By Kanka Chaki
Published on April 4, 2013
In 2007, I backpacked alone through the West Bengal villages in India. I travelled without a map, any form of technology or even a dictionary. My goal was to challenge myself at every step and truly understand my own limits. I was raised in a conservative Indian family, with constant supervision of elders. I wanted to break free from those barriers and safety nets and experience a drastically different and more challenging life. Throughout my teenage years, I had constantly faced stereotypes that a world is a dangerous place for a woman travelling alone. I wanted my travelling experiences to challenge these ideas and test my courage.
Before I began my journey I knew that I did not want to experience India through the eyes of the popular travelling book known as The Lonely Planet Guide. I did not want to know what I was about to see and where I was about to go. I wanted to experience India as it came to me. Instead, I decided to travel through the West Bengal villages, a route rarely chosen by travelers yet full of some of the most significant aspects of India.
I had always perceived myself as an extremely courageous individual, completely ready to experience every aspect of life with open arms. I learned that I was wrong. I was timid and cowardly. Courageous was not who I was but who I wanted to become. There were times the culture shock left me stunned and paralyzed; I held back because I did not want to feel out of place. The busy railway stations, the people relaxing around the benches at the stations, the bustling marketplaces often made me feel speechless and lost. I was often homesick, craving to go to a place where I would feel more comfortable and safe. Coming to terms with these experiences and emotions challenged me to step out of my comfort zone, and to become stronger and more courageous. Towards the end of my journey, I realized that travelling and pushing myself beyond my limits and barriers helped me become the person I have wanted to become.
Until my solo backpacking trip, travelling had meant escaping the daily routine with my entire family and fleeing to a destination that allowed us to relax, enjoy delicious food and breathtaking scenery at leisure. Travel like this was safe and worry-free. I could wear anything I liked and act however I wanted, without worrying about consequences. But backpacking alone through the villages in India made me understand this overwhelming sense of what it is to be a woman. I could not wear just anything I felt like wearing. I had to make sure that my outfits were conservative and did not attract too much attention. I wore traditional clothes in order to blend in. At all times, I had to make sure my actions were prudent and did not put me in a dangerous position. I thought twice before walking into marketplaces at night to buy dinner. At times, I was desperate to find a hostel to stay for the night because I did not want to wander after dark. I remember one evening, I stepped into a train cabin shortly after it became dark outside. I looked around and realized that I was one of only two women on the train. I sat there quietly with a shawl wrapped around my body, trying not to make any eye contact. Sitting by the window and trying to ignore numerous men leering at my body, I felt a sense of fear like never before. It was a kind of fear that could only be experienced and understood by a woman. It angered me that my family was right; it was not safe to travel alone as a woman. But instead of letting fear prevent me from travelling alone, I let it embrace me and shape my experiences. Traveling alone as a woman was more difficult than I imagined, and at times, it was certainly dangerous. But I proved that ultimately it could be done.
Kanka Chaki is a fourth year student majoring in International Development Studies and minoring in Human Geography and Health Studies. She volunteered at the Mother Teresa Orphanage in Kolkata, India for over a year and plans to return for another year after her graduation. She is an avid traveler and has backpacked through the West Bengal villages in India. After graduation, Kanka plans to write the Foreign Service Exam and work for the Canadian government abroad.