I was treated like a queen. Go out and experience it for yourself. It’s worth going through hell to get to heaven.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport.

This post originally appeared on Shirine’s blog, awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Shirine was almost the victim of a gang rape in India.

2. She was rescued by a Sikh family who took her in and protected her.

3. India is both heaven and hell for solo female travelers.

4. Even though she endured one of the scariest moments of her life, Shirine wouldn't trade her time in India for anything and still recommends other solo female travelers visit India.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Travel Alone Vs Travel Partner

When people find out I travel alone, it usually goes something like this:

A well-meaning stranger, more often than not my guest house owner or waitress, cocks her head to one side and furrows her brow.

“Are you……alone?” she asks, every-so-slightly horrified and bracing herself for the answer she doesn’t want to hear.

I’m used to this question by now, just like I’m used to being asked how old I am, whether or not I’m married, and how much money I make (usually by people I’ve only just met and usually in that exact order).

“Yes!” I respond to her question, taking great care to demonstrate how very-much-OK I am with the fact that I travel alone.

And then, a funny thing happens.

Her head un-cocks, her eyebrows reach for her hairline like invigorated caterpillars, and her eyes widen in relief.

She can see that not only am I fine with solo travel – I relish it. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and because I’m so comfortable with it, she can be too.

The best response I ever got after answering “Are you alone?” with a resounding “Yes!,” was from a woman in Laos named Kam Phan (when I asked her how to spell her name, she pondered the question a moment before replying “You know what? I have no idea.”)

When Kam Phan (or Cam Fan, or Qam Fhahn) found out I was traveling solo, and was staying in one of her big, beautiful riverside bungalows all by myself, she threw her head back and laughed and laughed.

“Very good!” she exclaimed, wiping away mirthful tears that had collected in the corners of her eyes.

“Just one?” she asked again, wanting to be sure.

“Just one” I said.

“One is better” she nodded. “Sleep much better alone.”

And I do, dear reader. I really, really do.

Why you should travel alone

Travel alone and be surrounded by new friends

Travel alone and be surrounded by new friends

But the sleeping part is neither here nor there. I’m of the opinion that when you travel alone, you open yourself up to a world of opportunities that people with travel partners miss out on.

You should think about solo travel if you:

  • Are seriously sick of feeling stressed, anxious, depressed, and unfulfilled in your life 90% of the time

  • Want to have a big, fat, “ah ha!” moment that changes your life forever

  • Are the kind of person who doesn’t think twice about going to see a movie alone, OR
  • Are completely, utterly terrified of being alone, let alone traveling alone

That’s right – people who can’t stand to be alone stand to benefit the most from being alone, especially while traveling alone.

Fear isn’t a sign to move away from a situation, but to move toward it. Your fear of solitude is a signpost, and it’s pointing you back towards yourself. Lean into that fear and you’ll be rewarded with a complete paradigm shift that will change your perspective on just about everything.

When you travel alone, you learn to enjoy your own company. You discover what you like and don’t like. You start to see yourself with fresh eyes, just as the people you meet delight in aspects of you you didn’t even realize existed:

“Your skin is so white and beautiful!” begins to replace old beliefs about your “pasty white” skin.

“You look SO YOUNG!” begins to replace “Get me some wrinkle cream, stat.”

“You are so rich” begins to replace “OMG I’m so broke.”

Compared to many of the locals you’ll meet, you do look much younger and more beautiful than them –  after all, you haven’t spent your entire life working outside under the scorching sun doing backbreaking manual labor 12+ hours a day.

And compared to them, you are rich. Do you know how long it would take someone in Nepal or Cambodia to save up enough money to buy an iPhone? Like, a year. Probably more.

This woman is only 87 years old, but looks much older from a life of hard living

This woman is only 87 years old, but looks much older from a life of hard living

Slowly, very slowly, you’ll begin to see yourself the way they see you. Eventually, the physical beauty and riches they perceive will magically transform into the kind of beauty and riches that really matter – the kind that exist and thrive within the most private chambers of your heart.

And that transformation of your perspective is so personal, so subtle, so deeply spiritual, that throwing a travel partner into the mix makes it infinitely harder to achieve.

It’s difficult enough to face your own ideas about you; add someone else’s ideas about you into the mix and you’ve condemned yourself to remain exactly where you are now. And if you’re unhappy in your current state of mind, that’s a scary place to be.

Speaking of fear, all of this talk about being afraid is about the deep psychological fear of facing yourself, not the fight-or-flight response you get when someone comes at you with a machete.

But while we’re on the subject, if you’re under the impression that it’s not safe for women to travel alone, I assure you that most places in the world are far safer than many, if not most, American cities.

And if you’re concerned about the safety of your soul as you’re forced to face yourself without anyone to distract you from your own pain, good.

That’s what this journey is for, after all – facing your deepest fears about yourself and coming out the other side, unscathed and enlightened.

Phew, this is getting heavy! It’s a good thing there are puh-lenty of juicy, non-spiritual reasons to travel solo too.

Why you should NOT travel alone

But let’s be honest….solo travel is not a good fit for everyone.

And there are a lot of people who should never travel alone.

For example, if you’re a complete moron you should never travel alone because you will die.

Example: The other day I met two girls who decided to take a boat to their pre-booked island bungalow in the middle of the night.

I happened to be on that boat, and I also happened to witness them rock up to a dark, deserted island with their suitcases in tow, no one to meet them, no idea where their hotel was, and no way to call anyone.

They hid their suitcases underneath the debris of a construction site, stole a motorbike, and went off in search of their bungalow. In the middle of the night. In the dark. With barely a brain cell between the two of them.

Those girls could barely survive with each other to lean on, so I can’t imagine what would’ve happened had either of them decided to travel alone.

Travel alone and people will go out of their way to make you feel welcome

Travel alone and people will go out of their way to make you feel welcome

Other people simply don’t need to travel alone.

  • You might have a reeeeeeally special partner, or sister, or friend, or group of friends with whom travel would and will be the amazing, life-changing experience you’re hoping for.

  • You might be a completely enlightened being who has reached the zenith of her spiritual prowess, and whether alone or with others, you remain a beacon of peace and good humor. Going on a spiritual quest would be totally redundant for you, sort of like a frat boy going to beer-drinking school.

If either of those are the case, I salute you and can’t wait to hear your wonderful travel stories when you return!!

If neither of those apply to you, you might want to take a big, brave leap and travel alone.

But don’t worry – you may be sitting on the plane next to a stranger, but that stranger and many others will soon become your friends, your traveling companions, your on-the-road family.

You’ll also be able to count on other solo female travelers to help you along the way as you journey across the world to meet the love of your life – yourself.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Travel alone if you are....

-- super-comfy with solo travel
---terrified of solo travel
---an enlightened being in no need of further spiritual growth

2. Travel with a partner if you are...

---not the sharpest knife in the drawer and your own stupidity would compromise your safety
----traveling with Ryan Gosling, or someone who sort of looks like Ryan Gosling.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Will You Get Altitude Sickness when you Travel Abroad?

My mind flashes back to the Los Angeles health clinic. I’m sitting on a metallic, art deco bar stool at a funky counter that feels more like “happy hour” than “vaccination hour.”

This place is actually really cool, the idea being that you can roll up, get what you need, pay out of pocket, and peace out. A la carte healthcare, they call it.

After discussing the various vaccinations I’d be needing to journey through Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, there’s one final issue to deal with – altitude sickness.

In researching the various ailments I’d be exposed to – typhoid, rabies, Hep A and B, and so on – I was determined to get the bare bones. Vaccinations aren’t cheap, and the thought of blowing hundreds, even thousands of my book advance on a big shot of “just in case” juice made me break out in hives. (Don’t worry – there’s a vaccination for that, too.)

Stupid mountains, making it all hard to breathe and stuff.

Stupid mountains, making it all hard to breathe and stuff.

I committed to only getting what was absolutely necessary to keep me alive. Typhoid seemed to be a big one, and so was malaria. I took the Typhoid shot and paid for a prescription of antimalarial meds. Hepatitis A made the list, Hep B didn’t (I just promised myself I’d cut down on my intravenous drug use and the $2 hooker habit.)

But what about altitude sickness? After all, the mountains in Nepal aren’t simply some of the highest peaks in the world, they are the highest peaks in the world. It’s the home of Mount friggin Everest, after all!

But I wasn’t planning on trekking, and according to Ye Olde Interwebs, both Kathmandu and Pokhara were only about a mile above sea level. It was like visiting Denver, but with air pollution and no hot water.

I’d been to Denver once, for a single evening, on one of my many road trips back and forth between the Midwest and Los Angeles. So clearly I was an expert on both Denver and its elevation level.

You're higher than you've ever been - even if you've been to Denver!

You’re higher than you’ve ever been – even if you’ve been to Denver!

“What about altitude sickness?” asked the nurse, who’d just been forced to explain why he was legally allowed to administer vaccination shots even though he wasn’t an RN. Apparently the woman in line before me was a doctor, and a snarky one at that.

I felt sorry for the guy, but I was also keenly aware that his job was to stuff me with as much medicine as possible in order to make as much money as possible.

“Do I really need something for altitude sickness?” I asked, playing innocent.

He regarded me, trying to decide if I was the swayable type. I’d already turned down the rabies shot, after all.

“Hmm….let’s see.”

He went online and looked up the altitude in Kathmandu. Yep, about a mile above sea level.

“I think that’s the same as Denver. Not too bad, right?”

The nurse wasn’t pushy, and he agreed with me. “Not too bad.”

So that was that. No altitude sickness meds for me.

Flash forward to Kathmandu, Nepal, 2 weeks later.

I’ve been in town for about 48 hours, without a symptom in sight. I’ve just had a simultaneously life-changing and somewhat-disappointing morning at The Monkey Temple, and am walking back to my guest house in Thamel.

It’s getting hard to breathe. The 200+ steps up to the temple summit really wore me out, but then again I’m not in the best of shape. For every zumba class I’d attended in LA this fall, there were at least 3 beers to counteract any health benefits I may have absorbed while shaking my thang to Shakira.

Wow, I must be really out of shape. This is pathetic. Maybe I should stop for a second and catch my breath…

I pause on the main road that wraps around The Dream Garden, a not-so-secret oasis that has somehow managed to shield itself from the city in its attempt to scale the high garden walls and envelop the grounds in a thick cloud of pollution.

Garden of Dreams, Kathmandu

The Dream Garden in Kathmandu

There don’t seem to be any rules or regulations regarding vehicle emissions here, and I’m the unwilling victim of thick spirals of black smoke that putter behind motorbikes like dusty fishtails.

When I keep walking, my breath catches in my throat, shallow and unsure. When I stop to pause, I’m choked with the thick air, which I’m starting to realize is a cocktail of vehicle exhaust, smog, and dust particles that have been stirred up by the rush of constant traffic.

No wonder everyone’s wearing a mask.

I never understood why people wore masks when I was teaching English in Taiwan. Was their some sort of filter on the mask? I mean, didn’t people realize that the same air was still going to get through the mask and enter their lungs?

Me at 1,000 meters above sea level.

Me at 1,000 meters above sea level.

Now I understood only too well – the mask protects you from breathing in physical debris that’s kicked up from the road. You’re still breathing crap air, but at least you’re not choking on granular chunks of sand and dust and feathers and bugs and –

Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz……………….

I stop. Put my head between my legs, right there in the middle of the street. My head rushes with dizziness, and I know that if I don’t bend over I will fall to the ground like a sack of rocks.

That’s when it hits me – the nurse-who’s-not-really-a-nurse was right.

This is altitude sickness. Full-blown, knock-your-socks-off altitude sickness. I hadn’t experienced it in Denver because i wasn’t there long enough – apparently it takes at least 24 hours to kick in.

I make my way slowly back to my guest house and have the brilliant idea to go on WedMD to check my symptoms. Oh great. Altitude sickness can be deadly.

I thought my fatigue and lack of appetite were just from being jet-lagged, but apparently I was wrong.

According to Doctor Web, it just takes the body time to “catch up” after being suddenly introduced to a higher altitude. Wow, if Kathmandu impacts me this much, what would happen if I decided to go trekking up in the real mountains?

At night, as I’m lying in bed, the altitude sickness crescendo washes over me like an electric love-dream: I’m overcome and paralyzed by an all-encompassing, powerful body buzz.

It begins in my feet and tingles up my legs until every inch of me is rolled into a pulsating current; I’m a hot dog in an electric bun.

The body buzz lasts about 5 seconds, and during that time, I’m fully conscious and unafraid. In fact, I realize it is another symptom of the altitude sickness and am not alarmed one bit.

That will come to be a theme during my time in Nepal – complete and utter fearlessness of terrifying things, and complete and utter terror of things that should feel safe.

The symptoms pass a few days later, and it’s a good thing to – I have a 7+ hour bus ride to the dreamy town of Pokhara on my agenda, and I don’t want to miss an instant of it.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. If you travel to a high altitude country like Nepal, you may very well experience some symptoms of altitude sickness.

2. Symptoms of altitude sickness usually take a few days to appear - you might feel fine at first and then WHAM!

3. Symptoms include headache, lack of appetite, nausea, and dizziness. For some reason I'd also experienced this weird, electric body buzz whenever I'd lay down to sleep.

4. You should feel better in a few days as your body adjusts to the thinner air at that elevation level.

5. There's medication that can supposedly help with this, but I've never tried it.

6. I'm SO not a doctor and this is SO not medical advice. Please don't sue me.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Swayambhunath: The Monkey Temple

My internal clock is still messed up from 48 hours of traveling and a 13 hour and 45 minute time zone change.

Why 45 minutes, you ask? Because it’s Nepal, and strange little idiosyncrasies like that keep popping up every day. Like when the guy who runs my guest house told me how he graduated high school “back in 2065.”

This is because Nepal uses their own calendar, their own time zone…they even seem to breathe a different kind of air here.

It’s car exhaust and dust mixed with the thin strands of high-altitude oxygen, and I’m only walking for a few minutes before my heart rate starts to increase and my head starts to spin.

But I don’t mind – I am out! In Kathmandu! And en route to Swayambhunath, which is also known as The Monkey Temple.

The guy who graduated in the future gave me a map of Thamel and the surrounding areas, and I’m excited to see that the temple is located outside the invisible walls of the city’s tourist district.

On the map, the temple is west of my hotel, so I start heading west. I don’t have directions, and although I have a SIM card and in theory should be able to use Google Maps, the Google gods (or perhaps the Government of Nepal) have other ideas.

I’m flying blind, traipsing down dusty, winding streets that alternate between paved and sort-of-paved and used-to-be-paved and dirt. Large chunks of rocks lie next to enormous potholes, and it’s difficult to lift my eyes from the ground while walking for fear of tripping and swan-diving to the earth below.

I use the compass app on my phone to continue west, even when the streets insist on curving every way but. I pass empty lots strewn with garbage, stray dogs and tiny cats, women strapped with heavy basket loads, young boys walking with their arms around each other in friendship.

The sky is a brilliant blue, and the brightly painted buildings glimmer in the morning light. It’s quiet now, and I’m able to navigate large intersections with more ease than usual.

Bridge over the Bisnumati River

Bridge over the Bisnumati River

It’s happened in every city I’ve been to Asia, and it’s a phenomenon I absolutely love – just a single block outside the tourist area of Thamel,  I’m enveloped in Kathmandu Proper, the true city, the place that caters to itself alone.

I’m relieved to find the Bisnumati River, and hope I’m choosing the correct bridge across as the murky banks are flanked by crumbling overpasses. Chipped yellow paint highlights the way, and I pause for a moment to take in the narrow four-story buildings and metal-roofed shacks that line the riverfront.

The incline of the road increases and I find myself climbing steps to a shrine that overlooks the Bisnumati District. Is this the Monkey Temple?

There aren’t any monkeys in site, but there are a few men monitoring the shrine and they eye me with curiosity and suspicion. I wait for them to ask to me to pay, or to tell me to take off my shoes, but they lose interest and continue staring out over the hazy morning.

the-monkey-temple-3

I continue west, and soon enter a narrow street that hugs an unexpected mountain that seems to emerge from nowhere. The narrow shops and homes are separated by just a foot of breathing space between them, but it’s plenty of room to catch a spectacular view of the valley below.

Children giggle, women stare, but there is no sense of animosity here. They seem curious and a bit surprised to see me, which makes me wonder if I’m going the right way after all.

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After another 10 minutes westward, the street itself seems to buzz beneath me. Menus are suddenly written in English, taxi drivers emerge like statues come to life, and curious stares have turned into Nepali cat calls:

“Taxi, madam?”

“Nepali music, madam?”

“Where are you from?”

I smile and shake my head “no,” pressing on to the temple base – Swayambhunath! This must be it. If it’s not, forget the Monkey Temple, I’m going here instead.

It’s so enormous I can’t see the top, which exists as a floating rumor at the summit of steps that never seem to end. Lush trees jut from the hillside, their enormity hiding whatever treasures may lurk above, just waiting to be discovered.

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Before I can begin my ascent, something catches my eyes. I look to my right, and am rewarded with a view of dozens, no, hundreds of spinning, wooden prayer wheels.

The wheels are built into a high stone wall, where a long, rectangular alcove has been carved out just for them.

Worshipers begin at the northern end of the line walk and walk south, touching and spinning each wheel as they go. A few foreigners jump in and spin, but I’m too shy and afraid it will somehow be disrespectful.

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The hundreds of steep stairs are flanked on both sides by innumerable smaller shrines and pagodas. Women sell fruit and souvenirs from blankets while children and pregnant mothers beg for a few rupees. Stray dogs scratch themselves at the foot of The Buddha, and monkeys poke them playfully with sticks of broken incense.

Wait, what?!

Monkeys!! Oh my God, there are suddenly monkeys everywhere!

They emerge from the shrines, from the trees, from the very bowels of the mountain. And they are terrifyingly tame, not afraid to walk right up to you as if to say “Hey punk, back off, this is my turf.”

While filming one monkey, I seriously think I’m going to be attacked as she heads straight for my camera, then turns at the last second and struts past me. I think I even hear her giggle.

Monkeys fighting, monkeys making monkey-love, monkeys screeching at dogs and playing with cats and stealing fruit from tourists.

The people who run the temple apparently feed the monkeys in order to keep them (and the tourists who love them) around.

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Just when I was start to become slightly terrified of the monkeys, whose numbers seem to have no end, I glimpse an uncharacteristically still monkey perched on the ledge of the stairs.

She is squatting strangely, as if she is about to curl herself into a ball. Her head is down, her arms wrapped around herself in a strange hug.

Perhaps sensing me, she suddenly snaps her head up and stretches to her whole height, inadvertently revealing the cause of her strange posture  – her infant monkey, no more than a few days old, is sucking greedily at her monkey breast.

I’m staring at a monkey – a wild monkey –  breast-feeding her baby.

Ok, that’s it. I can go home now. If the ten thousand monkeys on this mountain decide to wage war upon me, I will die happily.

I finally reach the top of the stairs, though not without struggle. I keep telling myself I’m breathing heavily because of the elevation, and not because I’m pathetically out of shape.

After paying the 2,000 rupee entry fee (about $2 USD), I reach the summit. It is a flat-top platform filled with shrines and relics and the ever-present scent of burnt incense.

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Golden-bodied towers watch over visitors with painted Siamese eyes meant to ward off harmful ghosts. Shrines are everywhere and are used to house the ashes of the dead and honor ancestors past – white-washed shrines, metal-gold shrines, dull shrines of deep gray meant for the poor. The carvings become less intricate as the color fades, which makes the gray shrines look more like giant chess pieces than monuments.

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Smog and a city-wide dust cloud hangs over Kathmandu, ruining the view. Later I find out that it’s best to visit the Monkey Temple in the afternoon, when it’s clearer. As an Angelino and an experienced avoider of smoggy views, this seems counterintuitive to me – wouldn’t the smog be worse in the afternoon, after hours and hours of traffic on the roads?

A holy man sits on a mat in front of one of the shrines, singing a Hindu blessing over what I assume is a soon-to-be or just-married couple. I desperately want to know what he’s saying and why, but the 12 offers from 12 would-be guides in the last 12 minutes has turned me off, and I explore the grounds alone.

A crowd has gathered on the southern side of the main stupa – they’re shooting a music video. The actress, in head to toe white, lip syncs cheerfully with her smitten co-star. As soon the director yells “cut,” she looks bored and annoyed, much to his disappoint. I may not speak Nepali, but I can tell a diva when I see one.

Nepali diva.

Nepali diva.

On a clear day, it’d be easy to ingest sweeping views of the entire Kathmandu Valley from this perch. But my timing is bad, and I begin the long descent a bit disappointed with the pollution, the snotty actress, and the complete lack of reverence or sacredness at what I thought was supposed to be a holy site.

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The Monkey Temple can potentially offer the best view in Kathmandu if the weather is clear, but don’t expect a chance for communion with the Divine. Or rather, look for the divine in commercialism, in crumbling history, and, of course, in the monkeys.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. The Swayanbhunath Monkey Temple is located about a 30-minute walk west of Thamel in Kathmandu.

2. You can take a taxi from Thamel instead of walk, but it’s a very interesting walk through some great neighborhoods, so hoof it if you can!

3. It costs 2,000 rupees ($2) for foreigners to enter the temple. The ticket booth is located at the very top of the steps. If ascending from the east side of the complex, it will be on your left hand side.

4. If you accidentally walk past the ticket booth without paying, the collector will bark at you. Don’t take it personally.

5. Go in the afternoon (not the morning!) unless you want crappy, smog-clogged views of the city.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Extreme solo travel in the Indian Himalayas

“If you’re bored with life, if you don’t get up every morning with a burning desire to do things, then there is more to life than you have yet to realize.”

The morning light finally hits my tent and I poke my head out for a look around. The sun has risen above one of the many 6,000m peaks in the vicinity, warming the high altitude air considerably and tempting me out of my sleeping bag.

I put on wool socks, long underwear, and a large down jacket before venturing out. Mornings above 5,000m are never warm, even in the middle of summer.

I start my stove and prepare my daily breakfast of oatmeal as I munch on a few Indian crackers. I am starving – yesterday was one of the toughest days of cycling yet, but by the time I finished setting up my tent I no longer had the energy to make a proper dinner.

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After sleeping twelve hours I feel refreshed and alive. Plus, every moment cycling is always worth the effort and the exhaustion I endure. Every single painstaking breath I take at this altitude is worth waking up to the rocky and desolate beauty of the Indian Himalayas.

There are no trees, no birds, and no humans. The only sound I hear, beside the quiet hissing of my stove, is coming from the small trickle of water running along the rocks beside my tent. I know I am the only living creature for kilometers around. The altitude has created a stark rocky landscape where nobody and nothing can survive, and with it, a haven for mountain loving cyclists.

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It’s late, just past 11am by the time I pack up my tent and slowly start on my way, but I don’t mind. I would spend months camping here if I could.

I continue climbing the pass I spent all day inching up yesterday, cycling on the dusty unpaved switchbacks they laughingly call a road. My speedometer occasionally flickers to a depressing zero, the device doesn’t believe a cyclist could seriously be going slower than 4km/h.

Little does it know that this snail’s pace has become my new normal over the last few weeks while traversing Ladakh and Spiti, the high altitude mountainous regions of northern India, where I’ve reached an altitude of 5,600m while cycling over the highest motorable pass in the world.

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Though I only have a few kilometers left on my journey, I know it will be another hour or two until I make it. I’m no longer shocked how long a few measly switchbacks can take in these conditions, and I couldn’t think of anywhere else I would rather be.

Just before I reach the top I come to a nala, a small stream that flows easily over the rocky road as if it wasn’t a road at all (which it’s most definitely not).  I have encountered many streams such as this one along the way and I usually push my bike across, soaking my socks and shoes as I walk through the ice cold water.

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This time I decide to cycle through the stream in order to stay dry.

I’m halfway across by the time I feel my bike tipping dangerously, and suddenly my bike and I take a plunge straight into the freezing water.

So much for staying dry.

I eventually reach the top of the pass, wet but content, and decide to dry off in the sun as I prepare a noodle soup to go along with my cookies and peanuts.

It is late in the afternoon, so after eating quickly I pry myself away from my relaxing picnic site and head on down the path’s steep descent.

Though I have always envisioned descents to be the “fun part” of cycling, in reality, going downhill is mentally taxing and the death grip I use on my handlebars leaves me with hand and arm pain that lasts for days.

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There are definitely more enjoyable descents than those done on rocky cliff-side unpaved roads, but probably none more astounding or terrifyingly thrilling.

There is no one and nothing around, I’m alone in the middle of the Himalayas. In fact, the region is so peacefully quiet that I sometimes forget that I’m not alone in the world. It is the feeling of solitude, blissful, wonderful solitude.

 

Shirine Taylor is a regular contributor to The Happy Passport and is a currently cycling around the world. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

Have a question about solo travel for Shirine? Post it below!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

The Truth about Solo Travel and Safety in India

“The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.”

“You can’t leave! Stay one more week. No, one month! No, no, stay one year!”

This family, like many others in the country, tried hard to get me to permanently move into their small farming village. When I announced it was time for me to continue my journey after two weeks of enjoying their astounding hospitality, they tried everything they could to get me to stay.

During my visit I had been presented to every family member and neighbor in the village, and I still couldn’t walk down the little dirt paths that connected the houses without being invited in for tea, a meal, and a night’s stay.

Shirine as an honorary Indian

Shirine as an honorary Indian

It didn’t matter that I didn’t speak more than a few words of Hindi and they didn’t speak a word of English; I was still treated like a queen. They fed me a new delicious dish every night, explained their traditions as different festivals arose during my stay, and brought me along to not one, but two traditional weddings.

Best of all, I was completed adopted into the family I was staying with. I called the girls my sisters, and the grandmother my ‘gramma.’  I truly felt part of the family.

All of this took place in India, the last country on earth you would expect a solo twenty-year old female (and a blond haired, blue-eyed one at that) to cycle across, especially given the current stories about safety in India circulating on the news.

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And those stories aren’t false. India is unfortunately a land of gang-rapes, ignorance, inequality, and fear. It is also a place of kindness, vibrant colors, innovation, hospitality, and happiness.

Unfortunately, the media only paints half the picture of this diverse country, so I am here to tell you the truth: the beautiful, chaotic, horrible, and wonderful truth about India from the perspective of a solo female traveler.

There is no better and no worse place for a solo female than India.

You will be treated as second class, as that is still how women are viewed there. You will be harassed and stared at incessantly with an evil, soul-piercing stare found no where else in the world. You will probably begin to avoid men all together, and you will learn how to stick a rock in each pocket, just in case.

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But it is all worth it. As a solo female you will be taken in by the wonderful women who call this chaotic country home. They will invite you to cook with them. They will teach you to make roti, a small circular bread, over an outdoor wood stove, and laugh at you as you attempt to eat rice with your hands for your first time.

They will dress you up in their traditions clothes, suits and saris alike, and you may even receive a few as gifts as I did. If you get lucky, you will spend a day or two cutting grass with the ladies, and you will surely end up spending at least half the time just drinking chia in the shade and dancing with them. They will introduce you to their neighbors, their families, hell, just about everyone they know.

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You will connect immediately with the children in every village and will quickly realize that children everywhere in the world want the same thing: to laugh, run, and play. The women’s place in India is in the home, and so, as a female, so is yours. By traveling solo you will experience the real India and the beautiful heartwarming hospitality it has to offer to us women.

So don’t be deterred by the media and their take on safety in India. They only know half the story.

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Go for it. Travel through India alone and soak it all up. Take the opportunities that present themselves and appreciate them to their fullest. Cook with the women, run with the children, and learn to appreciate your position as a woman. Visiting India is a life changing experience you will never regret.

Shirine Taylor is a regular contributor to The Happy Passport and is currently cycling around the world. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

Have a question for Shirine? Post it below!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

What you've heard about India is true - it can absolutely be dangerous for solo female travelers.

At the same time, it is perhaps one of the most rewarding, life-affirming places a solo traveler can visit.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

How NOT to get your visa in Nepal

I think I'm gonna like it here...if they decide to let me in.

After landing in Kathmandu, I follow the other passengers into the customs area which, along with the rest of the airport, is straight out of the 1970s. I half expect to see Ben Affleck and the cast of Argo  sweating in an interrogation room.

I’m surrounded by wood paneling, green paint, papers scattered everywhere, and ancient looking-security scanning machines. Did I just see a chicken pecking at the torn cover of someone’s passport? (Later, I actually will see a cat that very much lived inside the airport and survived on chocolate crumbs fed to it by Chinese tourists.)

It’s easy to miss the immigration documents that need to be filled out – they’re sort of scattered all along a ledge, and you have to scour to find the form that’s in your language.

I’m well-prepared with my passport photo, my travel itinerary, and the address of my hostel in Kathmandu. The good folks at the Holy Lodge have sent a driver to pick me up – I am to look for the man holding a sign with my name (the second time in my life I’ve had to ‘find my driver,’ and no less thrilling.)

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The only thing left to do is to hit the ATM, exchange rupees for U.S. dollars, and pay for my 30-day visa.

A Most Incorrigible ATM

Except the ATM is broken.

It never would’ve occurred to me that the ONLY ATM in an international airport would be or could be out of order. Then again, I’d never been to Nepal.

I start to panic. I have a little bit of American money, and some Chinese Yen. Together, they might add up to the $40 USD I need to get my visa. I approach the man at the exchange counter, offering him my Yen. He frowns, handing it back to me.

“No,” he says, simply.

“No?” I panic, eyes widening in terror.

“Too small,” he insists.

He means I don’t have enough Yen to make the exchange worth his while, or at least that’s what I assume he means. I suppose he could be talking about the tiny ball of courage that’s slowly dwindling down to nothing in my chest. Either that, or my boobs.

Panic attack

What am I going to do? I don’t have enough money to enter the country! I’ll have to live in the airport forever! Maybe they’ll send me back on the plane to Kunming and I’ll have to live in China in a muddy village and never have any heat or hot water or WiFi or….

I approach the least scary-looking man at one of the two immigration desks (there are only 4 guys serving the entire airport).

“Is there another ATM?” I squeak.

He glances at me sideways, immediately suspicious.

“It’s downstairs,” he frowns. I’m 2 for 2 in the frowning department.

‘Downstairs’ turns out to be outside the airport, meaning I would have to exit the premises and enter the country without having been approved to do so.

“Soooooo…..can I go? I promise I’ll come right back!”

“Passport” he demands, holding out his hand.

“I leave with you, then I come back?” This fractured sentence marks the beginning of what will become my “Nepalese English” – a slow, stunted, grammatically incorrect way of articulating what you want that may or may not make it easier for non-English speakers to understand you.

Either way it makes you sound like a moron and in a matter of a few weeks, I won’t be able to turn it off.

“Passport” he repeats. Not knowing what else to do, I leave what amounts to my life in the palm of a Nepalese immigration official, and hightail it downstairs in search of the ATM. I don’t realize at the time how potentially stupid of a move this is.

A giant mass of men

Downstairs, I feel every cell in my body ignite, my survival instincts gearing up for a fight. A giant mass of mostly men faces me, yelling and shouting and vigorously waving signs. I don’t know whether to look for my driver – if he’s even there – or ask directions to the ATM, or –

“Taxi, madam?”

Crap! Someone is talking to me. This is not good. I need the ATM, I need….

“Where are you from?”

I keep walking, but give in and make eye contact with…one of the most beautiful humans I’ve ever laid eyes on.

The owner of the voice is some kind of gorgeous dark angel; thin and wiry with caramel-colored skin and shining chocolate eyes. He knows I’m fresh off the plane and delights in my obvious uncertainty.

“I….I need the ATM.”

“This way,” he smiles, guiding me past the dog pack of other drivers. I’m grateful for his help and instantly suspicious. Do I have to pay him now? Is he going to rob me? What’s a good tip for someone who may or may be about to mug you, anyway?

One of my favorite things about Nepal is the fact that ATM machines are housed in what amounts to glass phone booths, complete with doors that close. The doors don’t lock or anything, but there’s something comforting about creating a barrier between your money and the scary world outside.

"Taxi, madam?"

“Taxi, madam?”

I withdraw around 10,000 rupees ($100 USD), fumbling with my card and the cash and the currency convertor app on my phone. My beautiful friend is patiently waiting for me, a fact that makes me extremely nervous.

“I must go back inside,” I explain in Nepalese-English. He follows me like a puppy, and I feel I may never shake him, not for the entire month I’m in Nepal.

“If my driver not here, I come find you” I promise before ducking back inside the airport. I approach the frowning exchange counter clerk again, and am this time met with success. Armed with 50 Real American Dollars (why must you pay for a Nepalese visa in American dollars, anyway?), I march back upstairs –

HOLY SHIT, MY BAG!

No luggage, no cry

Out of the corner of my eye, I see my gorgeous blue beauty lying prostrate on the airport floor, having been dragged by an unknown party off of the revolving carousel and placed ON THE GROUND ALL BY ITSELF – not stacked next to other bags, not piled upon fellow luggage friends, just lying there, alone, begging to be taken.

I practically sprint to my bag and tackle it like an overzealous football player. It doesn’t occur to me that nobody is interested in stealing my bag (which is most certainly the case). I saddle up, breathing heavily from what seems like a near theft and an even bigger fail than my lack of cash.

Getting my visa

With all of my ducks in a row, I am gifted with a 30-day visa in Nepal and am allowed to officially enter the Federal Democratic Republic.

I’m slightly alarmed to see that my visa is only good for 30 days, including today. For some reason I thought the day I entered would be a freebie, but nope – my visa is only good through the day before I fly to my next destination. I guess I’ll have to worry about that later.

A virgin negotiator

I brace myself to exit the airport once more, preparing for some harsh negotiations. I’ve read that everyone here – from the taxi drivers to the guest house owners – will try to rape you on prices if they can. I know this, I’m prepared for this, but I’m also a huge chicken and a big pushover.

Our flight was delayed by an hour, and it took me at least 30 minutes to deal with the visa fiasco, but my driver is still somehow waiting for me, holding a handwritten sign with “REBECAH BOS” in magic marker (close enough on the spelling – if there is an actual “Rebecah Bos” out there, sorry for stealing your taxi.)

The baggage brigade

Amidst the chaos we somehow find each other. He is flanked by a posse of assistants who grab my bags and take off towards a waiting car in the parking lot. I’m flabbergasted and nervous, making sure to keep pace behind the them. The sun is setting over the city but I don’t have a second to take in the soft pinks and blues as they morph into pale yellows, framing the brightly-painted buildings in glorious twilight…

Wait..that's not my taxi, is it?

Wait..that’s not my taxi, is it?

“Some tips?”

A hand is shoved in my face, its fingers gesturing wildly in the universal symbol for “Give me money.”

I’m pissed. I could’ve carried my own friggin’ bag. The posse wants money, and I have no idea how much to give them. I glare at the request, but acquiesce and fish around in my purse for a small bill.

Taking a wild stab, I hand the guy a 5-rupee note, hoping he’ll go away.

“This is very small” he complains. He’s right and everything, but he’s not my driver and I know he’s taking advantage of my shell shocked-ness.

I trade him for a 20-rupee note. He’s still not happy, but gives up.

And we’re off. I ride sans seatbelt, any working knowledge of the Nepali language, or any idea of where I’m going.

This is fucking awesome.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. The arrival documents you need to fill out might be on the floor - look for the one written in English. Oh, and bring your own pen!

2. Have at least $50 USD IN CASH to pay for your visa

3. Assume the ATM will be broken. Better yet, assume there IS no ATM and do your exchanging before you arrive in Nepal.

4. People will try to carry your bag. You don’t have to let them, but if you don’t, you should still toss them 20-30 rupees to leave you alone. (Unless you are very strong and very brave.)

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!