Travel and The Single Story We Tell Ourselves About Places
I travelled solo for the first time in 2012 - thankfully, without the fanfare. It helped that social media wasn’t as invasive as it is today. My blog, while being called ‘Nomadic Thunker’, was yet to hone in on travel as a theme. These are two primary reasons why there is no travelogue that dates back to that first solo travel experience. I have hand-written notes though!
In 2012, the questions I was tackling on my return revolved around my parents’ ability to entrust me with independence and responsibility.
In hindsight, I realise how my experience was reduced to a story of my parents’ ability to trust me. Somehow it didn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind (or perhaps it didn’t matter) that I was an adult and therefore, capable of demonstrating independence and responsibility!
Solo Travel And The Single Story
In 2018, things have changed.
‘Travel’ is now one of the two themes of my blog. My solo escapades, though, have decreased – not intentionally though. Universally, ‘travel’ is now a trendy hashtag with many derivates but none as trendy as hashtag ‘solo travel’. Because hashtag solo travel is the stuff ‘bucket-lists’ and ‘things-to-do-before-you-get-married’ are made of! Or at least that’s what the listicles purport.
Strangely, I am no longer asked about my parents’ ability to trust me. Instead, I’m having conversations with folks who enquire if it’s okay to NOT like travelling solo! Yet another manifestation of the single story that glorifies solo travel.
You’re seeing the invasive power of social media, right?
And here’s the biggest change: In 2018, travel has become a matter of safety and only safety
Conversations are no longer about why one wants to travel – solo or otherwise. Neither are conversations about why one wants to go to the Philippines instead of Spain or Namibia instead of Brazil. Conversations are veering towards how safe or unsafe a place is – be it, country or specific cities or towns.
And now more than ever, in an increasing number of conversations, I find that I’m required to have an opinion on, if not a conclusive answer to, ‘how safe is it to travel in India.’
Why Is Safety Not As Binary As We’d Like It To Be?
Honestly, that question – ‘how safe is it to travel in India’ – has always put me in an awkward bind. I have not been able to find the ‘right’ words to express why I feel the way I feel about a certain place. Especially since quite a bit of my travel has been solo and to places within India that aren’t high up on most folks’ order of preference. I belong to that rare ilk that covered places like Amritsar, Hampi, and Pondicherry much later in my journeys around India. I also travelled to Spiti, Orchha, and Pelling for the first time when most folks around me thought I was travelling out of the country!
But here’s my bigger concern with that question: I find it flawed.
Inherent in its very premise is an absolutist worldview that a place can only either be safe or unsafe. It suggests that there are only two colours: black and white. If something isn’t black, it’s white. And vice versa. But what about the grey?
Here’s my argument: A place can be, both, safe AND unsafe. And depending on the evidence we choose to find, we’ll build and defend yet another single story. Therein lies the danger!
As my sensibilities evolve, I am trying to be more mindful and sensitive to cultures, places, and people. More than I have been before. When that started happening, a certain realization started kicking in. I began to realise a mistake I had been committing (albeit unknowingly).
For a while now, I had been rising to the occasion and defending places purely on the basis of one data point: my experiences, most of which have (thankfully) been positive.
You may ask why that’s a mistake
Because at best, it offers a perspective
And at its worst, it offers only a perspective without actively unbundling the extent of my privilege
In that, my experience is but a single story
And - more specifically - in rising to defend them, was I in any way reducing the experience of another who may have undergone something quite the opposite? Have I, in my moment of wanting to defend a place that has a 'questionable repute', unintentionally also had a moment where I’ve failed at extending empathy towards a fellow-human?
The Weight Of My Single Story
Here’s what I mean:
Seemingly unsafe towns have left me filled with gratitude
Seemingly cosmopolitan metropolises have left me filled with dread and disgust
These neither are nor can be, universal experiences for anyone
It is entirely possible that someone else may have had an unpleasant experience in a small town while never having to look over their shoulder in a big city. Do the two stories deserve to be pitted against each other? Can they not coexist together?
Mumbai and Me
I have been born and raised in the city that never sleeps – Mumbai. I’ll use Mumbai to illustrate how two (or more) experiences for the same place cannot be uniform.
I live in the suburbs. And always have. The shrouded in anonymity kind of suburbs.
Culturally as well as socio-economically, the part of the city that I come from is a lot different from a Bandra (a suburb in the western part of the city) or a Lower Parel (located centrally within the city) or a Colaba (located to the south of the city), which are (incorrectly) considered representative of the entire city’s ethos.
This translates to how the entire city of Mumbai is cosmopolitan (to say the least) and egalitarian (to say the most)
A Tale Of Many Mumbais
Recently I was speaking to a bunch of women members of an offline community who - given my solo and non-solo adventures - were curious to understand how I dress when I’m travelling within India and wanted to know to what extent I adapt my clothing to ‘fit-in’.
I smiled and before venturing into how I ‘blend into places’, I explained how I adapt my clothing while commuting to different parts of Mumbai!
Because, the extent to which a woman walking down the street in her shorts is normalised and therefore considered acceptable, in say a Bandra is not true for a Kurla – and the two are barely 10 kilometres away from each other. So nope, there isn’t a single story for even the city of Mumbai
The question I have is this: By what stretch of the imagination do generalizations work? Especially when there are so many nuances and unknown variables at play in the creation of the multiple stories of a single place!
The Delusion Of A Single Story
As I acknowledge and own my own blindsided-ness in defending my many single stories about places, I am starting to realise something else. To adopt and practice safety measures while travelling can be: (i) a strategy (i.e. something intentional like carrying a pepper spray), or
(ii) a way of life (i.e. having a preference of not travelling at night).
And these are always going to be based on an individual’s preference.
It has nothing to do with the extent to which a place is safe.
Safe is just as relative as unsafe is. To delude ourselves behind a single story is to be foolhardy.
I cannot refer to the single story and not exhort you to watch Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk: The danger of a single story