Earlier last month in November during the train journey from Mumbai to Delhi, I was mildly surprised when no one looked my way with intent; not in the way I have gotten accustomed to being looked at.
It was a first.
And no, this is not only because I am a woman but also because I am a woman unescorted – AKA an Indian solo female traveller in India!
My brief experience of travelling solo around India over the past 4 years has showed me that you can reduce the chances of being looked at with intent – whether out of curiosity or malice – by arming yourself with a book and pen or even a camera. That and the presence of mind to not portray yourself as a damsel in distress, helps.
But when you spend over 36 hours on your own without being made to feel like you’ve committed a grave transgression, you are likely to slip into a less on-the-defence mode.
So by the time I had reached Dehradun after another train journey from Delhi, I had done exactly that. Which is why making small talk with a co-passenger – a local – on the shared taxi ride from Dehradun to Pantwari did not seem to trigger any alarm bells for me; not initially at least.
“Where are you from?”
“You’ve come here all the way from Mumbai? Just to visit a mountain village?”
“And so who else is with you?”
“It’s just me.”
For obvious reasons nothing I could have said would absolve me from what I had done. I wasn’t hearing this for the first time. And for equally obvious reasons I was not going to stop doing what I have been doing either. But these questions were coming from a place of concern – a feeling I am now all too well acquainted with now. It makes people a lot more endearing to me for some reason.
Two hours into the journey and a couple of minutes before he was about to get off, he added:
“Just being by yourself can get lonely. It is always nice to have the company of people with you.”
I have learned that it is better to smile and let it pass than to rise in defence of ‘the cause of the solo (female) traveller’.
It isn’t even a battle so what’s there to fight about – I mean, no one is restricting me from doing what I do. And for what democracy is worth, I tell myself that everyone is entitled to their opinion.
And so when I later got asked by a guest at The Goat Village why my friends won’t travel with me (which I interpreted as meaning to ask – “Do you have friends?”), I had to give him the brief back story of why I travel solo and how for me it isn’t mutually exclusive from travelling with people – friends, acquaintances and strangers included.
This reminded me of my staycation in Goa earlier in the year when my paternal uncle who had come to receive from the station had asked: “You’ve come alone? I thought you would come with your friends?”
Sure, it is Goa and that’s what is expected. Perhaps. But when I relayed this to my friends, one of them said, “You could have told your uncle that your friends know how to give you your space.”
I find it strange how we’ve conditioned ourselves into believing in binaries – i.e., you are either friendless and therefore a solo traveller OR you are sociable and therefore cannot travel solo!
This brings me to another aspect of solo travel that seems to leave most people flummoxed – “What do you do when you travel solo?”
To which my answer is usually “nothing”.
Perhaps their being flummoxed has more to do with my answer than anything else!
But given how solo travel is still associated as being outlandish, it is understandable why the question of how one passes their time would pique anybody’s interest.
Of course, there is no one fixed type of solo traveller. Like everybody else, we have our own individual preferences and mine mostly borders around soaking in my environment – which I haven’t found any other way of explaining.
So what does ‘doing nothing’ and ‘soaking in my environment’ usually translate to?
I have carried paperbacks in the past to keep me company. Much at the cost of anything else that could go in my bag, including clothes! But I’ve recently made the shift to my e-reader – which means that technically my getaways are not a complete digital detox in the real sense of the word!
This I am still old school about. So pen and paper it is. Plus writing it out helps me join the dots that have been swarming in my head aimlessly – it’s my kind of meditation. I realise that I do end up getting a lot more writing done when I am on the go.
Taking my camera for a walk or a trek
I am not a photographer but I enjoy taking walks and peering at everything around me from behind the lens in as un-self-conscious a manner as I feel with the camera in tow. This lends itself to spotting frames as well as life-forms, including avian and floral that I, otherwise, have a tendency to overlook.
Watching clouds passing me by
The skies – during the day as much as at night – leave me enraptured. This for me is what truly being in the moment is representative of; something I struggle to bring into regular practice once I’ve returned back to the world I am familiar with. This ‘being still’ includes soaking up amidst nature. And also people-watching.
Chatting up with locals
Not everything I do belongs to the realm of solitude alone. Interacting with locals be it about and over tea or their dogs and goats or about life in the cities versus life in the villages, there’s always so much you realise that you don’t know.
For instance, from my time at The Goat Village I picked nuggets on locally grown grains and crops, understood a little bit about what a day in their life feels like and heard opinions about how much Dehradun has changed from the quaint town it used to be to the noisy wannabe-metropolis it has now become.
And it case you’re wondering why I categorize all of the above as ‘doing nothing’, it is because none of this requires me to cross things off a to-do list!
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