By Jordi Brown.
As a young woman, I have heard the words ‘don’t go by yourself; you’re a target’ from an impressionable age. Messages that I was told as a kid such as ‘don’t talk to strangers’ or ‘make sure you have a toilet buddy!’ have evolved over time to become warnings of ‘do not ever leave your drink unattended’ or ‘do not catch public transport after dark’ with the implied threat of becoming a victim of sexual assault simply because I have a cunt. While oppression due to sex can be a very overt barrier, the lessons we pass on to one another, to daughters, sisters and besties, can be just as influential and restricting. Thus, my decision to become a solo female backpacker in India was something that scared me; not because I feared being lonely or having to rely upon myself but because I have been conditioned to always doubt my physical safety when left alone and ‘unprotected’.
So, the beginning of my expedition saw me standing nervously at the train station hoping that this time I could avoid the previous shenanigans of Indian Railways and the unwanted stares of the overwhelming number of men who swarmed the public sphere. Fortunately, the train arrived at the stated time and platform and I thankfully bounded on only to find that my seat was accommodated by three of the largest Indian men I had come across during my time in the nation. Fear brought about butterflies of panic. I was to spend 24 hours in the presence of beings who could overpower me and I suddenly became aware of how alone and physically powerless I actually was. Doubt started to raise its head. How many women had I met that had had very unpleasant experiences on public transport in this country? Were all the seemingly dramatic warnings completely valid? Was I destined to become another statistic? Noticing my agitation, the men smiled cheerfully and helped me with my pack. However mentally, I was going through contacts that I could call if need be and potential makeshift weapons that I could sleep with for self-defence.
However, my immediate fight response was unnecessary. The care extended to me during this trip began with a kinder surprise toy. I had sentenced myself to an inconspicuous corner of the berth, trying to take up as little room as possible so that maybe, just maybe, the presence of a single foreign female would go unnoticed. To distract myself I was fidgeting with my kinder surprise toy but the model plane wasn’t coming together like the instructions instructed. Within seconds, the men’s piqued interest led them into a huddle with the puzzle of my plane at the centre of attention. I had to suppress a giggle at the intensity of these three fully grown men who were completely enraptured by something so trivial. Once constructed, the men congratulated themselves and swelled in a little pride and self-satisfaction before asking me if they could present the toy plane to a boy who was hiding behind my chair. The boy grinned widely at us all and raced along the carriage with his new prized possession.
The moment had created a connection between us, breaking down barriers, and the rest of the trip became more comfortable and slightly more bizarre. I was treated to food, broken yet eager conversation, Facebook friend requests, family photos and a lovely phone call to one of the men’s wives who was very excited to speak with me. I was introduced to many people who happened to walk past our seats and cascaded with questions about my experiences so far in India. At one point I accidentally fell asleep, slowly taking up more and more of the seats as one of the men was pushed closer and closer to the edge. I awoke suddenly and embarrassed. I apologised profusely, determined not to punish this man for my weariness and accidental rudeness. Nevertheless, he was unfazed insisting that I make myself comfortable and go back to my dreams. He even made my bed for me, carefully tucking in my sheets and ensuring that I was fine to sleep on the middle bunk. As we continued on our journey, my new friends made sure to bid me farewell before they departed from the train, wishing me all the best and promising to keep in contact. Finally, we arrived at my destination and I left the security of the train with hands waving me goodbye through the window. I found myself with a feeling of newfound hope tinged with sadness from the knowledge that no foreigner would receive such an experience in my own country.
As I followed my whims and intuition across Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, I collected extraordinary moments, fresh insight and an unchallengeable confidence. I became a pilgrim to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, sleeping and eating on the floor with hundreds of other devotees. I danced with thousands of women at the Pakistani border to celebrate the beginning of the nonsensical border closing ceremony. I spontaneously joined the protesters for freeing Tibet, fighting back tears inspired by their ferocity and passion. I visited the home of the Dalai Lama and the refugee town of Dharamsala in which I was privileged to listen to the refugees’ stories of tragedy and optimism and help preserve their culture. Just as importantly, I discovered many other women who were travelling by themselves and had done so numerous times in a diverse range of countries. All of them had experienced various challenges but loved what they were doing and were incredibly supportive of others doing the same.
Although it was a decision that I battled to make, throwing myself completely in the deep end and choosing to travel in India alone is my utmost achievement and something that I greatly pride myself on. Of course, it was intimidating and overwhelming to begin with and my adventure was speckled with a few instants of doubt. However, taking everything into consideration I would argue that it was a self-defining experience and has forced me to overcome my own limiting beliefs and the constraints that society has placed upon me simply because of my sex. Preventing women from exploring the world is counter-productive and proves that malicious sexual violence is, indeed, the most effective way to oppress women despite the strength and freedom that they possess. I would recommend any woman to rediscover herself by vagabonding solo through such a diverse nation as India. The things you learn in doing so are invaluable and as long as you are confident, clear about your personal boundaries and use your common sense the world is yours to claim.
Jordi Brown has just entered the stage of her life known as the ‘twenties’ and has just begun university after spending 6 months in India as an English Teacher in a rural village within the Darjeeling region. She is passionate about empowering people and volunteers for the Reach Foundation, challenging young people to step outside of their comfort zone and embody #yolo.