By Aakshi Magazine
In the first few hours of landing in Prague on my first solo holiday, I found myself lost. I had written down the details of how to reach the hostel that I was booked in, just in case my unreliable phone switched off. Then I had gone over it again in the last two days before leaving. But the moment I got off the metro in the centre of Prague city, I didn’t know which direction to walk in. The Internet on my phone stopped working, and so Google Maps was not an option. I walked about a bit and finally started asking people, none of whom knew exactly where my hostel was. Each of them would give me some directions that I was relieved to follow, only to reach somewhere that didn’t look like a hostel. Finally I started walking around instinctively, dragging my small bag, counting the address number, and found the hostel in front of me.
In those moments of being lost in a new place where people did not speak the language I spoke, and where I did not know anyone, I experienced an uncertainty that I have always been protected from. It was new, it was challenging. Growing up in India, I have of course experienced all kinds of uncertainties. But what I hadn’t experienced was surrendering to them, because I had always been taught to protect myself, to calculate and plan in advance, and take what a teacher had once so aptly called — careful risks. In a new place, that shield of carefulness collapses, no matter how much you plan. There is only so much you can know about the hostel you are booked into, only that much you can read about how to get around a city. Getting lost is often the best way to explore a place, but the freedom to get lost is also gendered.
Hindi films are really a big part of how we experience ourselves. Ever since Kangana Ranaut in Queen, female solo travel has become something of an aspiration in my circle of friends. When I told a friend that I was doing this trip alone, she was excited for me, rather than feeling pity, which could have been her first reaction just a couple of years ago. If you are a single woman in her late twenties, you could only be travelling alone because you could not find a man to do it with, or friends to group up with. What if you wanted to travel alone?
For people like me, who usually don’t get bored anywhere, there is at one level no need to travel, no desire to go see someplace new, because the comfort of familiarity is attractive. Maybe I was influenced by the many articles and essays about how travel changes you. Maybe I had already done it, coming to an unfamiliar place in Scotland from India, for a PhD. Staying here, Europe was just two hours or so away, and I was curious to know what this travel thing was about. I had always wanted to go to Prague but it could really have been anywhere. Secretly though, even after having booked everything, I was reluctant and a bit nervous.
Travelling solo is not glamorous. I only visited three cities in one short week, but I could tell. After the novelty and rush of the first two days in a new city, it becomes slow afternoons and evenings of being by yourself, far away from the comfort of routine or familiarity. Maybe that’s why many people don’t like to stick to a place for too long. They do a checklist kind of travel, moving from one city or country to another quickly, before the boredom can set in. To stay is to confront yourself, and the mundane nature of the place you are in, even when it is a beautiful city like Prague.
But in that movement lies a kind of freedom too; the freedom not to figure out a place completely, beyond your little interest in what is visible, and the history accessible to you in museums and architecture. You are only visiting, and there is some kind of irresponsibility in this, which can be exciting. There is only so much you can know a place if you spend just two days there.
Travel by yourself can often be about sitting around and watching people, which in tourist season, means families and couples exploring the city. In the cities that I went to, it was the pleasure of (usually) not feeling watched in return. As a woman, it is planning and being responsible for yourself, but also letting go now and then. I had an extra burden — to get back in one piece and with all belongings intact — also because I wanted to tell my parents and others back at home that it was possible to do this. It was new for them too. Maybe next time I will travel with less of that burden.
For women who come from societies like ours, the lack of company need not mean loneliness; it is actually a privilege. And even loneliness is not something to be scared of. I realised I was not the only one feeling this when I was on a walking tour of Prague’s Old Town, and a woman from Malaysia voiced a similar sentiment. This was the first time she was travelling alone, and she was enjoying it a lot. “If you are still studying then I am surprised your parents allowed you to travel,” she told me, thinking I was younger than her. “I am in a job and still my mother messages me every day,” she said. When I told her mine does too, she said, “Asian parents!”. It struck me later that she had used the word “allowed”.
Even if you don’t get bored easily when alone, you will sometimes seek others when you are travelling solo, to understand why they travel, and through this, learn why you do too.
In the film The Holiday, Cameron Diaz’s character travels to a town in the suburbs of England, but realises that while she came all this way to escape loneliness, she feels lonelier than before. This is a dilemma of the traveller. You want to travel all the way to the unfamiliar, only to seek some kind of familiarity with yourself. In the hostel that I stayed in at Prague, there was a 70-year-old French woman who was this contradiction too. She was travelling alone, and didn’t seem to need anyone. She was so independent, she didn’t even need a phone to navigate — she was amazed by our need to always consult our phones. But as I discovered, she was also lonely and perhaps unhappy, she had come all the way to find peace and happiness because she did not like living alone. Life is not meant to be lived alone, she told me.
In another hostel in Vienna, as I entered a room a bit late into the evening, I found the lights switched off. A girl in a matching nightsuit looked up from her book as I, accompanied by a friend,entered the room. She was reading a thick Nicholas Sparks collection in the bed lamp light, in a room with curtains drawn and main lights off. Something told me she must be in school. She had come all the way from wherever she had, and was shut in a room reading a book. I recognised some version of myself in her. This could have easily been me.
There were many others, many solo women and men travellers, since that is acceptable here and less of an aberration. Some are looking to party, some to escape, some to find something.
On reaching back, a shifting sense of home hit me. I was not coming back to India, my more permanent home, but to Scotland, where I had been living for the last two years. It was a bit of a relief to reach Edinburgh where everyone speaks a language I know, even though they do not speak Hindi, the other language I am comfortable in. After asking me how long my PhD was for, the officer at the Immigration desk, said, “welcome back”. Anyone who has been through immigration in any country will know that some degree of kindness at such places makes a difference. I have seen officers in India being nice to people of my class, but not to those from a working class background who have gotten off the same flight as me. They interrogate them more, in a taunting manner, maintaining the intimidating reputation of an intimidating institution.
On the long way back from the airport to the university town where I live, there were many tourists on the tram. Two of them, an old couple, were keeping count of the number of stops, to keep track of where they had to get off. In the past week I had known this gesture only too well, because I had done exactly this in Prague, where I found the accents of those announcing stations difficult to understand. Ironically, just a week ago I would have probably felt lost even here, as this too was a relatively new city for me, but now in comparison to where I was coming from, seemed less so. I could get lost here and still feel okay. Is home then a place where you allow yourself to get lost?
Then the words of film-maker Abbas Kiarostami, who died this month, came to me to challenge me. Kiarostami had said, “The world is my workshop, it is not my home”. People who always feel out of place everywhere will recognise something in the beauty and clarity of his words. I recognise myself in them. This time, though, it also reminded me of the uncertainty I had experienced on that first day in unknown Prague. It is one I want to embrace, to see who I would become when I do. After just a week of travel, I cannot say I have learnt to surrender to it. But I am learning.
Aakshi Magazine is currently working on her PhD in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.