The Not-So-Curious Case of an Indian Solo Female Traveller.

By Namita Kulkarni.

While I'm the last person to find it at all 'curious' that a woman would travel alone, I've been at the receiving end of a lot of curious, even baffled, looks for gladly pulling off the apparent double whammy of being a single female and travelling alone. 

I’ve been regarded as a strange aberration by a good number of random strangers, who thought I was perfectly normal and hunky-dory up until the point where it came up in conversation that I was "travelling alone", for a month no less. And no, I did not have to travel back in time a few centuries to find these unsuspecting souls, who I had unwittingly shocked the living daylights out of. I met them on my recent trip to Bali, of all radical places in the world for a woman to travel alone. Its female-friendly reputation and low crime rate aside, hadn’t it pretty much turned into Single-Woman-Traveler Central overnight a long time ago, after a certain Ms. Gilbert (Respect) wrote her wildly successful memoir? Of all places on the planet, I'd expected that this is where a woman travelling alone would be seen as de riguer, a cliché worn thin by now, with maybe even have a few classic jokes of its own - anything but a shocker. 


solo female travel india, Indian travelers
Baffling people!
So there’s the baffled look followed by "Oh, a girl/woman travelling alone, on your own for a month! How does it feel?" Sounding totally mature, I go "It's AWEsome!" 

Another baffled look later, I get that classic raised-eyebrows-downturned-mouth slow nodding accompanied by "You’re very bold, it's so brave of you". 

Done with such heart-felt candor, I can almost hear a backtrack of resounding applause from inside their head, while I wonder if this moment warrants a grand speech I forgot to prepare. On some level, I’m totally enjoying this newly discovered shock value I didn’t know I had, but I’m too cool to let that show. Compelled by some honest humility, I attempt to demystify my jaw-dropping bravery, with "Well, I grew up in India ...". Which is to say, I have a black belt in badassery and street smarts from growing up dodging street sexual harrassment (physical and verbal) every time I stepped out. And shutting down chauvinism, patriarchy and misogyny every time they reared their ugly heads (a lot!) in workplaces, colleges, social interactions and homes. And retaining my sanity through it all. 


solo traveller india, solo travel for women
Travelling alone and loving it.

So if they are going to be baffled by my bravery, they might as well be so for the right reasons – not for "travelling alone in Bali", which in all seriousness sounds like a tiara made of rainbows compared to life in India as a female. Sure it’s a big bad world but that’s as true in your backyard as anywhere else. And to my mind, the dangers/hurdles that one faces and punches through as a woman in India (street sexual harassment, attacks on women for being women, deep-seated misogyny, sexism, patriarchy, you get the drift) are hardly less threatening than the dangers that travel exposes me to. In fact, I felt way safer on an Indonesian party island full of variously (even ingeniously) intoxicated strangers from everywhere (Gili Trawangan, you have my heart) than I do in broad daylight in my upmarket neighbourhood in Bombay.  

So yes, that kind of stranger-certified assurance of my "boldness" will always seem misplaced and a tad archaic. Makes me wonder if they’ve been living under a rock all this while. What else are they going to be amazed by? The fact that I have a bank account in my name with money I earned, that I voted last week (for a woman!), and that if I marry someday, it won’t involve an exchange of goats and cows? Maybe they should follow me around with a camera one of these days and capture an entire 24-hour series of amazements nonchalantly performed by me, one after the other, all in the casual course of my daily life. And if the mood hits me, I'll even throw in a freebie karaoke performance of ‘I will survive’ for them, while their archaic heads reel.


mount batur sunrise, mount batur bali
Sunrise at Mount Batur, that makes all the head-turning worth it.

And here’s an irony which seems to have completely escaped them. Given that the number one danger to women - globally, historically and statistically - is men, and that most crimes against women are committed by men known to the victim/survivor, shouldn’t it stand to reason that a woman is actually safer travelling alone than with a man? (The number one danger to men? Good old heart disease. Though I'm glad to know a lot of women who could change that in a day if they wished and gladly claim that dubious honour just to level the field, but that's another story). 

With a little probing into those astonished minds, I gleaned that what astonished them is the sheer autonomy exercised by a woman when she deems herself capable and deserving of a solo travel adventure, confident in her ability to take care of herself in unfamiliar surroundings, and happy as a clam to have her own desirable self for company. No external validation or permission slip or honeymoon package required. That's where the shock and awe set in. 


Namita Kulkarni, solo female traveler india
Ready to take on the world.

To test the sexism underlying the conversation, I decided to swap the genders in the conversation. Talking to this Swede rapper guy I met at the festival, the moment he let it slip that he was – hold your breath – travelling alone – I went “Whoaaa!!! Damnnn!!! What’s that like!!!” Striving to hit the same pitch of amazement as I had by then grown accustomed to hearing. My reaction, if I’m at all emotionally astute, stopped just short of appalling him and questioning his self-belief and sanity, while he must have wondered why I’d suddenly and inexplicably gone from normal to unhinged. Bewildered by my undue bewilderment, yet politely trying to hide it, he said that he did have two friends with him on the first leg of his trip, but now he was getting around by himself just fine and that it was no big deal really. I nodded knowingly at him, the words ‘no big deal really’ striking a deep chord within me. 

When I ran into him the next day I let it slip that I was travelling alone too. Which perplexed him no end. My recent undue bewilderment now looked even more ridiculously ‘undue’. Highly bemused, he insisted on an explanation for my reaction. I joked that I had deep-seated double standards that perhaps needed a rethink. A few shared laughs later, I asked him what he had thought when I had reacted that way. With a slew of eloquent profanity (perhaps a Swede thing, or more a 25-year-old hip-hop rapper thing, or both), he said that my bewilderment seemed to have carried a lot of unfounded judgement and presumption about him. Quite the deja vu for me! My little feminist social experiment had worked and no men had been harmed in the process. I should do this more often, I remember thinking. 

I'm going to take a wild guess here that it would very much puzzle and amuse any man – being marveled at for bravery, for a task that essentially involved buying himself flight tickets, getting a visa or two, maybe having a rough plan (or not), being of reasonably sound mind (or at least able to fake it, like most people I know), and then just showing up and putting himself out there without self-destructing at any point. With a basic instinct for self-preservation, like all living beings everywhere. Brave guy, eh?  


Indian travellers, Namita Kulkarni
Loving my own company.

And for the record, women have been exploring the world on their own for centuries, even to the furthest places and under the most treacherous conditions, as this inspiring animation points out, in all of 4 minutes.

I don't know about you, but I know how I want to react the next time I meet a man travelling by himself. 

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AUTHOR BIO: Yoga instructor. Loves going where she's never been, having adventures/misadventures, reading, singing, dancing, painting, learning new languages, and generally seizing the day. And living to tell the tale. Namita tweets @namitakulkarni and blogs at http://huesandviews.wordpress.com

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24 comments:

  1. I am proud of u dear.... keep this spirit up.....

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  2. Nice. but that traveling alone pic had two people behind you. :)

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  3. Thanks Debasree. And Najeeb, those two people were strangers I met at the quad biking place :) They were my fellow quad bikers that day

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  4. Love it! I have never considered myself a solo female traveler, I find the term patronising in the extreme.

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  5. You are FANTASTC (y) Keep up the Good Job. BRAVO BRAVO BRAVO

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    1. Aww thanks Dwarika :) you humble me :P

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  7. Good one Namita, you so took the load off the female traveler..xx

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  8. way to go. keep exploring yourself while exploring & travelling world around you.

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  9. Great article! Kudos to you! Inspired me to take a solo journey!

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    1. Wow that's great to know! Thanks Richa and have a blast coz it really is awesome:)

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  11. Replies
    1. haha thanks arun :) like i said ..i grew up in India :D

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  12. Bravoooooooooooooooooooo, keep going...

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  13. I am a man and I want to travel alone and cannot get around to doing it. But time is passing by. I am nearing the end of my thirties and married and have two kids. Will I be able to fulfill my dream of traveling alone someday? I can only hope for now. Kudos to you for having the spunk to do this.

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    1. Thank you Neil. Someone once said don't let all that you cannot do get in the way of all that you can do. Here's to all that you can do and more :) Wish you all the very best!

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