Updated: Jan 26, 2022
It was 11PM, and I was wet, shivering, alone and female in a grimy, deserted bus-station in the outskirts of Bucharest- a city 5000 miles from my hometown. I recalled a famous line from the 2007 hit Bollywood movie Jab We Met.
Geet, the bubbly protagonist is stranded on a railway station in a small town in the heart of India, and the station master promptly starts explaining the perils of being a solo traveler. "Akeli ladki khuli tijori ki tarah hoti hai", he says.
A girl by herself is like a safe with an open door.
That night in Bucharest was one of the many instances of my solo travel experiences that almost convinced me to never do it again. What girl in her right mind allows her soul to climb up rootless trees, leaves her wallet within grasp of handsy pickpockets and lets her vagina stray by itself on streets across the continent? But call it the death wish- a sub-conscious desire that humans have for death- which is why some of us smoke till our lungs blacken, drink till our livers explode, surf dangerous waves till the sea engulfs us and pet tigers till they eat us.
Equating solo travel with death wish? Most Indian women will nod their head vigorously. We wake up to too many news reports of rape and sexual assault to believe that our bodies merit being let out unguarded. We have been cat-called too many times in the streets to be comfortable enough to stop and admire the street. We have been touched too many times in public transport to trust cheap travel and have had too many leering eyes on us even in safe spaces like temples and family functions. And for most of us, it really isn’t about ‘taking charge’ and ‘go take that trip, sister’. It is about unwinding years of anxiety that makes us share our GPS location to our fathers, husbands and boyfriends every time we end up stepping outside alone.
All of this was rushing through my mind as I waited for my bus in Bucharest. That was when I heard a man talking on the phone behind me. He was cursing violently in- I gasped- Gujarati, my mother tongue from back home. I turned around and we exchanged knowing, comfortable, brown smiles. I don’t know if he heard the sigh of relief I released, or what it meant for me to have a familiar and safe looking person around me that night. It turned out that we were waiting for the same bus to Sophia (Bulgaria), and we spent the next day exploring the beautiful city together. (Ending up meeting fellow Gujaratis in remote parts of the world is another story for another time)
And since then, every time I feel solo travel anxiety bubbling inside me- like that time I found out I would have to cycle 12 miles from a remote French village to reach the next train station, when I lost my way for an hour in picturesque Delft (Netherlands) without network, when I almost missed the last bus to reach the airport on a small Greek island, or when it started raining late in the night in Rome and I was too broke to afford a bus ride to my hostel 8 miles away- instead of thinking of the 100 things that could go wrong, I forced myself to think of that time in Bucharest when I did not die.
Women looking for solo travel trips- take the leap of faith and live your own anxiety ridden experiences to slowly arrive on the conclusion that though not without its own challenges, solo traveling can be liberating, exhilarating and a big fuck you to everything you have been told so far. Know that behind every #wanderlust, #solotravel Instagram post there is a rough, behind the envelope calculation of just how many things must go right for a woman to end up in a cute selfie rather than the newspapers next day. Here are some tips to help you travel by yourself like an absolute Queen (2014).
1. Travel in broad daylight: I have had to build spreadsheets to ensure I did not end up moving from point A to B any time after dark. Crimes do happen in broad daylight too, but at least we have the satisfaction of having witnesses who can testify in court post-humous
2. Keep a fully charged phone, phone charger and a battery bank with you always: And then use that smart phone for smart bookings. I cannot imagine how wanderers of yore functioned- How did it work? You just walk up to the station and hope you get a reservation? You knock multiple hostels till one gives you a bed? You sleep on the pavement if neither works out? What were the rules?
3. Use, re-use, abuse, marry, and have kids with Google Maps: Can we take a moment to appreciate how Google maps has revolutionized female solo traveling? Imagine not knowing if this very deserted looking route that your driver just took will actually take you to your destination or your grave.
4. Keep your wits about you: I do not believe that women are inherently born with a sixth sense, but years of keeping yourself guarded from the world must have created some neuron networks in your brain that keep your reflexes very sharp, no?
Go take that solo trip, sister. It sucks. You’re gonna love it.