A few days ago, I happened to speak to Deven Arya, an entrepreneur whose travel start-up, The Backpackers Bay will launch in June. It’s been two years since he started working on his idea of building an India-based travel community and social network. His app will have personal travel planners, set itineraries, and inspiration for anyone to confidently plan a trip within the country.
The idea sounds appealing to me, a devoted fan of self-planned solo trips. Regardless of how well the app does, it’s very exciting to see people working to make travellers more independent.
The first time I travelled alone, I was terrified. Six years ago, I went to Cairns by myself because my friend backed out at the last minute. I was so nervous that I asked my brother to call my hotel to change my reservation. I was too afraid about being judged as a loser while asking for a single room. The first few days of my trip were a disaster. I ate overpriced lonely dinners, spilled tears over bad booking decisions, and did not know how to do my own laundry. Things finally turned around for the better after I received a few pity invites to dinners and met several other solo travellers. I talked to people who had plans to go camping and I invited myself. They next few days were the best days of my life. I hiked, built my first campfire, and ate barbequed kangaroo meat. I realised that if I had travelled with my friend, I would have never forced myself to meet new people. I never stopped travelling after that, and usually, I chose to do it solo.
I ended up spending months in a forest in New Zealand followed by hitchhiking around the country. I travelled with a circus, and I lived on a ship. I went fishing in Cambodia, saw the Northern Lights in Greenland, and entered a poetry slam contest in New York. I left my comfort level far behind.
I also started to read hundreds of blogs written by solo travellers. I felt like I was part of some great movement. Reading these first-person accounts, following their trips on Twitter, and gawking at their Instagram feeds gave me a lot of confidence. And I know I’m not the only one. In the past few years I’ve seen a rise in travel pictures on my timelines. I’ve seen several people get inspired enough to quit their jobs to travel for a few months.
Just like my unnecessary nervousness, I realised that a major impediment to leaving on that first solo trip is usually the fear of the unknown. My friend Priyangi, who is always in awe of my solo trips, keeps asking me questions like, “Don’t you get lonely? Aren’t you afraid?”
And she’s not the first to ask these questions. I’ve lived in Mumbai all my life. If I’m out after 10p.m., my mother calls every 20 minutes to check on me. I wear a dupatta with my denim and tee outfit while travelling in local trains, and I always make sure someone drops me home after dark. The idea of being somewhere across the oceans, alone, was terrifying. But after my first trip, I learned to trust my instincts and I always follow them, no matter how silly it makes me feel. I once changed my pre-paid hotel room in Malaysia because the owner made me feel uncomfortable. I asked an airhostess to change my seat during a flight to Hong Kong because the man next to me was drunk. I always lie about where I’m staying when I meet new people. Sometimes I get lonely, and I’m always a little afraid. But this has never been reason enough to stop travelling.
When I was lonely on the road, I used websites like travbuddy.com to help find nearby travellers to join me for a meal or walk around town. I always used the travel forums on couchsurfing.com to plan small trips with others. In Austin, I used meetup.com to meet other wilderness survival enthusiasts. When I needed a car ride, I used blablacar.com, to find someone going my way. I’ve never had any excuse or reason for being stuck, just because I was alone.
There is no dearth of information for the lone traveller. Just like Arya’s start-up, there are several service providers that now cater to this new breed of traveller. Suchna Hegde Shah of The Backpacker Co. says the interest from solo travellers has increased over the past five years. The company started by organising budget group tours around the world, but has recently been planning trips for a lot of people who want to explore by themselves. “Times have changed and Indian travellers are not opposed to travelling alone to other countries,” she says, “English is spoken in most places, vegetarian food is getting popular around the world, and it’s easy to stay connected back home with smartphones too.”
Manjari Verma of the Broken Compass feels that many people who come to her travel planning company want to go out alone, but just need a push. “Sometimes we just need to give them a little confidence booster,” says Verma, “We’ve already been to the places and have contacts all over, so that makes the first-time traveller feel better.” She recently planned solo trips for her clients to Northeast India, Iceland, and the Amazon.
Six years ago, I was afraid of being judged for travelling alone. I didn’t even talk to too many people about my escapades since I was worried they would convince my family to stop me. But soon travel became such a big part of my life that I started to talk and write about it. To my surprise, I started to get emails from several people who were inspired to do the same and wanted advice and ideas.
Last month, my skeptical friend Priyangi went to McLeod Ganj alone for a week. She researched her trip online, and relied on reviews of previous travellers to make bookings. After her return, she talked non-stop about the joy of watching the sunset in the mountains while ordering beer and food for one. She told me about the solo hike to Triund during which she ended up making so many friends that her next beer was at a local party. Priyangi had already made a list of places she wants to travel to next. She feels no shame in asking for a room for one.