For theatre personality and filmmaker Monica Mahendru travelling has been second nature. She has been to several cities, villages and towns across India and the world.
But the travel bug bit her only after she was 29, while she was living in New Zealand.
“In the last ten years, I have travelled extensively across South East Asia covering most countries, North America and some of South America. Roughly 80% of my travels so far have been solo,” she recounts.
Monica then started traveling back home to India and would ‘couchsurf’ in many of her friends homes across the country, discovering new towns and cities all on her own, talking to people and ‘slowly getting the hang of it’.
And with all her experience, Monica has learnt that she despises ‘checklist trips’ – visiting tourist spots and staying in luxury hotels. She loves backpacking and strongly believes the best trips are unplanned and places are best discovered from the eyes of a local.
“Hotel rooms are isolated. I prefer hostels and homestays – the culture is really picking up in India. It is great to meet new people and speak to the locals to get the real feel of the place I am in. Most of the time I leave my trips fluid – yes, there is always a starting point, but I don’t know where I am going next and that itself is exciting.”
But travelling solo as a woman in India, Monica’s adventures have had their fair share of challenges. The infrastructure has not exactly been comfortable specifically transportation, places to stay and clean toilets.
“Most of us women can relate to the paucity of clean or even okayish ones. But I try and go as much as possible when I am on the road, keeping in mind that I may not be able to find a toilet at the next stop. I don’t eat or drink too much on the way. I have even knocked on many doors in my quest to find a clean loo. I have to admit, I am jealous of men in this regard!”she laughs.
And in her mission to be offbeat and immersive, she has booked hostels far away from the city center or sometimes even found that those places didn’t exactly look safe.
“It happened in Thailand. I booked this place – looked beautiful on the internet but when I reached there, it was so shady. I just left and found a better place.”
Intuition plays a very important part in travelling, she says. And it has never failed her. Reactions range from surprise, curiosity and admiration – but has always managed to be safe.
“India is not yet used to seeing solo Indian women and it’s actually been the icebreaker most of the times. I have met people who are really nice and supportive. Bus drivers or cabbies who will move male passengers to get you a comfortable seat or restaurant owners that will get me own table n keep an eye out. Yes, there are times, if it feels like an intrusion, I choose not to reveal that I am alone. Just go with your gut. Safety first, always!.”
Monica always believes that it is the people she has met along the way who have made her adventures more meaningful. On a trip to Sikkim, about a year ago, she was invited to visit a protected tribal village but by the time she reached the area, a landslide had disrupted all means of getting there and she had to cross the valley on a raft.
“About 20-25 villages had been cut off and bridges were submerged. But the locals were so in-tune with the natural disaster and I was welcomed with such warmth even though life was at a standstill,” she says.
In BnBs too, like the old, rustic one she stayed at in Bhuj, she has met the most inspiring people and made friends for life.
As a serial traveller, she believes that women need to get out of their comfort zones and broaden their horizons.
“Start off by traveling with friends if you can’t do it alone. But once you take out the fear of traveling alone, you’ll realise the world just opens up and there is something quite unique about experiences when you are on your own. The people I have met, stories that I have heard, all the homes I have been welcomed into, I don’t think it would have happened if I wasn’t on my own. We are so conditioned to thinking that you can’t travel alone as a woman especially in India. But I do it – you just have to be sensible about it.”
Monica hopes her story inspires other members of the girl tribe to join the ever growing community of solo women travellers. Travel is truly liberating and everybody should be able to enjoy that, she says.