It’s a new day; the weekend is about to end and my social media feed is already filled with shiny new travel pictures. People are sharing pictures edited in such a way that it makes you yearn to travel, even if you aren’t someone who enjoys travelling. But travel is the new yoga, it is the new matcha tea, and it is almost the new black. Among the youngsters armed with a backpack and a few favourite photo filters, women seem to lead the charge. The kind who don’t care if people say it’s unsafe, who convince their families that they can do it and who take life by the plane, train and, in some cases, the handlebar.
I’m not one for travelling; I can’t even go to the neighbourhood theatre by myself, let alone a whole other country. So I thought I’d sit down and talk to some amazing women who do enjoy it and ask them what makes them grab that backpack.
Abirami, 27, a math teacher from Shanghai, is originally from a small village near Cuddalore. Her journey started when she landed in Italy to do a course she didn’t want to do, so she decided to quit and travel while looking for a job. Her excitement is infectious as she talks about her adventures, “Milan was one of the most defining experiences; it is a fashion capital and I’m from a Tamil farming family! But I fell in love; they take such pride in their language that I was surprised. They didn’t speak a word of English to each other. It’s after this, that I made it a point to learn more about Tamil culture and started reading Tamil books.”
When I ask how she had the guts to begin this journey in such a foreign place, she dismisses my worries with a laugh. “I didn’t learn English properly till college. I did that, didn’t I? Everyone will be scared at first but it’s just a matter of time. You’ll feel lonely for a day, maybe two. After that, you’ll find someone else travelling solo and who knows, you might even make a friend.”
But what about the safety aspect, didn’t your parents worry? “No, I didn’t tell them much. Whenever someone asks about safety I snap, I’m from India, so shut the f**k up. India is a country that is so unsafe that it toughens you up. We are used to less than ideal circumstances so Milan, Vietnam or China is just child’s play. Moreover, the trip makes it worth it. You get so much out of travelling solo.”
When I ask what she got from her travel experiences she says simply, in one word: Validation. “I’d grown up with such a ‘fair skin good, brown skin bad’ mentality that when I went to Italy I was actually surprised to find out that I was considered good looking… that brown was also beautiful and it made me fall in love with my Tamil skin.”
I mention that she seems to have had only good experiences, and she shakes her head. “I once lost my phone at 3am while walking around Vietnam; it was swiped from my hand in a second! What can you do in this situation? I was in the middle of applying for my work visa to China and I had all my documents on it. I kept telling myself that I could panic later, but at that point I had to do what needed to be done.”
Even after this experience she loves travelling so much that she works extra hard to make sure she can afford it. “I live in an expensive city now. I work every single day, even weekends, so I can spend on travel and save for the future.”
Tips for first timers: just do it!
Aparajita, 27, a rider from Mumbai, started her love affair with bikes when she discovered how much she loved bikes while on a trip with friends. “I sat pillion for my first trip and after that I fell in love with the feeling of the wind against my face. The first time I rode was a complete fluke, I was forced to ride 100kms, and that was it. I was hooked. I bought my bike and now I have big plans.”
What plans? “I want to do a solo ride across the golden quadrilateral or the perimeter of India and see where the road leads.” I ask if it isn’t better with company and she thinks for a second before answering, “Sometimes.” She smiles enigmatically, “On my trip to Goa I enjoyed being alone, reading a book at a restaurant all alone and relaxing on the beach alone, there’s nothing quite like it. But when I rode from Chennai to Mumbai there were times when I bumped into other bikers in tea shops and they just accompanied me till we had to go our separate ways. It’s a sort of camaraderie, there’s no gender, just a
I’m visibly intimidated, but she reassures me, “Don’t worry. I took some safety measures. I spent an entire day with my mechanic learning how to do some basic repairs. I also travelled only in the daytime, though that was more of a visibility issue. I took pepper spray and my cousin had me download a tracker app to keep tabs.”
What was the best part? “There was a time when I landed in a hotel for the night. It was a small place with the owner, an older gentleman, sitting at the front desk. We cobbled together a conversation, him and I. He in Kannada and I in Tamil, where I told him I was riding alone; he smiled and cheered: SHABAASH! That’s it. Just one word and I felt so empowered.”
Tips for future solo travellers: If you’re too scared to travel solo do other things first. Go to a restaurant or a movie alone and also learn self defence. Soon you’ll be travelling by yourself and it’ll feel natural.
Surya, 29, is someone quiet and understated. But when talking about her trip to Meghalaya she really starts to sparkle. “It is one of the nicest places for female travellers. If I could, I’d leave everything behind and settle down there,” she says smiling from ear-to-ear. “I first started travelling because I never did what I wanted on a trip. I decided I was going to go on a solo trip to see and do everything I wanted to my heart’s content. That’s how I landed up in Hampi.”
First trip alone, weren’t you scared? “A traveller is never alone; you meet a lot of people on the way. It was actually fun, I spoke to the locals and made a few friends. But it wasn’t always rosy; I met someone in Hampi who pretended to be a tour guide, took my number and started harassing me till I finally had to block him. Always be safe and keep an eye out for such people. I’m more careful now and I trust my instincts.”
What about your second journey? “I was between jobs at the time and Shillong really calmed me. There was no one to answer to, and it gave me time to think, I didn’t have to fit into any box, I could just be myself. I chose places based on their safety because my family tends to worry a lot, Shillong has been the safest place, so far.”
Are you planning anything next, I ask, before letting her get back to her day. “I’m in Chicago now, I’ve just had a day to travel here but I plan to go to Budapest next. My friends posted some pictures and now I have FOMO so I have to travel to Europe.”
Tips for first timers: If you travel with a group take a day off to do whatever you want by yourself. You’ll get the courage to go solo and still have the safety net of a group.
Society seems to send a lot of mixed messages. One side always asks why a woman is out alone or out at night and another side rolls their eyes when you express concern for a woman’s safety. It’s nice that there is a middle ground, where both confidence and reality coexist. Hopefully, one day all of us who want to can take that first step in travelling solo. As for me, I think I’ll start by watching a film by myself.