By Shruti Sunderraman Sep. 01, 2017
Discomfort. That’s all your experience is supposed to boil down to when you’re a solo woman traveller. No one asks a guy who is travelling on his own whether he felt uncomfortable on his solo trip.
t is the summer of 2013, and I am in beautiful Sikkim. I’ve just trekked up the base camp of Kangchendzonga and even though the gorgeous Himalayas surround me, my legs feel like the walking undead. I deserve a break, so I head to a café to unwind, prop my legs up in a nook, and prepare to watch the sunset.
But fate and four tourist uncles huddled up at an adjacent table have other plans. I can almost see what’s coming. The first one approaches to ask me where my husband is; another presses on to question number two: “Where are your mummy-daddy?” I try not to roll my eyes and think about how much this interrogation would have amused my mother. I am alone, I tell them, knowing that their initial shock will wear off in about a couple of seconds and will be followed by a compliment. I am not disappointed – they recover swiftly. “You brave girl!” they say and follow it up with “How come akele?” I have half a mind to say, “Arré just like you, but I left my friends behind.”
As a woman who frequently travels on her own, I get this all the time. Not merely from my family –where a mini soap opera always unfolds every time I announce that I am taking off on my own – but from random strangers: concerned uncles, aunties, and even boys I have a fleeting romantic interest in. Even Google has not spared me. Every time I begin my research for a new destination, I swim through a sea of listicles on “Advice for women who travel solo”, “Difficult places for a woman to travel alone”, “46 incredibly useful safety tips for women travelling alone”, and “7 uncomfortable truths about travelling solo as a woman”…
Discomfort. That’s all your experience is supposed to boil down to when you’re a solo female traveller. No one asks a guy who is travelling on his own whether he felt uncomfortable on his solo trip: As a man, his lot is to conquer, sow his wild oats, discover himself, be on a grand adventure, tilt at the windmills whatever. As a woman, it is always, “But are you comfortable being alone?” followed by, “But your mummy must worry about you.”
Well, she does. At 20 years, when I decided to undertake my first solo trip, there was no chance of going too far away from home. You know, just in case… (the subtext is always left unsaid.) I picked Silvassa, a beach town where I had one relative and which was close to Mumbai, where I’m from. Despite the mummy-seal on my trip and the actual staleness of the place, the excitement of being on my own for the first time was not to be contained.
What gets my goat is that behind the compliments and the concerns, there’s just utter disbelief that I have enough autonomy to travel alone.
To me, travelling by myself means a lot of things: It’s life-affirming, empowering, enriching, and contagious. It’s not just about physical inconveniences, like who can I lean on for support when I fall sick or who can I borrow money from, but also the mental strength to shoulder solitude. I grew up in a joint family, so going cold turkey to discover solitude in strange places was my favourite mountain to climb. But I was never really alone. Questions about my time, and later, “uncomfortable truths” type headlines followed me like a ghost in a Ramsay film – loud, obnoxious, and relentless.
The more I explored Instagram and Facebook feeds with the hashtag #solofemaletraveller, accompanying stylised pictures of young women looking up at mountains, relaxing at sea, or sipping cocktails on the beach, the more irked I got. How were these women completely alone? Where were the voices and faces of concerned and self-appointed moral guardians asking them, “Haww, your parents allow you to go out alone?”
This “shock and awe” reaction is like a many-headed Hydra. In my travels alone, it’s been a major turn off.
This time it’s 2014, and the place, Karnataka. I was sitting on the edge of a cliff with a blue-eyed boy I’d met at Hampi. He was pretty, and serenaded my evenings with an oud, like a desi male Zooey Deschanel. We were clearly having a romantic moment – I was just about to reach out for his hand when he casually remarked how “brave” I was to be travelling on my own with reckless abandon. I withdrew my hand before you could say, “Aadhaar is surveillance technology masquerading as secure authentication technology.”
Now, here’s the thing. A lot of well-meaning men have told me that awe is a compliment. I get it. I know travelling is different for men and women and some of the precautions that women take are taken for granted by men. I know what safety means because, well, I am a woman and the idea has been hammered into my head since I was a child. But why does this idea of safety rear its head when I travel alone only? I take similar precautions when I’m crossing the street, when I’m alone in a train compartment (day or night), or walking to the nearby kirana store to buy rice and dal.
What gets my goat is that behind the compliments and the concerns, there’s just utter disbelief that I have enough autonomy to travel alone, that I don’t need a honeymoon package or a man’s arm around me to step out. The small percentage of women who travel alone, those with enough privilege like me, have chosen to look beyond this. History, our friend, has many examples for this.
Like philosopher Helena Blavatsky, who embarked – solo – on a world tour in 1849, visiting Europe and India. Magellan who? Blavatsky braved the harsh Russian winter to reach Tibet. Or take my sister Marianne North, who pursed her lips at the conservative Victorian society and travelled to paint totally Instagrammable flowers. The result? “The Flower Huntress” left a magnificent and lasting legacy, creating the UK’s finest collection of botanical art.
Helena and Mariana’s stories, which are from the 19th century, are enough proof that women don’t need your shock and awe, even if they seek your company once in a while during their travels. Just let them paint and conquer winter lands in peace. How many more Game of Thrones episodes do you need to see before realising Cersei is everywoman? Only, our battles are different.
As for me, I’ve been travelling alone a lot, since my fateful tour of Gujju land, to places far away from the smell of thepla. But I sit on no high horse. Just on a cliff sometimes so I can be away from all the nagging questions of, “Why are you alone?”
Shruti Sunderraman writes about culture, music, and the human condition. She performs her songs for those who listen and spoken word for those who don't. Say hello at @sundermanbegins on Twitter.