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On Solo Travel & Indian Women.

Women's Web article - Picture

This travelogue was originally published on Women’s Web.

“Are you married?” she curiously asks me. I reply in the negative, without bothering to delve into my ‘I don’t need it’ philosophy. When I ask her the same, she excitedly tells me that she can’t wait to, that her family is eagerly looking for a suitable match, and that age has nothing to do with it.

I met her on a long bus ride from Manali to Delhi, and we got talking when she nervously approached me to say she’ll be all by herself on the journey onward from Chandigarh. She is now telling me that she can’t wait to get married so she’ll have someone to travel with. “My parents don’t allow me to travel with friends, unless there’s another girl in the group,” she confesses, “That rarely happens. And I can’t fathom travelling alone in India.” It had never occurred to me until now that having company to travel could be reason enough for someone to get married. Then again, it’s as good a reason as any other.

I’m amused at first. I begin to think of the last one month I’ve spent travelling by myself in the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh. My decision to go solo seemed to arouse a gamut of emotions in the people I met, from wonder and pity, to admiration and resentment. One aunty travelling with her family even threatened to call my parents and complain. But never once did I meet a fellow Indian girl, travelling unaccompanied.

Indians and travelling

Forget solo travel. Travelling as a way of life is a largely western concept that hasn’t seeped into the Indian society yet. The stages of our life have clearly been laid out in our upbringing – now we go to school, now we attend college, now we work to make some bucks, now we do an MBA because it must be done before marriage, now we get married, now we have kids – there is no age or time to travel. What we didn’t learn during those geography lessons in school is how travel can mould our being, change our perspective on people, and free our thinking. Those are big claims, of course.

As the landscape outside transforms from the mighty Himalayas adorned by pine trees to expansive flat lands growing wilderness, I think of my own travel escapades.

My first conscious attempt to travel (as opposed to holiday) was in Vietnam. I pledged to ditch the tourist circuit and set out with a friend to explore the undiscovered terrains of the Northwest. For 3 days, through villages in the Vietnamese heartlands, we met nobody who could speak or understand English. How else could I have known that you don’t need a common language to make friends or be invited to stay at someone’s house?

When I took time off from work to travel in Europe, the only thing I knew for a fact was the dent it would cause in my pocket. I couldn’t have gauged that speaking conversational Spanish to find my way around the gorgeous countryside could teach me more about the language than any textbook I had studied. Nor that I could hold myself after downing a litre of beer, because they refused to serve anything smaller in Germany’s (and the world’s) oldest brewery.

Yet, when my friend mentions her tryst as a woman wanting to travel in India, I hear her. Perhaps it was my exposure to travelling in foreign countries that gave me the confidence to do the same across India. It certainly helped to break away from a system that feeds you with fear, where no one would hear of, allow (if they were given the power to) or encourage a single woman to set out on a journey all by herself.

I remember the battlefield that was my house when I announced my solo trip to Spiti. Not only was I resolutely discouraged from going; the idea was dismissed as crazy. A fair bit of convincing later, my parents agreed to support my decision. That’s when came an outpouring of instructions against strangers, like a song on repeat. It’s a good thing no one knew then that I’d be hitchhiking from village to village in Spiti.

Travelling in our country has never been considered the safest. Lonely Planet forums are flooded with safety concerns of foreign women wanting to travel alone in India. When I shared my solo travel experience in India on my travel blog, I received emails congratulating me for surviving it. I won’t go so far as to say that people are wrong in their perceptions of safety for solo women, but that’s only half the story. The other half is about travelling smart.

I realized the moment I stepped out that being smart on the road will be as important as being bold at home, if I were to do this ever again. Even now, I sometimes carry pepper spray with me, because knowing that I can protect myself adds to my confidence. I am open to meeting new people, yet quick to trust my gut if I predict a sticky situation. I (compulsively) stay in touch with my parents and friends, so enough alarm bells can go off in case my phone or I go missing.

As we near the borders of Delhi, I reassure myself that I wouldn’t be half the person I am if I didn’t travel as much I do. It’s one thing to read about geographies, music, culture and food in books. Experiencing them in person is something else.

Before we bid goodbye, I congratulate my friend. Most women will agree with her reasons for not embracing travel, but only a handful will go the length she is willing to go, to make it happen.

“You are going to embark on a beautiful journey,” I assure her, and hope that our paths will cross again somewhere, some day.

Photo credit: Ibrahim Lujaz 


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29 Comments Post a comment
  1. I have to disagree with the article on a number of issues. Yes, in general girls are mostly encouraged to stay at home so to speak, but that’s true for even within the hometown not only traveling. But then that’s changing. Go out in any metro now and you will find girls partying, just like boys, till the wee hours.

    Secondly, there is still the whole thing about “foreign travel” in us indians. We prefer to go out, if we have the means, than visit our own country.

    Then, a travel companion is something that is a choice. I personally hate to travel alone and would rather not travel than travel alone. It’s just my nature.

    Agreed, there are restriction on women in India, but I feel there are many factors that play a role.

    November 29, 2011
    • I agree that there are many factors that play a role, but the focus of this article is specifically on women who want to travel, even if by themselves (like the woman I met on the bus), but don’t find the support to. “Girls unrestricted in metros” form a small minority of Indian women.

      Foreign travel is okay, travel is travel as long as you want to explore what’s out there. Personally, I think it’s a good place to start. And from my experience, you only become more curious about your own country when you explore shores further away.

      Agreed that travel companion is a choice, but I only say that lack of one shouldn’t restrict you from doing something you’d love to do.

      December 2, 2011
      • Geetanjali #

        i totally agree on this one with Shivya, me staying in a metro all my life. Want to travel and explore India, but can’t do so, cause of no partner, or rather no female partner…… the main thing stopping me is my parent’s concern, they are just not ready to listen.

        April 11, 2013
  2. I love to travel alone. That way you can spend as much or as little time in one place as you like. It is easier to meet new people if you are alone. Dining alone can be a bit odd until you get used to it, but you can always pull out a book.

    November 29, 2011
    • Completely agree, Debra! And to me, meeting new people is one of the best ways of discovering a new place.

      December 2, 2011
  3. Love this post. Not only is there a world of education opened up simply by traveling, there is a whole other type of education granted to you when you travel solo. I haven’t done it nearly as extensively as you, but I did do it, and was proud of the accomplishment.

    November 29, 2011
    • I know what you mean, Claire. It’s hard to explain the “other type of education”, but when you’ve experienced it, you know that it can change your perspectives so dramatically.

      December 2, 2011
  4. Shivya – Its a much debated topic. :-)

    I sort of agree with Raghav’s assessment where he says that there are local reasons towards certain behaviors whether it is about not-traveling-solo (ir-respective of gender) or not having a great support of a woman solo traveler. We would need to take the reality check before we engage in something which has zero approval.

    But having said that, a few of brave souls like you are challenging that reality. Often with the experience and confidence and exposure one gains by being abroad. Recently Vibha, who is the editor of Ghumakkar, did a solo travel in India and it didn’t come easy. She spent a year at Newcastle and I am sure that changed a lot of things. I also remember another Author, Devasmita writing two beautiful logs of traveling solo. Here are the links.

    http://www.ghumakkar.com/2011/11/02/the-not-so-great-things-about-solo-travelling/

    http://www.ghumakkar.com/2011/11/04/the-great-things-about-solo-travelling/

    In India, travel mostly means religious travel or visiting family/friends. Travel for pleasure is still many more years away, to catch up and to get the society’s approval. Hopefully in our lifetime, things would change more than what they have in last 50 years or so :-)

    And stories like these would travel more and make people step out of the regime.

    I have put lot of links and there is some shameless promotion of Ghumakkar here in greater good. I would most happily never sprinkle links if you do not like, just send me a quick email.

    Look fwd.

    November 29, 2011
    • Couldn’t have put it in a better way myself, Nandan. We do have a long way to go when it comes to travelling for travel’s sake (travelling solo is another long way ago), and I hope too that our generation will evolve the concept.

      Thanks for the links. I’d love to read them!

      December 2, 2011
  5. manchitra #

    Shivya, appreciate you..Your penchant for travel is very well known. I grew up in a conservative family where we were not allowed to travel alone..It was like, to school and back, no picnics. The mind set is still there but I do travel alone for my work but I feel more comfortable when I have company. Blame it on my age too:)
    I love your spirit. keep going…al the best.

    November 29, 2011
    • Thanks Chitra. We all grew up in similar families I think! For me, it still involves a lot of revolting and sometimes “unreported” travel, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, if you know what I mean :)

      December 2, 2011
  6. Hi Shivya, I stumbled across your blog today on Twitter from @AddieTweetBox…and I’m so glad I did! I’m just nearing the end of travelling across India for four months, mostly on my own, and couldn’t agree more with this post. Before I left the UK (I’m American, but based in London) it wasn’t just other people who were nervous for me–I too had little idea of what awaited me here in India. It’s not that traveling as a solo female is “easier” here than I expected, but just that it’s been remarkably similar to travelling anywhere by yourself around the world. It can be challenging at times, but like your bus ride to Delhi, there are moments when you’re so grateful you’re doing it.

    I agree with what you said about perceptions being perhaps a little skewed, or playing it a little too safe…India has been such an adventure, and I’d hate for other female travellers to miss out on it! I’ve loved looking through your blog so far and look forward to following you on more off-beat adventures.

    November 29, 2011
    • Good to hear from you, Candace! I really admire how women from other parts of the world can find the courage to go solo in India, after all that is said about it :) I’d love to read more about your adventures in India, or if you’re in Delhi at any point, would be happy to catch up over coffee!

      December 2, 2011
  7. A most interesting perspective on a country and people that I hope to visit one day. thank you.

    November 29, 2011
    • Hope you visit soon, Scott!

      December 2, 2011
  8. Hey Shivya reading this post was like reading Eat Pray Love..It is a compliment :) Indian Women, I don’t even want to get there…so many things to argue about and ? marks about why is it that way….

    Now that I am married, I think I would not want to leave my adventure and travel freak hubby alone or else I would love to explore places on my own :)

    December 1, 2011
    • Haha, thanks Val ;) I’m yet to read the book though (only seen the movie).

      December 2, 2011
  9. konika #

    Travelling alone lets you experience things and teaches you things travelling in company doesn’t. I love it when I’m on my own and the itinerary is not planned. Jut explore, wander, enjoy, no pressure. :) Love this post. \m/

    December 1, 2011
    • Agreed Konika, travelling solo & in company both have their advantages. Same here, wandering without a plan is the best way to discover a place :)

      December 2, 2011
  10. Hi
    Really so nice blog dear. I like this blog.. its blog looking really so cool . this is real so good work…….

    December 2, 2011
  11. I can so identify with this post.My first trip solo happened in Europe,to Paris ..more due to a bad planning or a lucky accident.I actually heard similar warnings from my dutch manager ..it’s not safe for a women to travel alone.You’re going to have guys hitting on you,be safe etc. And finally when I landed on my first solo trip ..I realised that I already had my instincts honed from surviving travel on public transport in cities like Chennai and Bangalore.And I just started enjoying the trip :) Plus I could visit cafes and restaurants like I wanted to,rather than McD and KFC that my Indian colleagues loved.Or worse indian restaurants in europe :)
    I’m yet to make a solo trip in India,but your post gives me courage.And I’ll be moving to Gurgaon very soon,so trips to North India become easy.

    Cheers
    Vandy

    http://vandytravels.blogspot.in/

    February 1, 2012
  12. that’s a nice story!!!!

    May 1, 2012
  13. It’s onerous to seek out educated people on this matter, but you sound like you understand what you’re speaking about!
    Thanks

    January 21, 2013

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