Are you a tourist, or a traveller? If you are a traveller, chances are you would take time off from work and get away to places you wish to discover and explore - even in the absence of company. While traveling solo is common enough among both women and men in the West, the trend has just started to take off for women in India.
There are few women in India who travel for leisure. Australia-based Sarina Singh, travel guide contributor to 'Lonely Planet' and frequent solo traveller says, "While taking time off to travel solo after university is common in the West - indeed it is voraciously championed by many parents - this is certainly not as prevalent in India."
The reason, according to Singh, is safety concerns that the parents of these wanderlust women have. Indians are family bound and most single girls live with their parents; their upbringing and conditioning stops them from stretching the boundaries to unknown or under-explored environments. Singh explains, "I have liaised with many young Indian women via Twitter, who are keen to take the solo travel plunge but are deterred by their parents. In fact, I've even had a few requests suggesting I speak with their folks to convince them of the merits and safety of independent travel! Having said that, I do believe women (and importantly, their parents/spouses) in 21st-century India are increasingly opening up to the notion of women travelling solo, especially given the escalating number of those who are pursuing tertiary qualifications and careers that require them to travel alone. I am certain that as the number of women in the workplace continues to spiral upwards, the number of solo female travellers too will increase."
In the West, especially the US, more than 50 million single American women travel at least once a year for business or pleasure, and these women do not fall in the category of high income earners. Most of these solo travellers are single mothers, baby boomers or students. In India this group comprises mostly girls who go abroad to study, engage in careers that require them to travel around the world, or are bitten by the travel bug. These women are independent and bold and have the courage to navigate their way through strange places and environments.
Bangalore-based Yamuna Krishna, who works for Axa Tech, went to France to study business management and travelled extensively within the Continent during her off days. She concedes, "More and more girls are jumping at the idea of travelling alone. When I visited places in France, and other countries of Europe, I met many solo female travellers from across the globe, including from India."
Travelling is Krishna's passion. She says, "I would rather dive into it solo than wait for someone right to turn up to accompany me." Seasoned travellers like Krishna can list many benefits of venturing out alone. There need not be any set itinerary or rules to follow. One can go with the flow without having to consult anyone - stay or stop at places of one's choice, sample different culinary delights as and how one wants, trudge up the hill to find that desired location spotted on the map, and discover new things, people and cultures. "The best places I discovered were quaint villages and towns, virgin valleys in France and Luxembourg. These places are never mentioned in travel magazines, books or TV programmes, which means that when you travel alone you have the luxury to discover things in your own time, and enjoy them for as long as you want. Besides, you meet new people and make friends," she says.
Singh couldn't agree more. As someone who started travelling on her own at the age of 22, she has a series of unique travel tales to share. The most memorable, she says, is one that happened during her trip to Pakistan in the mid-1990s. "I arrived in Islamabad late at night. When I got to the hotel I was directed to the 'bar' for a complimentary drink as the room was being serviced. As fate would have it, I sat next to an arms dealer who had just sold a cache of weapons to a Mujahideen warlord. Back then, I was a young journalist, keen to find story leads. The next day I flew to Peshawar, where a rendezvous had been arranged with a Pashtun mechanic who was to take me to the warlord's hideout for an interview. The hideout was a dilapidated warehouse near the Afghanistan border, and upon entering it, I was greeted by frosty glares from several dozen armed-to-the-hilt freedom fighters, all sitting cross-legged around their leader. The warlord was fidgeting with an AK 47 for what seemed like an eternity before abruptly flinging the gun aside, pointing directly at me and asking: 'You want chicken and chips?' Four hours and three drumsticks later we had talked about everything from herbal hair-loss remedies to his plans for creating a 'collective global nation' called Islamistan."
Recalling her first experience of traveling alone to Lyon, France, Krishna says, "I lost my way and ended up in one of the worst crime zones in the country. I did not understand the language. Fortunately a female sex worker helped me find my way to the nearby bus station and from there to the nearest metro station."
Minor mishaps may be a part of the experience of travelling alone, but solo travellers unanimously agree that going solo opens a window of opportunities for everyone who undertakes it. Singh feels girls should attempt travelling on their own for the incredible experience the journey offers in knowing and understanding oneself. "It is an incredibly empowering, enriching and rewarding experience. It means you are the sole decision-maker, responsible for shaping the path you walk; not only do you become street-smart and self-sufficient, you also actively engage with the world and, most importantly, you learn to tune into the best friend you'll ever have in life: your instinct."
The best part of travelling solo is the adventure of not knowing what lies ahead, says Singh. "I'm an ardent believer in relinquishing yourself to the universe. I also think that solo travel equips one with life-long 'survival' skills, as it brings you up close and personal with the biggest obstacle you're ever likely to face: yourself. Solo travel has presented me with so many avenues of growth, both on the personal and professional fronts," she says. Krishna explains that the feeling of being alone lasts only for a short time, "Once you start the journey, you have so much fun that it makes you forget you had started alone."
But before venturing out alone, Singh and Krishna share some sound advice and useful tips. "Information is power and I have been consistently rewarded for being destination savvy. My research spans everything from entertainment to safety," says Singh. She believes it is crucial to pre-book accommodation if the itinerary includes late night arrivals. "You must also leave expensive jewellery back home," she adds. Krishna says that people are the same everywhere - some are nice and some are not, so "avoid getting drunk and carry comfortable clothing and footwear, depending on where you're going." Singh also recommends "tuning in to your instinct, as it rarely lets you down" and insists that the best way to face any situation is not to be paranoid.
She has some wise parting words for the intrepid solo woman traveller, "Be judicious about safety but don't allow fear to clip your wings; after all, one of the greatest joys of travelling solo is engaging with this wonderful thing called life."