From the Editor – Rare and Elusive and Right Under Our Noses

Hello All,

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.

18 Comments

  • Tarun Talwar says:

    Vibha,

    You addressed an important topic in this article. We need many more women ghumakkars in our country to change the perception and make it safer for them to travel alone. After all, they want to see and experience the world as much as men do. Hope to see more articles coming our way from women gumakkars.

  • aurojit says:

    Hi Vibha,

    Great piece on the Venuses…. with all the claims of travels and travails, I never thought on this aspect, the fact that we already have a sizeable group on ‘The Indian Women Backpackers’.

    Ghumakkar fraternity, and all of us perhaps, could think of some ways to encourage them.

    Thanks for acquainting us of this silent bur substantial phenomenon.

    Auro.

  • Nandan says:

    One of our close friend is out on a trip to Austria with another female friend. Her hubby and 6 year old daughter are in good care and I guess this sounds like a great beginning for a solo travel for her, later. Though in urban setups, one can see these incidences but traveling solo is indeed rare. Few years back, I drove to Corbett (all by myself in the car cabin) to join my colleagues who where there on a vacation and that was not super easy. To imagine a women traveler doing it adds few more layers of scrutiny. You have hit the nail, Vibha. May be, conversations like these would probably help this rare phenomenon to become more common

    Lakshi, Nisha – Zindabad. :-). What are you guys upto these days ?

    • Nisha says:

      Thank you, Nandan.
      Travelling solo is indeed challenging. It’s difficult for even men, let alone women. ????? ?????? ?? ??? ???? ???? ?? | :) That too, if one is going without an agenda or destination. No wonder most of the people around me think I am insane. :)

  • maheh semwal says:

    Thanks for your motivational & encouraging Post.

  • Brady Stump says:

    Enjoyed the blog post!

  • Vibha says:

    Thanks all for the lovely comments.

    There is an important issue of security though that Nisha pointed out to me today on email. I think the entire country needs to wake up to make women feel more comfortable when they are out alone. Even in Delhi when women are driving alone, men frequently give them a good stare. A lot of us become very thick skinned to be able to continue with our lives….But it does not seem fair.

    While it is easier to get this message across to people who are connected on the internet, it is not so easy to send it to people who are not online. There does not seem to be a good solution for this issue so far. Hope an increase in the number of women travellers will make them used to the sight. Wish there was a quicker solution though!

    • Nisha says:

      Vibha,
      Thanks for writing this point.
      Yes, as I mentioned in the mail, as far as my experience goes, I feel travelling solo is much safer abroad than in India.
      The link you gave in the article, speaks about Indian people’s warmth towards a girl in a new place.
      But warmth & hospitality is one thing and safety another. Also, there is no age limit for getting harassed or assaulted when you are alone. A sixty year old woman is as much at risk as a sixteen year old. :)

  • venkatt says:

    A very thought provoking post Vibha! Hope it will inspire many more Nishas and Lakshmis to the world of travel.

  • Nisha says:

    Hi Vibha and others,

    Thank you very much for the mention and this post on Ghumakkar. Sorry for replying late as I was on the move.
    We don’t find many women travellers in this country, let alone doing solo. Solo is really a big term in Indian scenario. It needs a lot of courage and belief not only from women but from their family and friends to let it happen.
    All the best to solo woman traveller. I’ll be delighted to provide any guidance/support to anyone who wants to make it the way I do. :)

  • Nisha says:

    Vibha,
    I have replied to your comment separately.

    All,
    Thank you all. Yes, we need more women travellers.

  • Vibha says:

    Thanks Venkatt. Yes it takes only a handful of headstrong people to break the trend.

    Nisha, Thanks for your informative responses to my “survey” :). They made a lot of difference to my article.

  • lakshmi says:

    Thanks Nandan and Vibha ..travelling solo is always an exciting and challenging activity..I did go alone a month ago to the Nilgiris and the freedom was amazing..am off tomorrow for a weekend ..whats up with you guys ?

  • Nandan says:

    Long time Lakshmi.

    I am doing good, would be traveling to saat-taal with some friends tomorrow. :-)

  • Vibha says:

    Hey Lakshmi,

    Glad to hear from you and thanks for your replies to my survey!

    I am currently visiting India for my Easter vacations and will be flying back to the UK on 27th of April.

    Do share your experiences of the weekend with us.

    -Vibha

  • Sunil Katyal says:

    Hi Vibha,
    I am new to this site and I want to attach my photographs with my story. I would request you if you can help me out in this regard

  • Vibha says:

    Dear Sunil,

    I have responded to you on email.

    Looking forward,
    Vibha

  • JATINDER SETHI says:

    Vibha. Great. Thats what makes India(and Indians) Incredible. There is another trend I ,an old man,
    noticed at my recent visit to Haridwar on Mahashivratri,that almost 80% of the visitors to GANGES
    were between the ages of 25-30 years!. And almost third of them young women.And,mind you, not from some villeges but all hip town people. You just need to see the crowd at the AARTI in the evening to believe it.And at a place which is essentially associated with over 90s for the final holy Ganga dip.I think India ia awakening to its Heritage-thanks to people like you.

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