I recently took my 5th solo trip, each having been done in India, since I turned 28. I love traveling to places with history tucked into corners forgotten, with less people off season, or places where I can just soak in beauty, we otherwise keep ourselves bereft of. I began with Hampi and Badami in 2014, in May, where until my eyes could see, I was the only human being, to Lothal-Ahmedabad-Junagadh in 2015, to Alwar-Jaipur in 2016, to Bhuj-Bhujodi-Ajrakhpur-Lakhpat earlier this year and now Munnar-Thekkaddy-Alleppy just last week.
Travelling itself is magical. Especially in relaxed places amidst nature when you aren’t scrambling to finish a list, you are forced to face storms inside, listen to the cacophony within amidst soft silences, and be with yourself, closer than ever before. And yet, travelling as a single woman comes with its experiences just for us.
It takes us years as women, to break away from conditioning, and embracing solitude, often making it an active choice. The difference between solitude and loneliness is critical to understand and then made a choice for. After we make that journey within ourselves, and with that, negotiate the tangible ‘fears’ of traveling alone in India, the experience is always rather heady and always just as liberating.
And with that as you post about your journey on social media, to be told that traveling alone is the same for all genders, and is ‘no big deal’ insists that a piece on the tangibles and fears be written. Yes, we as free thinking, strong, feminist women desire just that, that women travelling solo especially for a holiday not be a big thing, but the realities in our country are different. And we must acknowledge women for the demons they fight as they go on these trips, rather than dismissing it as an experience equal to all genders.
I love travelling to places with history tucked into corners forgotten, with less people off season, or places where I can just soak in beauty, we otherwise keep ourselves bereft of.
Do you know, when we book tickets and cabs, we are often vulnerable? A small voice within us does wonder if the places we will be staying at or visiting, will be safer than others. We are almost always prepared in our heads for catcalls, leering, and lingering stares at us that will last longer than necessary, especially first at our breasts, and then the air around us, wondering if we are actually alone, and why so. We have friends and families less excited but more afraid. They look for reasons to call us/text us, just to know if we are fine.
That anxiety is real. And if you decide, like in my case, to hire a cab for the duration of the trip, that drives you across winding hills, and deserted patches, how the driver will be, who I will pretty much be at the mercy of, just before I board the cab at the first stage itself. I look to read the eyes and the body language, because while my privilege scores above his on hierarchy of class, on the hierarchy of gender in his mind and that of the society we are a part of, I am still second to him.
As pleasantries and names are exchanged, there is a palpable calculation of privilege on the back of caste and religion. I have privilege in that account—an English speaking, upper caste (unaware of what it is, but aware of the privilege it gives me), fair, Hindu in this country, I am better off than most minorities. But most often what troubles me deeply, is that this segmentation exists, and for thousands, is deeply problematic for survival. When travelling solo, these calculations are made unsaid, and in the confines of a boxed car, you begin to realise and read these, regularly.
I have had the fortune of never having a bad experience on my solo trips. However, sexism rears its face again and again. Often every single point in the journey, the first hop in the cab, the check-in into each hotel, comes with that same question laced with disbelief ‘Ma’am, is it just you travelling?’ Or ‘Aap akele travel kar rahey ho madam?’ or this time when I was told ‘We will need IDs for you both madam’. Confused I had asked, ‘Both? I am traveling alone, can I please have my room keys’ and I watched amused, as the expression transformed from being polite and welcoming to clear incredulity, shock and then awe. An Indian woman traveling alone for leisure is nothing short of an aberration. It meets judgements more often than awe, but in slightly more open societies across regions it also means bravery and strength.
In my trip to Gujarat, I vividly remember, as I checked in to the hotel I was in at Junagadh, I had overheard, ‘Arre, madam akele travel kar rahi hai, bechaari. Zaroor kuch hua hoga’, insinuating that only a heartbreak, or some such calamity would have forced me to take this step. I remember turning around and saying ‘Nahin. Mann hai akele travel karne ka’, and marching off to my room. There is still a sense of surprise, a sense of judgement and a deep seated curiosity for people to want to know why an Indian woman chooses to travel alone.
Most of these questions have been posed to me by men, and reproachful gazes that turn to awe by women. Who gave these men that entitlement to ask me something that is so deeply personal? The more I think, the more I feel that more and more women must travel alone if they want to. We must normalize us exploring how we choose to, irrespective of a companion, a friend, friends, or partner. I have had this conversation with different guides in different version of languages, and this time was no exception.
An Indian woman travelling solo for leisure is nothing short of an aberration. It meets judgements more often than awe, but in slightly more open societies across regions it also means bravery and strength.
‘Madam you have family?’,
I say ‘yes’.
‘What does husband do?’
‘I haven’t chosen a husband’.
‘So, no family then madam?’
‘I have a family. I have my parents’.
‘Not your own family?’
‘Huh? They are my family.’
So, a woman’s family is one that she marries into? Or her legitimized family is one that a man she marries creates for her? These bizarre notions are articulated in such conversations. And as you travel alone, you mull over the deep seated conditioning that invites such thought. As I corrected him, he nodded slowly and said, ‘That is also correct’.
I have often been asked my close friends and family, why I travel alone. Or do the things I do alone. It has been 15 years and I experience most of my films in cinemas by myself. I travel when I want to, when it fits my schedule, I plan things as per my time and leisure. Why must I miss a film I want to experience in the theatre because I may not have someone to watch it with? Or look for a companion because I must, when I choose to travel? My space, body, economic liberty is my own. Why must I not use it as per my will? And who is anyone to suggest otherwise?
This time, as I sat alone overlooking a lake in one of my trips, I was approached by two men. At best in their early twenties. Asking me if I had a cigarette. I refused. Their entitlement let them assume, that a woman travelling solo could be approached, and that it would be her moral obligation to respond to them. Their next question was ‘Alone?’. I said ‘yes’. And then they began what they felt they will get answers to, ‘where are you from, why are you here’.
I remember looking at them full in the face, and telling them I will not answer, and to leave. To which they said ‘but you are travelling alone’. It hit me then, that me being without a partner/companion male or female, gave their entitlement that bolstering to first assume they could approach me, and then expect me to respond. When they realized they were speaking to a woman who was both strong and sure, and my firm gaze was enough to have them scarper, as I said, ‘How does this concern you?’, I realized that sexism rears its head again and again, at the most unexpected times, and it must be beaten again and again at each of those times.
So to everyone who lives in denial that travelling solo for a woman comes with far deeper sexism, and constant battles to fight, I am not sorry to be bursting your bubble of entitlement. That is grossly untrue. You don’t have a flicker of doubts on whether you will be safe for the time that you travel, whether the shorts you are wearing are acceptable, whether as you sit on the front seat of a jeep safari your thigh will be grazed against, whether, everytime you go to explore a new place you will find yet another similarity that will make you realise how you are not that far from home, because some form of sexism will rear.
Yes, it is not all men. And yes, I dispel these doubts whenever they occur, because my body, my rules, my space and my rights, but still, these ARE real thoughts. And please remember, dear men that it is not you who are raped and threatened and asked these questions. It is you who do this to women. And steadily the patriarchal conditioning that elevates men above women and everyone else, needs to be questioned and smashed. It is that which we fight. So, while travelling solo is comforting, fun and incredible, what they are most, is liberating. Every single time.
Also read: For The Women Who Want To Travel In India
Go women. Explore your world. And let no one ever tell you that travelling solo is the same for a man. It isn’t. It is a greater sense of defiance and self-love, than they would have you believe.
Featured Image Source: The India Tourism