The place where I’ve felt most alone in the world is a town in Switzerland called Brig. It almost falls off the map. I was staying a night there with plans to visit the Saas Valley to seek the Alps. This was the summer of 2010. Long before the companionship of WhatsApp and Instagram, and before I was a regular on Facebook. I remember making a call home via Skype, my mother in Shillong sounding as distant as someone on Mars.
“How is your hotel?” she asked, shouting to make herself heard.
“Fine,” I yelled back.
And it was, even if truly unmemorable.
The town, fortunately, had a lovely medieval quarter, and somewhere on the outskirts, an old church, and a cemetery around it where mostly everyone, I noticed, had lived well into their 90s. It was, unsurprisingly, a very white town, and possibly everyone in it congregated at the one pub I walked into late that afternoon. I was stared at and whispered about as any (brown) stranger would be who materialises out of nowhere in their midst. But the day was long and sunny; I ordered a beer and sat at a table outside. I don’t remember much else about Brig, but looking back now, I know it was the place in which I fell irrevocably in love with travelling solo. This wasn’t a luxury I’d ever been able to indulge in before, for many reasons. I was a woman, and Indian, and even though my parents are more liberal than most, “solo holidays” were possibly a step too far. Also, I didn’t have much money. These were my freelancing years, and writing hardly paid enough, but it had earned me a Swiss Arts Council grant to work on a creative project in Switzerland for a month. So there I was, a few Swiss stipend francs in my pocket, and the world suddenly opened anew.
For many years, I wasn’t able to do this again. Not until I started a “proper” job that ensured some amount of financial stability. Since 2016, though, I plan one small solo holiday a year — and it is my most precious, most cherished ritual. I pick a place — usually not too far from Delhi, where I’m based, so it doesn’t take much time or expense to travel to — and property, preferably central and non-extravagant, and a weekend, at any time of the year I can get away. I recognise the immense privilege of undertaking a journey such as this, restricted as it might be to a tiny (mostly urban) middle-class section of women. One with uncommon financial and individual independence.
But even among women friends who share these privileges, the solo holiday-takers are few and far between. They travel frequently, but usually, with friends or family, they travel a lot for work. But this, I’m afraid, doesn’t quite count in the same way. My urging them to travel solo is met with mixed reactions. Some balk at the prospect of being alone. A holiday is meant to be shared, they say. What’s the point of encountering a beautiful view, experiencing an incredible moment if there’s no one with you at that very moment? Some are understandably apprehensive for more gendered reasons. Is it safe? What if I’m harassed? Or followed? Others find it hard to leave behind their partner, children, family, work. And while I acknowledge the validity of each of these reasons, I’d still urge that time away because what I’ve also noticed is the presence of fear and guilt, especially guilt.
For women are conditioned all their lives to be mindful of others. To absorb and adjust and claim little for themselves. Even more worryingly, at some level, they might feel they’re not deserving of this “indulgence”. Worse is the fear of judgment. A woman exerting this kind of power — where she decides what to do with her time — is one that many find threatening. This is simply not an option for women in many families, and so is seen as a declaration of independence.
Which is what makes planning a holiday for yourself a powerful political act of self-care. It signals that you are important to yourself. For that day or two, or three if you can manage it, there are no negotiations to be had, no adjustments or accommodations to be made for others. Time is yours and yours alone.
I admit it hasn’t always been easy.
I’ve been followed by guys on bikes in Puducherry, catcalled by men at the Gwalior Fort. There have been other travel-related miseries — lost phones and wallets, near-missed trains and sardine-packed buses.
But all this has been outweighed by the joy, brought about by all the usuals, of course. The luxury of your own crisp-sheeted bed, a room of one’s own that one doesn’t have to tidy, a leisurely breakfast, the company of a book at every meal, cab or auto rides with only headphone music in your ears, an itinerary made keeping only the things you’d like to do in mind, a drink at the end of the day that you silently (must) raise to yourself.
But also, more importantly, travelling on your own orients you — unlike any time out you might manage in daily life — to yourself. It places you wholly at the centre, where you need to be, so that everything, and everyone, else may fall into place around you. If you’re on a solo holiday, you’re quite likely not to spend time wishing you could’ve shared that walk through that garden, that view of a temple in the setting sun, that meal by the sea. You’ll find you are enough.