Artist and textile designer Carol Miltimore flags off Savista’s blog, post-Covid
Quite some time ago, my friends at Savista asked me to write about my experiences of traveling around India alone. It seems only now, after a year or more of not traveling at all, that I finally have the time and perspective to sit with this. After eight years of traveling throughout India, it turns out I needed the pause of a forced homestay to catch up on much needed rest. It is interesting that going nowhere has caused time to speed by faster than the years I was constantly on the go.
What brought me to India initially was a cosmic pull, and I spent years reading about its history and taking courses in textiles distinct to India. It’s been fifteen trips now, some for months and others for weeks, and all of them but three were made by myself alone. One of the most common questions asked of me was my experience traveling alone as a woman. My answer is that it is the same as traveling anywhere in the world, even in some place local: be open to who you can meet and experiences that come your way, but stay aware of your surroundings and be smart.
Traveling alone often allows you to meet people in a way that you would never get to if you are traveling with someone. Often I think because I was a woman alone, people took care of me in ways that went beyond any hospitality I had ever experienced. One of the best examples of this comes from my very first journey to India. I had been injured very badly in a motorcycle accident and about a week later I had to take the train from Udaipur to Jaipur. I had bought a 2nd AC railway ticket, had far too much luggage, and it was difficult sitting without terrible pain. When a friend helped me onto the train, there was only one other person in my section. My friend asked the older woman, who didn’t speak any English, to look out for me. As the train journey went on, the car filled up until it became very crowded. By the time the train conductor came around to check people’s tickets, it was utterly full. The conductor noticed I had a 2nd AC ticket but was actually sitting in 3rd AC, which is a cheaper seating area. He wanted me to move, but I explained that I could not carry my luggage because I was injured. He said he would get help and took off. When he returned with a boy to help him with my luggage, everyone sitting around me wouldn’t let the boy take my luggage or let me leave. They told the conductor that they were all instructed to take care of me on this journey. So it went from the one woman to an entire train car of people who were looking out for me and felt responsible for me. I think about their warmth and kindness frequently. It reminds me of the best of humanity.
This is not to say there haven’t been bad experiences. There have been negative incidents, as well as times I look back at as very close calls that I was lucky to survive. Over time, I learnt that I needed to be tough so that I would not get taken advantage of. A man in a market once grabbed my butt from behind, so I turned around to slap him and yell at him. He was angrier about being publicly humiliated, than by what he had done to me. Eventually, I gained the nickname of Durga in parts of India that I frequented for my work. I am honored to have this reference, as Durga is one of my favorite goddesses. She rides a tiger, and has many arms each holding a different weapon. She is a fighter who is trying to overcome evil forces. I also made a reputation for myself of not putting up with bad behavior towards any stray dogs or other people.
When traveling solo there are also moments of intense loneliness. I have had countless instances of being stared at strangely for being on my own, and many nights of tears. I’ve found myself in worn-down hotels ridden with cockroaches, having no wifi or cell service, where I would order food and a Kingfisher beer to my room, eat, question myself and my decisions, and then fall asleep. With all of that said, I feel grateful. These moments have taught me about myself in deep and profound ways. In times of pain and isolation, you have to go inward more for strength.
One of the best elements of taking journeys on one’s own is that you are able to go wherever and do whatever you want at any time. There is no waiting for someone to get ready, no compromise on the itinerary and just the sheer freedom of your own interests and whims. It allows for plans to be flexible and change easily. This all goes hand in hand with being more open to meeting people, too. It is how, many years ago, I was able to extend my stay in the Himalaya to go on an all-day hike filled with philosophical ruminations, with two new friends whom I had met there and a local Buddhist monk whom one friend had been studying with. The openness and freedom of being on my own is the only way I would have ended up with these amazing people.
There is a fine line between being open and being guarded. I have found it is necessary to be both at all times, while on the road alone. It is essential to trust your instincts about people, and not put yourself in situations that could make you vulnerable, while also allowing for opportunities to show themselves. Though you will end up with a lot of ‘selfies’ in your photo albums of your trips made unaccompanied, the truth is that you are never really alone. Through my travels, places like Savista Retreat became a second home with the owners feeling like family. Kindness shows up wherever you go in the world.
I travel alone less now, as I have a husband who has the travel bug like I do. However, I do plan on still taking a trip on my own every so often, as a way to get back in touch with myself as well as a way to experience a place in my own unique way. India has endless places to do this, as one could spend a lifetime traveling here yet still only scratch the surface. India will always be magic for me, as I wouldn’t be who I am today without being present for the fear of exploring it alone and doing it anyways. It is also where I have made lifelong friends who are dear to my heart. Savista Retreat in particular is a place very special to me and it is filled with people who I cherish deeply.
We have all been through probably the longest period of our adult lives when we have not travelled. Yet, although we have sat in our individual bubbles for close to 18 months, it has also been a time of intense communication with close friends – indeed, sometimes even discovering who our real friends are – as much as intense travels inwards into ourselves.
We are delighted that Carol used this time to reflect on and write up the experiences of her solo travels in India. It was a promise she made to us several months ago during one of her stays at Savista. Most people prefer to forget such promises, made in a fleeting moment of emotional expansiveness while at a place that, in the cosmic scheme of things, feels like an insignificant dot in the universe through which one has passed as a traveller through life. But not so Carol. Besides, her longstanding love for India and its textiles, and her tireless search to build her life’s work around this love (even her clothing brand is called Seek), make her uniquely suited to pen this set of reflections. There are few people we have met who are as culturally open and quietly courageous, trusting and free of bitterness. We hope that her piece will encourage more women to travel solo.
Readers might be interested in Carol’s earlier contribution that she wrote for the Savista blog after her first stay here (https://www.savista.com/guest-stories-designing-mutual-harmony-people-craft-nature-aesthetics/). Those were her early days of experimentation with bringing together naturally dyed fabric and her own specially designed hand blockprints. Since then, she has gone on to offer her own brand of uniquely designed sustainable fashion clothing for the American online market, blazing a new trail. If we remember right, Savista was also her choice of venue for a photo shoot that became her first Look Book. In an era when fashion sold best on models who looked “international” (whatever that means), Carol chose to buck the trend, showcasing her designs on a very Indian looking, dusky young model.
Carol’s posts for us join the contributions of many of Savista’s guests who have over the years graciously responded to our invitation to write about their experience of India. The section in the blog called ‘Guest Stories’ (along with the one called ‘Jaipur Travel Diary’) is one of the small ways in which we at Savista try and bring our guests into conversation with each other through their sharing of their interests, work and travel passions, and Indian travel experiences. For Savista is above all a community of like-minded people. Its identity as an unlikely hotel – probably more of a ‘non-hotel’ – is just incidental to its larger purpose. This is the building of what many across the world are also trying to nurture, ‘Communities of the future’: people who feel invisibly bound together by their common humanity (irrespective of differences of geography, culture, colour, ethnicity, religion or caste), and their desire for harmony with nature, impelling them to craft sustainable ways of living, working and negotiating their presence on this planet that we call home.
Finally, after the long night of Covid, we are tentatively reopening ourselves to the world at large. It is our pleasure at Savista to announce that we plan to reopen to guests on August 14. And it is our pleasure to give new life to the Savista blog with this heartwarming essay.