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Hitting The Road On Your Own

In 2005, Kavita Krishnan Vathul, then 26 and newly married, had just settled into her new home in Gurgaon when she heard from a friend who was planning a trek to Uttaranchal—would Kavita accompany her? Excited about the journey and supported by her spouse, Kavita convinced her anxious parents that her husband could survive without her for a few days. The trip, she said, was just what she needed to unwind.

Tickets were purchased and accommodation booked when Kavita’s friend cancelled at the last moment.

“I was left staring at our train tickets, wondering what to do with them,” she says. “Then my husband mentioned that I was a capable, independent woman and how I should just go by myself. It was my first solo trip, and it was life-changing.”

Today, Kavita, now living in Chennai, sets off on journeys alone every three months. She’s crisscrossed the country and has made several treks back to the Himalayas.

“I quite enjoy the solitude of solo travel,” she says. “I read books, have time to think, ponder over philosophy, meet fellow trekkers and make new friends. It helps me equate to the world in a different way and ensures that I stay a free spirit.”

Travelling anywhere alone is something that many Indian women seldom consider. Far from a rite of passage, as it is in many countries abroad, it’s seen as a hardship or trial, rather than an experience to seek out. Navigating a deeply conservative or over-protective family, personal discomfort at fending for yourself, and the perceptions of society can thwart most attempts.

For parents – mothers especially – travelling solo can seem like an impossible, perhaps even selfish, dream. But in reality, it can benefit the whole family: Experts say that getting away alone occasionally can help you deal with daily stress better and strengthen your relationships.

“As a couple, you learn to rely on each other. It’s a beautiful thing, but often, we forget how strong and capable we are on our own,” says Dr Meena Rajendran, a psychiatrist practicing in San Francisco. “Travelling solo helps you see that more clearly.”

Travelling solo also means learning to let go—and acknowledging you’re not indispensable. For women who are the nerve centre of the family unit, this can be difficult. Kavita suggests planning well in advance, to stock up on food and prepare and freeze meals for the family to eat while you’re gone.

But stressing too much about what’s happening at home can defeat the point of getting away.

“Don’t harbor elaborate expectations or set impossible routines,” says Kavitha Rao, author and journalist based in Bangalore. She says she has always enjoyed travelling on her own, even when her daughter and son, now 15 and 11, were much younger. “As long as your children are reasonably well-fed, clean and your spouse is equipped to deal with emergencies and can reach you if required, there shouldn’t be any difficulty.”

Kavitha Rao recalls endless hours spent in coffee shops, taking long walks, and exploring local markets and temples. These are activities she enjoys—but would not necessarily interest her family. After time alone with these personal pursuits, Kavitha says she returns to her family rejuvenated and refreshed.

Mrinalini Sekar, founder of a sports and recreation centre in Chennai and mother of two girls, finds joy in this same freedom.

“Embarking on a trip alone seems to give free reign to my thoughts and emotions,” she says. “It’s a cathartic feeling that allows me to let go of minor slights and larger dilemmas that I might be grappling with.”

She embarked on a trip to France recently, without any route, plan or any particular destination in mind.

“I ended up doing everything I love,” Mrinalini says. “I took rambling walks on cliff side paths, strolled through art galleries, explored little lanes on a cycle, spent time with people and basked in their kindness, swam, read, painted and reflected, even bought myself flowers!”

There are downsides, of course. Travelling alone means travelling alone. If you’ve never been on your own, travelling solo can be intensely lonely at first.

“Initially, I had to struggle hard to keep the negative thoughts at bay,” says Kavita Krishnan Vathul. Today, she says, she’s far more relaxed, secure in the knowledge that her family is independent enough and can manage well without her.

“Feeling lonely at first is natural but there’s nothing to fear,” says Dr. Rajendran. “It helps to reach out and make contact with others. You’ll learn that the world isn’t a dangerous or hostile place.”

Wherever you go, though, it’s wise to take certain precautions, advise all solo travelers. Be sure to stay in touch with your family, several times a day if needed. Never check in to rundown or seedy hotels. And above all—stay alert.

Despite these obstacles, for many women, the chance to travel alone boils down to one thing and one thing only: a supportive, respectful spouse who doesn’t mind sharing the parenting load.

“My daughter often asks when I’m planning my next solo vacation,” Kavita says. “She enjoys the exclusive time she spends with her father. After all, this is when ice cream and TV dinners happen!”

But partners have to be willing to face the bad as well as the good times alone. Kavitha Rao remembers a time when her husband and children fell sick when she was away on vacation.

“They all had a fever, so my husband took the kids to our pediatrician,” she says. Not wanting to worry her, Kavitha’s husband never mentioned that the kids were unwell. They soon recovered, and Kavitha returned. But the next time she met the pediatrician, she was reminded of the societal mindset that often inhibits women from travelling alone in the first place. The doctor, she said, simply raved about what a wonderful man Kavitha had married.

“It’s true that he’s very supportive, but taking one’s own kids to a doctor when they’re sick is hardly a grand, eloquent gesture,” she says.

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