“I want to go by myself,” I told my grandmother one night in early July. For nearly two years, I had been imagining a trip to the Himalayan region of Ladakh in northern Kashmir. Like many Indians, I first became enchanted with Ladakh–desert mountains paired with glacier springs and enchanting blue lakes–in 2011, after watching 3 Idiots, a Bollywood movie in which the protagonists race on curvy, treacherous mountain roads on a quest to find a long lost friend, and reunite him with the love of his life. Originally, I had planned to make the trip with a cousin, and when he told me he would be unable to travel with me, I found myself scrambling to find a travel partner.
I was all but explicitly (but basically) told that I would not/could not/should not travel to alone. Although relatively (read, really very) safe, Ladakh is considered to be one of India’s most remote regions. Leh, the biggest town/city in the region, rests at an altitude of almost 11,500 feet, there is limited cell phone service, and is primarily accessible by a road journey that can takes at least two days, and can take much longer depending on road conditions. Traveling alone would have meant that I would have, first, made the journey, traveling not only by air, but also possibly by bus, alone. And second, spent ten days in one of the most remote, high altitude regions of India, alone. ALONE! Can you fathom it? That a 24 year-old woman might travel ALL BY HERSELF for ten days? Unimaginable. Of course, the impossibility of my traveling alone was masked in a slurry of coded terms and phrases: “Do you have the disposition to travel alone? I don’t think you do, you are very hot-headed,” or “You will get lonely,” and “you need someone to talk about your day with.” BUT WHAT IF WE LET THOSE THINGS HAPPEN TO GIRLS? If we allowed them to be lonely, to get sick, to deal with people? BEWARE, it might end! it might end!
So, I succumbed. I invited my 19 year-old cousin to come along, and set out to plan the journey. And, along the way submitted to all (okay, most of) the suggestions thrown my way: “two girls shouldn’t travel alone by bus, so PLEASE, PLEASE, for my sake travel by air,” and “you MUST, MUST have an itinerary set by the travel company or the hotel, to avoid getting stranded. It will be much easier.” After weeks of planning, the plane tickets had been booked, an itinerary set, and reservations made, and despite everyone’s shock that “the two girls are going alone?” my cousin and I set out for Leh with plans to spend ten days exploring monastaries, mountains, rivers, and lakes.
Unfortunately, just two days into our journey, my travel companion fell ill, and decided to head home for recovery. And I, the 24 year-old girl, found herself doing the unimagined: traveling alone. Recently, a Verizon commercial was praised for “reveal[ing] all the ways we hold girls back” by showing how, in the words of Amanda Marcotte, “we not only value beauty, but also prioritize neatness, quiet, and safety in girls while encouraging risk-taking and confidence in boys.” All of my training has taught me to trouble and reject the notion that American/Western women are “liberated,” whereas women of the Global South are “oppressed,” but nowhere is this reality–that we train women to be neat, quite, and safe–impressed upon me as starkly as it has been during my multiple visits to Ahmedabad over the past several years. Although I have been traveling [alone] to Ahmedabad every year for three years, each time I am met with comments by extended family members about the kind of pluck I must have to come to India; to travel by auto-rickshaw alone; to visit slums or other unknown territories. At the same time, they are impressed that I [apparently?] embrace “Indian culture” by speaking Gujarati well, by wearing Indian clothes, and by obligatorily serving visitors with water and snacks (males first, always). These same family members are also want to take an opportunity to comment on my body, to say, for example, that “my structure has become very fit” (WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN), and are unlikely to ask me substantive questions about my work. But really, my intention is not only to rant about how deeply rooted is the notion that girls should be neat, docile, and safe in comparison to their adventurous and risk-taking male counterparts. My point is that in addition to all of those things, we also fail at teaching girls how to be alone: how to be bored; how to invent their own fun in the absence of others; how to be silent; how to take time just to ponder, and to imagine.
And three days into my trip, I was left to do just these very things, and to entertain myself, with my own devices, for a whole week. And funnily enough, not only was I an Indian woman traveling by herself, but I was an Indian woman traveling by herself in her very own taxi, an unheard of proposition. While many people traveling alone at my age, might have taken a more adventurous, cost-effective approach to traveling solo by staying at guest houses and joining on treks and expeditions ad hoc, my trip had been planned in a more touristic manner, and that included my very own [male] driver. Finally, I found myself doing the unfathomable: traveling alone in the middle nowhere, with no one to rescue me–except my driver; who would have, in the popular imagination, have had every opportunity to take advantage of me.
After it became clear that I would be spending a week traveling alone, I decided to cut off all contact: all relatives in Ahmedabad were told, explictly, that they were not to contact me until I returned to Delhi the following week. No longer would I be checking in at the end of every day to placate relatives losing sleep over my safety. After months of Facebook feminism, it was time to put my ideas into practice. And my first instinct, after elation that my dream of “traveling alone” had finally come to fruition, was to panic.
My first so excursion was to Nubra Valley–a landscape characterized by the confluence of both desert sand dunes and marshy river valley surrounded by the Himalayan mountains. From Leh, the journey to Nubra Valley took 6 hours, and involved traveling past the Khardungla Pass, the highest motorable road in the world, at an altitude of 17,582 feet. Although the road was unimaginably beautiful, the journey was also harrowing. The high altitudes combined with 6 hours of constant motion and a beating sun left me exhausted, and when I first arrived at my camp, I found myself paralyzed, unable to orient my lonely self; to decide what to do next. Before leaving Leh, the man who had organized my intinerary suggested that I find Tashi when I arrived in Nubra Valley, and after introducing myself [rather awkwardly] to Tashi, I tried [unsuccessfully] to take a nap; wandered aimlessly around the campgrounds; and eventually parked myself under a tree to read Moby Dick, all the while silently panicking about the seemingly endless loneliness I was bound to confront in the coming days.
But SURPRISE, I survived, and had a wonderful time too. Indeed, the loneliness was sometimes daunting. Mostly because I often found myself unsure of how to pass the hours until bedtime. But it was during those those seemingly endless stretches of time that I found myself relishing the loneliness. For example:
I rode a two-humped camel through sand dunes at sunset:
I went swimming in this stream, with this view:
I dozed in the afternoon sun, and read Moby Dick on the banks of this lake:
And, despite my fear of extreme loneliness, and of having to spend seven days with little else except my book, my camera, and my own conscience, over the course of one week, I also found myself confronted with plenty of opportunities to meet new people, make friends, and find companionship in other travelers. While I did spend what felt like endless hours alone-. With my empty SUV, I was able to offer free rides to fellow travelers headed in the same direction. In Nubra Valley, I was introduced to Lea, a university student from Bordeaux, France; I shared the ride to and from Pangong Lake with an Indian from Dubai who ran his own import-export business; and on the way back from Tso Moriri I offered a ride to a hippie French couple with dreadlocks, who had done Masters in Philosophy at the Sorbonne.
For me, traveling alone was not some “eye opening experience” during which I “met the most beautiful local people,” or confronted the realities of development and poverty in any sincere way. But, it was a lesson–more broadly–in thinking about the limits of my own existence. As cliche as it sounds, when you are traveling alone, you are your own weakest link. Whether or not you decide to do something, go somewhere, or talk to someone is left entirely up to you. Perhaps contrary to instinct, being alone while traveling makes you more approachable. It means an Israeli couple will ask you to join them for beer and pot; that you can sit on a terrace with two bankers from Dubai who talk about the experience of being South Asian, and rights-less in the Arab Gulf; or that you can spend a seven hour car ride with a couple of French hippies simultaneously marveling over the landscape while discussing language, politics, and everything in between. Too often, and especially in India, I opt out from exploring unknown places and approaching unknown people because I have allowed the anxieties of others to infiltrate my own psyche, but while traveling alone, I was forced to confront the fact that at any given moment, I was the only person holding myself my back.