They say the world is a book and those who do not travel only read a page. I had a very un-travel-ish childhood. Like every other middle-class Indian family, my parents did not believe in travelling or even holidaying for that matter. The only vacation we used to take as an annual trip was to visit my maternal grandparents who thankfully lived in Dehradun – away from bad and polluted Delhi (my hometown).
I remember once complaining to my mother that I was sick and tired of going to Dehradun and Mussoorie year after year, at which my mother pointed out that my cousins didn’t even get to do that since their grandparents lived in Delhi itself. I was suddenly made aware of the immense luxury I had because of my mother’s hometown and the vast open lush green spaces it offered.
I therefore realised quite early that I have to take it upon myself if I want to ‘see’ the world. I started solo travelling at the age of 19 and haven’t stopped since then. I started travelling while on a study scholarship to Germany and visited most of the European cities with ease. Actually, it didn’t strike me that I was a female solo traveller and that’s somewhat a big deal until I made my first solo trip outside Europe – Istanbul. The usual ‘single woman in a Muslim country in the Middle East’ excuse that was used by my parents to ensure that I’m ‘careful and alert all the time’ didn’t deter me from embarking on my first true solo trip to a beautiful city – where East meets West. Apart from the usual flirting and tourist-harassing, I never felt unsafe in the city. I actually felt safer than I usually do in Delhi.
I’m also into adventure sports and had my first experience at the age of 19 in Berlin. I jumped from a 120 metre high building in the heart of the city. Later, I went on to do scuba diving and sky diving in Spain. I’m glad that when I approached these places and expressed my interest in jumping off from crazy heights, I was not met with the usual “You’re a small woman, can you do it?” scepticism, but was respected and encouraged for my decision.
I know there are a lot of clichés about how travelling ‘changes’ your life and how everyone should travel. I understand travel is a privilege and not many can undertake it. This privilege might not always be monetary but also in terms of one’s mental and physical health, supportive family and friends (my parents have made peace with the fact that I travel solo) and ability to access places, among others.
After my foreign escapades, I decided to give my country a shot and embarked on my first solo trip in India to Goa. The pristine beaches at Palolem couldn’t have been a better place for starting on a journey which would change my perspective towards travelling and life in general.
Another interesting travel I undertook was when I lived in a nunnery for a month. Most people have a very fixed image of what a nunnery looks like: austere and minimalistic living, strict and silent environment, conservative and orthodox. But Dolma Ling Nunnery & Institute, which is situated in Sidhpur in lower Dharamshala was a pleasant surprise. Dolma Ling has been built and fully supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, a project set out to provide facilities for education and to empower and improve the overall status of ordained Tibetan women. When I first arrived at the nunnery, I was sceptical. But as time passed, I started loving this place. The joy of living your life differently, something which you’d have never imagined before is ecstasy-inducing..
I don’t know if travelling has changed my life, but I can definitely say that it has altered my thought process for the better. Especially, solo travelling has given me a lot of courage and determination to do things I had thought I’d be unable to do. In 2015, I went on quite a few solo trips starting with Srinagar, Goa, Kuala Lumpur, Stockholm, and ending the year in Hampi. Early this year, I embarked on a three-week solo trip in the south of India and visited eight cities backpacking my way from one to the other. My experience till now has been more or less positive; people have welcomed me into their homes, fed me, clothed me and treated me as one of their own. I have travelled with locals in local transport while exploring the hill stations outside of Srinagar. I have taken lifts from unknown men and felt completely safe. I have been offered help without asking for it. I have made friends with the old and young and met fellow travellers and many other interesting people on my journey.
However, this one time in Hyderabad I was denied entry at the Charminar. The reason stated was that single women cannot go up to the Charminar. I could only go up if I agreed to be accompanied by a security guard, which I refused. I was told that single women are not allowed to go up alone because in the past a woman had committed suicide and this is their solution to prevent more suicides. When asked if the same rule applies for men, they outrightly said no. I obviously didn’t let it go without a fight, and sensing trouble, the man at the ticket counter asked me if I’m a local. Upon learning that I’m not, he allowed me to climb up the Charminar on my own. I wrote about the incident, complained to the ASI via email and telephone and this issue was also covered by some news channels, but to no avail.
Personally, I find solo travelling very empowering. However, one should also be prepared for the low points. I have also felt depressed during my solo travels and have had moments where I felt “this entire trip was a bad idea”. Or when you see a group of friends or a couple travelling together, you wonder why you don’t have anyone to travel along with. All such insecurities do and will get to you. It’s up to you how you deal with them and overpower them. All my travels, solo or otherwise, have had both high and low points. Eventually I’ve come to the conclusion that I like and enjoy solo travelling a lot and will continue to do it. However, it’s nice to travel with your loved ones once in a while. I now balance my travel among friends, family and ‘me’ time.
Disclaimer: This article was originally published for TARSHI’s Travel and Sexuality issue here.