I have been travelling for as long as I can remember. As a little girl I travelled with my parents through the country — from the snow covered passes of Himanchal, where we went with my four-month-old brother, to the oceans of Kanyakumari, where we travelled, a few years later, with grandparents and cousins in tow – we travelled more than anyone around us, and to the places no one else went to. As a young adult too, I travelled extensively making many routine trips between college and home, and some, not-so-routine ones to far off places. It was probably destiny then that I met my match in a man who was as eager to travel as I was, and together, we set out to chart the length and breadth of the country — and some unknown corners of the world too.
While travelling with husband, family, and friends had its share of joy, it was the travel of another kind that had me hooked, right from the time I was fifteen.
My first journey alone was made on a particularly warm June morning in 1995. The summer vacations were still ongoing but I was required to be back in town to attend special classes arranged by the school for all students appearing in the board exams. So that my family’s vacation plans were not jeopardized, I decided to travel back to Lucknow on my own and to stay with a cousin until my parents returned. The journey, although not a very long one, became one the most memorable journeys I had ever undertaken.
Over the next few years, especially during college, I made many, many more such journeys – some in the freezing winter nights, when even the warmest jacket, and the thickest sleeping bag could not prevent my toes from getting numb and fingers from swelling up, others in the scorching summer months when the railway coach was nothing but a huge oven and coming out of it without being charred an achievement in itself. Then there was the special one made on a birthday-eve with a special friend discussing our non-existent future together. Every trip, however insignificant, had its share of stories.
There was a catch though. Despite the fact that each one of these journeys was made alone, it was never to an unknown destination: I was invariably travelling from one part of the family to another, or from one home to another. I was travelling alone, but not in the true sense of the word.
It was only recently, at the ripe old age of thirty, that I first undertook my first holiday alone. I went to an unknown town at the other end of the country all by myself. I did not know the people, I did not know the place, I did not know the language. It was, in the beginning, a tad intimidating, but, it gave me a high like never before: I felt strong, I felt powerful, I felt free. I had never felt that way before, but I wanted to feel like that over, and over again.
It was during this trip, and another subsequent one, that I noticed two things. One: the number of women travelling alone in India is abysmally low (those who do are either on a work assignment, family emergency, or, in the rare case of travelling for pleasure, in a group). Two: as a woman travelling alone, my experiences were very different from those I had while travelling with husband, family or friends – I saw the same things in a different light, and, as a lone woman traveller, not confined to air travel or luxury hotels, I was seen in a different light too.
Travelling by myself also helped me uncover elements of my personality that had remained hidden until then. I spent hours listening to the stories of my co-passengers, made friends with strangers, had conversations with taxi-drivers, auto wallahs, and shopkeepers (something, a shy, reticent woman in me had never been able to do until then). Then there was the time I spent with myself doing nothing, talking to no one, just sitting by the ocean, or gazing at the clouds (as a compulsively fidgety person, I did not know I was capable of doing that either). The discovery of the world around me ran parallel to the discovery of the unknown person inside me.
But travelling alone is not always fun, there are times it can get difficult too. In a country where any man — from seventeen to seventy — can letch, grope, or insult you, you have to forever be on the watchout. You need to be careful of when to let go of your guard — and with whom — and when to retain it. Then there is the planning. With a house to run, a family to look after, a job to attend, finding time — and money — to travel is not always easy.
But these are trivial matters especially when compared to the experiences, the perspective, and the knowledge that you gain while travelling alone. After all, as Pico Iyer says, “Travel is like love, mostly because it is a hieghtened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity, and ready to be transformed. That is why, the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” And who wants a love affair to ever end? Not me for sure.