This weekend, I begin my first backpacking trip, and my first solo trip. I am too ‘old’ for the former and besides, have spent many years preparing for and then climbing the rungs of the corporate ladder, primarily with the view of funding my travel adventures. Firmly of the opinion that we should spend our money on experiences (stationery supplies and useless kitchen gadgets being outside the purview of this rule) I have first squirreled away and then spent my money on everything from scuba diving in the Andaman Sea, eating Pisang Gulung in Bali, dancing with the Maasai women in Kenya, plunging into the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean right outside my island resort in Maldives, and jumping from a plane above Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand. Please note how I have painstakingly drawn up this list to prove a) how cool I am and b) the no-expenses spared aspect of my travels.
Backpacking? Not so much.
I have had the privilege to work for firms and companies through whom I have visited several beautiful (and some not so beautiful) places in India and overseas – often, alone. I have worn the abaya and hijaab in the Middle East, the business suit in Europe and the sari in the interiors of India and parts of the subcontinent, all with an appropriate amount of whining about early morning flights and long transits. Barring a few occasions (mostly in Europe), I have been greeted by liveried chauffeurs holding up placards with my name at the arrival and then been welcomed by swans made of towels on my hotel bed. The one-off insalubrious instance of a rash cabbie or a dirty guesthouse has been mostly dealt with swiftly by my employer or client. I have written all of this down to show a) how fortunate I have been and b) how no expenses have been spared to ensure my air-conditioned safety, more so when I have traveled alone.
Solo budget travel? Not so much.
I agree that I may have taken safety a tiny bit granted when I signed with with AAO Hostels, to solo backpack and contribute to their vision of promoting backpacking in India. However, with every subsequent conversation with friends and family, I have become less blinkered. My exciting news has been greeted with hushed whispers of ‘is it safe?’, ‘only if you were backpacking anywhere but in India,’ to without fail, every single time, ‘carry pepper spray!’. Overnight, my country, whose national anthem still brings a lump to my throat, has been populated by leering men who can only demonstrate their power by stripping mine.
I am ashamed. Of my lecherous country men. And of myself for thinking that it’s fine for a woman to pay for her safety or have it paid for. Afraid of being groped on a public bus? Just hire an Uber (but not when you are drunk). Scared of being pawed at in an overnight train? Simply spring for those exorbitant flight tickets. In reality, it is not fine. Private plunge pools in hotels are a luxury, safety is a fundamental (and free) right.
An ex-colleague recently confided that she has spent the better part of her life worrying about and actively avoiding sexual harassment. I know her to be one of those phenomenal women, strong and wise, who can kick some serious rear in a corporate board room. Yet, she gasped with fear at the mere thought of solo budget travel. Our danger antennas, honed to detect the faintest presence of ‘unsavory elements’ in the vicinity of two square kilometers, has become our downfall. Some of us have often chosen which route to take, or the life path to follow, based not on what’s efficient or right for us, but sadly, on what assures of better chances of keeping our ‘modesty from being outraged’.
The more scared I am, the more times I receive advice of pepper spray and self defense, the more times my mum calls me in the hope that I have changed my mind, the more determined I become to see this travel through. Travel, for me, is about turning that page, rounding the bend in the river, and walking the hidden by-lanes (often, in the quest of good local food). I know it’s not for every girl. But for the woman who wants to travel, the ability to pay for her safety, should not be a pre-requisite to purchasing a ticket.
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…
…Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”
I like to believe that Tagore wrote this as a prayer on the behalf of both the men and the women of his country.