WIND in my hair, spring in my step, joy in my heart, and a song on my lips — I clearly remember every sensation from my first solo vacation ten years ago. I was slightly anxious, a little nervous, but excited nonetheless — and relieved to be alone for a change.

As a new mother overwhelmed by sudden changes in life, I had an urge to run away from everything. Since that was not possible, I had chosen to do the second best thing: take a break from my life by travelling to a far off place where no one knew me. Today, when Instagram has made every city feel familiar and travel blogs are abuzz with itineraries, a solo trip may not seem like a huge thing — but a decade ago, it was. It took a lot of courage to hop on a plane, and then a bus and finally a car to reach India’s most-famous hill station. But the journey to Ooty and Coonoor was well worth the effort. The experience gave me a high like none other. Planning my own time, being with myself, and not having to rely on anyone else was liberating — I felt a sense of freedom that I hadn’t experienced in years. I was hooked.

But it didn’t seem like this was the case with other women — I rarely saw solo women during my travels. The few I did see were either travelling for work assignments, family commitments, or, in the rare case of travelling for pleasure, were in a group. Since 2008, things have come a long way — women are increasingly choosing to travel alone, but the majority of women travellers are still mandated to travel with family, spouse or at least a friend.

For an indulgent woman
Travelling solo is rewarding irrespective of gender. But for women, this experience is much more intense because the opportunity to step out alone and experience the world is not one often afforded to them. Travelling for work is a necessity; travelling with family is a duty; travelling for oneself, however, is seen as an indulgence.

Travelling alone as a woman is especially hard in India. First, one needs to peel away from running the home, managing work and being a caregiver. Then, one needs to fear for one’s safety. Our public spaces are not welcoming of women — our social systems aren’t friendly; our transport systems are not safe. And yet, women fight these odds to experience the unparalleled pleasure of seeing the world by themselves.

“There is a feeling of adventure, excitement and empowerment when I head out alone,” says Natasha Ali, a communications professional in Bangalore. “It is an immersive experience where I get to understand my own self better and find my equilibrium.”
Freedom, independence, joy, solitude — women discover many emotions in their solo sojourns. Some find it liberating to not have to adhere to another’s itinerary and others find spending time with themselves therapeutic. “I am an inquisitive individual and do not believe in restricting my travel to traditionally set itineraries,” says Poulami Banerjee, a communication professional from Hyderabad. Travelling alone, she says, helps her look at and experience a place the way she wants to.

If being with oneself is important to some, meeting new people excites others. “I travel alone for solitude and also to socialise,” shares Jenny Jose, an entrepreneur from Delhi, who feels that you can not only have long and liberating conversations with yourself when you travel alone, but also with complete strangers — which is impossible when you are in a group or with a companion. Being alone on a beach in Krabi, backpacking with strangers in Bali, going on an impromptu walking tour with the bartender in London… travelling alone not only liberates you from others’ perceptions of what you can and cannot do, but also, sometimes, from your own notions about yourself.

Joys vs. Challenges
While travelling alone surely empowers, emboldens, and enriches women, it is not always as romantic as it may seem, especially on social media. Unplanned events, security concerns, last minute contingencies… much can go wrong, and sometimes it does. “Being in India, there is always that fear, that there is someone lurking at the corner, where I will be attacked and left to die,” says Jenny, who once had a stranger attempt to take a selfie with her while she was asleep on an overnight bus to Himachal. The trick, according to independent journalist Ruth D’Souza Prabhu from Bangalore, is to always be alert and never tom-tom the fact that you are alone. Staying close to urban spaces, being careful of how much you reveal about yourself and keeping someone back home informed also helps. “Making friends with your host, following the local norms, and not taking unnecessary risks is vital,” says Kiran. The idea, in short, is to be aware.

The joy of travelling solo, however, outweighs its challenges significantly. From learning to take care of yourself to connecting with others, it teaches you self-reliance, self-care, and self-sustenance and in turn, makes you more aware of yourself. “Women tend to lose the sense of who they are; solo travel frees them of their obligations and helps them be their real selves,” says Kiran, who strongly recommends solo travel to all women. “Solo travel is like challenging yourself to bring out the best in you. You will not only make new connections but also meet a new you,” feels Poulami.

What if you have never stepped out before, or are intimidated by the thought of doing so? The trick is to start small — a dinner date by yourself, a weekend out of town, an extended work trip are all great ways to explore if you enjoy travelling by yourself. Sometimes you would instantly love the experience, and sometimes, it will grow on you. But even if you completely abhor it, giving it a try once will pull you out of your comfort zone and put you face-to-face with your real self. And that is what makes it all worth it.

Tips for first time travellers:
Learn about the place you are travelling to, its transport system and authorities.

Don’t admit to traveling alone if approached by anyone. Always say you have a friend or partner back at the hotel who is expecting you. This gives the idea that there is someone waiting for you and tracking you.

At hotels, ask for rooms next to families. Keep the staff informed.

Research well and plan everything to the last detail, even last mile connectivity. Being stranded solo is not fun.

Never flash your wallet in the open, and leave valuables in the hotel. Know who to contact during emergencies.

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