By Elita Almeida:
“So you’re here on your own?” asked the more curious of the two.
“Yeah” I replied, shrugging shoulders.
I had recently solo’d my way to the Sundarbans with a little help from a tour operator in Kolkata. I thought I was doing a fine job of blending into the background, being almost unnoticeable. But that was before I found myself talking to two women – about the same age as I (if not older).
She paused before adding, “We didn’t realise you were travelling alone. We thought you are with that family behind us”. I thought she sounded apologetic for my sake, so I hurried to add, “This isn’t the first time I’m travelling by myself”. Their eyes widened with surprise, so I said, “I’ve travelled around India by myself before as well. It’s quite nice”.
Was I trying to justify myself?
Just like it wasn’t my first time as a solo traveller, it wasn’t my first time at being questioned as a solo traveller either. When I hear “Why do you travel solo?” “Aren’t you scared?” “Isn’t it risky and unsafe?”, I’m reminded of this quote by Jules Renard – On earth there is no heaven but there are pieces of it.
And this, sums up every reason why I chose travel.
So for the many more curious souls out there, here’s my modest attempt at decoding solo travel a little.
To travel solo is to realise that people read the same newspapers as you do. So you will be a spectacle to behold. Relax, because if you’re not going to be at ease with yourself, neither will the people around you.
When I was in Madhya Pradesh a few months ago, I was asked by a local shopkeeper – “Aren’t you afraid of travelling alone?” And when I replied, “I have met helpful people on the road wherever I have travelled within India. No one’s given me reason to be afraid”, he simply said, “Let me assure you that people in this town are also very approachable.”
To travel solo includes taking the opportunity of traveling with groups to find like-minded and the not-so-like-minded people.
I was wary the first time I (solo) travelled with a group and went to Ladakh. Luckily enough, I met 10 other like-minded people who had also solo’d their way in. We had not only come from different parts of the country, but also diverse backgrounds. Interestingly enough, that’s what drew us closer together. We egged each other to not only overcome fears- be it cycling down from Khardung La at 18000 feet or bracing ourselves as the glacial waters brushed against our faces while rafting on the Zanskar –but I have also had them as my sounding board, learnt fun things like graphology, attended weddings and have had a familiar face to see when I’m in other parts of the country.
That we continue to be in touch with each other more than two years since that trip, is proof that this was destined, just like the ‘difficult people’ I have encountered on my travels. From them I’ve learned patience and tolerance (to say the least). In turn, I’ve come to accept that it does take all kinds of people to make this world!
To travel solo is to plan and execute budget travels reasonably well.
“Travel is expensive”. This is an oft heard statement. But that does not hold true all the time. Not even when you’re planning it at the eleventh hour. I could make it on the train from Kolkata to Bolpur for Holi in Santiniketan only because of a travel hack I have come to rely on. I am referring to the 6 seats under the Ladies Quota in the Sleeper Class (SL). These often remain vacant even less than a day prior to the journey – in other words, it is as good as a guaranteed seat at no extra Tatkal cost!
To travel solo is to feel fear and overcome it.
No matter how many times I travel and travel solo specifically, I still continue to battle the tingle of apprehension every time I am about to take to the road. Bihar, accentuated by its location in India’s notorious north, wasn’t an easy trip to start. To claim that I was a bundle of nerves is an understatement. And to have mapped my way around the state at the back of my hand is to have conquered my own prejudice. I didn’t land up in Bihar with a guidebook and Google Maps can only help you so much. So my ability to map routes wouldn’t have been possible without the helpful inputs I received from the locals.
So what happened when I walked up to a local to seek directions?
a. They’d direct me on exactly how I needed to get there, or
b. They’d smile sheepishly (mostly men) or apologize (mostly women) if they are unable to help out.
To travel solo is not about feeling lonely because home stays have several advantages.
Travelling has helped me emerge as a more culturally sensitive person, not because of my educational qualifications, but because of the insight into the lives of the local people I have stayed with during my journeys. They have taught me trust and ingenuousness.
I wouldn’t have been able to explore the beauty that is Kutch if it weren’t for my home stay host. I’d merely booked my train tickets and arrived at his doorstep. It was he who helped me draw out an itinerary, which besides the Rann of Kutch included visiting the craft villages of Bhujodi, Khamir and Ajrakhpur, as well as immersing myself at the Harappan site in Dholavira. Oh and did I mention the sumptuous home-cooked meals?
To travel solo is to take full ownership of who you are – even when you’re not travelling.
If to travel is to step out of your comfort zone, then to travel solo is a leap of faith of a different kind. I have had my travel plans get tossed in the air more than once – courtesy delays or just bad decisions. And I’ve learned how to stick it out and think on my feet without having to give into the temptation to make that SOS call home.
To travel solo is to find the strength to quit routine in favour of an adventure.
To have continued down this path has translated into bidding adieu to the 9-6 in exchange for something more enriching. A development sector professional with a Masters in Social Work and five years of experience, I quit my desk-bound job in December 2014 to pursue a new mission: to write about experiencing humanity at the crossroad where social good meets travel. Luckily for me, I chanced upon the Himsagar Fellowship because of which I’ve travelled through Bihar, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Odisha in the past four months, meeting and working with more than a hundred NGOs.
Each place I’ve ventured into – whether solo or not – has left me more self-assured than before; not just about myself, but also about the world around me.
Note: SocialCops is accepting applications for the next cohorts of its Himsagar Fellowship. If travelling far and wide to meet local organisations in remote parts of the country and creating a voice for communities that have never been heard before sounds like something you’d be interested in – application details are here.
About the Author: Elita is an avid traveller and blogger who is more keen on experiencing humanity than striking a pose next to a monument. She recently quit her 9-6 job and aspires to be a writer at the confluence where travel meets social good. She blogs here. Follow her on Twitter @NomadicThunker.