With no work, little money and a lot of unused energy, I set off on a journey to Himachal Pradesh from Bengaluru in the spring of 2016, when the apple orchards were in full bloom, the snow carpet over the mountains was melting away and many women had almost finished weaving woollen shawls and pattu (the traditional attire of women in Himachal Pradesh) for the coming winter, as the summer approached.
This journey was about befriending strangers, learning and unlearning with people, reunion with an old friend and exploring a breathtakingly beautiful terrain.
But most essentially, this journey was about losing faith in travelling alone.
After a week’s stay in Kandbari, a quiet village tucked away in the foothills of the Dhauladhars, I travelled to Mcleodganj, where I was meeting my friend, M, after seven months. Our favourite activity for the next three days was devouring desserts, momos and Thukpa while craving for something spicy all along, as we caught up on stories happy and sad, analysed each other’s decisions, recounted all that we used to do together, engaged in mindless gossip and laughed a lot.
Given how much time we spent gorging on food in the two narrow, parallel lanes that comprised the market, we were familiar now with the shopkeepers, greeting most of them with a smile and chatting away with a few. After an almost depressing farewell masked with silly jokes and promises of meeting again, M left for Uttarakhand and I walked around aimlessly in Mcleodganj, whiling away the next few hours at the market until I boarded the bus which would take me to my next destination.
As I came out of a public toilet, one of the shopkeepers we had interacted with the previous day was standing right outside the door smiling at me, asking me how I was doing, as he used the dustbin in the toilet. I responded with an awkward smile because I felt uneasy at his sudden presence outside the toilet. I walked around the market, slightly disturbed and more cautious this time, and entered a tea stall M and I went to every morning and evening. In only a couple of minutes of asking the bhaiyya for chai, the same man walked right in with a few of his friends. I finished my tea quickly and left without acknowledging his presence this time. In the next hour that I spent in the market, I found myself bumping into this man’s friends I had seen at the tea stall, at different junctures: outside a bakery, at the cross-section between the roads, randomly being followed on the street.
Additionally, there were tourists from other states who noticed an Indian woman travelling alone and assumed it was their right to stare and comment. I retorted to a few and gave up on the others; some looked away embarrassed while some merely smirked. Frustrated, I went to the travel agency where I had dumped my luggage and decided to sit there for the next hour waiting for my bus. Now, even the man at the desk decides it is his privilege to constantly ogle at me. I stared back at him, but the moment I looked away he would continue staring again. You know, women have been born with radar which beeps on detecting lewd expressions and remarks, which is almost all the time.
In those few hours, I felt violated, like I didn’t deserve to travel alone because I am a woman, I couldn’t find myself a safe space in a bustling town during that weekend. I was stalked, stared at, sleazy comments were being passed, which made me question my capability of being able to stand up against these men. I always thought of myself as someone who could handle such things, but I could find my courage slipping away. I had drawn more attention in those four hours than M and I did in the past three days.
I felt relieved and safe in an uncomfortable tempo traveller full of people than I had the whole evening. I was hoping Manali would be different, devoid of such unnerving experiences.
We were supposed to reach the hill station at 5 am. Instead, the driver buzzed through the curvy terrain and we reached at 3.39 am. As I got down, all the other people decided to go to Old Manali, a few kilometres away from the bus stop, where the hotels were on the expensive side. A man on a bike was finding business for the hotels on the market side of Manali. As I was on a frugal budget, I had a choice between hunting for an inexpensive hotel all by myself at this early hour and being guided by this man to his hotel. I went for the latter, gambling on this one, fully aware that both options have their own issues.
As promised, this man, let’s call him D, took me to a couple of hotels and asked me to choose one depending on my budget. I went for the one with a beautiful view of river Beas and the deodar forests beyond, also reasonably priced as it was off season. He told me that he could take me to places in and around Manali on his bike and I wouldn’t have to spend on taxis or autos. I politely refused his offer and told him I preferred public transport.
I frantically woke up to five missed calls in the morning as I realised I hadn’t informed my parents that I reached Manali, who had been worried about me travelling alone. But, all the five calls were from D. When I called back, he repeated what he had said earlier, also adding that he knows of Ayurvedic massage treatments for fatness, so I could reduce my lower body and look more “beautiful”. I said I was not interested as he further went on to ask me if I smoked Marijuana. I told him that I would prefer being left alone and hung up.
I left for Vashisht, a religious place with natural hot springs. I sat down outside the temple for a while listening to a Rajasthani folk singer with a Sarangi, who also treated us with the ’90s Bollywood songs. I then went to the smaller gush of hot water outside, which was being used by the locals, and inquired about weaving in the village. As I walked down the narrow alleys and rickety lanes, guided by multiple people along the way, I reached a house facing the chocolate brown mountains with ice caps, where the women were almost finishing this year’s weaving. I spent some time talking to the woman and her mother-in-law about their traditional weaving patterns and style of clothing, played with her children, walked around their apple orchard and hitch-hiked a taxi back to Manali which was hired by a couple with a baby, as I couldn’t find autos.
After a quick lunch, I set out for Old Manali, only to find out that the place was filled with cafes and shops selling hippy stuff. I bought a used pattu from a woman whose house was bang in the middle of the market and came out after chai, only to see D waiting outside on his bike. He said, “Aapke figure se pehchan liya maine aapko” (I identified you by your figure). He exclaimed what a coincidence this was and offered to drop me back at the market. He kept insisting saying I should trust him and he is only being hospitable to a guest in his town, but, I constantly refused. I then paused for a moment and thought that I was probably being too skeptical about people around me, as I had just interacted with a few locals and had found them very warm and welcoming.
So, I accepted the ride back to town. The conversation on the way back was about how I should lose weight through Ayurvedic massages that he can arrange for, which slowly progressed to him asking me out for dinner, and an offer of complimentary accommodation if I accepted his friendship. He also kept insisting that I sit closer to him on the bike and hold him by his waist for a smoother ride on those bumpy roads. I instantly realised this was a bad decision, thanked him for the ride back and firmly said no to all his propositions.
I took off for Naggar, as it was only a little after noon. As I went for a long walk around the beautiful, hilly town surrounded by the mighty Dhauladhars, it started getting chilly and the snowfall over mountains led to a slight drizzle at Naggar. I entered a chai shop and started talking to people there over tea and Maggi, when a man came in and animatedly explained something in Kulvi language.
Naggar had experienced a minor earthquake a couple of minutes ago, which was felt by people living on the second floor in a hotel close by. Hearing this, the taxi driver sitting beside me was concerned about me travelling back alone by bus, since it had also started raining by then. So, he requested the couple he was taking around, to allow me in the car on the pretext of me being broke and alone. He smiled at me when they agreed, and we reached Manali in an hour.
It was late evening as I lazily strolled around the market, gasping at masala dosa being priced at Rs 121 and contemplating whether I should have pav bhaji or gulab jamun. I gave in to my whims and had both when I started receiving calls from D again. Four continuous calls and I started freaking out. I finally answered and he asked me about the dinner plan. I was angry, felt helpless and couldn’t hold back any longer as I lashed out at him over the phone, explaining that when I said no, I meant no. I threatened him with going to the police about his marijuana offer if he called me ever again and hung up on him. I then blocked his number, rushed back to my hotel room, asked not to be disturbed at the reception in case he came to meet me.
I was scared. I was angry. I was tired of having to deal with this when all I wanted was to spend a few days in a new place anonymously. I thought about the fears my mother had about me travelling alone and how they were coming true. All the pleasant and heart-warming experiences throughout the day were weighed down by this phone call at that moment.
Over the next four days, apart from “minor”, unpleasant experiences with tourists on the Mall Road, I managed a relatively non-violent journey through Kullu, Bhuntar, Manikaran and Kasol. The public buses are most convenient and a lot of people I met and interacted with at these places restored my hope that all is not bad, after all. The locals in Himachal Pradesh are hospitable, kind and strike a conversation with you instantly like you are a long lost friend. I enjoyed most parts of this trip, especially the visits and stays in smaller towns and villages, where I could effortlessly hold on to my mental peace.
I constantly faced counters from people with the justification of what I am ideally supposed to do as a woman, but these were either out of concern or curiosity. I felt the need to have a dialogue that it is okay for a woman to travel alone, which I think is only fair, given that we all come from different backgrounds and have varied perceptions of what a woman should or should not do.
An unexpected call from H, and I was all set to attend her sister’s wedding in Hisar, Haryana. I booked the bus ticket to Delhi a day earlier than planned, as I was excited to meet H. Given that she works beyond Tawang, I knew I wouldn’t be able to meet her for another year. When I booked the ticket, I told the travel agency that I would preferably want a woman co-passenger, but I didn’t insist on it. I had travelled alone earlier and more often than not, they were overnight journeys in buses. This was the first time I had made a request like this and I felt weird about having done so. They said a family of three has booked the adjacent seats, so it wouldn’t be a problem.
I boarded the bus next evening, only to find out in a couple of hours that the family of three comprises young men. I have had male co-passengers on buses before, so I didn’t really bother about it until the man in front of me gestured to my co-passenger, his friend, to exchange seats with him. They were acting seedy all along and I was feeling restless about not being able to even travel in peace. The bus stopped for dinner and my co-passenger, let’s call him S, asked his friend to get chips and his friend smirked at me cheesily and responded to S saying, “Tum bolo toh kuch aur bhi laa den kya, agar mila toh?” (If you want, we can also get you something else, if it’s available).
I figured they were referring to a condom and I wanted to abuse them. But, I couldn’t bring myself to. Instead, I started thinking of other options to deal with this situation. I initially thought of talking to the bus driver, but he was really drunk and I did not want any altercation with him, which will only add to the apprehension of trusting a drunk driver to take me to Delhi safely. Two Gujarati couples were sitting right behind me. So, after dinner, I walked up to them outside the hotel and requested if one of the men could shift seats with me for the night because I didn’t feel very safe with the man I was sitting beside. One of the couples reacted as if I had uttered something ridiculous and walked away. The other man responded hesitantly saying his wife never before sat beside a stranger, so it would not be possible.
In a last ditch attempt, I went to a Tamil-speaking couple from Delhi, hoping that my mother-tongue would get me out of this situation. I made the same request and the man asked me thrice whether I was travelling alone before he agreed to shift seats. As he got up, I felt a wave of relief, only to notice that his wife mumbled something and stopped him. So, I had to go back to my seat dejected.
Most of the passengers were men, so I just decided to sit with S and warn him to keep his hands to himself, in case something happened. I was wondering if I was being too prejudiced against men, but I couldn’t help my thoughts at that moment. I chalked out different strategies I could use if there was physical contact and tried to pick the most sensible ones, as I waited for the bus to start.
I looked out of the window wondering how people could be so apathetic, when I overheard the Tamil woman telling her husband in hushed tones that there was no need for him to get into trouble and that it was my mistake that I, being a woman, was travelling alone.
Yes, that was my tipping point. I was so full of anger I just broke down. I wept silently, partly because I was feeling unsafe and scared, partly because I was full of rage given how people around me had responded to my request for help. It was appalling how the people I had interacted with thought it is only normal for a few guys to pass sexually inundated, profane comments at a girl travelling with them. Even if it weren’t, they didn’t want to have anything to do with the situation.
I am a woman and I do not have male company. I am to be blamed, not the men who ogle at me, comment, put forward scary propositions or make me feel unsafe. I am alone, so of course, I am inviting trouble, rather, inviting men. I am travelling alone not to explore the place, but to explore your bodies. I am an overweight woman, so I should be slut-shamed and body-shamed. Yes, you go right ahead and tell me I will look more beautiful if I lose weight. I need a “respectable” man’s friendship in a new place (even if he is a stranger), who offers me free accommodation and a complimentary dinner date, obliging to my desperate needs. You need to constantly remind me that this is no country for young, lone women.
This account of experiences as a lone woman traveller might dishearten and discourage a young girl, who wants to spread her wings and fly away.
But, it shouldn’t. It will mean we are being submissive to the verbal and physical violence men and women are inflicting on a woman traveller. It will only mean that the men who are stalking her and violating her space, the woman who is stating that it is her fault that she is travelling alone, are absolutely right in doing so. It will mean we are allowing people around us to dictate our actions on their terms.
I was initially uncertain about sharing this personal account, because I was afraid some might re-evaluate their solo journey plans after reading this. But, I want to see more women travelling unaccompanied, any day. I will find strength in the fact that there are more of you who want to take that solo journey. I will feel safe knowing and witnessing that there are more women exploring the world by themselves.
I am going to do it again. Travel solo.