Celebrate Ula Cafe Owner’s New Book ‘Wander Woman’ on International Women’s Day

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Beth Santos has a lot going on in her life. Santos co-owns Ula Cafe, runs an international community of women who like to travel, and is now a published author.

Beth Santos

The Egleston Square resident bought the cafe with her husband in June 2021, and it's the perfect place to host a launch party of her first book, Wander Woman: How to Reclaim Your Space, Find Your Voice, and Travel the World, Solo on International Women's Day. Santos answered questions from Jamaica Plain News about the cafe, her book, traveling solo, and more.

Q: Please tell us about the event on March 8.

Santos: We are celebrating my book launch and International Women's Day on Friday March 8th at Ula Cafe. The whole neighborhood is involved. We will keep Ula open late and have food and drinks available for purchase. Papercuts Bookshop will be selling books, the folks over at Streetcar Wines are going to have wine tastings focused on women winemakers around the world, Laura Campagna Astrology is going to do free tarot and astrology readings to help you determine the right type of travel for you, local artist Carolyn Lewenberg is going to do a make-your-own passport stamp station, and we will have live music from singer-songwriter Marina Buendia (a talented Berklee student who also happens to work at Ula as a barista!). I'll be doing book signings too, of course, and we will have a table talking about my company, Wanderful, which is an international community of women travelers that I started in 2013.

Q: Ula Cafe is celebrating International Women's Day with a book launch party for your book Wander Woman: How to Reclaim Your Space, Find Your Voice, and Travel the World, Solo. It seems like Wander Woman is the perfect book for International Women's Day. Tell us about Wander Woman.

Santos: A lot of people don't know that in addition to being the owner of Ula I also run an international community of women who love to travel called Wanderful. We have thousands of members around the world to gather in an online membership platform and in dozens of local chapters around the world. We host group trips and opportunities for women to connect with one another over their shared love of travel. And we run a conference for travel content creators called the women in travel summit that we've been hosting since 2014!

I started Wanderful after experiencing what it was like to travel alone as a woman in my early twenties. I realized that there are two messages we tell women when they travel alone. The first is what I like to call to Eat, Pray, Love narrative, that you're going to have this magical life-changing experience. The second narrative I like to call the Taken narrative, where you get kidnapped abroad and Liam Neeson has to find you.

There's really nothing in between. We're constantly telling women that travel is either perfect or prohibitively dangerous. We don't talk about the many nuances of safety, nor do we talk about the varying gender norms or some of the internal transformations that happen when you travel alone for the first time. So many women are completely blindsided from that when they venture out into the world.

I wanted to write the book that would have helped me when I first started traveling alone. A book that would provide real, helpful information, but also tactical support and tips for women who are thinking about traveling on their own. It's tailored towards women who have never traveled before, but I found that even experienced travelers have taken a lot from the book. It's a travel guide in some ways but it's also a philosophical book in other ways, talking about what travel is, what travel should be, and how we can be better travelers for the Earth, too.

Q: How does reclaiming one's space relate to traveling the world solo?

Santos: Here's a statistic that might surprise you: 85% of consumer travel decisions are made by women. When it comes to booking flights and deciding what hotels were staying at, the vast majority of the time women are the ones who are making those decisions. This is striking because we still talk about women's travel as a niche of the travel industry, when actually it's the dominating portion of it. When we look at travel TV we always see our silver-haired white men like Anthony Bourdain and Rick Steves, never women and certainly not Black and brown women, trans women, disabled women, or many other intersections of women.

Reclaiming our space, then, is about recognizing and celebrating the fact that women are traveling alone and have been traveling alone since the first solo female traveler on record in 400 AD (Egeria). It's about not submitting to the stereotype that women don't do it or can't do it, that it's not made for us. The images we see on social media tell us that the only people who travel are skinny, white, young, able-bodied women, but that's not true either. Travel can be for all of us. That's what reclaiming our space is all about.

Q: Where have you traveled solo in the world?

Santos: Oh, many places! I lived overseas in Portugal for a year while studying abroad in college. I traveled to São Tomé after college and lived there for 1-2 months at a time on my own over the course of two years. I have been to Tel Aviv and New Zealand.

I also think how we sell ourselves short on what constitutes traveling alone. I've been to many places where I have arrived early or stayed late and explore the place on my own before a program or a business trip began. Latvia, Poland, Los Angeles, New York, Turkiye. Sometimes I ask people if they've traveled alone and they say no, but then later I find out that they actually have traveled alone. They just didn't think about their travels in that way. In the book I talk about redefining what solo travel is. How far do you have to go in order for your travels to be legitimate? How alone do you actually have to be? It's a lot different than you might think.

Q: Where would you recommend someone travel solo?

Santos: There are so many amazing places to travel alone and this answer is going to be wildly different for everyone. It depends on so many things. Who are you? How experienced are you as a traveler? How willing are you to step outside your comfort zone? For many people, that first solo trip feels more manageable if it's a flight away without any connecting flights, or if the language in their destination is a language that they speak. In Boston we have so many great options with Europe being a quick jump over the pond, and the Caribbean even closer. You can travel to Puerto Rico without a passport.

But you may even try something closer to home. Maybe you start with a solo drive in a weekend in the White Mountains, or on Nantucket. Maybe you take a flight to a city with a lot of things to do like Chicago or Atlanta. I also find it can be much easier to travel alone if you're traveling for something - a specific class you've always wanted to take, or a festival or event. At Wanderful we host an activity called Global Meetups. It's basically a long weekend where we book a hotel block and plan one to two activities and the rest you do on your own. It's such a great way to dive into solo travel because you have the fall back of dinner plans with a group of other amazing women who are traveling alone like you, as well as the opportunity to connect with them and do things together. But you can also have your alone time. This summer we are going to Portugal and in the fall we are headed to Mexico City for Day of the Dead weekend.

Q: A lot of people are nervous about traveling solo. What safety advice would you like to provide to someone who is nervous about traveling solo?

Santos: Oh my goodness, there is so much to say about this topic that I have an entire chapter dedicated to it. It is so easy to simplify the safety conversation and I don't think that does anyone any service. An article I see again and again on the internet is a list of safest destinations for solo travelers, and I think that's such a cop out. A lot of these places are entire countries, and how can somebody rank an entire country?

I will also say, though, that the concern about safety is definitely real. Just like the right destination for us to visit depends on who we are, your level of safety or concern about safety is going to be different depending on who you are. All that being said, though, being on your own does mean that you have to be a little bit more alert then somebody who has the benefit of an extra pair of eyes and ears in a travel buddy. There are some tried and true suggestions here. Register with the Smart Travelers Enrollment Program, (STEP). It's a way the US government can contact you in case of emergency. Make a travel plan and share it with somebody you trust so they know where to find you while you're overseas, like the name and address of your hotel for example and your flight plans. Just like in Boston, don't take your money out in the middle of the street, and be smart about leaving your phone or valuables on a table in open air.

One of my favorite pieces of advice happens later in the book. It's about taking what I call a Day Zero. A Day Zero is taking a day to simply absorb an area and observe it. Since you are on your own, you don't have the luxury of another person saying "hey, I noticed there's a grocery store across the street" or "this is how you use the bus system". It's up to you to learn those things. Because of that, giving yourself a day before you kick-off the official adventures can help you to acclimate to a place emotionally but also get your bearings which will allow you to be much savvier when you're traveling and therefore safer.

Q: And the title is playing off the superhero Wonder Woman? What are your superpowers?

Santos: It is! Wonder Woman does make an appearance a couple times in the book. I don't want to spoil it too much, but Wonder Woman's powers are not dissimilar from the power as we have as travelers: cultivating understanding and connection. I like to think that my superpowers are similar. I love building meaningful communities. I love bringing people together and creating something that's even stronger than the some of its parts. I love using my creative energy and I think that's where I've been able to shine as an entrepreneur.

Q: What else would you like to say about the book, yourself, Ula Cafe, or anything else?

Santos: My husband and I first became owners of Ula, a lot of our friends and family thought it as a departure from our existing careers. People thought, wow, running a cafe couldn't be more different than running an online travel business. But what's funny is that in many ways these businesses are so similar. Both of them are about connecting people together -- one happens in the tangible real world, and one takes people around the world and connects them via the powers of the internet, but at the end of the day it's about creating spaces where we can be ourselves and meaningfully connect with one another. Both are also very social impact focused. Wanderful is about amplifying women and being more intentional, engaged travelers. Ula is about celebrating our diverse community, and being intentional in our food systems. One is about tourism and the other is about hospitality. They overlap a lot but we don't have a ton of opportunities for the two businesses to collaborate, so this event is particularly special to me to be able to bring both together in one place and to feel the support and encouragement of my home neighborhood.