Following the solo trail

More and more women are yielding to the wander bug and the pull of the unknown. They follow their hearts and carve out a solo trail. We listen to a few of them who dare to be different and follow the dictum: Explore. Dream. Discover

Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu

Photography Onthemove initiative has enabled many camera-happy women to explore the wild.
Photography Onthemove initiative has enabled many camera-happy women to explore the wild. Photos by the writer

Come vacation time, Dr Harpreet Gill, an academician with MCM DAV College, Chandigarh, happily puts away her saris and satchel in exchange for rugged outdoor gear and a rucksack; taking off for shores unknown and spaces unexplored, all by herself. "I love travelling", she states matter-of-factly. Elaborating further, she says, "Different places, landscapes, cultures, they were all part of my growing up as an Army brat. Solo travelling, for me, was a natural progression. The first time I hoisted my rucksack and stepped out on my own, it was exciting, challenging, and frightening. It ended with a big smile, a sense of achievement, and memorable experiences. The journey continues. It allows me to observe, to learn, to be gung-ho, to let go, to flow, to strive – it is an amazing adventure with the self."

Exceedingly, more and more women are echoing her sentiment. Yet, this was not always the scenario. As recently as five years ago, there were only a handful of Indian women who ventured out by themselves, within India or overseas.

The picture is hugely different today. A change in attitudes has made the notion less intimidating for those desirous of travelling alone, or in women-only groups; fashioning and encouraging a surge in women-friendly spaces. Backpacking, too, a culture given to low-cost independent travel is slowly emerging in India, with Indian women enthusiastically jumping onto the bandwagon; slowly but surely following footsteps elsewhere in the world.

Travel operators are cashing in on the desire of the adventurous women travellers to explore

"As a solo traveller, it’s exciting to meet others who share the love of exploring one’s own country, regardless of any gender bias", says Supriya Sehgal. As one half of the duo that leads Photography OntheMove — a travel-photography initiative of the Bangalore based outfit Getof Ur Ass–she is inundated with queries and requests for signing up. "These are people who feel safer to travel in a group (even if they’re strangers). Meeting new co-participants, sharing experiences, a desire to spend on oneself as well as on a hobby; that all arrangements are taken care of, the off-beat factor, and that they are safer exploring with others — all these factors contribute towards a large percentage of women signing up for these trips". Biraj Patel, who is a photography enthusiast and a Photography Onthemove veteran, thinks it’s a great idea because it gives her a sense of being free to do things her way at her own pace. She relishes the fact that she could be in the same place doing the same thing, or nothing, on each day of her travel, and still not get bored.

While a section of the growing travel sorority believes there is safety in numbers and lives its dream with similarly inclined travel companions, solo travel works best for those adventurous of temper, unconcerned and non-fussy about where they stay and what they eat. This laissez-faire approach takes much trial-and-error before a confident comfort level is achieved.

Anjaly Thomas was the first Indian woman to have walked the 96-km-long Kokoda Trail in Papua, New Guinea
Anjaly Thomas was the first Indian woman to have walked the 96-km-long Kokoda Trail in Papua, New Guinea

Trailblazer act

"Travelling alone is as safe as eating a meal by yourself – and trusting the restaurant not to poison you!" quips travel writer Anjaly Thomas, also the first Indian woman to have walked the 96-km-long Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea. She is feisty; one who loves adventure as much as exotic food, if fried tarantulas rock your boat, that is! "I don’t know what it is about safety that gets people, especially women, all worked up into a knot – I have been alright so far. I mean, I walked out of the jungles of Papua New Guinea alive after having walked the Kokoda Track with just two Papuans who spoke no English – so I suppose I am not the one to be talking of safety and fear of jungles or strangers. All I can say is never let fear stop you from doing what you want. It’s good to be afraid – but even better to find ways to overcome it".

She sums it up for all champions of solo travel when she honestly declares that she travels alone as she wants the absolute`A0freedom to linger without having to put up with anyone’s idiosyncrasies. More than anything, she loves her own company and that of absolute strangers, far too much to ruin it by carrying unnecessary baggage in the form of a familiar face. She loves the anonymity of a strange land, the bonding that develops at the back of a rattling truck when the last bus has gone or sharing cold baguettes and bitter coffee to stretch the tourist dollar a bit further.

Business opportunity

Tour operators across India, too, are elated at this burgeoning business opportunity. They are customising itineraries for all-women groups, while hospitality properties maintain women-only sections or floors, ensuring personal safety and convenient arrival/departure timings. Kavita Muthanna, co-owner of Sayuri Homestay in Madikeri, observed that there were a higher number of queries and bookings from solo travellers as homestays tend to be safe havens for weary visitors.

Ankit Sood of Sunshine Himalayan Adventures, an Ecotour Operator in the Himalayas, is pleased that the new-age woman traveller is not merely a passive tourist ticking off the boxes on her itinerary, instead she has picked up the gauntlet by trekking in remote Himalayan valleys, mountain biking or taking jeep safaris into the back of beyond. He adds that a higher percentage of women, as compared to their male counterparts, travel far (literally) to make a difference; from fundraising for monasteries in the remote Dzongu Valley of Sikkim to supporting old age homes in Spiti valley in Himachal, their compassionate gestures are endless. "Financial independence," shares Bangalore-based Manisha Choudhry, "allows me to fulfil my commitment towards making a difference in the lives of those I meet during my travel excursions to isolated India". Women travellers like her volunteer their time and skill sets and donate generous amounts.

Follow your dream

Despite this trend becoming popular, first-time solo adventurers still face countless myths about travelling alone. You may want to rethink them as most of them have been debunked many times over. For instance, how can the rest of the world be a scary place when we constitute the "rest of the world" elsewhere? Don’t we meet unsavoury types at home? Does one make a habit of walking around late in the night or in suspicious quarters, alone or as a group while in a familiar environ? Evidently not. While you must take precautions and trust your instincts, there’s no reason why you should shy away from solo travel because of imagined and perceived dangers.`A0`A0Mark Twain put it most succinctly when he remarked," Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

DO’s & DON’Ts For The Road

y Pack light. Yes, it has been done!

y Choose comfortable, not fashionable, footwear. Sore feet will most definitely ruin your holiday.

y Wear a day pack designed with security features instead of carrying a purse.

y First nights should be planned well. Arrive at the destination early evening to enable change of accommodation if found unsuitable.

y Seek assistance but trust your instincts (for instance, other women may not necessarily be safe).

y Run at the slightest suggestion of danger (one of the reasons we pack light).

y Stick to the When- in- Rome canon. Avoid inviting attention; especially avoid wearing inappropriate apparel.

y Never flash too much money, jewellery or expensive gadgets.

y Never have unprotected sex with strangers.

y Ensure at least one person knows where you are going or will be at all times. Usually fellow backpackers can be trusted to watch your back.

y Stay in public places as much as you can and avoid suspicious areas after dark.

y Ensure your food and water is reliable; won’t do to end up sick in a strange place.

y Pack whatever medicines you need. Healthcare may not always be reliable at your intended destination. Neither do you want to waste precious time looking for medical help.