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Checking things off the to-do-list in her ‘serial traveller’ notebook, Anahita Sriprasad walks towards her freshly modified cycle in the driveway. She bends over for a few final checks, before sending off the Montra to Srinagar, from where in a few days she will begin her cycling expedition—from Leh to Kanyakumari—alone, with just her backpack. It was during her first solo trip, a month-long skiing holiday in Gulmarg, that she met the cyclist who inspired her to do this cross-country ride, her third venture alone, and an endeavour to challenge the notions of women’s safety and stamina in India.
Sriprasad is not the only girl travelling by herself. Women all around India, of all ages want to do it alone. “When I first started travelling solo in the early 90s, there were hardly any women doing it. Now, you find almost every fourth woman has gone holidaying alone,” says Ahtushi Deshpande, a 47-year-old trekking addict. Back in the day, when she couldn’t find trekking companions, Deshpande had little choice but to get out alone. Today, more and more other solo travellers are doing so for similar reasons and are soon finding it as the most exciting thing. “I had planned a trip with my friends, all of whom backed out at the last minute. I decided to go ahead anyway,” says Kavita Kishore, a solo traveller from Chennai. Neha Ralli, a 27-year-old social media expert from Kullu, who also had trouble finding friends to go trekking with, set out alone. “I go for at least one trek a month now, it is as easy as picking up my backpack and setting out,” she says. For others, solo travelling was about being with themselves, and exploring. “As a photographer, I enjoyed spending quality time in one place, which not everyone I travelled with understood. So I began travelling alone,” says Deepti Asthana. “It began with wanting to spend time with myself, not just in a room, but out, and I decided to holiday alone,” says Krishna Ganatra. Then, there are some like Priyanka Dalal, who just wanted to break the mould, not live by the rules, one of the biggest ones being “girls don’t travel alone”.
But what about safety? The news that made headlines last week in the capital was of a travel guide and his friends raping a foreign solo traveller in a city hotel. “I am a paranoid parent, and knowing the world outside, I wouldn’t let my daughter go out for a holiday alone,” says Sabina Vij-Wadhawan, a mother of two.
“The most important thing is finding safe accommodation,” says Dalal. “I give my family my full itinerary and keep in touch with them about any change of plans,” Technology is a very tool. Many women travellers make use of the tracking function on their mobile phones so that their families or friends can know their whereabouts in detail. Others depend on age-old methods—they pack pepper sprays, even knives for personal safety. Sriprasad recounts an incident in Kasol, when a guy followed her back to her hostel. She quickly shut her door, but he knocked. “I opened, armed, because I knew I had to go out for food in some time,” she says. He asked her if she would like to get a cup of coffee, she said no, and he slithered away. “The only jittery experience I have had was when I had booked a ladies seat in an overnight bus, and found a man sitting beside me. The bus was full, so I couldn’t fight,” says Dalal. Even though it made for a sleepless night, all went well. Deshpande’s counsel: “You are only as safe as you make yourself.”
Good planning is the critical element when travelling solo, both to let your family breathe easy, and not have travel jitters yourself. Almost all women solo travellers start planning months in advance: places to go to, modes of transport, stay arrangements, and things to do and see. “My itinerary has my day-to-day plans and whereabouts. The places to see are not all on Excel sheets, but accommodation and transport is,” says Asthana. Almost all of these women prefer to stay in home-stays and hostels, and try to find local contacts in the places they are visiting. “And on the road, I keep in touch with my family as often as I can,” says Ganatra. She recounts an incident on a trip to Manikaran when her phone fell into the water, late one night. “I panicked, and could only think of putting it in rice, which is supposed to help it dry. So I hurried back to a market that was three kilometres away, to buy rice,” she narrates. Looking back, she concedes it was silly as it was night-time, and she took a short cut on a desolate road. Dress sense is the other tricky part. “I dress according to the place I am in,” says Asthana. “When I was in Vrindavan, I was dressed conservatively, while in McLeodganj I could walk around in my shorts.”
Solo travel makes you chance upon unusual, sometimes traumatic, incidents. On one of her treks to Triund, Ralli saw a man taking a selfie at the edge of a cliff, fall down and die. Deshpande was on a trek in Nepal in 2015 when the devastating earthquake struck. Asthana once stayed the night with a family of farmers. She woke up to find out a family member had committed suicide by hanging himself from the fan right above her room. But largely, these solo women travellers say they have met the nicest people and had the best experiences on their travels. Sriprasad recounts a long chat, over chai, with truck drivers who were inquisitive to learn about her cycling tour. “The amazed look on their faces when I told them I didn’t have to pay any toll tax was priceless,” she laughs. “You meet the most interesting people when travelling alone,” says Dalal, who has met bus conductors who took it upon themselves to stop the bus exactly where she wanted to be dropped off.
Once the bug bites, it’s tough to shake off the urge to just pack and leave. “I just have to travel every three months,” says Dalal. According to these women travellers, the most friendly states are the northeastern states, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Himachal, Ladakh, Orissa and Karnataka. And from all accounts, their numbers are increasing steadily. “Higher disposable incomes, and the fact that families are becoming more outgoing, have helped,” says Shereen Mehra, director of ‘Women on Clouds’, a women-only travel and tour initiative. Mehra started in 2008, organising a trip every three months; today, she does at least three trips a month. Similar are the numbers for ‘Girls on the Go’ (GoG), another women-only travel company. “Many women begin travelling alone, with women groups, and then venture all by themselves,” says Tia Bose, the founder of GoG. “Not only have the numbers gone up, women are now more confident,” she says, who now has more requests for ‘only consultation’. Mehra recalls a 60-year-old retired lady who went on a trek to Hemkund in Uttarakhand with the group. “She was paranoid at first, but she was one of the few to complete the trek,” she says. Mehra herself goes trekking solo all around the world.
Deepti Asthana poses with local women in Gujarat
The love for travel is the driving force for all these women, and in fact some of them, like Dalal and Bose, gave up high-paying jobs to savour the joy of travel. As Bose puts it, “I made a choice between earning a living and actually living.” Bose has grown up hearing Tagore’s ‘Ekla chalo re,’ she is living it now.