After a horrid lurching sensation as the camel moved from prone to standing, my heart soared much higher than the seven feet I was now sitting above the ground.
I’ve ridden horses in the past, but nothing could have prepared me for the gentle yet exhilarating sway of the camel’s plodding steps. For the first time in what felt like an eternal trip of illness and hospital visits while traveling through Jordan, I finally felt happy to be here.
As a travel writer who is a woman, I have a strong affinity for women who share my vocation, even if our paths across the world never overlap.
When I first learned about Gertrude Bell, I felt a connection intellectually; as I rode that camel across Wadi Rum, it was as though we connected through time, and I could suddenly understand how she fell so deeply in love with this part of the world.
Riding atop, hair tucked neatly under a headscarf, the image most of us may have of Gertrude was formed by the recent film about her life, Queen of the Desert. Born in 1868 to a wealthy English family, she was so much more than a woman traveling in the desert – her whole life revolved around travels that took her from Japan to Iran and back to Britain.
What we know about her comes primarily from letters she wrote throughout her travels. They paint a picture of a passionate traveler who helped redefine what it meant to be a woman on the road as much as she helped define borders for countries in the Middle East.
After having seen Queen of the Desert and reading the biography of the same name, I find myself regularly inspired to push my boundaries like Gertrude did hers.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned about traveling by studying the life and travels of Gertrude Bell.
Walk Your Own Path, Even If No One Else Has Before
Repeatedly throughout her life, Gertrude was almost reckless in her desire to go where no travelers – especially women – had previously been. Whether it was scaling mountains in the Swiss Alps (one of which is now named after her, as she was the first to ascend it) or visiting villages in the Middle East that others told her simply couldn’t be reached; once her mind was set on a destination, she traveled there.
Admittedly, it’s now much harder explore places no one ever has before. The world has been mapped, and even the most off-beat destinations are frequented by travelers now.
Inspired by Gertrude, I am no longer afraid to explore my own curiosity about new places – including outer space (the next great vacation destination, if you can believe it!).
Being a Woman Traveler Only Limits You As Much As You Let It
When Gertrude first started traveling, it was the height of Victorian ideals in England. Women were expected to dress a certain way, to travel in the company of certain people (family members or male guides), and to follow strict rules of behavior.
In some ways, Gertrude was an obedient follower of these rules. But in others, she threw everything out the window.
A great example is that when she first started mountain climbing, she learned that skirts aren’t exactly conducive to treacherous, snowy slopes. She had a custom pair of climbing trousers made, which she would wear under her skirt until a certain point in the climb, then would remove her skirt until she had descended back down to that elevation later – at which time she would put her skirt back on before finishing the climb. She later used this same style when riding camels for weeks through the Arabian deserts.
We all know that being a woman traveler is a mindset in most cases: We can view the nuances of travel for women as opportunities, or as challenges. Whether it requires adjusting our behavior (or wardrobe), or traveling to places we know in our hearts deserve our time and attention despite what others say, Gertrude is an inspiring reminder that we get to make these choices for ourselves.
Yes, I have dressed conservatively in the Middle East and fashionably in European capitals – deep down though, I always try to let my own personality shine through even if I don’t quite fit into the local style.
Bringing the Comforts of Home Doesn’t Prevent You From Cultural Immersion
On caravans through the desert, Gertrude brought an almost unreasonable number of comforts from England with her, including a pop-up bathtub, full wardrobe, and silver case of cigarettes. At the same time, she donned a headscarf each morning, and spoke fluent Arabic to the guides and the locals she met.
This is perhaps more than most of us need while traveling now, but it’s a good reminder that it’s okay to seek some creature comforts while traveling.
Whether it’s a favorite t-shirt you wear to sleep at night or a travel token that helps you feel close to home even when you’re thousands of miles away – those things don’t stop you from immersing yourself in the world around you.
As for me, I carry a small stuffed cat, my Harry Potter wand, and a globe necklace everywhere I travel. In fact, having a few small comforts may help me feel more comfortable diving deeply into new cultures and communities.
Let Travel Inspire and Encourage Your Other Passions
We talk about Gertrude as a “traveler,” but really travel was just the means through which she explored other passions she held: Learning languages, archaeology, writing, and politics.
By traveling so much, Gertrude broadened her knowledge of the world, and encountered opportunities to live her passions in ways she never would have been able to back in England.
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Similarly, we can use travel as a means to explore the other things we’re curious or passionate about. Traveling to new places, eating new food, taking beautiful photos, or mastering social media marketing as I document my travels – whatever it is that you love, travel can help you find opportunities to explore that more, if you let it.
When in Doubt, Write About Your Travels
Part of the reason we know so much about Gertrude and her travels is because of the meticulous letter-writing habit she maintained through her life.
In the days before email, Gertrude sent hundreds of letters to her father, stepmother, siblings, friends, and confidants. These letters are almost entirely displayed now at the University of Newcastle in England, and provide us with a unique window to the past – and the chance to learn these lessons.
My blog didn’t start out as a means to document my travels as they happened, but it has grown to be a place where I make sense of my own experiences of the world. I also write in a paper journal and send postcards to friends. These all help me document my experience in puzzle pieces I can later look back on and learn from.
Write emails back home, publish a blog, keep a pen pal, or just scribble notes in a notebook for yourself… whatever you choose, make it part of your traveling lifestyle. You’ll have an indelible record of your adventures you can look back on in years to come, and maybe someday you’ll have fellow women travelers studying them to become inspired to travel too.
It’s easy to look back at historic travelers and see how far we’ve come.
Gertrude Bell would no doubt have marveled at the technology, the comfort, and the freedom we now enjoy as women travelers. At the same time, it’s reassuring that lessons she demonstrated a century ago are still relevant today. Just like a camel ride can be a comforting way to travel across the desert.