Five Years Later: What Traveling Solo as an Indian Woman Feels Like

by Chandrima Chatterjee

I wandered across Shivya Nath‘s travels through word-of-mouth during a recent trip to India. I instantly felt a connection to this globe-trekking, young woman who had thrown off the chains of a typical comfortable life for a life of adventure and the unknown.

Five years ago, she embarked on a solo travel experience shunning the typical constraints and stereotypes of being an Indian woman. In our world, we’re taught to not travel on our own, instead surrounding ourselves with family members who can protect us, but that’s a limiting way to travel and doesn’t bring the joy of traveling alone. It was refreshing and incredible to see her pioneering spirit, unshackling herself from the typical constraints of society, quitting her corporate job at the age of 23 and traveling without a reliable source of consistent financing. Nath was figuring it all out as time went on.

She now has the budgeting down to a science and describes it at great length on her blog. And though she’s been self-guided and independent, she puts faith in the general belief that all adventuring wanderers have—that people are inherently welcoming and kind, ready and eager to share their homes, their experiences and their world. Her enviable list of excursions crosses continents and oceans.

[Read Related: The Secrets of Becoming An International Brown Girl Globetrotter]

Nath’s been to Canada, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Romania, Ethiopia, Mauritius, South Africa, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Georgia, Jordan, the USA and we’re not done listing them all!

She recently took some time to shed light and share some of her travel know-how with the Brown Girl community! Read on:

What are some tips you want to share with female travelers? Safety tips especially?

“Research your destination well. There will be a lot of unknowns and enough potential for unplanned adventure along the way, but knowing that basic things – a general idea of the place you’re visiting, a safe accommodation and useful phrases to get around – will give you the self confidence to seek adventures without worrying about safety too much.

Stay with a local: Besides being a more immersive way to experience a place, befriending a local in a new country means having a friend looking out for you when you need it most.

Carry a self defence weapon: Learning a martial art is not up everyone’s alley, but the least you can do is carry a small weapon for unforeseeable situations. Trust your gut, but keep a taser or pepper spray handy; hopefully you’ll never need to use it!”

Do you enjoy the city life, rural adventure, hiking, the beach (an island paradise)? Which type of travel are you most drawn to, and why?

“It depends on the place and frame of mind I’m in, but generally speaking, I’m drawn to rural adventures. I try to avoid crowds and well-worn tourist tracks, and seek to experience the traditional way of life in a small village, preferably tucked away in the mountains.”

goa-india-october-12-2016[A scenic scooter ride through the fields in Goa.]

Must-haves for your luggage/backpack? I bet a lot comes from experience. i.e. – medical emergencies.

“Luckily there haven’t been dire medical emergencies, but I always carry a basic medicine kit and travel insurance. A rain-resistant cover for my bags comes in handy in unexpected wet conditions or choppy boat rides.”

Home is not a place; it is a feeling. Not every place you visit is ‘home’. How long do you give a new place a chance before you decide it’s time to move on?

“I don’t have set criteria. Sometimes a place can feel like home from day one, sometimes it feels like I’m in transit even after two weeks – and to be honest, I need a bit of both feelings.

Tentatively speaking, when I travel slow, I like to stay in a place for a month, after which I start getting restless again. When I’m exploring a region faster, I try to spend minimum three nights at each place, alternating it with week-long stays. In the end, I just follow my heart.”

Keeping an open mind and talking to strangers is very important while on an adventure. Sometimes it’s hard for women who are traveling alone to do that. What suggestions do you have for women who seek that authentic and real experience (and not a resort/spa/fancy package)?

“I think homestays and B&Bs run by locals are a great way to do that. When I research my accommodations, I try to look for experiences that excite me, but that also include interaction with the host. When you’ve broken the ice with one local, it opens up doors to many more. In Sri Lanka for instance, I constantly felt welcome into the lives of very different people, thanks to the accommodations I chose.

I think it’s also about being receptive to conversation. People are much more likely to approach you for a chat when you’re alone, and if your gut doesn’t chime out warning bells, it could lead to some unexpected friendships.”

shivya nath[The best way to make friends while traveling is to be receptive to communication. Nath poses with her new friend at a bus stop in Sat Suacag.]

Not everyone is a storyteller or photographer but it’s important to log your journey somehow. Do you recommend that everyone keep some sort of journal? The few times I didn’t save my travel memories when I was younger, I regretted it later.

“I think keeping a journal of sorts – offline or online – is a great idea. No one is a storyteller at the start of their journey, but many get molded into one on the road.”

[Read Related: Travel Tips from Brown Girl Tech and Fitness Enthusiast Aruna Paramasivam]

Can you tell us if you’ve ever experienced racism while on your travels? And if so, how did you deal with it?

“Well, I have been singled out for my skin color or the color of my passport at ‘random’ airport security checks – they are never really random, are they?

In Central America, I planned a long leg of my travels around Nicaragua, needing to enter and leave the country thrice. Each time, the immigration officer gave me hell, wouldn’t believe that I’m ‘just traveling’, charged different visa fees, and ended up holding up the bus for an hour because of me! Phew. Months later, I read about how one Indian couple had worked illegally in Nicaragua for years and finally been caught. People’s perception of Indian travellers is based on past experiences, and unfortunately, they can’t always be blamed.

Having said that, I’ve felt discriminated against in India too, by fellow Indians, who, after a series of poor experiences with Indian travellers, assumed that I’d fit the category too.”

traveling solo [Travel adventures can include something as spontaneous as boarding down the Cerra Negro volcano.]

I loved your story about the World War II Polish refugee Karol and his life as an orphan of war in India where he was cared for by a kind-hearted maharaja along with 640 others like him. You just happened to meet him during your travels and he shared his remarkable story. It’s truly incredible how the world is connected. That’s such a compelling narrative bridging cultures and countries. Do you still keep in touch with him and his wife? Is there anything more you can tell us about those orphans and the wonderful history?

“We exchanged a few emails initially, but it becomes hard to keep in touch when you travel often and meet so many people (I know I’m making excuses now).

The last time we spoke, their granddaughter was documenting his journey in detail (offline). If you Google, you’ll find a YouTube video and can even order a documentary about these Polish kids and their years in India.”

traveling solo [Nath with World War II Polish refugee Karol, and Rosemary, on her trip to Poland.]

You recently posted that you’d like to “give more or give back to the communities you travel to.” I’m very drawn to that type of traveling. I think it’s more because of my upbringing that being on ‘vacation’ was too much of a luxury and that I should always think before I indulge. Now, I volunteer everywhere I go, out of love and respect for the communities I’m in. What types of sites or organizations do you recommend for women who travel? What are you looking into yourself?

“I agree with you. After four years of constant travel, I constantly question my indulgences (especially in terms of my carbon footprint) and increasingly feel the need to find more meaning on my travels. I think connecting with local communities, swapping life experiences with them, and bringing their stories to the world – like the indigenous chocolate farmers of Costa Rica- is one small way to become a more conscious traveler. Volunteering is another, but you really need to analyse your skills and motivation to do it right. I think I need more time on the road to answer your question.

I have a couple of things in the pipeline: I’m looking at partnering with a tree planting organisation to create an alternate source of income for a community of marginal farmers – and will soon be fundraising for it. I’ve joined as a traveling ambassador, to help connect them with organisations that work for the sustainable development of local communities. I think both these projects might give a bit more purpose to my own travels, and maybe in some small way, make a difference to someone somewhere.”

[Read Related: The Stereotypical Reactions South Asian Women Traveling Solo are Subjected to]

How do you pick where you go? Traveling the world is a huge undertaking and dream. But I imagine the bucket list is long and often the priorities are hard to define. What’s your process?

“I wish I had a better answer for you, but I can say it’s random at best. I just follow my heart, as long as I can afford to indulge in what it craves. My travels are ill-planned, but ease of getting a visa on the Indian passport can be a defining factor sometimes!”

chandrima-thumbnailChandrima is a public health biologist, specializing in cell and molecular biology at the University of Southern California. An avid storyteller in the world of non-profits, soccer and health sciences, she is currently enrolled at UCLA in Media Studies. She’s aiming to increase the awareness, and accessibility, of treatment/prevention of communicable diseases on a global scale. Always looking for the untold story of marginalized communities, and traveling while writing, especially if there’s research and volunteering involved, is what Chandrima loves to do in her spare time.

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