Before everything else, I would like to welcome our brilliant newbies. In case you have missed their debuts, please take a moment now to visit their author pages now:
Amit Kumar – His Author Page
Amit Narain – His Author Page
Bharat Gopalakrishnan – His Author Page
Navneet Bisht – His Author Page
Ravi Singh – His Author Page
Sameer Athalye – His Author Page
Sucheta Dasgupta – Her Author Page
Vasu Mathur – His Author Page
Vinay Rajput – His Author Page
Hope everyone’s settled in and feeling at home amongst fellow ghumakkars. To honor the ever-expanding ghumakkar community, this month’s editorial is about another trend in ghumakkari that is gaining popularity at a pace that we are oblivious of and, that too, right under our noses.
They are rare and they are elusive. In fact, they are so difficult to spot that at times their existence is shrugged off as another unsolved mystery in the same league as the Little Green Men from Mars and the Loch Ness Monster. However, for us at Ghumakkar, they are a reality since we can proudly boast that we have them amongst us. Yes, we are talking about that rising and rapidly multiplying breed of travellers – The Indian Women Backpackers. If you have been reading Ghumakkar regularly, you could not have missed Nisha Jha’s recap of her travels in her story. And those of you who have been around long enough would have immediately thought of our original backpacker, Lakshmi Sharath, whose Ghumakkar ID ‘backpakker’ says it all. Indians are social people and when someone talks about travelling alone, the first question that comes up is “Why? Won’t you get bored?” And if you are a woman, you have to fight through additional layers of approvals and disapprovals. You need to have a certain ‘dabang’ streak to be able to rise through these social barricades and to fulfil your dreams. A woman travelling alone is not such a rare sight in the Western world. Neither is a western woman travelling alone in India such a rare sight. But when an Indian Woman travels alone with no fixed agenda in India, it is a sight that few are ready to accept without questioning.
In an effort to find out about what motivates these travellers, I asked both Nisha and Lakshmi about how and where they embarked on their first journeys alone. For Nisha, her “first ever trip alone was for appearing for some competitive exam in another city in India.” Since then apart from travelling in India, Nisha has been to 21 countries and “each of them holds some special memories”. The challenges that travelling alone throws at her every day keep her motivated and each solo trip adds to her confidence. Lakshmi has been travelling for so many years and to so many places that she cannot exactly recall how it started for her. She says “have travelled alone as a student or as a professional and I guess I started just that way”. For her, travelling is a way of life and in her own words, she is “sort of addicted to it”. Travelling solo means that they can choose their own activities, places, mode of transportation and hotels.
For women backpackers the strife usually begins at home. We are not used to seeing our daughters travel alone. Until recently, parents were wary of letting their girls go out in groups and, even today, this continues to be the point of contention in many families. It is no surprise then that travelling solo is unthinkable for most of us. The concern is usually security with crimes against women rising every day. However, there is also the metaphorical magnifying glass through which the conduct of a woman is inspected in our society and, as a result, propriety is another concern. Due to various social reasons, independent women are still looked at with a lot of suspicion and families want to fiercely protect their girls against any mishap or questionable reputation. This is perhaps the toughest barrier to break for a woman backpacker in India. Nisha who is a seasoned traveller now says “later it became habit though parents were always concerned as any parent of a girl would have been”. Things invariably get tougher after marriage because then you have two sets of worrying parents to convince. As in case of Nisha whose first solo trip after marriage to the USA “was vehemently opposed by both sets of parents since it was for around a year and leaving your newly wedded husband behind was something they could not come to terms with.” It requires a great deal of conviction and self-assurance to break through this barrier of concern without hurting people close to you. And, of course, a supporting spouse helps a great deal. You, however, have to be fairly thick-skinned to not let yourself get effected by the distant relatives who think that they have a say in how you should lead your life. And then there is the other side of the coin too where families are more worried about a particular destination “but not the concept of travelling” as in case of Lakshmi.
Once the backpackers have convinced people at home, they constantly come across people who refuse to accept that they are travelling solo by choice and without a ‘Majboori’. Some women deal with this with stubbornness and some women just laugh it off. But all of them quickly realize that there is no point trying to tell these people that they don’t need to justify themselves to the world all the time. When people cannot see your point of view, it is better to just carry on with your business so that people get so bored of seeing solo Indian women hitting the road that they stop bothering with them. When asked about the typical reactions of people she encounters on her backpacking trip, Nisha says that the most frequent question that she faces is “Which country are you from?” because the words Indian, Women, and Backpacker don’t appear together so often. As per Lakshmi, she meets “all sorts of people – some are surprised, some don’t care.”
Curious bystanders are one thing but when it comes to people who are a part of your travel routines, such as the train TC, the hotelwallah, the guide etc, you may not be able to give them the truth as it is and get your way with things after that. At times the women backpackers have had to hide behind lies such as “I am here for work” to be able to get a decent room in a decent hotel as pointed out in the article “These Indian women travel solo, but safe.” Like the first woman who wore pants, these women are, however, agents of a change that will eventually lead to a society that accepts women with a strong sense of individuality and identity.
Women backpackers are as adventurous as their male counterparts though they have to be more alert and at times may need to make compromises in terms of the places they want to hike to or stay the night at because of some obvious security concerns. These travellers are impulsive but also carry a practical head on their shoulders. Nisha considers herself a traveller and therefore she prefers backpacking over a planned tour. In her opinion, “those who take well-planned vacations are tourists, not travellers.” She likes to explore the unexplored and Africa, Siberia and Cambodia are just some of the places in her wish list. Lakshmi, though fine with any destination, likes to do a “safety check” on the destination before she travels. Both Nisha and Lakshmi advise fellow women backpackers to be alert, careful and responsible and to keep your family informed about your whereabouts regularly. Lakshmi feels that travelling alone in India and the rest of the world pose similar challenges for a woman. Some backpackers, however, insist that women travelling alone are safer in India because the locals are very friendly and hospitable and their doors are always open to you. But this may be true more for Indian women than for foreign women because of a stark difference in cultures.
Travelling helps one evolve and travelling solo is a great way to discover and understand oneself. However, it takes a great deal of courage to embark on that first trip and then to push yourself for each subsequent trip. The results are more-often-than-not rewarding. For the uninitiated, there are clubs like WOW (Women on Wanderlust) who organize women-only trips throughout the world. These can be a great starting point for your career as a backpacker. With lives getting busier, it is getting more and more difficult to take time out as a family and even to take time out for oneself. While travelling solo can definitely not replace the fun that you have with your family, it can help satisfy the travel bug inside you and help you rejuvenate to deal with the demands of the professional and personal lives. While India may not be better than the other countries for women travelling solo, it is a relief to find out that it is not any more dangerous than the other countries and, at least for Indian women, exudes a warmth that is so typical of an Indian home. But a good research and a great deal of planning must go into planning your solo trips. Browse the internet and go through as many lists of dos and donts and don’t forget your pepper spray because when you are out in the world alone, you have to be on your toes every second and that, in a way, adds to the charm. After all, what is the fun of achieving something if there is no risk involved? It is like swimming with the sharks where the surroundings are not necessarily out to get you but it will be foolish to assume that they are your best friends.