“You will waste your year!” my mom had shouted when I told her I plan to travel for five months with my best friend after I graduate. After months of dealing with clinical depression, therapy being a total bust, and nothing working, I believed the cliché of “traveling could fix me” would work.
I come from a privileged home. This meant that I could believe in this cliché and set off traveling without the baggage of work and home. I took up a job for three months to collect enough money to fund some part of my trip. In November, we set off to cover parts of Himachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh.
We were doing a budget trip. So two months outside home costed us fifteen thousand each. The plan was to stay with people we knew, or put up statuses on Facebook and ask people if they would not mind us having piled on at their place (which worked out very well). We ended up staying with some fabulous people we didn’t know before and stay was met with food and warmth every time. A friend was kind enough to book us a place in a city when we ran out of money and some friends kind enough to give us food when we were hungry enough to eat each other. Facebook was definitely our best friend during this period, because without Facebook statuses which were a call for help, we would have ended up spending a lot more than what we did.
A lot of people thought we were either stupid or brave to spend two months out of the five traveling up north alone. “North India is not safe for two girls to travel alone” were words we often heard from almost everyone. To be honest, the world is not safe because there is an absolute lack of redressal system in place but that should not stop one from traveling, that should not stop us from trying to reclaim spaces and places that have been traditionally seen as masculine.
The two months that we were in the North both dispelled and affirmed the idea of North India and its men. We would be in overnight buses in UP and would be the only women in the bus, have men staring at us (in a way that reminded us that we didn’t belong there), being stared at and cat-called made us felt very much at home (Hello Pune and Delhi), there were instances where men felt like they had absolute right to our bodies.
In Manali, for instance, we were staying with an acquaintance. On our last night there, his friend tried to force himself on me. Or another time in Punjab where inside the Golden Temple, I was groped. There were no apologies from any of these men until it was demanded from them. I realised the sense of male entitlement to women’s bodies runs across the land and is not a state-wise distribution. So whether I was home and walking on the street, or miles away traveling to new places, I was equally disrespected.
Right from the time the trip began we wanted to carry pepper spray (but often forgot to buy it). We would instead settle for large rocks and devise escape plans when we found ourselves walking lanes at night or with men who seemed like they wanted more than just to guide us to a particular place. The trip had one constant for the both of us: hunger and fear of men. It was a rude awakening that what I was unconsciously conditioned to do in my home city, be careful of men, came up as a third companion during the trip. The #NotAllMen hashtag seemed like the biggest sham for us because all men seemed shady to us.
Often on the trip when I would meet men, whether it was on a trek to Kheerganga or in a bar in Dehradoon, in the process of having conversations I would be told that I am too aggressive for a woman. One man wanted me to do breathing exercise because otherwise I would scare men off. Some men would stop me the minute my answer would be “Yes.” to “Are you those feminist types?“. I realised that my aggression and feminism were tools to scare some men off, that as a woman I was supposed to be nicer to men and when I didn’t fit the stereotype, I was to be stayed away from like I was diseased. I really enjoyed this discomfort that I caused, to be honest. It made me feel braver over the course of the trip. That being said, it didn’t always work (as is evident from the number of times we had to ensure double locks to our room doors and come back before it got too late.)
It wasn’t always bleak. We also met men and women who went out of their way to help us. For instance, when we met Chintu in Benaras, who showed us around the lanes and temples in this weirdly wonderful city, without asking anything in return. Or when we met Mallika, who knew us vaguely from Facebook and offered us shelter, food, and lots of love when we reached Kangra. Men and women in buses, lanes, homes, hotels, and cities would go out of their way to help us, all we had to do was ask for help.
Each state that we went to was so different from each other. The people and the way they talked, the experiences and battles that each state had was the same yet so very different. In Nakthan, a small village in Kullu district, for example, people could not travel down the mountains once the snow fell to get food and grains. They would stock up by November for the cold months. This year, though, doing this was supremely hard because of demonetization, they had no money to buy the food grains. In Allahabad, the oarsmen of boats that take you to the Triveni Sangam, were not making much money because tourists left due to demonetization. These stories would never be known to me, had I not ventured out of my home. I couldn’t do anything to change these stories but only add it to the other thousand such stories that may or may not have been heard.
Travelling was the learning that I never got out of my books and internships and schools and colleges. It allowed me the utmost freedom to be myself because for the first time in a long time nobody I cared for was looking. It made me comfortable with my own skin, my own thoughts and made me a whole lot more accepting of who I was. It also made me realize that the world is as shitty as everyone says it is, but every now and then a Mallika, a Chintu, or a Rizwan (who was our hilarious guide in Lucknow) could save a part of it. Travelling meant I could get up and leave a place if it made me unhappy or stay a few days extra because I had fallen in love with an empty house stacked with food.
There will be days you might want to run home or days when nothing goes as planned, sometimes the place you go to could be an absolute waste but don’t let that stop you from exploring. The act of traveling is a step towards destroying the patriarchy, and it is definitely a fun way of doing it. It won’t always be great, but for those days remember that your money will run out and you will be heading home soon.
That being said, I believe we all need to travel. As travelers or as tourists or whatever else you have. Women need to continue owning places and streets that have been forever kept away from us. Travelling not only meant gaining new experiences, it also meant that we were rebelling against an age-old oppressive system that doesn’t think we are able enough to travel. If you have the privilege to travel, take it.
So rebel and travel.