“What’s it like to be a solo female traveler?”
“Don’t you feel scared traveling by yourself?”
“How do you pick your destinations?”
These are the most common questions that come my way, online and offline, from strangers and friends.
Even the nth time, I find myself blank for the first few seconds. Solo female traveler. Solo. Female. Traveler. Which part of this phrase do I deconstruct first? Where do I begin?
There are several points to unpack: 1) why travel alone, 2) safety concerns around traveling (alone) as a woman, 3) why travel at all, and 4) where to go.
The myth of solo travel
When I hear the term ‘solo traveler’, I visualize a lone traveler hiking through the Alaskan bush like Christopher McCandless. If I’m not the one visualizing this scene, the person asking me questions is.
Solo travel, in today’s common parlance, is far from ‘solo’ in its literal sense. Even if you’re traveling alone, there’s a high chance that you’ll make a friend or two within the first day of reaching your destination (unless it’s a very remote area). The person sitting next to you on the bus, your travel guide, fellow hostelers, companions on a guided tour, or the local people at the destination, the possibilities are endless. The company may last a few minutes, days, or the entire trip — it’s still company.
Solo travel doesn’t mean you’re going to be alone all the time, but it can mean spending more time with yourself than you otherwise would, if you want to. If you don’t, there are many ways to meet new people and not feel like you’re by yourself.
I started traveling alone because I was fed up making plans that never materialized with friends. Coordinating schedules and travel preferences would take up a lot of time and energy, and beyond a point, it made no sense to wait on others to explore the world.
It helped that I had already traveled extensively through rural areas for work, so traveling by myself for leisure didn’t feel odd, rather, was more comfortable and laidback than what I was accustomed to.
Solo travel is my default preference now, as I only need to cater to my own interests, moods, and preferences. It’s addictive. I love spending time with myself and solo travel gives me a lot of independence and flexibility to go with the flow. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy trips with friends and family, but it’s not the same. The purpose there is to spend time with loved ones, whereas when I’m traveling on my own, it’s all about me and the place.
People often ask me, ‘doesn’t it get very lonely?’
It does, sometimes. But I don’t think that’s got much to do with travel in itself. All of us experience loneliness in some shape or form in life. I’ve sometimes felt more lonely and disconnected while traveling in a group, than by myself. I’ve also felt more connected to strangers with whom I’ve spent a few minutes or hours than with people I’ve known for decades. And at times, I’ve felt pure bliss exploring a new place in complete silence. As long as you’re comfortable with your own company, there’s nothing awkward about solo travel. In fact, this is a great way to get to know yourself and become more confident and independent.
Toilet kidhar hai?
I wish the prefix ‘female’ wasn’t used to describe women who travel, blog, vlog, or do anything really, but that’s a whole different conversation.
Safety is the top concern when it comes to traveling alone as a woman, especially in India, but also abroad. It’s unfortunate and unfair that the onus of taking precautions lies with us. In my experience, it’s always a good idea to get a local SIM with an internet plan when traveling abroad. It also helps to keep someone in the loop of your broad whereabouts, and an emergency contact number, should any untoward incident occur.
I usually book my accommodation in advance and try to arrive at my destination at an hour when I can easily get public transport and commute without stress. This sometimes means letting go of cheap flight deals because it’s not practical to take a flight at midnight and reach in the wee hours of the morning like many male budget travelers do. I’m not speaking for all women here, but the concerns are real, and our decisions and comfort levels vary based on our personal experiences, privilege, and past trauma.
If I’m uncomfortable staying out late with strangers, I decline invitations at the cost of coming across as asocial, boring, or offending the person extending the invitation. I’m not talking about creepy men here, because then there’s no dilemma, but those who are friendly and helpful and offer to show me around, but I do not want to take the risk. There are also times when I have taken the leap of faith and trusted strangers, and thankfully, have not regretted it so far. I think what’s important is to follow your instinct and prioritize your comfort and safety over all other things. At the same time, we can’t stop living (and traveling) the way we want to in the fear of something going wrong. That’s giving too much power to perpetrators.
Safety concerns aside, what I am most paranoid about while traveling to remote areas is something else.
Traveling on my period in rickety public transport on bumpy roads, traveling with severe period cramps, traveling without access to a toilet for over 8-14 hours at a stretch — been there, done that. Things nobody tells you when you’re young and adventurous: it’s ok to want to travel to the hinterlands with the same freedom as men, but hygiene matters. UTIs are common. These are not things we should take lightly, ever.
The lack of access to toilets cannot be helped when traveling to rural areas where women still defecate in the open, many homes don’t have toilets, and even if they do, they’re either defunct or in unspeakable condition (despite what Swachh Bharat reports claim). While I took these things lightly back in the day and ‘adjusted’ wherever I went, I am now very particular about two things wherever I go: access to usable toilets and clean bedsheets (even if it means carrying my own).
I’ll spare you the details of my horrendous toilet experiences, but here’s a fun photo of a makeshift toilet on a slope at an altitude of 11,000 feet in Sikkim (not so fun using it, especially when the plastic sheet blows with the wind every second and there are people outside).
Given the state of toilets on the road, finding a toilet, and braving our way to it and through it, often becomes a bonding exercise for women. From holding and guarding toilet doors to accompanying each other in the middle of the night because the toilet is far away or in a dimly lit area, the struggle is real.
Here are some toilet tips when you’re on the road—
- Always carry tissue paper.
- Plan your itinerary such that you have access to a toilet every four hours if possible, especially if you’re on your period.
- Take small sips of water continuously to stay hydrated on long journeys. Drinking less water can cause water retention, which results in having to use the toilet more frequently.
- If you need to use the toilet, don’t hold back in asking to stop or take a detour, even if it means delaying your journey. If you can ‘adjust’, so can others.
- Embrace the outdoors if the toilets are in unhygienic condition.
Why I travel
Most of my travels involve bad roads and hard beds because I love exploring remote places that don’t have the best amenities. Vacations (and comfortable staycations) have their own place and purpose, and I occasionally indulge in these too, but the trips that inspire me, and stay with me, are the ones that push me out of my comfort zone and offer a deeper understanding of life.
As people, we love putting travel experiences in boxes. Work vs leisure, planned vs unplanned, mountains vs sea, luxury vs budget, etc. What’s most important is to be conscious of the purpose behind our travels, as the WHY defines the WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, and with WHOM.
I also believe that the journey is as important as the destination, and one reason I love to travel and embrace uncomfortable journeys is that they teach patience, resilience, and humility. The long hours, bad roads, unprecedented delays, change of plans, inefficiencies, and lack of amenities in smaller towns, are matched by unforgettable life experiences, the kindness of strangers, finding joy in the most unexpected places, and discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary.
A few years ago, I was reflecting on what I want out of life. The fact that most of us don’t live in the moment and treat it as if it’s our last struck me (clearly the sentimental Bollywood movies taught us nothing). In recent times, several friends have shared similar thoughts in light of the pandemic.
I don’t want to die regretting I didn’t make the most of the time I had, however long or short that might be. Living a full life, to me, means experiencing as many memorable moments and unique experiences as I can. Experiences and interactions that aid my understanding of the world, of myself, and equip me to leave the world a little better than I found it, in some small way.
I choose my destinations keeping this objective in mind.
When I think about why I travel, Pico Iyer’s timeless words invariably come to me, so I’ll end this post with an excerpt from his essay:
“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” — Pico Iyer
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