Travelling alone when you're an Indian woman
Arunima Dey is currently preparing for lectureship exams and is based in New Delhi, India. So far she has undertaken solo trips in several European countries, Vietnam, Cambodia, Turkey and the US. She has also studied and lived in Salamanca and Madrid in Spain and upstate New York. Here, she shares her experiences, both good and bad, as a solo female Indian traveller.
Thank you Arunima for chatting to me. Can you tell me about your first solo travel experience?
My first solo travel experience was on a train in India, where I was molested. In 2013, when I was 25, I left the country for the first time and moved to Spain for my PhD. On the way, I had a stopover in Saudi Arabia, where someone told me that if something happens to me, it would be my own fault, as I wasn't wearing a burqa. He then proceeded to lecture me about how I should convert to Islam. Visibly shaken, I arrived in Madrid eight hours later.
The first thing that hit me was the space. So much space! And far fewer bodies jostling to occupy that space.
I lived in the small city of Salamanca and got a lot of attention as it seemed I was the only Indian in the entire city. At the time I could only speak broken Spanish, which didn't help. I encountered a lot of racism day to day; the person at the supermarket checkout counter would always double check the bills I handed over, people asked me if we had TV in India, and whether we ate lions. A Chinese girl called me ugly because I had long, unruly hair.
At one point, I broke down in tears when I couldn't explain what I was looking for in a shop, but the manager was very kind to me and gave me a glass of water. I was so grateful for this small gesture of kindness.
How long were you in Salamanca and did the situation improve at all?
Unfortunately, I didn't think anything improved. However, I simply grew a thick skin. An old man once told me, he loves the colour of my breasts (not that he could see even an inch of them, I was wearing a turtleneck jumper!). If this had happened to me when I first arrived in the city, I would have been horrified, but when it actually happened, I had accepted that several people in this town were racist with an unhealthy added mix of sexism and perversion. People say how unsafe India is for woman (which is true), but in Europe, sometimes our skin colour makes us sexual targets.
What shocked me was the kind of racist, Islamophobic statements which came from very well educated, widely travelled people in power in the university. One woman told me Sikhs and Muslims look alike because of the "hats" they wear. Totally ridiculous; Sikhs wear turbans, while Muslims wear something akin to a skull cap, they look nothing alike. This same woman, who actually not just teaches but writes books on immigration in the US and talks a lot about supporting them, also said to me that she has an inherent fear of Islam because it has the 'power to kill.' Unacceptable coming from a woman who is not just a professor but also holds a position of considerable power within the university.
Moreover, this woman liked to "collect" students from less privileged countries to portray her very global stance and how she is welcoming to all. But she always singled us out on our 'otherness,' by constantly reminding us 'you are not one of us, but look how welcoming we are as long as you revere us!' I faced discrimination from these same people when they figured I wasn't going around kissing their butts.
Finally after almost two hellish years of living in that town, I went to the US. When I returned, I moved to Madrid.
Tell me about your subsequent solo travels
When I was living in Spain, I travelled around Western and Central Europe, and a few Balkan countries. I was constantly getting picked out at airports for extra security checks. One time, I was so frustrated that I asked the security officer if it was because I was brown. He was visibly embarrassed and actually apologised.
However it didn't stop there. My worst experience was on a train from Amsterdam to Geneva. As soon as we crossed the border in to Switzerland, the Swiss guards came aboard and demanded to see my ID papers (which technically shouldn't be done as it was within the Schengen area). They singled me out and asked me if I was carrying drugs. They searched through my luggage without even asking my permission and patted me down, searching for substances. When I told them I lived in Spain, they started quizzing me in Spanish (as my Spanish resident card was not enough for them).
By contrast, there was a white Australian man travelling in the same coach as me. They didn't even ask to see his passport, and thought he was Austrian. When he corrected them, they still didn't bother. This was such a stressful and humiliating experience, and it made me so physically anxious, that my period even arrived 3 days early!
Tell me about your solo travel in the United States?
I went on to live in Ithaca, in upstate New York to study at Cornell University. It was much easier there as it was so diverse, compared to Salamanca. I remember a kind taxi driver, who, on realising that it was my first day in the city, gave me a free ride. I went on to travel though New York City, Philadelphia and Washington DC. Then over on the west to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Yosemite National Park. Compared to Europe, the U.S. was easy. Visiting Yosemite was wonderful. I had never visited a national park of that magnitude and beauty before.
There is a huge Indian population in the U.S., so the challenges of being an Indian woman there were different. I got a lot of stares now from Indians because my friends were non-Indians. They thought I was strange for not hanging out with Indians. In Cornell, except for a couple of Indians I knew, all of them had only Indian friends. I didn't see the point in hanging out with Indians just because they were Indians. None of them had travelled solo, even in the US. So, I was on my own again,
What has been the highlight of your solo travels?
It is hard to pick, but I have to say, Istanbul, Turkey. When I told my friends about my plans to travel to Turkey, many of them told me to be 'very cautious,' and to 'watch what I wear'. When I arrived, I was prepared to stare down at predatory men, and be guarded against unruly behaviour. However, I had no need to worry. The People were lovely, warm and welcoming. Food was amazing. Architecture and history was mind blowing. And did I mention the delicious food!? I travelled to Turkey following my travels in Europe, so to me, this was a wonderful change. The hospitality of the people was heartwarming. Nowhere in Europe did I experience that (although some of the hostels I stayed in did go the extra mile - thank you Wombats in Vienna, and Vila Veselova in Ljubljana, Slovenia).
How is solo female travel regarded in India?
Solo travelling for women in India will be frowned upon at best and flat out restricted at worst. The whole idea here is that women aren't suppose to go anywhere on their own. They risk the honour of their family. As a woman, you shouldn't be doing anything just for yourself.
Solo travel for women is not popular in India but I am really hoping things will change over the next few years. I love it and I am so ready to deal with anyone who tries to tell me otherwise. They are not paying for my travels nor taking care of my son when I am gone, so they have no right to say anything.
What do your family think about your solo travel experiences?
They were apprehensive at first and worried for my safety. No one they knew has done this, so when I started to, they were extremely proud and very supportive. I have continued to travel after the birth of my son only because my parents so willingly agree to looking after him when I am gone.
It shocked a lot of people when I did that, but my parents stood firm and told them it's not their business. They are amazing! They still worry whenever I travel, but I make it a priority to talk to them everyday and send them pictures in the end of the day. When they visited me in Spain, they did a bit of travelling entirely on their own through France, Belgium and Germany. No one from India of their age I know has ever done that. People much younger to them travel in tour groups. Despite the language barrier and never before travelled out of the country , they figured out everything on their own. I was extremely proud of them and would like to think that my solo travels had a small effect on their passion, willingness and courage to travel alone.
Where are you off to next?
I had some work come up in Australia, and have decided to turn it into a bit of travelling opportunity. I plan on exploring the wildlife parks and the great Barrier Reef, this will be a huge thing off my bucket list. I also plan on cuddling a Koala! I might also be heading to Egypt soon for a bit of volunteer teaching work.
The Indian passport is very weak and this is my biggest challenge. I can never simply book a flight if I come across a great deal like many people with strong passports can do. Everything needs to be meticulously planned and that sometimes dampens the thrill of travelling somewhat. I try to not let it dishearten me but it is frustrating. I also have to pay hefty visa fees which people with visa free access to the same countries do not. I find it very unfair that people from poorer countries are charged these fees while it is not the same for First World citizens. It seems like we are being punished for country's poverty!
Another big issue when it comes to international travel is that our Indian rupee is weak compared to first world curriences. We have weaker purchasing and spending power, which makes having anything above budget travelling next to impossible especially when visiting wealthy countries. Sometimes, even buying a processed meal from a supermarket is expensive for me. Once again, I try to take it a challenge and aim on making the best out of my travels even with next to little money. I have done it before and I will keep doing it again and again.
Do you think more Indian women will become solo travellers in the near future?
In order to answer this, it is important for one to understand that a very miniscule percentage of Indian women have enough financial independence or resources to travel on their own. Now even within this theoritically capable small section, most of them don't travel solo because it is unheard of, because of familial restrictions, because of visa hassles or simply because of fear.
Nonetheless, a lot of women are breaking out of their shells, overcoming deeply imbedded cultural stigmas that women shouldn't travel alone and standing up against family and friends who tell them they can't travel on their own.
Another factor, that can hugely impact not just women travellers, but all Indians, would be more visa free countries for Indians, or at least not ridiculous visa restrictions.
To give an example it is incredibly unfair for Spain to demand fully prepaid accommodation and flights BEFORE applying for a visa. What if you don't get the visa? You lose the visa money and even if your accommodation is refundable, most flights are not and the ones that are, are very expensive! And the visa is only valid for those exact dates as your flight tickets, there is no breathing space - they changed the rules where previously you simply got a 3 month visa.
Countries like Australia, on the other hand, are very fair, they tell you not to book anything until you get the visa. I gravitate towards visiting countries whose visa policies don't make us feel like flithy creatures trying to migrate illegally to their country. For Indians, the U.A.E. says that a woman under 30 cannot travel alone there, so ridiculous, so I sure as hell won't visit that place.
Thank you SO much, for sharing your experiences Arunima. You can follow Arunima's adventures on Instagram here.
All photographs © Arunima Dey. Reproduced with kind permission.