In a child’s room, I stared at one of those primary-colored toy workbenches. Its pegboard was painted with outlines of where the plastic tools go, to show what’s missing and where it should be. I thought, When you’re in a crisis, you can find a metaphor anywhere.

I had been filling in the outlines of my life for years, when, with one decision, I wiped the board clean. Just a storage unit and the ghost stories about where I should be by now, the empty spaces where a husband or a home or kids should have been.

No lease. No plans. What now?

Paulette Perhach takes photos with her camera through a closed window

I scrambled for something solid to kick off from, a direction to launch myself toward. Should I stay in the city? Find my own place in a cheaper, unknown neighborhood? Stay in my neighborhood with new, unknown roommates? Move to a cabin in the woods? Or dammit, maybe it was time to slink back into a cubicle and wrap myself in a paycheck and an adult’s apartment.

For weeks, a thousand ghosts in my head. Then, one day, one question stopped them all. My own voice asking:

What would I do if I were a man?

All the ghosts fell silent, and I only heard myself:

I would backpack South America for three months and work from there.

Of course that’s what you’d do.

I booked tickets to Colombia that week. 

Paulette Perhach takes a selfie as she leans slightly out an open window on an upper floor of a building

I had been finagling for years to get all my work online so I could earn money from anywhere. I had a few thousand dollars in the bank, and I saw that I possessed all the ingredients I needed for the adventure I’d so long envisioned. 

But I had been too busy staring at all the outlines of what I didn’t have to realize what I’d gained – that synonym for nothing left to lose.

I replayed the moment when I silenced so many ghosts in one fell swoop: 

  • The Ghost of the Stigma of Being Single in Your 30s
  • The Ghost of Horrors of Traveling Alone (or What People Would Think of Me Traveling Alone)
  • The Ghost of Get a Man Now Before Your Jowls Fall

Without them, I could finally hear myself. 

Of course I would visit the family I lived with for two years in Paraguay. Of course I would hike Machu Picchu. Of course I would stay in a bamboo house on the coast of Ecuador.

Paulette Perhach poses in front of a lush mountain vista with Macchu Picchu below

Indiana Jones didn’t look in the mirror, smooth his wrinkles and wonder if he was getting a little too old to brave booby-traps in the jungle. 

James Bond didn’t make a pros and cons list weighing international espionage versus settling down with Pussy Galore. 

Rocky didn’t go to brunch with his friends and say, “Do you guys really think I’m good enough to go for it as a boxer?”

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The One Question That Changed How I Travel

I wish I didn’t live in a world where this question changed how I thought, but I do. What would I do if I were a man? really means What would I do if I weren’t a woman? 

If I weren’t a woman, I would not have spent my life steeped in a totally different story about what I am. From the time I was a child playing video games with my brother, I wouldn’t have assumed myself Player B.

If I weren’t a woman, I wouldn’t have had that first impulse I did in Bolivia, where my friend joined me on an SUV tour of the Salt Flats. We were the only females with a group of four guys, three of them shorter than me. When it was time to go, my friend and I climbed into the SUV first and squished ourselves into the way back. As I jostled along, my knees knocking into the bars of the seat in front of me, watching the tiniest man of them all luxuriating in shotgun like an elf playing on Santa’s throne, I turned to my friend and said, “I think we sexismed ourselves.”

After the second stop, I got in the front seat without asking if I could have a turn.

Paulette Perhach stands in the snow amidst waving flags at basecamp

If I weren’t a woman, I might not have asked the question I did after I got attacked by those yard dogs on a hilly island in Lake Titicaca. While the French woman who helped me prodded my wounds with such knowing hands, I said, “Are you a nurse?”

Her wife wouldn’t have had to say, “She’s a doctor.”

Read next: Why That List of Safest Places to Travel For Women Is Problematic

The World is Changing

However, after my three-month trip, back home, I waited in the theater for the Star Wars starring Rey to start, and with every trailer I saw for other female-led movies like Annihilation and A Wrinkle in Time, I could see the world changing. 

Perhaps girls growing up now won’t need to ask themselves what they would do if they weren’t a woman to imagine what they could accomplish as a person.

Paulette Perhach crouches down in an artisan gift shop to look at items more closely

I thought the question – What would I do if I were a man? – had done its job, but I’ve needed it again and again. I have more decisions to make. I have more outlines to draw in my life, to say what belongs where, and what’s missing.

What would I do if I were a man? Call myself a writer and a designer and an entrepreneur. Hire an assistant. Double my rates. Make a dick joke. Drive. Buy the plane ticket.

Now, I live a more brazen life. Because finally, I get it. I truly get it, after all this time:

Whatever a man is, I am.

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