Women going solo


Even after seventy years of Independence, and a booming tourism sector, Mamta Chitnis Sen tries to understand the reasons why solo travelling for women still remains a struggle in India.

I began solo travelling by accident almost two decades ago. What first started out as short official work trips — to metros, three-tier and two-tier cities, towns, and interior remote villages within and across India, have over the years metamorphosed into full-fledged soul-searching vacations. A solo trip abroad one summer, completely sealed the deal.
While honestly, I do find a joy as well as solace while travelling with my family of husband and two kids, or even with old and new friends, I must confess that it is solo travelling that I am hooked onto.

For one, there is a certain delight in the fact that you can create or uncreate your own itinerary or a to-do-list, and explore areas and places which you wouldn’t be able to visit when travelling in a group of fussy travelers, (some who unfortunately end up being a nuisance rather than helpful travel companions). Second, solo travelling acts as a catalyst in not only boosting your confidence, but making you much more aware of the limitations placed by your gender when travelling, and the various ways and means of navigating these limitations smoothly, yet firmly.
The world around you definitely tends to look different and more welcoming when out on your own. For married ones, solo travelling is the perfect break to get away from it all, and refresh and rejuvenate yourself to come back and work harder.

Venturing out, solo

Solo travelling isn’t for everyone. That said, of late, more and more women from diverse backgrounds and ages are discovering the joy of taking off on their own to explore the many landscapes and cultures that the world has to offer.

During my travels over the years, I have come across several women who have undertaken solo travelling, and seem to enjoy it too (Indian women though were rare to find, but that figure is increasing of late).

Like Natalia, a Russian entrepreneur who I encountered while on a train journey from Goa to Mumbai in the heavy monsoons. The thirty-something expat who was living in Mumbai at that time, had toured the world on her own. She shared with me her experiences of relaxing on the beaches of Bali, and why it was a liberating one. Natalia also gave me tips on using the many social media platforms available on the Internet that offer hosting for women solo travellers when abroad, and ways and means of screening the right ones to see that they are genuine and safe.

Similarly, I recall meeting Alya (name changed), a 28-year-old Algerian national settled in Paris, who over a cup of hot coffee at the Charles De Gaulle airport (airports are the best places to meet and make friends while waiting for delayed flights by the way!), claimed why she loved travelling so frequently to her favourite country Morocco and other African nations every time she got an opportunity to do so. An orthodox Muslim, Alya who works as a teacher in Paris (she saves up a small sum every year and makes it a point to travel to as many countries as she can), admitted that she never lets her hijab get in the way of her travel.

Another close friend Valerie Won Lee, founder of World Citizen Artists has travelled the world and worked abroad for 15 years. “I started travelling in 1997. I was 19,” she recalls, adding, “Travelling was very different back then. We didn’t have smart phones or tablets to check places before arrival. You’d go somewhere and find the available accommodations once you arrived at a destination. In places like South East Asia for example, at train stations and harbours, touts were always men, and as a woman travelling alone, I was usually perceived as if I was looking out for a local husband. So I would always make some western friends on trains and boats, so that I would look like as if I was travelling in a group. I travelled for over 15 years and as time went by, I became more confident and didn’t mind as much about how people would judge me for travelling on my own. I actually enjoyed having a good debate with local men and make my point about the fact a woman could be alone and want to stay this way, and I’m still in contact with some of the people I met on my journey. I think women should take precautions and understand the culture of the country she’s in, but it doesn’t mean one has to be paranoid. There are good and bad people everywhere,” says Valerie.

Indian women and solo travelling

Unlike the Western countries where a woman travelling on her own is socially accepted, the same cannot be said about India. The Indian mindset, I believe finds difficulty in trying to understand why a woman needs to vacation alone. Added to that are the age-old issues of safety and facilities for the lone traveller. Although the Indian woman is venturing out to discover the joy of solo travelling, a lot many of them are unable to realise this dream due to several reasons. Of the women I spoke to, many pointed out that except for metros, a woman travelling alone within the country needs to lock down on several things before she attempts to venture out on her own. Safety in commute as well as availing of safe accommodation is on the priority list.

The Indian tourism sector is a booming one, including the market for women travellers, and in recent years one has seen a considerable rise in many travel operators offering a range of travel packages to women who want to travel solo, both in India and abroad.

‘Women only’ tours are a hit with many Indian women. Though a large number of them do sign up for it, they unfortunately end up in the company of other solo women travellers, exploring and visiting places together in a group. Yet it definitely remains a task for any woman who does not want to travel through a travel operator, and instead on a budget. In the most picturesque places in India, asking for a ‘women only’ affordable accommodation is definitely a tall order.

Create safe spaces, help boost tourism

Creation of spaces for women who travel on their own will go a long way in opening up this market. India has a rising number of educated women today who are putting their careers first instead of marriage. These women not only work hard but party harder too, and are good spenders as well. They love travel and want to explore the unexplored on their own terms, and at their own cost. I know of several working women, (some married and who are mothers themselves), who take a sabbatical for themselves to travel abroad.

By creating such a platform for them here, it will not only go a long way in boosting this sector but also help in re-establishing brand India’s image (which has taken a beating after many news reports of molestation and rapes against women), that the country is definitely a safe place for women who love to travel solo.

Mamta Chitnis Sen

A journalist for over 15 years, Mamta Chitnis Sen has worked with reputed publications in Mumbai, reporting on crime, politics, religion, art, community, human interest, and general news. She was Executive Editor of Dignity Dialogue, India’sforemost magazine exclusively for the 50 plus age group. She presently handles Media Advocacy for Child Rights and You (CRY) – an NGO working for the rights of underprivileged children in India covering the states of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat. Mamta is also an artist and has exhibited in various groups shows in India and abroad.