Women’s travel guru Kelly Lewis has helped thousands of women see the world, through her pioneering guidebooks for women, the annual Women’s Travel Fest, and her boutique travel company for women, Damesly.
When the pandemic put travel on pause, Kelly was forced to stop and think back on her career, the incredible women she’s met and the inspiring stories they’ve told her. She’s finally had to the time to weave them all, along with her own remarkable tale, into her new book, "Tell Her She Can't: Inspiring Stories of Unstoppable Women".
We spoke to Kelly about her life in travel in our Facebook Live Travel Chat series. Watch the full conversation. Ultimately, she sees travel as a way to connect to our personal power.
Here, we’ve distilled Kelly’s top life lessons on how travel can – and perhaps already has – help you find your power. Whether you’re just thinking about travelling independently or you’re a travel veteran frustrated about the closure of international borders, you’ll find nourishment and encouragement in Kelly’s words.
Start small and gradually build up your confidence if you’re just starting out in the world of independent travel
“Starting around where you live is a great option – especially at the moment [February 2021]. I live in Portland, Oregon and there are so many awesome things around me. I dedicated last year to exploring the national parks and hikes in the forest near me. There are so many cool things to see in our own backyard and we can get so focused on ticking off countries that we forget the pleasures of being a traveller in our own city.
Getting comfortable with eating alone is another real big barrier for women. So, before you go out in the world, just take yourself out to a restaurant in your city by yourself. If you need to, lose yourself in your phone but stay aware of who's around you, the sights and the smells, the tastes.
A lot of women get hung up on the little transportation logistics when it comes to travelling solo but I think if you can navigate one city’s train system, you can replicate that in any major city.
Once you're comfortable with both those things you can do anything!”
Own your vulnerability and you’ll find it easier to meet people.
“When I moved to New Zealand, I was super lonely. I remember walking around the city, sitting outside of a museum by myself, seeing other people and mentally begging them to talk to me. Nobody did. But that was the moment I realized, ‘Okay, I can also walk over to these people and talk to them, you know.’ So I did!
People don't instinctively know that you want to talk to the world when they just see you sitting alone at a table. So you have to get comfortable going up to people and saying ‘Hey, what are you reading?’ or ‘Hey, I'm so sorry, but I'm new here. Can you tell me where the best beaches are?’
“It was really hard, but owning the fact that I was vulnerable changed the course of my travels.”
It was really hard, but owning the fact that I was vulnerable changed the course of my travels. So now I always say, ‘Hey, I'm so sorry but I don't really know my way around here’, instead of just a simple question like, ‘What's the best restaurant?’ You have to be humble about inserting yourself in other people's spaces. More often than not, people are really accommodating.”
Travel is not your power but it can help you step into your power.
“2020 changed me a lot. [Before the pandemic] I had spent a solid decade helping people to travel and talking about travel. When the travel industry fell down around me, I was left wondering, ‘What do I have to say now that has been taken away from me? What do I bring to the world? What's my greater purpose?’
That was hard to reconcile and I think a lot of travellers felt like that.
But we have to think about ourselves as travellers in a wider sense. Yes, I'm a traveller first and foremost. But I'm also a woman in a relationship, a woman building a community in a new city, a creator, a writer, a journalist, a podcaster - these different things, because you can't be defined by the things that we used to measure our lives by.”
Resilience will see you through – and travel has made you more resilient
“This time has given me an opportunity to think about purpose, potential and passion. Something that I'm really passionate about is resilience and finding your personal power. I've always done that through travel. You know, you end up in a sticky situation and you think to yourself, ‘Girlie, you hiked Machu Picchu, you've got this!’
“Every time that I survived, I proved to myself that I could.”
Every time that I survived, I proved to myself that I could. I grew up in an environment that told me that I couldn't constantly. So that's very much who I am: a resilient and defiant woman.
Travel is a great way to become more resilient so that things like 2020 or someone telling you that you're too this or too that don't completely wobble you.”
It’s hard now, but travel will evolve, and we’ll evolve alongside it. We’re survivors – travel taught us that.
“[As we move past the pandemic] I think we will see a new conversation about travel as a robust definition of what it brings to our lives, how it empowers us, how it makes us better and whole and more complete.
Collectively, we all feel like the wind has been taken out of our sails, and that sucks. But, at the same time, something really beautiful has happened, at least to me; I have never been more creative in my life. I can't go anywhere right now so I've been incredibly creative. I’ve come up with new things that I think define who I am and what my highest purpose is.”
The ‘Screw You’ spirit
“I’ve used this time to write a book called ‘Tell her she can't: inspiring stories of unstoppable women’. I had this idea in my head for a long time, because I grew up in an abusive environment where I was constantly told that I was too fat. I was too stupid. I would never make it. I was going to be a stain on society. There was nothing I could do to change this fate; I was this person and that was it.
“I really had to use that as fuel to push myself forward and be like, ‘You know what, I'm going to be even more successful than you, just watch!’”
I really had to use that as fuel to push myself forward and be like, ‘You know what, I'm going to be even more successful than you, just watch!’ And so I attribute a lot of what I have done in my career – that hacking machete kind of trailblazing – to that same spirit of believing, ‘You're not going to define me or limit me. Screw you, I'm going to tell you what I can and can't do!’”
My story is your story
“Throughout my years of running Women's Travel Fest, I shared the stage with some really powerful women and what I realised is that my story is not very unique at all. So many women who have accomplished incredible things came from really difficult childhoods, or were limited verbally or physically by other people. 2020 gave me the time to start unpacking this. I started calling women that I knew who had accomplished things and who had gotten through things, and they introduced me to other women and men. And before I knew it, I had talked to almost 100 different women who had overcome different forms of adversity, and used it as fuel.”
Anger is as beautiful and important as forgiveness
“Through these conversations, the question became, ‘What makes someone inspired to be resilient and use this as fuel’ and what makes someone else not able to handle it at all? And what I realized was that I was sticking together the essence of feminine resilience. And so “Tell her she can't’ is my story. And it's also the story of 35 other women who have gone through things that I have it things like racism, domestic violence, overcoming cancer, hair loss, limb loss,
“I believe that anger and defiance are beautiful and powerful emotions. It's okay to feel them too.”
It's basically the ‘screw you spirit’! I read a lot of personal development and self-help, which always preaches forgiveness and meditation, and that's awesome but I also believe that anger and defiance are beautiful and powerful emotions. It's okay to feel them too.
When you start talking about your story you free yourself from it, and that’s very healing. Then every other person that you meet in your truest version of you is also the truest version of them.
Travel will always be something that I am so passionate about but I now think it is one of many tools that I can use to connect to my sense of capability and strength.”
Find out more about Kelly, pre-order and listen to her podcast here.