This is a phrase I’ve heard a lot since I started telling people that I planned to travel to India by myself a few months ago. It’s usually accompanied by a raised skeptical eyebrow, a tone of concern, and the assumption that I’ve really not thought this through at all.
The same people who ask me this are some of the people I love the most – my mum, my brother, my housemate, my grandma, my closest friends – so I know that it comes from a good place. It comes from people wanting me to be careful, wanting me to be safe, and wanting me not to balls up all of the work I’ve done to get out of my overdraft post-Masters. This has taken me (for the record) until the age of 24 to do. Most of all, it comes from people worrying that I’ll get myself into trouble in a variety of ways, and all that seems very fair, doesn’t it?
Well, it is of course. It is lovely and it is understandable, and it is always very much appreciated; but it’s also not always ok. Not really. Even though it’s done with all of the best intentions and good wishes in the world, after the fifteenth person has posed the same question it gets a little dull and quite frustrating.
I think most people who decide to make a big decision face similar questions and similar worries though, and so here is a list of the reasons I’ve been given for not going, and my responses to why this trip isn’t symptomatic of a quarter-life crisis, and why it (hopefully) won’t end in my eventual destruction or financial destitution.
India? It isn’t safe!
This is mostly from my family’s perspective, and I’m certain that a lot of it comes from never having been to India themselves, just like me, and instead simply having to read all of the terrifying news articles about what has happened to women there, both alone and in groups. Even with that aside, there are people riding on the tops of trains, poisonous snakes, and the ever-present potential for me to get knocked down by a rip-roaring rickshaw whilst crossing the road.
Well, I suppose I understand all of that (mostly). India’s frightening in the same way any new country is before you actually set foot in it, and it’s true that the recent spate of high-profile attacks on women has occasionally given me pause for thought. But no-where is entirely safe from that kind of danger, unfortunately, and to assume that India’s only attitude to women is violent and unsafe and derogatory, is unhelpful, foolish and frankly, deeply insulting to the people of India. Let’s not forget, that the protests that succeeded the most high-profile of these attacks were made up of a far greater proportion of Indian society – both men and women – than the few cowardly men who committed the crime.
India is also a huge, huge nation, with a heady mix of ancient cultures and religions that are currently going through a period of great change in the 21st century. It’s to be expected that harmful attitudes to women still persist in certain areas, but there are also things that a western woman, like me, can do to minimise unwanted attention, and more importantly, to be respectful and integrate into a culture that I’m merely going to be a guest in.
As for the snakes and the rickshaws, I guess I’m just going to have to be careful. If it was possible to get diagnosed as clumsy then I would be, and it would be uncannily like me to get killed simply by falling down and not looking where I was going.
So, yeah… Sorry mum.
Aren’t you too old to go travelling?
Categorically and unequivocally: no, I am not. Even if we leave aside the fact that I’m only 24 this is still a stupid question, and merely symptomatic of a society that tells everyone we’ve got to do everything when the abstract ‘they’ say so. No-one is too old to go travelling if that’s what they really want to do. No-one is too old to do anything.
It’s 2015/16, and things aren’t the way they were even for our parents’ generation anymore. Back then you could be pretty certain that if you left school with some kind of qualification or training then you’d get a job that could pay the bills. I’m not painting the period of twenty – forty years ago in rose lacquer by any means, but what I will say is that my parents were able to buy the house I grew up in when they were 23 years old and earning average-low salaries at the time. That is a virtual impossibility now unless you win the lottery, come into some kind of large inheritance, or have very well-off parents willing to help you onto the property ladder.
My generation and the ones after us have grown up with a bewildering mix of a ‘you can do anything’ aspirational teaching from our parents and schools, and a hefty dose of uncertainty and instability from the rest of the world. Personally, I don’t foresee a time in my life when I will ever own my own home, and the concept of being forever ‘settled’ in one place is an alien one. I could go on about how angry it makes me that a government comprised of people who have always had financial security are making laws for the people who have never known it, but instead I’ll just say this:
When there’s no guarantee that security will be on the cards in the near future, it’s more important than ever to do the things you want to do; whether that’s for personal growth, career advancement, or simply to see a bit of the world while you can.
Why would you wait?
What If you come back in a worse position?
This is the most valid concern that’s been raised since I started talking to people about taking this trip. As I mentioned, it’s taken me nearly a year since finishing my MA to get out of my overdraft and be settled in full-time employment. After months spent barely scraping my rent together on the three – four pub shifts I had at the time, and endlessly filling in fruitless job applications until that one lucky day in March when one actually worked out, I can now finally afford to support myself and put a little bit of money aside.
This is a great and privileged position to be in, but as much as I’m grateful for my job I know that I don’t want to work in an office long term. I trained in journalism so that I could travel and see the world, talk to people, meet someone new every day, document all of it and hopefully make a small difference somewhere. I’ve saved as much as I can, and I work as a freelance copywriter on the side, so hopefully I won’t return from a few months travelling away with nothing. More than that, I hope that I’ll have been able to write or photograph something worthwhile in the meantime, and that I’ll maybe come back having given this documentary journalism thing a real attempt. But I won’t know that until I go and right now it isn’t the going that frightens me, but the idea that if I don’t do it now then I never will.
Aren’t you just taking a really long holiday?
I really hate this concept of what travelling is, so if any of you were thinking it let me just stop you right there. Taking a holiday is 3 – 14 days of doing nothing on a beach or by a pool, or perhaps if you’re a bit more active then you might take the odd walk or bike ride, or indulge in another active hobby. Travelling long term is not like that.
Travelling long term requires organisation and a huge does of logistics. You need to have researched not only the place you’re going to travel to, but also to have put together a plan of how you’re going to support yourself while you’re there. At this age, at least, it isn’t about Full Moon parties on a Thai beach or months spent learning to surf and indulging a hobby – although these are both valid things to do if you want to. For me now, this is about seeing and experiencing a culture vastly different from my own. As pretentious as it may sound, this trip is about understanding the world a bit better than I did before, doing some volunteering with a friend’s charity, and organising myself strictly enough to be able to write and copywrite while I do so.
I don’t look at this as a holiday. I look at this as a cultural and working trip, and one that’s going to push me far out of my comfort zone for an extended period of time, which I’ll be spending thousands of miles away from my friends and family. Yes, of course I’m hoping that it will be amazing and wonderful, and I’m hoping that I’ll get to see the Himalayas and meet people from around the world as well. No doubt I’ll spend some time on the beach and having a lot of fun, but that’s not the main reason that I’m going.
Are you sure?
Yes. I’ve spent the last couple of years being excited about many things, but not really knowing what to do with myself. During that time I’ve graduated from the University of Sheffield with an MA in Broadcast Journalism, worked two jobs simultaneously at a pub and a publishing company, and watched a lot of my closest friends move away to start lives outside of their university city. It’s been great and I’ve loved (most of) it, but doesn’t it sound so incredibly sensible? It’s enough to make you start planning for retirement.
A few months ago I realised that I’d been lying to myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but that I was scared that other people would think it was stupid. If I was honest, what I really wanted to do was write and travel, and what I really wanted to not do was work in an office. I wanted to see something and meet someone new everyday, and I wanted to document it as it happened. Most of all, I wanted to really, really scare myself.
So that’s what I’m doing, starting with India. What could be more different from Sheffield, England, really? The last time I went travelling I was 18 years old and I went to New Zealand. Now, I’m 24 and it’s time to do something completely different.
So here we go.