Evelyn Hannon isn’t exactly the sort of person who comes to mind when you imagine a thrill-seeking world traveler.
The 73-year-old grandmother of four has no language skills to speak of (“aside from English, I know a little bit of French and Yiddish”) and absolutely no sense of direction (“I tell my grandchildren that Bubby was born without a GPS”).
Yet in recent years she’s traveled to all seven continents, mostly on her own, checking off 65 different countries on the way. Hannon, who lives in Toronto, also happens to run one of the most popular websites in the world for female travelers, particularly those wanting to do it solo.
Journeywoman.com, her award-winning site which has been featured in People and Time magazines, as well as The New York Times travel section, gets a million visitors a year, and its free monthly newsletter has 68,000 subscribers. Before travel blogging was even a word, Hannon was doing it. Doing it so well, in fact, that her advertising revenues today make the possibility of a work-free vacation in Tel Aviv, where she’s been spending the past month, more than feasible.
Of course, it’s never completely work-free for someone like Hannon, who can’t resist sharing some of her latest discoveries with her tens of thousands of online followers in 200 countries and territories around the world and still counting (“Last I checked, I had five followers in the Vatican”). So to keep herself busy in recent weeks, she’s been posting a photo every day of an intriguing-looking Israeli and his or her response to the following question: “Tell me a secret you’ve never told your mother.”
“This is the first time I’ve done something like this, but I think it’s a great way of introducing this country to outsiders,” she says. “They get to see how eclectic it is.”
Her find for today is a “juicy soldier,” as she describes him. (“Can you believe it? He’s the first one in uniform I found on the street today, but what a punim this one had,” she says, using the Yiddish term for face).
And what was he willing to share with you that he’s never told his mother?
“He told me she has no idea how much danger he’s been in.”
It’s her sixth trip to Israel, and Hannon has deep connections to the country. She helped coordinate the first Canadian Women’s Film Festival in Israel and participated in the first Women of the Wall prayer service at the Western Wall 25 years ago.
This is the first time, though, that she’s actually going native, renting an apartment close to the beach and doing her own laundry and cooking. “Before I arrived,” she recounts, “I decided to tease my readers. I told them I’d be setting out on a new adventure but didn’t tell them where. I then took a photo of the sunset at the beach from my porch and asked them to guess where I was. But nobody could figure it out. I think that’s because most people have a completely different image in their minds of Israel.”
Why Tel Aviv and not Jerusalem, the more classic travel destination? “Because believe me, I know what’s going on,” she says, “and I know that this is a hot and happening place these days.”
What tips for women travelers coming here alone do you plan to bring back with you?
“Honestly, I feel so safe here – much safer than in any American city.”
Any places in the city you’d advise women traveling on their own to avoid?
“Maybe the bus station. My antenna went up when I was around there.”
Her daughter jokes that she’s “digitally deficient,” but Hannon was an Internet pioneer, she says, “before I even knew the difference between an email and a URL.”
It all began with a 35-day trip she took on her own to Belgium, after divorcing her husband of 23 years. “We go married when I was 19 and had traveled beautifully together, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to do it on my own,” she recalls. “I spent many days crying on that trip, but once I did it, I felt that I was a much stronger person and I knew that other women could benefit from my experience.”
In 1994, she launched Journeywoman, at first in printed magazine form. Three years later, she took the publication online. The website includes recommendations for hotels and restaurants that are women-friendly, tips for places and neighborhoods that women should avoid and other sorts of advice aimed particularly at women traveling on their own. Most of the content on the site is generated by Hannon, but once a month she publishes a list of 12 tips shared by other women travelers. The latest list, for example, includes a recommendation for a hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam as well as the following tip for women traveling on ships on rough seas: Pack light-weight matting along – it prevents cosmetics and face creams from slipping off counters when things start going topsy-turvy. “We’re basically a network of women helping women,” she says.
What do you advise a woman traveling on her own for the first time to a new city?
“Join a walking tour of the city to get your bearings. It’s a good way to meet other people who are on their own who speak English who you can hang out with after. I also always make a point of inviting the guide to have lunch with me after to get some more insider tips. I also always try to talk to local women wherever I am, and ask them women-centered questions, like where’s a good restaurant for a woman to eat on her own? Where’s a good place to buy bras or toys for the grandkids? And where’s a good place to get my hair done?”
How do you manage when people don’t speak English?
“I use my hands and draw pictures. People will find this hard to believe, but I never bring a dictionary with me when I travel.”
Do you ever rent a car?
So where’s the most exciting place in the world you’ve been?
“I’d have to say Antarctica. I was there a year ago. I had this incredible feeling of being in a place where you’re not in charge and you’ve got to just acclimatize yourself.”
Any new gem you’ve discovered on your latest trip to Israel?
“For Israelis this certainly wouldn’t be new, but I loved Ben Gurion’s house here in Tel Aviv.”
What insights have your readers shared with you about Israel?
“It’s always the same thing: ‘Israeli men, omigod.’ Whatever that means."