There are three things women on the threshold of colossal change do: get a new hairstyle, get inked or travel solo. Of all the three it is that last decision which stretches an individual to lengths that change their warp and weave. It is not just about getting out of a comfort zone. It is about turning shy Mary into Wonder Woman, pronto, without giving her a choice.
When I left my parents’ house to start a new job and life in another city, I marked my independence with a new hairstyle (my mother had nightmares for days). However, after working 24/7 for seven years at a job that took a toll on my life and health, I bought a ticket to Goa. I shacked up in a hotel close to the beach.
For the next two weeks, I did everything I had not done for the last seven years. I ate breakfast for lunch and lunch for dinner. And dinner was on the beach at an ungodly hour when spirits of the nether world tangoed. I spent hours staring at the grey waves smudging into the black sky on the horizon or deciphering the language of the howling sea. In gigantic clouds on a moonlit sky, I saw horses riding dragons and damsels. They raced giant birds with their mane flowing. All the while I let the tears flow freely. Once they dried, I beachcombed. I roamed the sleepy lanes and bylanes. I had coffee by myself and with strangers. Ate bucket loads of fried prawns with nameless women and held hands with Russians with bulging forearms. All the while pretending to be someone else—till I found myself. Over the years, at various stages, solo travel has played many roles in my life—therapist, lover, friend, guide, partner-in-crime and so on.
Every woman (or man) should embark on a solo trip now and then. Like how celebrities indulge in an enema now and then. It cleanses your system inside out. It rejigs and rewires you. Travelling solo allows you the freedom to be whoever you want to be (or do what you want) without the fetters one combats in regular day-to-day life. More often than not you are your truest self when you travel solo. The echoes are often heeded when the bags are unpacked. This solo walk down the ‘freedom path’ is strewn with stunning discoveries. For example, dancing to Jailhouse Rock (playing in your mind), in a tree house 90 feet above the ground with only creatures of the night for company and clad in nothing but gentle breeze, rolling off the tree tops can be nirvana-esque.
It is on solo trips you learn to push through your fears—be it talking to strangers, walking alone into a fine dining restaurant or sleeping alone in strange places (keep the lights on). You learn to ‘ask’, to receive, to give and to take. Prejudices dissolve. You learn to trust humanity. Also, yourself too. Just like playing Sudoku, travelling solo engages your brain; it also makes you street-smart, sharpens your instincts, and opens your heart and mind to all that this world has to offer. (According to a survey, “Asian women and their influence on travel decisions” conducted by TripAdvisor, 68 per cent women believe they learn something about the world, 61 per cent women become more open-minded, and 33 per cent believe their outlook on life changes every time they travel solo.)
At 14, for instance, Evelyn Hannon met her husband-to-be. At 42, she was a divorced single mother of two. Up until then, she lived in a comfortable cocoon, her life revolving around her family. Now, she stood staring at an entire life ahead. And she had no clue where to begin. After spending a year in tears and loneliness, she took all her savings to a travel agent and asked for the “cheapest ticket to wherever”. She landed in Belgium with a small bag and no itinerary. For the next 35 days, she had a storybook adventure travelling around Europe. In her words “I soared in the heavens and wallowed in the depths. There were good days, and there were bad days. The music had not stopped. The melody was simply changing. This was only the beginning.”
Evelyn Hannon is known as the “mother of travel blogging” today. Now in her 70s, she started Journeywoman, an online newsletter (now magazine) in 1997 to help women travellers. She still travels several months in a year. When I met Hannon in Canada, she gave me a unique piece of advice: “Loneliness, my dear, is nothing to fear. Go, travel.”
This appeared in National Geographic Traveller India, July 2017 issue under the column titled Wayfaring