Woman On Wanderlust

– Anjali Moorthy

It is a surprisingly cold July morning and I wake up to a slight drizzle, birds chirping and the longing for a hot cup of tea. I have 2 months of absolute and blissful nothingness ahead of me, and I am eager to plan the best time off, ever. I want to make sure my itinerary is eclectic; filled with plans of travel, meeting new people through sharing circles, eating only homemade peanut butter, the occasional karaoke bar and as many books as I can possibly cram into a little under 60 days.

Of course, the first thing I do is to plan a trip to somewhere in India that I’ve never been before. My cup of tea, still brewing, draws my mind to the plantations of Darjeeling and Assam, monasteries in Bhutan, and the comfort of the bittersweet season that monsoon is. In minutes I realize that this is what I need to do. Many Google searches later, I have planned out a skeleton of what I know is going to be a journey of reflection and epiphanies. In answer to the question ‘Who are you?’ I once heard someone say, “I am not sure. But I am learning that a large part of who I am has to do with who you are.” This can mean many things of course, but I felt that the understanding of self is largely derived from our interactions with the world around us. And I wanted to find out who I was, who I wanted to be and more importantly HOW I wanted to be. What are my driving forces? What makes me joyful? What are my favourite memories of myself?

An adrenaline rush just from all these thoughts drove me to announce this happy news to my parents; I was going to be my own person, travel by myself, on my own money, on my own terms.

“Who is going with you?”

Being the younger sister of a well-travelled young man in his late twenties, I’ve heard questions that stem from my parents’ vicarious pre-travel jitters. But this time it sounded different. This wasn’t a question, but a warning; an ultimatum. You’re a girl; of course you can’t go alone. The daily horror stories on the news are likely to make any person think twice, thrice, a hundred times. And it compels women to use male privilege as a shield.

This got me thinking about an article I recently read that was titled ‘Indian Women Aren’t Taught to be Alone’. While I agree with the essence of the piece, it’s the semantics of the title that have me shaking my head. No one is explicitly taught how to be alone, because there isn’t one correct way to do it. I think many (not all, definitely) Indian women are taught NOT to be alone; not to dare, challenge and push the boundaries that define us.

But I don’t want to be dependent on someone else just to be able to generate experiences. 23 years of age, recovering from the fresh wounds of heartbreak, and passionate about making the world a better place, I am nothing if not fiercely independent.

I’ll be honest; I may not end up going alone. I am the kind of person who enjoys company, and hey, shelter and travel bills split by two is a bargain I cannot refuse considering I just quit my job to study.

But like many women today, I want the freedom to choose. I want to know that I CAN explore my own country –whose whimsies are endearing to me despite their ability to frustrate me to no end– and I can do it without being hand-held by someone whose only claim to fame is masculinity.

There are so many women beating this very stereotype today, and going out of their way to find themselves in the eyes and hearts of their people.

India, with all its shortcomings, has proved to be a place that can give us exactly that liberation. So many people come here from other countries on ‘gap years’ and sabbaticals where they volunteer, travel, and gain a whole lot of skills and experiences that no other job or hobby will give you so quickly.

I once worked with a volunteer from the United States, who in all the glory of being 18 years, went across India on a trip completely by herself. Imagine the tribulations she must have faced. I was both inspired and nervous at her decision to do it all alone.

A month and a half after she set off, I expected her back with nothing but complaints, bad memories and just a lot of angst. On the contrary, all she had for me were stories of the families in Orissa who’d given her a place to stay when she was being overcharged at hotels, kind boatmen in Kerala who returned her wallet she left behind at the backwaters of Kerala, and women from the villages she had passed through in Bombay who treated her like their own daughter.

There’s hundreds of websites, listicles and blogs that will tell you some thumb rules while traveling alone. (Scroll down to the end of this article to glance at some of these tips).

So what is it that’s stopping us exactly? While there are definitely some bad grapes in our country, there are also warm, caring, hospitable and chivalrous people and I would even go as far as to say that we are a majority. We need to break the stereotype and newness around women being alone in a new place. We need to step outside our comfort zones and show people that it is a sign of strength and not vulnerability. Let’s ask ourselves, “What guides me, my faith or my fear?” Together, let’s aim to normalize the sight of a woman catching a bus, with a backpack containing all she needs, ready to take on the world.

To quote Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

Where will you choose today?

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While we’re all about carpe diem and everything, we also definitely recommend taking the necessary steps to make sure you’re safe wherever you go in general. Here are some things to keep in mind when you backpack (alone or in groups):

Research: Before you head anywhere, read as much as you can about the place. Not only does this help you plan your visit, it will also help you navigate around things like curfews, safe areas,and places/people/food to avoid
When in Rome: Whether it’s dress, form of greeting or cultural etiquette, always make an effort to understand and imbibe the ways of the people. It’s a sign of respect, and while we agree that not wearing a certain type of clothing should definitely does not mean you ‘asked for it’, we’re learnt that it’s near impossible to change a mind-set many thousands of people have been fighting for years just by one fashion choice.
Reach out: If you feel uncomfortable in a situation, please do reach out by telling someone you can trust or calling out inappropriate behaviour right then and there.
Late nights: As is true anywhere, make sure your late night transportation is something you can trust. We’re not saying the perverts and harassers come out only at night, it’s just that there are lesser people you can appeal to for help at that time. Take all the precautions you can, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Your stay: The place you’re staying should be one you can come back to and feel safe at. Choose wisely, read reviews and if you must have a roommate, choose someone you feel safe with. A female or someone from your own country can be a good start. Do try to talk to these people and gauge them in advance.

“I wonder if the ocean smells different on the other side of the world.” ― J.A. Redmerski, The Edge of Never

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