The lady's side of solo travel
Venturing to other countries is no longer a challenge, time-wise. It sometimes boggles the mind as to how it took over months for ships to travel from the Indian subcontinent to the British Isles, but that is how it was!
With 2019 now in full swing, the rise of female travellers choosing to head out on trips on their own is a most wonderful development amidst all the mundane motions of life. This not only reflects an international change, but also allows for women to connect better without boundaries. While facts and figures are easy to come by on travelling hours and money spent, the stories are the ones that live on. Talking to five different travellers, from the young and bold to the seasoned solo journey experts, we get a glimpse of a world that has to be seen on your own to be believed!
For any solo traveller, there is a purpose or a reason that makes them embark on this special journey.
Shahnaz Parveen, Broadcast Journalist at BBC Bangla addressed this directly, “There are two reasons to take a solo trip, speaking for myself. I would say it would be my desire to take a trip with my friends. But considering my age, and my friends and our circumstances, like lack of time and family managing and mismatch of holidays, as well as financial constraints, it didn't happen the way I wanted it to. It boils down to the fact that I want to go, but can't find someone to come along with me. That cannot mean that I will have to sit out of all these great trips while time passes by!
“For the younger travellers, it may be good to get a taste of freedom outside of their parents' jurisdiction. But for individuals like us who are more mature and have progressed further along the roads of life, specifically from my perspective, I would say, I had to get away from the daily grind that is Dhaka. Just think of it as a 'brain resetting,' go somewhere, be on your own, and unwind as you want, without anyone else to cause you the slightest of disruptions.”
Reema Islam, currently researching the heritage of food (and suffering from severe wanderlust) weighed in on this with her own interests, “I love going to museums and archaeological sites, so in most cases, it's always nice to be on my own, as I get to discover the place in peace. Furthermore, the experience of meeting new people and tagging along with new-found friends to visit a new place is also very special. I made numerous friends all over this way.”
Sheema Hossain, a travel enthusiast, focused on the freedom that can only be enjoyed by travelling alone had this to say, “I personally love solo trips because doing that gives you time to spend by yourself, doing only the things you love without having to consult anyone. There is no pressure to stick to a plan. It is also nice to break free of the cliché that women need to be chaperoned everywhere.”
Sarika Siraj, a young traveller, takes her solo travels as an opportunity to discover her inner self in a different environment. “For me, taking a solo trip anywhere is all about knowing
yourself better. With each decision taken, you get to know your limits and boundaries. Finding out these limits of your character help to understand which of them has been embedded in you culturally/socially, and which of them were originally yours. For example, culturally, we are taught not to trust strangers. However, when you travel solo, you will most definitely meet strangers, who later become acquaintances — friends who would help you to discover their city, culture, or lifestyle, and essential skills that you would never find in any books or travelogues. You will soon learn that not every stranger poses a danger to your life. The lessons of our culture should have been based on developing our intuition rather than just disbelieving any human being we come across. In my view, a solo journey is the best way to develop our intuitions. In the end, it adds up to your decision making and the choices you make throughout your life.”
Ayesha Rahman Chowdhury, a student in her final year at BRAC University, also shares this view, and sees solo travelling as more than just a leadership role — “As a female traveller, especially someone in their late teens/early twenties, it is really an essential learning tool, especially in Bangladesh. You learn to take responsibility for your affairs, and be aware of your actions, plus you handle monetary matters! Solo travelling can be taken as a 'stairway to adulting,' and for women who are often taught to be in roles where they follow orders in this patriarchal society, travelling solo puts them in a leadership role. Yes, they are in charge of themselves only, but I believe recognising the core individual within oneself is crucial to finding agency and power.”
Travelling inevitably brings with it a selection of stories. Frequent travellers often find themselves lost as they talk about a cup of coffee at Marrakech, and then drift off into a dreamy description of a hidden little trinket shop somewhere in London.
Yet, there are some amongst them that are the most memorable ones.
“I was once stranded in Nepal due to a transport strike, but I ended up being offered to be driven back with a group of female Chinese monks, who chanted prayers and shared their food with me along the way. There is always space for at least one person! Another time, a taxi driver in Barcelona took me to his house, and his wife fed me till I could not move, simply because he found out that, like him, I too was born in Libya!” said Reema Islam when recounting her most memorable trips.
Shahnaz Parveen, when asked about her first solo trip, says, “I chose a country I was familiar with, was closer, and could be considered an easier travel option — so Thailand it was!
I knew it was a modern enough place to visit, with something for just about everyone. Culture, nature, shopping, whatever you can think of, it is all there, and can fit just about any budget you can think of.
I visited Bangkok of course, as well as Ayutthaya, plus Kanchanaburi — made famous by the movie, 'The Bridge on The River Kwai.' I have been to Thailand quite a number of times, but this trip in 2012 was the one to remember.
Now, if you want to talk about memorable, I have a rather not-so memorable experience here. My tuk-tuk driver (tuk-tuks are the quintessential travel buggies in Thailand) took me to a very remote place. I ended up taking a boat, using the backwaters in a roundabout way to move on farther. If it were a scenic route, it would have been perfectly alright, but all I came across was dirty, slimy water, in short nothing to write home about, especially since it cost around 1000 baht!
I have been to China recently, then again, I have been to China quite a few times, but this one had a slight hiccup. One major barrier in China is the language, and the other, of course, is the ban on all sorts of websites. As things would happen, my arrival flight was a bit delayed, and I ended up missing a connecting flight. So as it stood, I had landed late in the evening and I was really tired after travelling for almost 24 hours, which meant I was exhausted. I had already checked out a subway route to my hotel beforehand. The taxi fare from Beijing airport to my hotel versus the subway fare on the same route had a vast difference. Before taking the subway, I bought a SIM card and the seller there, after taking a look at the printed route I had at hand, told me that it was a pretty roundabout route. He offered new directions, and by following this new route, I ended up on the opposite side of the avenue on which my hotel was at. You can understand that momentary panic in such a tired state of mind. I still wonder if that was done intentionally, or if I missed something, but at that very moment, it was nothing short of a panic.
Out of the seventeen countries I have visited so far, this I would say, was the strangest incident, if you can say that. At the same time, this also changed into one the kindest gestures I had seen so far. I was still at the subway, and was struggling to ask what I should do to get to my hotel. After some time, a quite friendly young woman approached me and understood my predicament. She did not just lead me to the bus stop for the bus I would have to take; she rode it with me till I reached the hotel, and waited until I got into the lobby. It took her an hour to accompany me to a direction that was completely the other way from her own residence.”
Sarika Siraj, however, recalled a common, but less talked about predicament for women going on their journeys —
“A really struggling memory would be the time when I went trekking solo in the mountains in Italy. It was my first day of walking, and I got my period within the first three hours of walking. I had a nearly 13 kilometre walk ahead of me, and my menstrual cramps started to kick in. At some point, it got so bad that I had to take a break every 10 minutes, and started to worry whether I would be able to reach the next village before dark. I was lying on some stone or even the ground, in some unknown forest, with no sign of anyone around, and a severe pain in my lower abdomen. The only thing I told myself to keep going was, I am not going to stop just because the universe decided to make me suffer physically at this unexpected place and time. In the end, I did manage to reach the next village on time, with an exhausted body and a fulfilled soul.”
As travelling serves to give a new sense of being, Siraj recalls one thought provoking encounter.
“I have met a number of spiritual people on my travels. One of them was a Sadhu walking bare feet in the mountains of Nepal. He left his house at the age of ten and never went back home. His whole life has been the different ashrams in India and Nepal. The conversation we had about spirituality, and finding God is one I will forever keep close to my memory.
Upon asking how he found God in himself, he replied 'it is a matter of practice, it is not something to achieve in one day, just the way living a meaningful life is a matter of practice, where each moment of your life seems meaningful to you, even if not to anyone else. We can only have a sense of purpose when we practice it every day. And to me, that purpose is to be with my God as much as possible.'
His story inspired me to understand the importance of practice. It doesn't matter what the practice is about, but if the practice is done with full dedication, it is possible to reach any goal; even a goal like meeting God.”
Travelling has transformed in dimensions. While the methods and mediums of travel have not changed, there have been implicit and direct changes overall through technology and global connectivity.
Sheema Hossain pointed out the ease of photo sharing from anywhere, and said, “I think Instagram has really changed the way we see travel, and pictures posted by popular Instagram-ers travelling alone has encouraged more women to do so on a global scale.”
Regarding the increased number of women travellers, not only in groups, but for those who are going on their own, things have seen better light as the years pass by.
On this, Reema Islam said, “People have changed little, but immigration is much less of a hassle, as more women travel now, for work, or otherwise. Even a few years ago, when I was travelling alone to Nepal, the Bangladesh immigration stopped me for questioning, but that does not happen as often anymore. In many countries, solo women have easier access to hiring cars or getting a place on their own, places where, initially, this was frowned upon. However, while travelling, depending on where you are, attitudes from the local people have not changed much at all. They still treat you with a bit of caution, or are wary of a lady who is on her own, and will either try to be helpful, or stay away. But in most cases, the advantage is that it is much easier to accommodate one person. The downside is that women do need to be always on their guard”.
Ayesha Rahman Chowdhury agreed on the increased number of women travellers as well, but also mentions opportunities that have grown out of this unique situation.
“Over the years, it has become much easier to travel alone for women. But there are still some concerns regarding safety, and we still have to be extra conscious about our surroundings and local notions. Business opportunists have tapped into this niche of the tourism industry, making it more acceptable and possible for women to navigate local areas and places around the globe on their own.”
While going through numerous stories and admiring the endeavours of others, many young women have yet to undertake their first journey alone. Going to a certain place within the country, or outside of the continent for work or studies is one thing, but just for the sake of travelling is another. The dilemma of safety concerns, more often than not, overcomes the iron clad will to visit a place.
Sarika Siraj, however, weighs in on the reality of this, and offers her first tip for the soon-to-be solo traveller, saying, “Never be afraid!”
“It is true that travelling solo as a girl involves some risks, but so does walking on the streets of Dhaka. You could suddenly die in an accident, but that does not stop you from going outside. So, why would you stay home, pondering on the question of assault? For me, it has never been a reason to stop myself from doing what I want to do. Being afraid, and staying inside feeds the oppressors more than anything else. It is by being afraid that we let injustice win. So, be fearless and do what you want to do. Trust your intuitions.”
Ayesha Rahman Chowdhury commented on the issue of safety, saying, “As a tip, I would suggest staying connected and finding reliable contacts wherever you may travel, within Bangladesh or overseas. Finding properly reviewed places to stay is another thing. Often, people overlook these criteria in order to reserve a cheaper accommodation, but it's now much easier to find affordable options which are also safe and comfortable, especially with options such as AirBnb and Couchsurfing.”
The seasoned travellers too focus on safety. Shahnaz Parveen emphasised on the importance of proper researching, not only on the destination, but several logistical issues as well, including arrival times and travel routes.
“Travelling in Bangladesh, you can get by one way or another, even if you are short on cash. But that is not the case when you are in a foreign land, especially on your own. There may be situations that call for more than quick wits and common sense, and money may as well be that solution.”
“I would also avoid travelling by night or picking flights that land in the evening or at midnight. The best solution is to travel by day and reach a good stopover by sundown, if not the main destination. And make the best use of translation apps and international SIM cards,” she added.
Finances are a matter if you are travelling, whether it is at home or abroad. But there is a tendency to overlook finer matters like personal interests. On this, Sheema Hossain added, “Travel is expensive. It is amazing for building character and a sense of self sufficiency, but it is also a luxury, and should be treated as such. Don't feel pressured into spending on a trip you can't afford just because your friends travel a lot. If it is something close to your heart, I recommend planning and saving well ahead.”
Coming to Reema Islam, she advised to “...have a proper plan of action. Even if you go somewhere without a plan, be prepared, and come off as someone that knows what she is doing, or at least have a general idea of what you want to do and how to do it. It's great to be friendly and a smile gets you through any situation. But just to be safe, stick to travelling with either groups of people you meet along the way, or more than one person if you can. It helps with the costs as well.”
Travelling, at its core, is an enriching experience. It should not be treated as a competition, but rather, embraced as part of becoming one with the ever shrinking world. It is less about the Instagram posts that cheapen the memories, and more about the journey and the new vistas. For the traveller in your soul, take that leap for once; don't throw too much caution out to the wind though! Go on happy journeys and come back with quirky stories that will live on.
Photo: Shahnaz Parveen, Reema Islam, Sheema Hossain, Sarika Siraj