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Stereotypes I challenged as a solo woman backpacker in India

Swati Jain
20th Apr 2016
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I am a solo woman backpacker who has been actively travelling across India for more than two years, covering 135 cities across 20 States and two Union Territories. I have often been asked by women who want to venture out on their own on the roads on how I manage to feel secure and, more importantly, fearless. Especially in a country that has been labelled ‘unsafe for women travellers‘.

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I agree that travelling in India has never been considered the safest. And it’s not because we women can’t do it; it is because we are made to believe that the world out there is bad. Precisely the reason why I had my share of initial hiccups before I decided to step out into the world of unknown. But once I was convinced there has been no looking back.

Travelling solo in India, especially for a woman, is still not an easy task. Not only does one have to deal with queries from strangers but enough eyebrows are raised when you announce you are ready to take off on your own. I gave up my career to follow my passion to travel. I come from a background where solo travelling had been unheard off. I rebelled and followed my heart. Eventually when you decide to follow your heart things fall into place.

Using my example, I want to share with you how to break stereotypes that women travellers face and some things I learnt during my journey.

The outside world is filled with bad people: Every day we read stories in the media about sordid incidents happening in this country. In the process of noticing all the bad, we forget that there is a good side to mankind as well. There are still good people who exist in this country and far more in number than what we think. I received unexpected help from the strangers at unexpected time, which reaffirmed my belief that there is more good in this world than bad.

I remember during my initial period of travelling I met a couple who helped me get out from a secluded place in Rajasthan when my taxi broke down and I was clueless about the way forward. I was treated like a family member in the guest house I chose to stay in Zanskar Valley. I didn’t really shell out much on this trip because they took me around the place. World is safer than we think or the media wants us to believe. The safest thing to do is to unite with every destination. It’s important to be in your senses and trust your gut feel.

It’s not safe to travel alone: I won’t go far as to say that people are wrong in their perceptions and concerns of safety for women travellers in India but that’s just half the story. It’s all about travelling smart, with a presence of mind to handle things on the go. I have covered the border villages alone, as well as in States that are considered unsafe, primarily using local transportation. And I had a smooth transition in almost every State without much difficulty. Following the right advice always helps.

If you are doing something foolish accept it, and be ready to face the consequences as well. There are challenges when you travel alone and accidents can happen with you in any country, leave aside only India. In fact many people I met during my travels told me that the fears of solo travelling that we hold are the same that people have in other countries as well. A friend recently shared how she was chased by three men during one of her solo journeys abroad and was robbed of all her expensive belongings. And I am talking about a place that is quite popular among solo backpackers here.

Woman who travels is judged: Yes, I was judged too. Before I was congratulated for my bravery for choosing to travel in India, I would often hear comments ranging from ‘she does not like to be at home’, to

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‘she does not like to be around her family’. There is always one uncle saying this or one aunty saying that. But the question is, does it all really matter, because you will end up being judged anyway. Travel has brought me much closer to my loved ones and, to my surprise, I hear the same people appreciating me when I sit with them to tell my stories.

Many of us lack the courage or tend to step back from following our heart because we fear of what the society might think. It bothered me initially too, when at times I used to wonder if I am doing something wrong. But a friend suggested looking at this from a wider angle- not all can do everything that their heart desires. There are other people in this world also who will appreciate and motivate you for your efforts. And I met many who made my journey all the more memorable. I remember meeting a lady in Kolkata who told me that it is inspirational that I can follow my dreams. She regretted waiting so long to follow her heart. The guest house where I stayed in Zanskar Valley, the eldest one was appreciative that I am travelling solo. The thing is if I can do it, you can do it too. There is need to challenge the protected environment we have and go explore the beautiful world out there

Travelling always does not mean a vacation or roaming around: Unfortunately, in our society travelling is only looked upon as a vacation. Travel in its most superficial sense is limited to taking a break from a mundane life and collecting a series of photographs to be showcased on social media. During my journey I have realised that we are yet to understand what travelling means. Travel in its purest form is the best teacher one can ever have. It transforms your perspective on life, and it transforms you. Today, I am grateful for even the smallest thing I have in my life. It has made me more humble as a person. When you see people living in the remotest part of the world with not even basic amenities and still smiling, you tend to stop making excuses for your own life

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Experts guides are everywhere: During my journey as a solo backpacker in India, I have realised that we live in a realm of pre-conceived notions and are not ready to budge. We blindly accept what our surroundings feed us and pass it on without any thought. My first trip to Ladakh is a perfect example. I almost cancelled my trip on information coming from all around that cloud burst happens in Ladakh ever year. Another example was when I wanted to go for Chadar Trek in Ladakh during winter time, when someone told my father that frostbites are common in the area. I remember last year when one of my friends was planning his first solo travel to Spiti. He almost cancelled his trip on suggestions coming from his other friends that in Spiti you will be hit with AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). When he told me about this, my first question was- has any of them travelled to Spiti? As expected, the answer was no. We must experience before we pass comments and this holds true for right about anything in life.

India is far more beautiful than we think it is and I feel bad when I see people narrowing it down to a few limited places for solo travel.

Travel with an open mind and you may discover the warmth that I got to experience. Challenges may come and go but it will definitely help you discover the beautiful side of this country that we live in.

Happy travelling!

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