Originally published in Why Loiter?
I’ve been loitering my entire life. Just loafing in some corner, ambling away time in road side tea stalls and taking indefinite long walks to nowhere in particular. Now, I’ve qualified to solo travelling, drifting from place to place without purpose.
I travel unplanned, without a set route or list of destinations that must be covered. I don’t journey for beautiful sights alone, neither for historical monuments. Instead, I reach and go where the place takes me. No prior planning and very little budget.
But this isn’t really the Indian way of life. And it’s definitely not our way of travel either. Most destinations don’t expect a solo traveler to appear with a backpack and an uncertainty about the number of days they’ll stay and about what they are going to do in the given destination. Even more so when this unplanned traveler is a woman.
The first thing I heard even when I was standing on the station stairs at Kanyakumari, is – “Yahan single ladies ko room rent nahi deta hai” (We don’t rent out rooms to single ladies here). Almost a proud utterance. As though it was the decidedly moral thing to do.
What was I to do now? The solo traveler looking for a very cheap room, standing there with an increasingly heavy backpack and two days of craving for a shower? Welcome to solo female travel in India.
Our country expects its travelers to be planned. What to do, where to stay, where to eat and when to leave. These details must be at the tip of your fingers. Else, you are a probable source of nuisance and are bound to make people around you suspicious. Here, we reserve the right to loitering primarily for local males. Prowling their territory I guess.
Somewhere during the last year of school, I had a tiff with my mother. I told her I will take the public bus back home instead of the school bus. I should get a hang of how the roads work. College starts soon, right? She didn’t speak to me for a couple of months after that. This made me really curious, like the road was a horror story and I needed to get to the bottom of this.
Since then I’ve been going vagabond a few extra hours every year and now I’m proud to say, I full time at it. Over the last one decade of loitering in Delhi and elsewhere, I’ve walked many indiscreet roads and have loitered at both godly and ungodly hours and almost always I have come across friendly help in case I have lost my way.
But solo travel as a woman often turns into a lonely affair because the only possible source of exchange stays limited to men; who are more easily available. It’s mighty difficult to find unaccompanied women on the streets that you can stop and talk to for a couple of minutes.
In Calicut, I see men standing about cigarette shops having a post lunch smoke, some simply picking out with a toothpick. I see there’s always a walk in section to most restaurants where working men come in to eat at noon or maybe just stop for a cup of tea in the midst of the day’s errands. When I enter, I’m politely pointed to the family section – a more closed set up on the first floor, with waiting time, because it’s proper. There you get a table all to yourself. No one else comes and joins. The ways we limit casual interactions for the fairer sex.
I’m an outsider in this walk in section as I’m hogging on a plate of very flavorful biriyani. Almost everyone turns to look at me. Some continue to stare. I feel relieved when I see one more girl as I go to wash my hand. But she’s with a male friend.
Yet, it’s not such a problem if a woman goes exploring. Mostly people are just shocked at the odds of a woman walking down the road. But beyond that, everyone wants to help out. After a 6 kilometer walk from Varkala’s north cliff, I have reached somewhere near Kollam at about 10.30 at night. Half an hour’s failed attempt later, I find myself resting my legs as an old man hails down an auto for me.
However, there is a clear lack of understanding and sympathy towards the need to ‘travel’, and a woman making a firsthand claim to public spaces is almost unheard of in India.
While staying in a Thallassery PWD rest house, I have to deal with the chetta who is watch man there. I have to pay him the rent, and make an entry in the register. He’s visibly annoyed with me. He’s caught that I don’t understand Malayalam. In fact all the Malayalam I know is Malayalam illa. So he puts on a frown on his face and starts mumbling. Angry mumblings; which gives me the impression that he is insulting me. Asking me questions and then getting even more annoyed when he has to translate to Hindi or English. He calms down only after I ask – What chetta? Are you unhappy that I’ve come to stay here?
Then he gets over friendly, and spends some part of the evening reeking of alcohol and whistling in the corridors. I am the only occupant of the rest house. He’s my guard.
Overlooking these slight set-backs that crop up once in a while, I have to say that I will do this a thousand times over. This is what I want to do. This is the only thing that makes me feel happy and alive. To land in a random station and then get lost in random lanes, and enjoy the rhythm of life somewhere I’ve never been before.
In Kerala I made many friends, wonderful people I would have never known had I not loitered. I ate at their tables, they tried to teach me Malayalam while I earnestly tried to learn. I helped myself paint a real picture of a place that was so far only a vague pop –culture and book accumulated hotchpotch. I explored its cities, beaches and hills and eventually realized that mostly the roads are welcoming. It can give you a hard time yes, but if you can keep a straight face and hold your own, then happy loitering to you my friend. I shall look out for you.