After a drawn out end to a disastrous relationship, I decided I needed some extremely fresh air and started planning my first backpacking stint. Initially, my destination was the United States, but it being a month after September 11th 2001, I didn't feel that that environment to be the best choice for someone with a name such as mine. So I looked and booked eastward. India.
My father was horrified and pleaded for me not to travel in India on my own. Not wanting to spell out his worries, he said, "Bad men could do anything." Understanding he could not dissuade me, he suggested I visit his family, brothers and cousins, whom I could rely on to take me "sightseeing". This was a far cry from the fresh air I was seeking. I wanted to look at a map, decide on a location and go. No consulting anyone. Be me, be free.
Since, at that point in my life, I had had very little to do with my dad after my parents separated just as I turned eleven, I found it very easy to ignore everything my dad had said. My mother, knowing me, wished me good luck.
Today, India has been listed as the most unsafe country for women to visit in the world by The International Women's Travel Centre. They have posted Egypt second on that list and Mexico third. I have never been to Egypt, but I've been living in Mexico for the last ten years. My first year in Mexico, I travelled extensively, solo. From the central highlands, mainly using buses, I explored southward over a few months until I reached Cancun, where I boarded a plane to Cuba. I am really trying to recall even one incident where I felt unsafe in my travels within Mexico. I am failing. In Cuba, however, I felt vulnerable and at risk of being a target for something unpleasant happening. Nothing actually happened there, it was just a feeling I had. Quite possibly this was due to stepping into a different environment from the safety of Mexico that I had become accustomed to. So I returned to Mexico and continued journeying. Cuba does not appear on that list of "10 Worst Countries for Women Tourists".
I landed in New Delhi in November 2001 and left in March 2002. I traversed down India, from houseboat in Kashmir, to the dusty camel fair in Pushkar, and south to the tip of the mainland, Kunamumari. What breathtaking sights and wonderful experiences I enjoyed over those five months. My most valued possession during that time was my comfy pair of steel toe capped Doc Martens boots. So useful when hiking around tea plantations and scrambling aboard packed public transport. I also felt they said a lot about the person I was. "Don't mess with this girl," they said.
Unfortunately, there were a couple of occasions where I was ready to use them for self-protection. Just a few days into my trip, a rickshaw driver insisted he hold my hand during visits to exquisite monuments, so as to demonstrate to other men I was protected. I insisted he didn't. Busing about was not a relaxing experience either. Companies encouraged me to buy the two seats so that I wouldn't have to ward off roving hands. There was logic in this, and it was not just a tactic to sell more seats. However, hands sometimes squeezed their way through tight gaps to gain the pleasure of annoying my middle back. Those incidents took place in Delhi.
Delhi, famous for the Red Fort, Qutab Minar, India Gate and more recently, for the horrific gang-rape which look the life of a student.
Since that solo adventure in India, I've had the pleasure of numerous incredible visits with my husband. The first time we travelled together there in 2007, I was apprehensive as my husband is white and British. Would resentment to the sons of the colonialists be demonstrated? Would the mix of our partnership be frowned upon? We were, in fact, always greeted with kindness, curiosity and celebration. "Well done, you lucky Britisher! You have a Punjabi to cook for you!"
Today, I have a daughter of my own, and my relationship with my father is better. I would love for her to experience for herself some of the countless, wonderous scenes that are cradled within that fabulous country. From the blissful peace found in Yuksom, to the sensory chaos of Chandni Chowk; to float on Dal Lake and climb Tiger Hill for a sun salutation to Mount Everest. I'd love for her to inhale it all. But not on her own.
Solo travelling has steered me onto an amazing lifepath, and I will encourage each of my three children to venture out, somewhere distant and different, at various stages of their lives. However, I will direct my daughter away from solo travel in India. It is a double standard. It is different when you have children of your own. Do as I say, not as I did. My daughter is prettier than I am, and on another taboo subject, has a fairer skin tone than I, and will draw more attention than I ever did. That will include unwanted attention. Some places are better explored in trusted company.
I hope I shall be more successful than my father was in keeping my daughter from my perception of danger. If ever the day springs up where I feel the need to nudge her away from her excitement and ideas, I will be using tactics not used by my father. I shall direct her attentions towards other glorious destinations, New Zealand, the Philippines, the Galapagos Islands, the list is long. I may even purchase her the first three nights of accommodation as a "present". Though truthfully, I am hoping I won't ever have to be in the position of redirecting her path. Right now, in these formative years, I hope to lead her, and my two sons, on many adventures, where they shall learn to use common sense whilst retaining their excitement. They can then gaze upon the world map and dream and plan and travel in safety, with passion.