Every solo traveller, invariably, gets asked one or more of the following questions – Why are you alone? Haven’t you got any friends? Don’t you get bored while travelling alone? Don’t you feel lonely? I wouldn’t criticize this stereotypical thinking. Rather, I would have echoed the same thoughts a few years back when I had not discovered the joy of travelling alone which, as you will discover soon, is as sociable and convivial as travelling with friends or family can be.
Therefore, even though the title of the article might sound paradoxical at this moment, by the time you finish reading this article, I believe that you will be convinced of its plausibility.
Let’s go back to the start.
It was April 2016 when I first took up solo travelling. Orissa, a less popular tourist destination and an even lesser solo-travel-friendly state was my haunt for a 4 days-3 nights sojourn covering Bhubaneshwar, Puri, Konark and Chilka with the base being YHAI hostel in Bhubaneshwar. I had planned this trip with my parents but when they decided to drop out, I resolved not to abandon the plan for the mere lack of company. It would be presumptuous to say that I was not apprehensive about travelling alone. I was, very much. However, the irrational side of the brain quashed the rational side (as always!) and I found myself giving in to the temptation of taking the road less travelled.
As a lone woman wanderer, I went through a few unfortunate episodes during the trip. Let’s not discuss those over here. However, the hospitality, kindness and support extended towards me by the locals surpassed the negative experiences by a big margin. During the entire trip, I did not have the privilege of meeting another traveller (blame it on the lack of solo travellers in Orissa). However, I met a whole bunch of local people – some amused, some shocked , some happy-to-help, some incredulous, some concerned – in trains, buses, autos, hostel etc. and struck some delightful conversations with them. I never felt lonely during the trip. When I was back, I realised I would want to do this again and again. My first solo trip had satiated my zeal of experiencing the unknown in unforeseen ways.
Konark Temple, Orissa, April 2016
Then came August 2016 and I found myself planning a full-fledged solo vacation covering Amritsar, Dalhousie, Dharamshala, McLeod Ganj, Chadrataal Lake in Spiti Valley and Kasol . In Amritsar, I met Tarun and we hung around Wagah border and dined together at the famous Brother’s Dhaba. Next day I was off to Dalhousie where I met up with a friend called Alex who was staying nearby. Two days later I packed up to board a bus to Dharamshala, when I chanced upon Shalini, an inhabitant of Himachal and she introduced me to Sahaj Yoga – a powerful meditation technique practised by the local people. She urged me to visit the secluded Sahaja Yoga Ashram in McLo. I eventually did that and there I was taught the meditation technique by a Guru. While I was put up in a hotel in Dharamshala, the hotel manager who had been interacting with me, took me out one night to help me buy dinner and dropped me back to the hotel in his scooter. I was unlearning some of my childhood lessons. I was learning that trusting strangers can augment life perspective in remarkable ways.
During my trek to Chandrataal Lake in Spiti, I befriended Bru (that’s what I named him), a four-legged brown ball of fur, who accompanied me through the entire trek showing me the way and protecting me from other mountain dogs (No kidding here). I met a whole lot of shop-keepers, hotel attendants and pedestrians over the ten days of my trip who made me feel “special” through their encouragement and sometimes, subtle flirtations (harmless though), after knowing that I have ventured out on my own.
At Golden Temple, Amritsar, August 2016
In October 2016, I joined a group of strangers to hike to Buran Ghati Pass at 15,000 feet in Himachal. After the trek was done, I had two days to roam in the region by myself and I made the most of it. I went to Kinnaur District and Sangla Valley of Himachal Pradesh till Chitkul, the last inhabited village near the Indo-China border. I came across Borun Da, the manager in Deblok Hotel in Chitkul who showed me around the pristine village. He also took me to the waterfall area coaxing me to climb a one-feet wide, rickety, stone bridge to click a picture telling me, “ If you are not afraid to travel alone to the most remote village, you shouldn’t be afraid to climb that bridge.”(nice ploy there, huh!) I am grateful to him for making me feel at home with a delicious Bengali spread comprising of Rice, Lentil Soup, Fish Curry, Chicken at a time when it was Durga Puja back home. On the way back, I spent a day in Chandigarh where I bumped into an uber-friendly Uber partner who showed me the best Durga Pandals of Chandigarh and drove me to the best eateries of Chandigarh as well. I felt blessed or what! 🙂
At Chitkul, Kinnaur, Himachal – Oct 2016
In December 2016, I packed my bags again to travel alone in the Rajasthani cities of Jaipur, Bikaner and Jodhpur. During my stay in Zostel, Jaipur, I stumbled upon Carolene, a Canadian, Alejandro, a Mexican and Ling Ling, a Chinese, all travelling on their own like me. We grouped up and went around Jaipur for sightseeing and local food-tasting. I had booked a guest house in Bikaner where Mr. Rakesh Kumar, a professional photographer was put up. I found company in him for the entire Bikaner tour. Here goes the entertaining part – while I was roaming around in Bikaner with him, I was asked plenty of times by the locals if he was my husband. Pretty embarrassed at the beginning, I later realised that a young lady hanging out with a middle-aged man is not a common occurrence in that part of the country. Making peace with this kind of curiosity was my only option. Nevertheless, I had a lovely time in Bikaner, thanks to the hospitality of my guest house folks. In Jodhpur, while I was appreciating Mehrangarh Fort from the terrace of my hotel, I was greeted by Darian, a backpacker from New Zealand with whom I hit it off instantly. I roamed around Jodhpur with Darian for two straight days. He took me to the least touristy and most beautiful areas of Jodhpur. We watched the sunrise, navigated the congested bylanes of Jodhpur, had deep long conversations about life and even attracted undue attention for looking like a “Firangi-Indian couple” (Oh, I had seen this coming.).
At Nahargarh Fort, Jaipur – Dec 2016
Since I make all Augusts of my life augustus (just playing with words here :P), I executed a grand plan of travelling to Paris, Brussels, Ghent, Amsterdam and Prague over 13 days on my own in August 2017. This time I discovered Couchsurfing – a community for travellers around the world which connects members to a global population. Through Couchsurfing, I made requests to hosts in my visiting cities to accommodate me for the duration of my stay. The spirit of Couchsurfing lies in the cultural exchange between the visiting traveller and the hosting member and does not involve a monetary transaction. Thus travellers can mingle with the natives of different countries and save money at the same time. During my entire Euro trip I couchsurfed, meeting some delightful French, Belgians, Dutch and Czechs. Most of them were intrigued by an Indian woman daring to travel alone in a foreign country and I became an implicit representation of how women in India have come a long way. They were more than happy to become my travel partners, showing me their city and making sure that I experience what only the lucky few can in terms of cuisine, places and other regional typicalities. As a mark of gratitude, I did some Indian-style cooking for some of my hosts. I am grateful to the Couchsurfing community for making me feel Europe through the eyes, ears and tongue of locals viz. Charles, Remi, Tom V., Jonathan, David, Jan, Tom, Michael, Pierre C. and Pierre who gifted me the most beautiful memories of my life and taught me the true meaning of kindness through their actions.
With my hosts and the people I hung out with in Europe – Aug 2017
Varanasi was always in my list and I fulfilled this travel wish in October 2017 by visiting the city over 3 days and 2 nights. Leah, an American, Michael, a German and Liron, an Israeli became my travel companions in Varanasi. Together they made my Varanasi trip one of the most memorable one of my life till date. We walked down the Ghats at dawn, took a morning ride on the Ganges, went on a food trail, explored the impassable alleys of the archaic city and visited Buddha haven Sarnath. Everything about this trip was perfect to the tee.
During the morning boatride in Ganga – Oct 2017
I celebrated the anniversary of my solo travel in Rajasthan with a solo travel in Rajasthan in December 2017. This time I explored Udaipur and Jaisalmer. In both Udaipur and Jaisalmer I found companions again, at times in some foreigners and at times, in some desi people. The most notable among my adhoc travel companions was a family I met in Jaisalmer during my stay in Sam Sand Dunes. Together, we drove till the Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan to witness the unexploded bombs, which were dropped by Pakistan on India in the war of 1965, at Tanot Mata Temple.
In 2018 so far I have made two solo trips – one in Bir-Billing and the other in Jibhi-Tirthan valley of Himachal Pradesh in March and May respectively. If you have got the drift, you would have guessed by now that I met a whole lot of people both the times and created some unforgettable moments with them.
At Chaini Hill Fort, Himachal – May 2018
Now, let’s set the expectations correct..
Do I invariably find company every time I travel alone? No, I do not. I do not travel alone with an expectation that every time I will be lucky enough to meet people and have a fantastic time with them. In fact, there have been times when I have met people and I had to bid goodbye to them instantly because of the gross difference in thinking and outlook. That’s why to travel alone, you have to be extremely comfortable in your own skin so that even when you are sitting, eating or roaming alone, you are not carrying a longing for external company in your heart. After moving to Mumbai in 2014, I had joined several groups (like Indiahikes, Trek Mates etc.) for trekking in the Himalayas and the Sahyadris, with no known person to accompany. The friends that I made during these treks went on to become a part of my closest circle with time. Looking back, I would say that trekking with strangers gives you a chance to forge meaningful friendships as you get to know people through the most challenging situations. Having said that, I would not urge any of you to undertake solo explorations (hiking, touring etc.) unless you are sure that you love your own company.
Do I become best friends with all the people I connect with during my solo trips ? No, I do not. Encounters of this kind are mostly transient. You meet and connect with numerous people because of one obvious common interest – travel. But this doesn’t engender deep or long term associations. That requires much more discipline and nurturing over time.
What about safety, especially because I am a woman? I am cautious about my actions when I am out on my own. For example, I would not venture out to a secluded area for the sake of adventure or I would not indulge in alcohol/substance when I am on my own in an unknown place. My life is my responsibility and I know that imprudence can cost a lot. Having said that, my experience tells that most tourist places in India are safe and friendly towards solo women travellers. This question becomes less obvious for places in Europe.
Whether you take up solo travelling or not is a different question but you now know that this isn’t a lonely, unsocial, friendless affair at all. People who travel alone are as sociable as any other person who travel in groups. Insularity isn’t even a desired state as humans are, by default, social creatures. However, the desire to be social in solo travellers manifests itself through the cross-over of the defined boundaries of the usual and the familiar. They are not the outlaws but the ones who push themselves out of their comfort zones because they know that the biggest life rewards lie there.
The greatest opportunity you can give to yourself to know strangers, their culture and their way of living is through solo travelling. You will be surprised at how easily you will expand your network and world-view in the process. Perhaps, the biggest impact will be on your personal growth and mental well-being. So, if you are committed to self-improvement, commit to self-travelling. 🙂