It has been seven years since travel blogger Shivya Nath took her first solo trip. She was working a steady corporate job, but something was amiss. So she took a two-month sabbatical from work and travelled. “It opened me up to so many new things. I realised I didn’t want to spend my 20s in a cubicle, so I quit my job,” Shivya, originally from Dehradun, tells TNM.
Today, Shivya has made travel her source of livelihood too. She also has a book to her name, A Shooting Star, eponymous with her travel blog, which is now her major source of income too. “People think conventional is the only way to safely travel. That’s what I hope to change with the book,” the 30-year-old says. Indeed, for five years now, Shivya hasn’t even had a base. All her belongings are packed into her backpack, which she takes with her on her travels. And she has no complaints.
Shivya in Jodhpur
You may wonder if brown women travelling alone in the world are safe – and this is a question that they get asked most often, much to their annoyance. But this story is not about that. It is about why they travel and what makes it all worth it.
The freedom to do what they want
Dindigul-based Meenakshi Sai’s first solo trip was to the Hornbill festival in Nagaland in 2015. “It changed my life,” she says. In all she has been to 70 countries.
Meenakshi in Paris
As a traveller, Meenakshi describes herself as fiercely independent. “I can’t do group trips. I may not be interested in what the group wants to do, and it’s also hard to find companions whenever you do have the time to travel. I like to plan my own travel too. Imagine, if someone else decorated your house and then you just started living there. That would be so weird!” she says.
Being unable to find the right companions who share your interest seems to be a major reason why women choose to travel solo. For Anamika, a 39-year-old from Chennai, the preferred way to travel is to offbeat places, without luxury. She recently went on a trip to Bastar in Chhattisgarh, all the way into the tribal villages in Naxal areas. “The place I was staying at, with the locals, had an umbrella below the roof of the toilet because it was leaking. How many people will agree to such a trip? How many people will stay in such a place?” she questions.
Anamika (far right) in Bastar
Immersing oneself in local culture
Another reason why these women have chosen to travel alone is that being on their own allows them to immerse themselves in the local culture more wholeheartedly. “If you are traveling with someone, chances are you will spend time engaging with them. When you’re alone, people approach you more,” Shivya observes.
On her first solo trip to Spiti in the Himalayas, Shivya discovered that. “I spent a month volunteer travelling, helping the local organisation Spiti Ecosphere set up a “monk for a month” programme for travellers. I hiked and hitch-hiked to remote monasteries and nunneries, and spent my days talking to monks and nuns about their daily lives,” she said in her blog. Since that first trip, Shivya has travelled extensively within India as well across other continents.
Shivya in Lake District, UK
Meenakshi shares, “I don’t like going to tourist spots. I would rather visit the local favourites. Talk to people, figure out the best pizzeria, the pub in which you get the best beer. I’m a vegetarian, but I try to have as much of the local cuisine as possible. Travelling solo helps me mingle with the locals and find out about these things.”
Bengaluru-based Anita KS, who started travelling solo a few years ago when she took a few days off after a work trip to Australia to explore on her own, historical places are the biggest attractions. “I love seeing museums and castles and learning about their history. Many people would find that boring,” says the 42-year-old proposal manager at an IT company.
Anita by the Vltava river in Czech Republic
Gaining self-confidence and meeting challenges head on
Meenakshi says her self-confidence has tripled since she started taking solo trips. “You’re on your own, there’s no one in your car to talk to also,” she says. “Solo trips have taught me a lot of about myself. The process of planning itself is a huge learning curve. I feel like I can face anything now.”
While Meenakshi loves to drive, people are very surprised when they see an Indian woman travelling alone, and then driving. “People have often asked me how my husband ‘allows’ it,” chuckles Meenakshi, who has talked about her travels with college students as well as on platforms like TEDx.
And while her husband and family are supportive, she does feel compelled to take precautions. “I do plenty of research about the place and stay in apartments booked through Airbnb. The last thing I want is an ‘I told you so’ from the family if something untoward happens,” Meenakshi shares.
Meenakshi in Lithuania
Anamika has done a road trip from Chennai to Kanyakumari and has also travelled alone to the Philippines in June this year. She went to Egypt last year and also to China in 2015. Apart from language barriers, some challenging situations she has faced are people cancelling accommodation because she is a single woman.
“I had booked an Airbnb in Srirangam. While heading there, the owner called and asked me how many of us were there. After he learnt I was alone, I got a call from someone else from there who said they were cancelling because there were men staying in another room in the lodging and so I wouldn’t be comfortable. In another place, they were suspicious because I was a single woman,” Anamika says. “Isn’t it strange? Some think a lone woman is vulnerable, others are suspicious of her because she is alone!”
Anamika was able to arrange temporary accommodation for herself in both cases.
Anamika at Taal volcano in Manila, Philippines
Anita, meanwhile, has picked up a few tricks and tips to manage her travels. Last year, she took a solo trip to Prague and Vienna. “To identify locals to ask for directions and other details, one of the things I do is look for the kind of bags they are carrying. You can usually identify the local bags as opposed to those tourists have picked up their shopping in,” she says.
She missed her connecting flight to Prague, lost her luggage and had to ration her cash on New Year’s Eve because banks were closed and cards weren’t being accepted. “I bought chicken wings for 9 Euros, saved the other three for emergency, and watched the fireworks from my hotel,” Anita laughs.
Anita with an Austrian local who taught her the correct pronunciation of 'Beethoven'
Shivya shares that solo trips can sometimes be overwhelming in the sense that you have to take each decision and there’s no one to blame if things go wrong. “I had read some negative things about Central America not being safe for women travellers. But I took the decision to go there anyway, and I was pleasantly surprised,” she says.
The world isn’t such a bad place after all
As women, being on guard at all times becomes something like second nature to us. But solo travel has revealed a pleasant reality to these women – the world isn’t such a bad place after all.
Once, for instance, Meenakshi realised she was going to run out of fuel when she was driving across Canada. “I was in Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia. The fuel light had been yellow for a while. I stopped at an information centre and learnt that there was a sign I had missed some miles back of the last fuel station. The man at the centre was so helpful that he brought a gallon of gas, walked to my car, refuelled it, and refused to take money. When I asked him what I could do for him, he said, just be nice to people,” she recounts.
Meenakshi in Canada
Anamika says that though she is a trusting person, she hasn’t come across malicious people. “In fact, they have gone out of their way to help me – like ensuring you get onto that bus, saving you a seat… Solo travel has helped me be more at ease because I know I can take care of myself and I trust my gut. I don’t see everyone with fear. I don’t wonder at every step if something bad is going to happen,” she says.
Shivya thinks that most people who consider solo travel as dangerous have probably not done it themselves. She concedes that people do see it in two extremes – they either romanticise it as a hippie way of backpacking and hitchhiking across the world, or they consider it unsafe adventure. “I don’t think you can put solo travel in a box. It’s different for each person. I have hitchhiked and backpacked, but I’ve also planned and scheduled my travel like any other person or group would,” she says.
“Further, I think it’s a myth that you are safer in the confines of your home or on the familiar streets of your city. I, in fact, feel safer in remote villages than I do in a bustling city. People look out for each other. You just have to be unlucky for that one moment for anything to happen, it doesn’t have to do with the place,” Shivya says.
Shivya in Copenhagen, Denmark
To those contemplating solo travel, Anamika has a pro tip – start small. “Do what you’d do with your friends – hang out in a café, visit the sites, but alone. Even if it’s a one-day trip, do it. Solo travel doesn’t have to expensive, or dangerous. It’s liberating, and it should be normal,” she asserts.