193 countries in 17 years: S’porean woman who has been to every country in the world, mostly solo

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | December 06, 2020, 10:30 AM

PERSPECTIVE: In 2017, Singaporean Yui Pow Redford made history by becoming the first Asian woman to visit every sovereign country in the world. She was also the first Singaporean to have visited all United Nations member states.

She travelled to over half of these places alone.

While acknowledging the difficulties that solo female travellers face, she believes that it is entirely possible for a woman to travel independently, and that doing so can bring great rewards. She also shares some tips for staying safe while solo on the road.

Yui Pow Redford is an educator, writer, and experienced traveller who has been to over 200 countries and territories, including Antarctica and the Arctic.

By Yui Pow Redford

Travel has always been a part of my life.

The daughter of a pilot father and a scuba-diving mother, I was fortunate to receive a taste of the world from an early age, and it was natural that I would develop an affinity for travel.

I began travelling independently back in 2000, while at university. My journeys continued over the years, and in 2017, I finally completed the goal of visiting every country in the world.

My travels are motivated primarily by two things: a thirst for experience, and a deep sense of curiosity. World regions and cultures fascinate me, and I’ve always been intrigued by the similarities, differences, and patterns between them.

Finding purpose in travel - Morondava, Madagascar. Photo courtesy of Yui Pow Redford

Why every country?

When I first ventured out, the world seemed like such a big place.

The truth is, I didn’t start off intending to visit every country, or even imagining I’d be able to.

There wasn’t a set plan from the start. Beginning with smaller goals like “visit 40 countries before I’m 30”, mine was a quest that evolved incrementally over the years. I simply set off with the intent to see as much as I could.

Thinking back, I’m glad I approached it in that manner. There was no pressure or expectation; it was just a matter of “let’s see how far I can get”.

Besides, travel was a useful opportunity to improve my knowledge of world language families, which was relevant to my work as an educator and language consultant.

I was also keen to contribute to communities around the world as part of my non-profit efforts.

But ultimately though, what spurred me on to visit every country was an unshakeable, deep-rooted desire to gain as holistic a perspective on the world as possible.

It was only when I hit the 150 mark that I started to consider visiting every country as a real possibility. At that point, it no longer felt like a pipe dream, and I began making a conscious effort to reach the holy grail of 193.

As someone who derives great satisfaction from completing tasks and goals, and hates leaving things unfinished, I thought: Why stop when the end is in sight?

I soon realised that my own personal jigsaw of the world —which was gradually coming together— would not be complete without the missing pieces.

Admiring the vastness of the Sahara - Chinguetti, Mauritania. Photo courtesy of Yui Pow Redford

Going at it alone as a woman

Of the 200+ countries and territories I’ve visited, over half were done alone. This included pretty much all the countries of Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific…many of which were unusual, remote, or high-risk.

While I didn’t plan it that way, the truth is that it can be tricky finding travel companions for countries off the beaten track, because people tend to differ in terms of their comfort zones and tolerance for risk.

Travelling alone as a woman wasn’t always easy. There were challenges, and not a lot of precedent to follow. At present, most extreme travellers are male (although this is changing). Of the people who’ve completed the goal of visiting every country, women only make up about 10 per cent.

People often question my decision to travel alone, considering the extra risks involved as a woman. Those who don’t know me sometimes wonder if I’m a bit of a “badass”, or a feminist out to prove something.

The truth is, I’m neither.

While pursuing my travel goals, beyond heeding all the additional safety precautions I needed to take as a woman, I never gave much thought to my gender. Nor did I let it detract from what I hoped to achieve.

I was under no illusion that travelling alone would be easy and took great pains to ensure that I was covering all bases to minimise the risks.

In the end, what it came down to was tenacity, courage, and the ability to adapt.

Gender notwithstanding, I believe it was a combination of these qualities, coupled with a genuine passion for adventure, that saw me through my travels.

Travel can be empowering — Dune 45, Namibia. Photo courtesy of Yui Pow Redford

Dwarfed by nature - Elephant Rock, Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy of Yui Pow Redford

Expect challenges… more so in certain countries

Many people have reservations about travelling the world as a solo female, and with good reason.

But I will also say that the extent to which these considerations are relevant varies according to where in the world you are travelling.

Concerns about solo female travel are particularly salient in countries where women are not afforded the same rights as men, or in cultures where gender roles are much more traditional or rigid.

For instance, in many non-Western countries in the Middle East, Africa, and even parts of Asia, it is almost unheard of for a woman to travel alone. In such places, females can expect a lot of curiosity, and asking about one’s age, religion, or marital status is fair game.

As a solo female traveller, I routinely faced questions such as “Where is your husband?” and “How many children do you have?”.

Men are rarely subject to this, and a solo male traveller would not be judged for being on his own.

Safety concerns are also paramount; there is the likelihood of having to put up with unwanted attention from men, and sexual harassment is a real possibility.

In certain countries, women also have to pay special attention to how they dress and behave and may enjoy less freedom than men in many respects, such as alcohol and tobacco consumption, or where they’re permitted to venture alone.

Moreover, on any trip, it’s realistic to expect that there will be times when things go wrong.

During the course of my travels, I’ve encountered all manner of mishaps, including being detained between borders (Iran and Iraq), arrested by the local police (DRC), and being a victim of theft (Egypt, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea).

I’ve also experienced many close shaves, such as a near-mugging at night in Sierra Leone, a high-speed road collision in French Guiana, and a hair-raising domestic flight in Afghanistan when our plane did an about-turn shortly after take-off.

While these situations were not gender-specific, being a solo female often made them more challenging, particularly in countries where women are rarely seen traveling alone.

Incidents that were more closely linked to gender almost always involved some form of sexual harassment.

I’ve been groped, molested, or faced unwanted advances from men in numerous countries including India, Bangladesh, Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

Some incidents were mere annoyances, like persistent offers of “free” massages, being stared at and photographed, or having undergarments stolen.

But some were downright alarming, or serious enough to warrant the police getting involved…like the time I had to literally jump out of a moving taxi to escape from a lecherous driver.

Clad in a traditional blue burqa — Herat, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Yui Pow Redford.

Still… solo female travel is doable, and worth it

Reflecting on these experiences, I realise that while these incidents did not result in pleasant memories, what they did do was teach me to steel myself for such situations and take every precaution to minimise the risk of them occurring.

And though incredibly nerve-racking at the time, these experiences ultimately served to strengthen me, rather than put me off solo travel.

That said however, people cope with adversity in different ways. It’s important for women to be aware of the reality of solo female travel, and understand that there may be risks, inconveniences, and varying levels of acceptance.

Given that travelling alone as a woman is still fairly uncommon in many parts of the world, harassment, judgement, and —at the very least— questions from curious locals, are par for the course.

But solo female travel is definitely not impossible. In fact, it’s one of the most empowering things a woman can do.

What’s important is to be determined and self-reliant…while understanding your own tendencies and limits. Examine your personal threshold for risk, and go with what you can accept.

Also remember that countries vary in their cultural attitudes, and there are places that are perfectly safe for ladies to visit alone. Newbie travellers can start off with those, to build confidence.

But even in more unusual destinations, once you’re aware of the potential pitfalls, it’s really just a matter of getting around them.

Travel is always going to involve elements of risk and the unknown, but as long as you take all necessary precautions, maintain a heightened sense of awareness, and possess a decent amount of common sense, I truly believe that the rewards more than make up for it.

Tea with Tuareg nomads - Timbuktu, Mali. Photo courtesy of Yui Pow Redford

Tips to stay safe travelling alone as a woman

Travelling independently as a woman for over two decades has enabled me to pick up many useful tips. And though I learned things the hard way, my initial struggles ended up being valuable lessons that served me well the next time.

These are some measures that I took to minimise risk as a solo female traveller:

  • Don’t say you’re single

    In countries where it was not very accepted for a woman to travel alone, even before I was married, I’d wear a ring and allude to my “husband” or “children”, often saying I was on my way to meet them.

  • Dress modestly and try not to draw attention to yourself

    Basically, I tried to blend in as much as possible, especially in more high-risk or conservative countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, where I dressed in the same kind of attire as the local women.

  • Try to stay close to local women and children in crowded places

    This is particularly important on long-distance public transport, where seating yourself among other women and children will reduce the chance of being harassed or groped.

  • Never share details of where you’re staying

    This includes any hotel details and your room number. On a few scary occasions when strangers came banging on my door in the middle of the night, I never opened it and pretended I wasn’t there.

  • Buy a local SIM card with data

    Having internet access on the go makes things so much easier. It will mean you’re able to make both local and international calls, look up information easily in an emergency, and use apps to keep you safe.

  • Use a GPS tracker app that shares your location

    In those days I used Life360, which allowed my family to view my real-time coordinates and location history. This ensured someone always knew where I was. There are now many of such apps available.

  • Be selective about what you share on social media

    I found it safer not to broadcast the fact that I was travelling solo, especially in higher-risk countries. Even when I did post, it was after I’d left a place, and I never gave specifics on time or location.

Renewed appreciation for Singapore

Another interesting thing about travel: it teaches you not just about foreign cultures, but also about your own.

As a traveller, you’re an ambassador for your country and/or ethnic group. In some cases, you might even be the first (or only) person from your country that the locals have met, or will ever meet.

I’ve certainly become much more aware of my cultural heritage and the social groups I represent, and how to explain or confront stereotypes about them.

Furthermore, travel really puts things in perspective. The more of the world I see, the more I’m grateful for the blessings I have.

For example, being abroad has instilled a deep appreciation for the quality of life in Singapore.

Seeing how the rest of the world lives has made me realise how privileged Singaporeans are, and how much we take for granted — the cleanliness, convenience, safety, efficiency… how everything just works.

It’s made me incredibly grateful to hold a Singapore passport, for the high degree of travel freedom that citizens enjoy, and the fact that it’s such an immaculate, well-governed modern metropolis, a melting-pot of cultures that offers one of the best standards of living in the world.

The joys of making connections - Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan. Photo courtesy of Yui Pow Redford

Travel changes your life

From broadening my external horizons to encouraging a greater cognisance of where I’m from, travel has given me the best all-round education I could ever have asked for…over and above any academic degrees or professional qualifications.

Travel has been a hands-on course in a range of life skills, including independence, adaptability, and resourcefulness.

It’s made me step out of my comfort zone and become aware of the world around me, which has done wonders for my personal development.

To anyone interested in travel: I highly recommend it. It’s completely transformative, and the rewards are immense.

The beauty of travel is that it’ll affect everyone differently — it’s almost a metaphor for life, insofar as no two people will carve out the same experience.

One thing I’d say to anyone with big travel goals: being crystal-clear on your “why” is very important, as it will determine the type of experience you’ll have.

But whichever way you choose to do it, and wherever your journeys take you, one thing is for sure.

It’ll change your life for the better, as it did mine.

Okay to be alone - Lake Assal, Djibouti. Photo courtesy of Yui Pow Redford

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