If you think this is going to be a story of rainbows and butterflies, of how the world is a beautiful place and you just step out to experience your adventure in it, you’re wrong. It takes a whole lot more than just that.
The year I turned 16, my family and I moved from Jodhpur to Delhi. During the Commonwealth Games break I insisted on wanting to visit my friends. I excitedly texted my best friend about the date and time I was reaching at. She asked which flight? I replied train. I know I shocked quite a few sweet parents in the streets of Jodhpur. Why is a teenage girl travelling alone overnight? But then my father was clear, “be comfortable in every mode of transportation or don’t travel”, so that even when unexpected events occur, you’re still unfazed by it, you keep moving ahead, no matter what. Lessons that I’m thankful for. Including “carry only as much as you can carry yourself”, you shouldn’t have to depend on someone else to carry it for you. This came particularly handy when just last month in Vietnam, I was lugging my 20kgs stuffed bag in the streets of Hai Phong, sweating under the scorching Sun as 5 different men approached to pull my luggage away and pack me off in a bus, while I failed to understand their language, wondered what I was doing and how did I even end up here. As I got flustered one of them spoke in broken English, “Lady okay?” and hesitantly smiled. So, my lessons came back to me, imparted from my friends and family but mostly lessons I’ve learnt while travelling. To believe and to give people a chance. If you let the fears of what may go wrong cripple you, you will never get to experience all that can actually go right. So, as cliché as it may be but nothing will ever be more calming than a deep breath. So, breathe and believe. Then I flashed a big smile back at him, picked up my heavy bag and nodded, lady okay.
Travelling with strangers or travelling solo, takes guts. Be it a man or a woman. How will the people be? Will I get along? Will it be safe? These are just some of the many questions I’ve had people ask me before booking a trip with us. And to see that very person opening themselves up to unknown people during a trip, just leaves me smiling. And yet, the hesitation and questions I see coming from women will always be a tad more. Understandably. A lifetime of being asked to stay safe and protected does program our minds into wondering what is and what isn’t “safe”. Last December when I was visiting Tirthan for the first time, my friend and I got off our bus at 4 am in a place with not a single street lamp. Light only came when a vehicle approached so we were shivering in the pitch dark, waiting for ours to turn up. The moment we sat in the vehicle, my friend dozed off dead to the world, snoring at shocking octaves for such a skinny person! While I was extremely sleepy, I couldn’t doze off as the gnawing thought of empty dark streets and us being in a vehicle completely in this man’s control played on my mind. As my tense self gazed out of the window, it hit me that my comfort or discomfort is solely in my hands. So, I struck up a conversation with the driver. I’m pretty sure he was tired too and wondering why is this woman being so chatty even before sunrise?! But hah there’s no shutting up this chatty Cathy. As we spoke about him, his family and his life in the hills, I developed a sense of familiarity with the man who just a few moments ago had concerned me. Women are often taught to “not engage” anyone unknown. However, my travels have brought me the realization that when you open up yourself, to the people, to your surroundings and well, to the experience, that is when you begin to become comfortable even in unknown places. When you begin to see the other human being as simply an individual on the job or as a friendly companion or a fellow explorer, that is when the shadows creeping up in your mind die down and allow you to converse, to laugh and to just be.
Having lived in Delhi for so many years, in Mumbai and even in South India and to eventually dedicating my life to travelling, has shown me that no one place can be deemed safe or unsafe in a blanket statement. Incidents happen everywhere. And if you’re going to let the fear stifle your wanderlust dreams, then how do you step out of your house at all? What can happen on a small mountain top can happen in your city too. Hah no, I’m not looking to scare you further. All I’m saying is look to have a little faith in the world, in your surroundings and in the inherent goodness of human beings. No, I’m not saying trust anyone, always be alert and aware of your whereabouts but at the same time give people and places a chance. You never know where and how it may surprise you. And the more you witness kindness and warmth in the world, the surer of yourself you will become. Travel can mean different things to different people but for women it can be empowering in unimaginable ways. It will give you the confidence to step out on your own, the independence to do as you please without waiting for the world to indulge to your wishes.
Beyond safety, I find women holding themselves back on account of perception. Indian women are specially so watchful of the stigmas that they step back. I had a 40 years old woman travel with me to Nagaland. The last day the whole group sat on top of the sumos, on the luggage carriers to be precise! We were hooting and laughing as we felt the winds in our hair and on our frozen cheeks, waving at the adorable children of Jakhama as we made our way. When we got off, she came up to me, thanked me, hugged me and cried. She said I have never done such a thing, my whole life has been about my family, my kids, my husband, my job and well.. just about looking after others and this, this adrenaline rush is unknown to me. She said how never in a million years could she envision doing some such thing and there she was, two weeks after she turned 40, experiencing all that with a dozen strangers.
In Thailand, I encouraged the girls in my group to get two-piece swimsuits. Not because its sexy or anything but simply because Indian women so often lose the ability to feel comfortable in their own skins. Ideas of body types or concerns of people’s perceptions will decide what one wears or doesn’t wear? In the morning of our island tour I saw the girls hesitantly fidgeting a bit with the ends and straps of their costumes but by evening they had full fledged photo shoots, they stretched out in the Sun and leisurely plonked themselves on the boat without searching or shrugs or cover ups. Enjoying themselves and their time simply; a picture of the absolute blissful beach bums. That is what travel can do for a woman. As a trip leader I’ve been luck enough to see women go through this transition. Before a trip they’ll ask me about safety and what not, during a trip each day their hesitation slips a little further away and eventually you’ll find them making friends with just about anyone, gallivanting as they please, partying at places they could never think of visiting, sharing a quiet moment with a stranger turned friend, overcoming phobias as they dip their feet for a taste of adventure and ending trips with hugs, laughs and promises to travel more.
Seeing girls on Instagram and Facebook, travelling the world and sharing their adventures, especially Indian girls, makes me so happy. We’re still a small percentage but slowly and steadily we’re changing that, breaking stereotypes and fulfilling our own dreams. When I lead trips in small hill stations, I have occasionally had a driver or a vendor ask me, “Aap hi ho?”. How will a woman handle these 20-odd people in this terrain? So, I politely smile at them, tell them yes, work with them every day, sip cups of chai and converse, so that the next time I visit they smile and ask “Aur madame kaise hai?”. To build an equation with them too, so that one day they’ll know that their little girls can do it all too.
So, to all the girls who want to travel, this isn’t a story of rainbows and butterflies, it’s about why you should trek up hills to catch a rainbow, why you should run in open meadows chasing after butterflies, why travel won’t just feed your need for adventure but give you a taste of independence that you will get addicted to, a sense of confidence that will follow your footsteps as you walk in everyday life, let you surprise foreigners that Indian girls are doing this too, have you play games with local kids in dim lit lanes and share meals with folks from all walks of life, to share stories about your lives and theirs, to leave you wondering about them as they wonder about you wandering in your wild womanly ways.