Nineteen year old anthropology student Jade Bulens chatted with us recently about her experiences of solo female travel in India, and how volunteering has informed her experiences not only on the road, but back home in Amsterdam.

What’s your profession?

I’m currently a student, studying ‘Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology’ at the VU in Amsterdam, but I’m also very passionate about photography.

How old are you? 

I’m nineteen years old.

Tell me a bit about your background? 

I used to be incredibly shy. I was a young girl when I decided I wanted to volunteer around the world, helping other people and animals in need. I’ve found volunteering has, in turn, helped me. I’ve acquired so much knowledge about different cultures—knowledge that I couldn’t have learnt anywhere else. I want to have a positive impact wherever I go, celebrating cultural differences and improving others’ quality of life. 

When did you first decide to travel solo and where did you go?

My first solo trip was to Bali, Indonesia during August 2016. Instead of visiting your typical Instagram spots, I decided to journey out to the rice paddies in the countryside. There I worked at a rural school where I taught a class of fourty-five incredibly motivated kids, many of whom had never set foot in a school before. The amount of joy that I felt from them was absolutely priceless.

What’s been your greatest achievement whilst travelling?

I don’t think my greatest achievement was a situation as such, but a certain mindset that I developed throughout my travels. Travelling alone allowed me to find my true self. I had to be independent. You can’t just distract yourself from difficulties when you’re travelling alone, if you have a bad day you can’t run away from it. You have to face your fears. I didn’t grow into a different person, it just clarified who I am and what defines me.

What have you found to be the most challenging part of travelling solo and how did you learn to overcome it?

Travel isn’t always as people make it out to be. It goes without saying that it can be both mentally and physically exhausting. It’s important therefore to find energy in your love for travel, everyday pushing yourself further out of your comfort zone. Of course it can be scary to put yourself out there, but it always pays off in the end.

I find the hardest part of travelling solo can be the loneliness you feel from time to time, but it’s important to remember that this is normal, and wherever you are, taking time out by yourself can be incredibly beneficial sometimes.

What’s the weirdest thing that you saw or experienced on your travels, and in which country?

I usually take public transport when travelling because it’s often so cheap, but it’s not without it’s drawbacks — particularly in India, where curry is in abundance, and public toilets are in short supply! One day, I was travelling between cities by nightbus, and in the middle of the night, nature called. As I approached the driver, (in the company of four men at the front of the bus), it became apparent that the ‘toilet’ I required was in fact, the roadside. Nothing unusual there, however when I got down to business, I soon realised that the five grown men were actually watching me through the window, eyes wide. Not my finest moment.

Who was the most inspiring person that you met whilst travelling and why? Can you tell me a bit about them?

I don’t like to think that one person has inspired me ‘the most’. Instead, I think that many people I’ve met along the way - travellers as well as locals - have inspired me in many different ways.

What was your best experience with a local and why? Can you tell me a bit about them?

I was volunteering in the slums of old Delhi, and one of my co-volunteers trousers’ had ripped, leaving her underwear on display. A young woman living in a slum-house made out of trash, invited us in so she could repair them. She offered us homemade chai to drink, and even gave us some type of sugar coated sweet (they were horrible, but it’s the thought that counts). What struck me most was that she and her family had next to nothing, but she still offered us everything she could. I played with her kids whilst laughing along with her over my friend's ripped trousers. It’s memories like these that make you stop and think, ‘If it was the other way round, would we do the same?’ 

Where was your favourite travel destination so far and why?

I’ve loved every single place I’ve visited so far, they’ve all been special in their own way. One destination where I recall being tremendously happy, was India. Aside from volunteering in the slums and for women empowerment, I visited a couple cities in northern India. Every single city was completely different. But the life-blood running through each and every city, was the vibrant and friendly people... I was so overwhelmed by the kindness of everyone I met. It was both fascinating and heart-wrenching to see how people with so little could make the most out of everything.

Where is the next destination you plan to visit? What do you plan to do?

The next destination I’d like to visit is Iceland. An entirely different country than the African and Asian countries that I’ve visited this past year. I plan to travel around, and get to know the people and see the beautiful nature on offer.

How can we make our travels more meaningful in this day and age?

With the rise of the internet and social media today, we have the tools to share our travel experiences online, . This gives us the ability to acquire knowledge from around the world, and to get to know people, and stories that give you a clearer view of what it’s like out there. Sharing your travels, bolsters cultural exchange.

How has travel influenced and impacted your life? Would you change this given the chance?

My fascination with travel began at a young age. I grew up watching slides of my grandma and grandad exploring different countries. They went for local experiences at destinations like Kenia, Peru, Petra, etc. They never stop inspiring me. Solo travel has given me so much. I have confidence, and strong values, cultural awareness, and so much more. I would never change the way travelling has influenced my life.

How has solo travel empowered you?

It might sound like a cliché, but travel has given me the strength to fully express who I am. I have learnt how to be confident in totally new and unfamiliar environments, which is useful in so many ways. Travelling itself makes me recognise what an enormous privilege it is to meet different people, and to be introduced to different cultures, in various corners of the world.  

If you could journey back to before you first travelled alone, is there anything you know now that you would tell yourself?

Don’t plan too much, the greatest things will happen unexpectedly.

Do you have a favourite object that you bought on your travels, and what’s the story behind it?

I’m gonna cheat on this question. My favorite item is actually something that I brought along with me. Whilst travelling I kept a travel journal. This is now filled with priceless memories, drawings, pictures, tickets, and notes from people that I’ve met along the way. This book means more to me than a bought item ever could. My camera and my notebook are always with me wherever I go.

Photographs taken by Jade Bulens (Varanasi, Jaisalmer, Faridabad and Delhi, India; Bohicon, Benin; and Ella, Sri Lanka).