A self-proclaimed “girl with messy hair and a thirsty heart who likes to be anywhere but home,” German-born storyteller Annika Ziehen planted shallow roots in New York City and Cape Town before the world became her stomping ground.
Consciously abandoning her fashion career in favor of an unfettered life, Ziehen muses on her nomadic curiosities in her travel blog The Midnight Blue Elephant, and more recently, she published her first book entitled Solo Trip.
Here, Ziehen discusses the origins of her blog, pro tips for female solo travelers, and how she hopes the travel industry will evolve to support women of every shape, size, and color—all from a Ugandan jungle.
Unearth Women: What was life like before you founded your blog, Midnight Blue Elephant?
Annika Ziehen: It seems like I’ve had a few lives already. After high school, I worked in advertising before I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York to study. By a lucky coincidence, I interned for an amazing stylist during my studies, and my first job out of college was for Italian Vogue. From there, my life took a really exciting turn in the New York fashion industry, but it was very much like the film, The Devil Wears Prada (the assistant’s experience, that is), and after a while, I couldn’t take it anymore. It’s hard to know you’re good at your job when people treat you horribly, and eventually, I grew tired of the fashion circus and left for Cape Town. I needed a complete change of scenery and a new pace of life. As it ended up, Cape Town wasn’t that different. I worked there as a photo producer, but the people were a lot more relaxed. There, I fell in love with traveling and being out in nature.
UW: What is the inspiration behind your blog’s name?
AZ: I think my prerequisite for a blog name was to find something not too obvious that was completely different from what was out there. People may not remember all the ‘wanderers’ and ‘nomads,’ but they do remember an elephant. I also wanted a name that wasn’t related to me as a person, but that could eventually become a brand. As for “The Midnight Blue Elephant” —it was past midnight, blue is my favorite color, and I was staring intensely at a poster (which was actually very expensive wrapping paper) with a vintage world map that had a big elephant hovering over India.
UW: When you took the plunge and became a travel blogger, what were you hoping to achieve?
AZ: I don’t think it was a conscious decision. I didn’t really know what being a travel blogger entailed or that it could turn into a career. A friend of mine who is a journalist always told me that I tell funny stories and that I should share them. So I started to do just that. Also, I do consider myself a bit of a truffle pig when it comes to unique hotels, restaurants, and experiential travel—though I detest the term ‘experiential’ as travel is always (or at least should always be) an experience.
I don’t think I ever had a set intention to achieve something in the travel industry as such. I think to say that you want to inspire people to travel as a blogger is so overused that it has lost all meaning, but I guess especially when it comes to solo travel it does make me happy when readers tell me that I inspired them to do just that.
UW: You spearheaded the #realwomentravel social movement in response to the travel industry’s lack of diversity and its excluding propensity toward young women of a particular, homogeneous aesthetic. Going on a year later, would you say the travel industry is any more inclusive of the ‘real’ women who travel?
AZ: To be honest, not really. I’ve seen a few more stories pop up that more or less cover the same issue, but in reality, I haven’t seen much difference. The same accounts still have a growing following and while people continue to complain about a lack of diversity, I don’t think many have followed through. The ‘pretty’ accounts are still getting read and seen and hyped.
Personally, I miss Instagram accounts that bridge the gap between pretty and real, inspiration and aspiration. But a platform like Instagram is so visual and so focused on a beautified reality that it’s almost the app’s MO, so maybe that is the wrong place to try and change the system. Maybe we need to accept that IG is not the place for regular people to share their adventures.
I want to see a concept, a good picture, beauty of some sort, or at least something that makes me think. I don’t want to see average or normal. And I don’t mean that in relation to the posters, but rather the images they share. I want to be inspired when I look at Instagram and often times reality doesn’t do that. Still, I’m happy to see that more diversity is slowly creeping in.
The other day, two Instagrammers were questioned on the realism or lack thereof in their images. One showed her alleged morning routing for a mouthwash ad. There were balloons, a blanket with her picture on it, and tortillas/pancakes on the bed. Another one posted a picture of herself in business class with fairy lights wrapped around her. People were slamming them both.
I thought the second image was aesthetically pleasing and the other one just seemed silly. Both got a lot of likes and comments, which shows that it’s ultimately up to the consumers to judge and to request different content if they don’t like what they see. Only when that happens will brands follow suit.
UW: Talk to us about your new book, Solo Trip.
AZ: A German publisher contacted me two years ago saying they loved my writing and wanted me to write a book about solo travel. It felt a bit strange at first since I never liked the label ‘solo traveler’—I’ve traveled with friends, my dad, boyfriends, and alone, so I never considered myself a solo traveler.
Only when I started writing my book did I realize that label or not, I am in fact an innate solo traveler. I’m an introvert at heart so I never mind doing things on my own. In fact, that’s how I recharge. Traveling solo came naturally to me.
My first solo trip took me to New York and my second to honeymoon central, Seychelles. Neither location is a typical solo travel destination, but I loved them both. The book is basically a little guide for people who are interested in solo travel but haven’t dared to do it just yet. Inspiration, practical tips, and some personal stories. It’s working title was Baby Elephant, by the way.
After Solo Trip was published in German last year, I decided to translate and self-publish it in English. I am not a native speaker but English has always been my preferred writing language, and I wanted to reach my main blog audience in from the US.
UW: What’s been one of your most transformational solo trips?
AZ: I think it was in India last year, and not for the reasons India is transformational for so many. I had just broken up with my boyfriend and regretted it badly. One evening I had an interesting conversation with my mother while I was there. I was crying over my heartbreak and she asked if I wanted to come home, offering to pay for my flight. I thanked her but refused her offer because I realized that what I needed was to be self-reliant. Instead of going home to lick my wounds, I booked myself on a flight to Bangkok.
Bangkok has always felt like home to me and I realized that despite its craziness, it was just the place for me to recuperate. I had also come to terms with the fact that India was too much for me given the mental state I was in. I think this was the moment I realized that travel can heal and transform you — even if that meant leaving India for a place I felt more comfortable and at home in, even if that place is crazy and chaotic for others.
UW: Do you have any tips for solo women with the travel bug?
AZ: I think it’s important to remember that women get to see parts of the world men will never ever see. We may conceive of being a woman as a disadvantage when it comes to travel, but I really don’t think it is (except when it comes to peeing standing up!).
Traveling alone as a woman will allow you a unique glimpse into this world, and into a woman’s world. That may not be as easy as seeing the world through a man’s eyes, but often times you can dig deeper for a good look behind the façade and into people’s homes—a glimpse no man will ever get. Cherish that!
And when it comes to safety, travel warnings won’t help you if you don’t follow your gut. Don’t be scared to offend. I think most of us grow up needing to be nice, polite, and liked. We are taught that this is the right thing to do as a girl and as a woman. Unfortunately, sometimes that leads us to trouble; we want to be nice rather than saying no in a sticky situation.
UW: What are the benefits of traveling solo over traveling with a partner or in a group?
AZ: You experience things more intensely when you travel solo, both good and bad. But traveling (not holidaying) should be educational too, so I don’t think that is a bad thing. I also think we tend to be more open to the world and its foreignness when we are on our own, even though this may sound counter-intuitive.
On our own we don’t need to make up our mind about situations or people, we don’t need to discuss with our partner or immediately decide whether we like something or not. We can just be and explore and let things leave their mark without judging it.
Exploring together is great, as is talking about what you’ve seen at the end of the day. But sometimes it is so nice to just let things sit without putting a label on it or having to put whatever you are feeling into words. I think it makes us more open — you tend to leave your preconceived notions at home and not be influenced by someone else as easily.
Another big one for me is not compromising. We need compromise in our daily interactions with others, but they can suck big time. When you travel on your own there is no compromise, there is only you. I think we have unlearned to answer the question “what do I want?” because it makes daily life among others so much easier. But I think it is an important question to ask, and one that expands beyond your travels. It will shape your life long after you have returned home.
UW: How would you like to see the travel industry evolve from here? And how do you hope to help improve it?
AZ: I would like to see more women doing cool shit. Or rather, to see more stories about women doing cool shit since we don’t have as much of a platform to promote it, or we’re not glam enough to see it promoted.
There is still such a pressure in our society for women to think they need to look or behave in a certain way for their work to be considered interesting or valuable. We are still being judged by our looks, age, size, and definitely skin color instead of our deeds.
Mind you, that is not exclusive to the travel industry. I think we as women have come far, but not far enough. I think we women are doing such extraordinary things these days, but now we need to change the conversation to go along with our deeds. Who cares what she looked like when she climbed that goddamn mountain!?
UW: Where are you off to next?
AZ: While my job has its disadvantages just like any other, right now I wouldn’t change it for anything as I’m writing in a lodge in Uganda. I’m closing my laptop now as tomorrow I have to get up early to see gorillas and I don’t even know how I’ll sleep — I’m too excited that this is my life.