I inherited my solo-travel genes from my father, and it was he who encouraged me on this path and opened another world for me. A decade later, random strangers I meet on my solo travels are shocked and raise their eyes skywards on hearing that I am a woman travelling all by myself. “It’s just not safe,” they warn in half whispers.
Besides the safety angle which hangs over solo women travellers like an ominous cloud, they were looked down upon as poor souls who had no friends or family. But, today, women are shaking off such outdated notions and are travelling solo simply to make a strong statement. They do it because, to borrow from Queen (the rock band), they “want to break free”. They do it to be able to live their lives on their own terms.
Yes, the idea of travelling on your own can be overwhelming. No matter which region you come from or which religion you follow, if you are a woman in India, chances are that you grew up within the confines of walls — some visible and some invisible. And those walls forbid you from stepping out into the world alone, even if you are an adult now.
“It’s just not safe,” you may have grown up hearing. That’s largely because public spaces continue to be unsafe for women in India.
Overwhelming to begin with
I came from an overprotective background too, and never lived away from my family. Yet, I have been travelling solo for more than a decade now. True, it was overwhelming at first. But, for me, what I have learned over the past decade is that nothing can be more empowering for the average Indian woman than to do a solo trip.
Not only does it make you more confident and independent, you pick up some invaluable life lessons, and it shows you that the world outside is not half as bad as those invisible walls had taught you to believe. Queen (the 2013 movie this time) wasn’t wrong.
The most unsavoury part of being a solo woman traveller is when you encounter patriarchy. “You are a tourist?” the security personnel at the last checkpoint on the road to Turtuk on the Indo-Pak border had asked me three times in a row, with progressively deepening frowns. Evidently, they were not used to seeing a woman travelling alone in the Ladakhi winter. They were visibly relieved to see me return a couple of hours later.
I have been openly asked in Nagaland why I am single and why I need to travel alone instead of investing my energies elsewhere — probably into ‘finding a husband’ — who may just make travelling more enjoyable. “Don’t talk too much with people here,” my homestay owner had warned. “If they hear you are single, they will think something is wrong with you,” he had suggested, without an iota of embarrassment.
Take it in your stride
Over the years, I have learned to laugh and joke my way out of these situations. I smile sweetly at people offering unsolicited advice, politely thank them, and simply move on. And, to be unashamedly honest, a slice of patriarchy can come in handy for women travellers too. I would say, I have largely benefitted from it.
For example, my fellow travellers and I managed to skip long queues for document checks in north Kashmir thanks to my gender. In Uttarakhand’s Munsiyari, a (shared) cab full of people patiently waited till I checked into my hotel because the cabbie felt it was not right to leave a woman to her own devices in an unknown place.
My Kashmiri driver dragged his houseboat-owner friend along on the road trip from the Valley to Ladakh because he feared for my safety (we never faced anything remotely untoward). The list can go on and on.
This has been my experience of solo travel. I have never felt unsafe nor did I have bad experiences. This has made me more carefree and I have stopped booking accommodation in advance. I often travel by local transport even to the remotest of places. And, despite travelling across vast stretches of northern India, from Rajasthan in the west to Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland in the north-east (though not always solo), I’ve been safe. That being said, it is still important to take some precautions.
For one thing, I research my destinations in detail. I chalk out a route and try to stick to it even though I keep my plans flexible. If I go to remote areas about which there is little online data, I keep gathering information as I go. If I have to hire a car, I try to find reliable drivers recommended by other travellers on online travel forums. Despite that, I use a navigation app to make sure the driver is not straying from the route. Sometimes, I keep a list of local police stations and their numbers ready on my phone.
Another critical point is not to draw too much attention to oneself if you are travelling solo. I travel light, dress very simply, and often get mistaken for a local, no matter where I go. I hardly accept invitations for a drink or meal from strangers, unless I am sure of their identity and feel confident that it is safe.
Most importantly, it is crucial to be confident and display it as well. Because? Well, patriarchy again. Some of the minor troubles I have faced over the years have come from hired drivers who try to take tourists, especially women, for a ride. They will insist on a particular hotel or try to cut short a tour by skipping a few destinations. In such situations, it becomes important that you put your foot down and show who’s the boss. It usually works.
Moreover, look at it this way: These are key skills of negotiation and bargaining that can only empower you in your life journey.