Travelling light, travelling right

Travelling light, travelling right

Travelling light, travelling right

Spirit of adventure: An all-women rafting expedition on the Zanskar River.  PIC COURTESY/ WOW

As a woman traveller, and the type that tends to wander off the beaten track, I long for a recommended list of places and countries that point out where women should go and where they should not go. I think planning a holiday would be that much easier if there were a clear divide between best and worst places for women venturing out into the big bad world. Though some of the most exotic, interesting places are labelled “unsafe”, you just cannot drop them from your wish list, if you are really a true traveller.

It’s sure hard to say which country is “good” or “bad” for women to visit. Terrible things can happen in safe places all over the world, and for every horror story, there’s a tale of how a lost soul was given the right directions by a friendly local. Think South Africa and what instantly comes to mind is Johannesburg, notorious for flight delays and lost luggage. Best to avoid Jo’burg all together, fly in but make sure that you take the next connecting flight to Cape Town or Kruger National Park, anyway there is little or nothing that a tourist would like to do in this city.

Comfort & adventure
“For women, travel is all about adventure and learning. Women want both a physical and a spiritual journey,” says Anjana Kaul, a Delhi-based training manager. What fits the bill? It could be Egypt with the Nile cruise, an all-women rafting expedition on the Zanskar River in Ladakh, an African safari or a heritage retreat in Rajasthan. “After the day’s activities are over, I look forward to a delicious meal and a comfortable bed,” says Kaul. “You have to balance adventure with comfort.”

Then the romance of a Greek island can do strange things to most women, it seems to have a bit of everything, besides not too many Indians go there, so you get the feel that you are discovering something totally unique and special. You land up in Athens, the capital with its array of historical sights and the perfect base for connections to other parts of Greece. Your “safe” hotel choice includes new hotels near the city centre, or quaint, old world hotels in the Plaka district at the foot of the Acropolis or others around the two main squares, Syntagma or Omonia. Greece is packed with things to see and do, but undoubtedly I would recommend the Greek isles of Santorini and Mykenos.

Casanova alert!
However, Greece has plenty of local Casanovas who are ready and eager to sweep you off your feet with declarations of love. If you’re looking for a fling, fine. Just don’t let yourself get charmed and flattered into an uncomfortable situation. The hustlers scheme for sure, so hang on to your wallet as well as your heart. Most men in cultures around the world are honorable and respectful toward female travellers but the few obnoxious exceptions will always stand out. Sooner or later, you will get harassed, so be ready to deflect the harassment with a no-nonsense attitude — and never let it get to you emotionally, brush away any romantic thoughts about your guide, and you will enjoy your Greek holiday utmost!

Be smart, stay safe
Egypt is another favourite destination of women, packed with some of the most famous, spectacular, historically important sights on earth. Here one can opt to sit astride a came and take a ride from the Great Pyramid closer to the Sphinx. Dinner can be on a ship plying the Nile — the same river that Egyptians used as their highway more than 5,000 years ago. And who says that women cannot visit Egypt sans men, I have done so and survived to tell the tale! Just look and act confident in Egypt, even when you aren’t. Don’t act lost (even when you are), and don’t stand in the street poring over your map, since wannabe hustlers will take this as an invitation to “help” you. Be cautious toward offers of hospitality, especially if the hospitality separates you from safe public areas. When in your hotel, make a habit of keeping your door locked at all times.

Respect local culture
Turkey is another country popular on women’s wish lists. This ruin-rich land is characterised by bright sunshine, crystal clear Mediterranean waters, olive groves and cypress trees. Here you find gracious people, amazing food and fascinating culture. But, when I first ventured out on my own one morning to get breakfast in Istanbul, I felt the men staring at me. I noticed some women were veiled. I was not. I never felt threatened, but I did feel that I was on display for all the local men drinking their morning tea. As such, you’re likely to see many women in full hijab, or at the very least covered discreetly by veils, long shirts, and flowing pants. No one will tell you that you have to follow suit, but if you’re planning a trip, consider these details when you’re packing. Leave the spaghettis at home.

Once bitten, forever smitten
“Tired of all the rescheduling and last minute cancellations, I decided to let the travel bug get the better of me and travel solo. Five years ago I joined an all women group to Egypt,” says Radhika Narayanan, a 32-year-old HR consultant from Bangalore. “This was the first time I had gone on such a trip and I am more than willing to go for more.” Vandana Bahl, who was part of the Egypt tour, echoes the feeling. “I hope to travel to Leh, Ladakh in summer,” says Vandana, a partner in a Mumbai-based consultancy firm.  
Pooja Gupta laughs as she recalls the attention their gang of girls attracted in Egypt. “A large group of women would arouse curiosity anywhere in the world. So when we walked through the market streets and inside shops, or at eateries, men would call out words like India, Amitabh Bachchan or Mehbooba, and invite us to take a look at their merchandise or have tea at their cafe. It was quite amusing,” says Pooja, who is employed at a software firm in Pune. For Nasreen Khan, an IT professional in Bangalore, the Rajasthan trip was unabashed enjoyment. “We played dumb charades, learnt more about each other, posed for photographs, and had a blast,” she says. “There were 20 of us in the age group of 24 to 45, a good mix of like-minded women who were on a roll.”

Ready to hit the road?
The girlie holidays represent a cultural shift. Thirty years ago, women didn’t vacation without their families; a woman who did travel without her husband was asked whether there was something wrong in the marriage. Traditionally, women planned family vacations where they were the ones making sure everyone is happy, safe and entertained. Meanwhile, men went drinking or golfing with the guys, and teenagers started travelling too, with school and youth groups while their parents footed the bill. Now women are clearing saying, “Hey it’s my turn!”

More and more women are thinking about leaving the better half at home and hitting the road with the female gender. When women travel together, they can really let their hair down. It’s fun and stress-free — a bonding experience that all women look forward to. Besides an all-women travel group is the perfect solution for women who want to travel, but do not like the idea of travelling alone. The typical Indian travel industry, for one, is not geared to dealing with women travellers. Women, though, know how to work around problems and I find that safety in numbers is a good maxim. This happily dispenses with the need for a male escort. But whether in India or elsewhere, strolling alone after dark or through lonely streets is inadvisable.

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