My Experiences of Travelling Solo In India

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.

Trying to find my feet in romanticised Paris. The Louvre, January 2010

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.

Embarking on my first true solo trip in Istanbul; nervous, excited, scared, exhilarated are some of the words that can describe what I felt at that time. At the Topkapi Palace with the Prince Islands in the background, September 2013

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.

‘Flying’ with my Argentinean instructor in Empuria Brava, Spain. August 2013

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.

Holiday Essentials. Goa, March, 2014

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..

The Prayer Room, Dolma Ling Nunnery. June, 2014

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.

With my ski guide and his friends in Gulmarg, Kashmir. June, 2015

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.

With another solo traveller in Pondicherry. February, 2016

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.

Living In A Nunnery: An Offbeat Travel Account

We associate travel and vacations with indulgence, but what if a travel experience was all about the joys of simplicity? An account of living in a Tibetan nunnery.

Ever thought of spending your holiday in a nunnery instead of staying in hotels? Well, that’s what I did in June this year (2014). As part of a program called Gurukul 2014 by the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I was staying in a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in lower Dharamshala.

Most people have a very fixated image of how a nunnery looks like: austere and minimalistic living, strict and silent environment, conservative and orthodox. Having only been acquainted with Catholic nuns via movies, convent schools, etc, that’s the image I had of a nunnery and was quite sceptical when we were told we would have to live there and follow the rules.

But Dolma Ling Nunnery & Institute, which is situated in Sidhpur in lower Dharamshala has been 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. The Dolma Ling Institute is dedicated specifically to higher education for Tibetan Buddhist nuns. It offers an educational program previously unavailable to women, starting with basic literacy and leading to the highest level of Buddhist philosophical education.

10270810_10152593715270320_3301678350816458516_n

Dolma Ling Nunnery

Where spirituality goes high tech

Besides the traditional studies, His Holiness the Dalai Lama put a lot of emphasis on being up to date with the time and to study and understand science. Therefore, the nuns also have courses in English, mathematics, social studies and computers. The nunnery has its own clinic where Phuntsok Wangmo who first completed her education and then became a doctor before dedicating her life to monastic living, is available for an hour at the evenings, providing first aid and medication for minor illnesses, and attending emergency cases at any time.

The nunnery houses eight retreat huts which the nuns themselves helped to build. Then, there is a debate courtyard. Daily practice of philosophical debate, called Jang Gönchoe is an essential aspect of the traditional Tibetan study program. Next comes the most impressive building of the nunnery, i.e, the media center. It is a center for media and language training, and includes an income-generating cafe operated by the nuns. The Dolma Ling Nunnery believes that technology is the pen and paper of our time and hence the nuns have shown great interest and aptitude in learning how to communicate their as well as stories of the Tibetan community to the wider world.

Prayer Room

Prayer Room

The Dolma Ling Nunnery believes that technology is the pen and paper of our time and hence the nuns have shown great interest and aptitude in learning how to communicate their as well as stories of the Tibetan community to the wider world.

Harald Weichhart, an Austrian, has been giving continuous training to a large group of nuns on InDesign, Photoshop, video- making skills, video editing and photography. After the successful completion of their video- making course, the nuns made a documentary on Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, the trailer of which can be seen here:

Apart from this, 10 nuns from Dolma Ling are preparing for the prestigious Geshema degree (equivalent to a PhD), which is the highest degree in Buddhist philosophy. Earlier, the nuns were not allowed to take this exam, but with the continuous support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the dedication of the nuns, this opportunity has been made available to them.

The Debate Court

The Debate Court

A different kind of vacation

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 ecstatic. Though it’s difficult, for example, if you don’t get up at 6 AM, you miss breakfast, dinner is at 7 PM and you need to switch off your lights at 11.30 and go to bed come what may, I still enjoyed my short stay here.

Stream down the balcony of Japleen's room.

A stream down our balcony, where we washed our clothes.

The nuns are very friendly and cooperative. They thank us for coming and staying with them, although it should be the opposite. We live a very basic life here; we don’t have fans, although it gets quite hot sometimes. We don’t even have a mirror in the wash rooms and wash our clothes near a small stream next to our rooms. We have simple Tibetan food but the big heart with which they serve us makes up for all lost luxuries.

Although evenings are usually free for the nuns, they offered us a meditation class on our request. They bring us food and medicines to our rooms whenever anyone falls sick and always have a warm smile to make us feel welcome and at home. Sometimes they come over and we chat for hours on topics varying from politics to philosophy. The nuns here are quite well informed on what’s happening in the outside world.

I have made friends with young as well as old nuns, spend time with them and tried to help with the chores. This experience has given me a lot to think about and reflect and I’m sure to bring a lot back with me after my one month stay at the Dolma Ling Nunnery.

10463899_10152593725285320_707456321933645384_n