Female Solo travel for the first time …. the beginning of the journey
It was a long, dry summer in 2010 in the heart of India. I was no stranger to the endless summers of coastal India – the kind where your shirts cling needily to your back and your lungs breathe in air swollen with moisture. But here in the northern, landlocked state of Punjab, the summers were very different. Where summers in Mumbai buzz with flies, activity, and downpours, the summers in Punjab felt like they slowed things down. It was a different kind of heat altogether; the dryness settled on your lips as your heart slowed down so you could breathe slower.
Through a turn of events, I had found myself in a toy train inching up the rim of the arid Kangra valley surrounded by local inhabitants of small Punjabi towns. My destination was Dharamsala, renowned as the place where the Dalai Lama had arrived when he was exiled from Tibet; a haven for yogis and Buddhists alike. This toy train, called the Kangra Valley Express, only six carriages long, was the slow way to get to my eventual destination and I had opted for it instead of a flight. I had hopped on with limited knowledge of what I was getting into.
Before I could make sense of my surroundings, a few dozen women and children had squeezed into every available area of the carriage, well past the maximum stated capacity of 45. And just when I thought we would burst at the seams, more women and children squeezed into any remaining molecule of space. And there I was in the middle of it all frantically searching for any sense of familiarity with the situation. My backpack, which held every possession I had with me, was doubling as a seat for three lanky children. Women who were seated on the floor of the coach had someone else’s children on their laps so they could make space for more passengers. The lilts of Punjabi swirled around me disorienting me further. After what seemed like an eternity, the train begrudgingly sidled out of the train station.
As the train snaked through the hillside, I glimpsed breathtaking views of the Kangra valley and the snow-laden Dauladhar mountain ranges in the distance. The snow – I yearned for its coolness as my skin felt like it was on fire. As we passed one nondescript village after another, I eased into my situation, taking in the women draped in colorful salwar kameez who were spiritedly and loudly exchanging stories. I watched with some trepidation as children, no older than 12, hung their bronzed legs out of the coach door, dangling them into the abyss of the valley.
Solo travel in India …. the plot thickens
I had lived in India for a few years of my life but the foreign-ness of the context I was in struck me. The India I grew up in was laden with the familiar shapes and sounds of the city brimming with activity into the wee hours of the night, a cacophony of people chasing dreams and ambitions and pouring out of automobiles, rickshaws, and buses to get on with their lives. Here, a 1,000 miles away from the familiar sounds of Mumbai, I was in an as unfamiliar a space as if I was in a different part of the world.
[bctt tweet=”And with no one else I knew there to share the experience with, I found myself soaking in every inch of it, mesmerized as much by the newness of it as with how I had found myself there.” username=”tripsntripups”]
I was on solo travel for the first time. I had chosen to come to India because even though I had lived there, I had long suspected there were sides to her that were completely unknown to me. Against all the advice and cautionary tales, I had charted a course of travel through India, starting with the familiar cities of Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore in the south and ending up in the Northern region, much less familiar to me and my South Indian family.
I couldn’t completely tell you why I had decided to travel this solo other than that I was fresh out of a master’s degree in New York City and found myself with 3 weeks to wander before I had to start my full-time job in Chicago. Back in 2010, there weren’t a lot of women who were choosing to do this and certainly no one I knew was embarking on solo trips. But, somewhere the introvert in me was piqued by the idea of having the journey over the next 3 weeks to myself.
[bctt tweet=”What I didn’t know back then and hadn’t prepared for was how many times I would be forced to push myself out of my comfort zone to talk to complete strangers.” username=”tripsntripups”]
Is solo travel fun? … making friends along the way
When the toy train finally delivered me to Dharamsala, unharmed if a little shaken by my impulsive journey, I stood in the large, grungy bus station waiting for the bus that would take me on my last leg to end up in McCleod Ganj. Yet again, I found myself disoriented and unsure of what to do with myself. I spied 2 young women with their backpacks in the corner of the bus stop conversing with each other in familiar accents. One American and one Australian. I quickly averted my eyes before they could find me staring at them. Up till that point, I had the “don’t talk to strangers” childhood lesson well and truly engrained in my head. Moreover, having spent most of my life in large cities, and most recently, the last two years in New York City, I was trained in the street-cred-school of “you wouldn’t dare waste a stranger’s time on a casual chat”. Stone-cold stares and looking-right-past-yous were the nonverbal language of the metropolis where frivolous conversations got in the way of the daily hustle. I just wasn’t used to it any other way.
[bctt tweet=”But here, so far away from anything or anyone I knew, I found a comforting familiarity with strangers who seemed as foreign to the situation as I was. ” username=”tripsntripups”]
So, against all my city training and intuition, I walked over to the two girls and struck up a conversation starting with an awkward hello. I ended up sharing a room with those girls and after we met a group of American men traveling together at a rooftop bar, we all traveled down to Amritsar a few days later.
[bctt tweet=”There is something so strange initially of being in surroundings completely unfamiliar with no one to rely on but yourself that strangers become less strange to you.” username=”tripsntripups”]
How to enjoy solo travel … doing it your way
Teaching English one warm afternoon
Between that bus ride into McLeod Ganj and the trip down to Amritsar, I found myself with a few days to soak in the bohemian and spiritual vibes of the small town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. I roamed the streets, took yoga classes, ate lots of momos, marinated in spirituality at the Buddhist temples, joined dance and chanting circles, spent an evening teaching a Buddhist monk to read English and breathed in lots of clean mountain air. And the whole time, I had no one to account for my time or my whereabouts other than myself. It was liberating. Parents, teachers, friends, boyfriends – you are trained to think of your life in relationship to them. In fact, you are probably often thinking about your relationship with people you don’t even know that well; who’s judging you, who do you have to put up a guard against, who will do you good, who will harm you?
[bctt tweet=”But traveling alone allows you to explore your relationship with yourself. Who are you when you aren’t a daughter, student, friend, girlfriend? Who do you choose to be when no one around knows anything about you? ” username=”tripsntripups”]
[bctt tweet=”What do you want your story to be when your life’s baggage was left a few thousand miles away? ” username=”tripsntripups”]
How solo travel changes you … traveling inward and outward
These are the questions you get to explore when you travel solo as I did on that first solo trip in India. In a way I hadn’t expected, traveling solo opened the world up to me. When you have to strike up conversations with complete strangers putting some amount of faith in them to ensure your safety, you find yourself regaining faith in humanity. As it turns out, the world isn’t out to get me, or you. In fact, most of the time people are just trying to get by themselves. When given the chance, most of the time people are genuine and kind to foreigners who might seem lost or disoriented in their land.
[bctt tweet=” Solo travel has given me renewed confidence in myself, the ability to navigate things situations rich in discomfort and the unfamiliar. ” username=”tripsntripups”]
A year later, when I decided to move alone to Moscow, Russia
for a few months for a work assignment, I found myself yet again in a complete state of disorientation walking outside my hotel room looking at the Red Square surrounded by Cyrillic road signs and people communicating in Russian. But this time, I knew the foreign-ness of the situation would pass and I would be just fine. Even in Russia, a 1,000 miles away from anything or anyone familiar, I would find kind strangers who would be temporary friends. I would find the courage to deal with all the unfamiliar situations that would push it to the edge of my comfort zone.
Have any questions about solo travel? Ever considered it and decided against it? Ever traveled solo and want to share your experiences? Where did you first travel solo? Post it in the comments; I would love to hear your stories and answer all the questions you have.