Exploring India solo requires taking certain precautions and sacrificing small freedoms. But it’s worth it!
“In my experience, India’s one of the safest and most accommodating countries for solo women travelers,” journalist and Portland resident Margot Bigg says to me. I’m surprised by the statement; I expected a more negative response to my question about Margot’s experiences traveling in India. The country has a dubious rep as an unsafe destination for solo women travelers. Among the tumult of impressions, large population, heat, dust, and noise that new visitors to India must deal with, solo women travelers also have to reckon with concerns about safety.
“I do stay somewhat on guard,” Margot adds, “but being a woman also gets me special access.” There are reserved areas for women on public transport, separate women’s queues at ticket counters, and family spaces in highway restaurants. Of course, it is problematic that these are needed at all, but that’s a larger battle being fought by the women of India.
People also tend to trust women more, bringing them into the fold of families and larger groups. Margot recounts an experience from her first trip to India, as a wide-eyed 23-year-old. “On a train from Jaipur to Ajmer, I met a family of three generations of women, with babies and toddlers in tow. We formed an immediate sisterhood through gestures and smiles. By the end of it, I was wearing their bangles, helping bounce the babies, and being fed more than I could eat.”
Like Margot, my solo travel experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. I’m an Indian. But India is so vast, with so many different cultures and traditions, that it is impossible to talk about it as one place. In over a decade of exploring, I’ve only uncovered a minute part of my chaotic, beautiful nation. In many parts of it, I am as much a foreigner as a visitor from another country.
UNCOVERING MANY INDIAS AS A SOLO TRAVELER
The first time I traveled alone in India, I was 21 and fresh out of college. I had a hard time convincing my parents to get onboard with the plan. They relented when I shared my detailed itinerary, and promised to call every other day. Twelve years later, it is a practice I still follow.
The trip was a revelation. My destination was Khajuraho, a historical town in Madhya Pradesh with 10th-century sculpted temples depicting every aspect of life from war to prayer to sexuality. I knew India was diverse, but on that trip, I realized just what the word meant. As a city-bred girl who worked, travelled alone, and wasn’t married by 21, I was such an unlikely sight in that temple town in the heart of India, that it was easier for people to believe I was a foreigner. I had more in common with two German travelers I met than the daughters and wives of the shop owners and guides I chatted with.
Their curiosity made it easier for me to get over my diffidence about striking conversations with strangers. I wound up with an invitation from a local raja to visit his estate and watch rural games that he organizes. A group of young boys took me on a cycling tour of their village, giving me a chance to discover how bits of ancient sculptures that farmers turn over in the fields become part of their homes as living heritage. I learnt a lesson that has stayed with me ever since: travel is nothing without chance conversations. They lend perspective and context to my experience of a destination; and are also the best way to get great insider tips on places to eat and explore that only the locals know about.
That trip was the first of many solo explorations. Without the filter of family and friends, I engage more deeply with a destination and its people. And the more I travel, the more I discover the many Indias that make up my country.
CAN I HAVE A PHOTO, MADAM?
Sometimes, just like any foreigner, I am asked to pose for photographs. I’m camera shy, but often I oblige, making the person who asked me pose as well. I asked Anja Froehnel, a repeat visitor to India from Germany, if that happens to her a lot. “Frequently! If they ask nicely, with a smile and real interest, I say yes. After two weeks though, it becomes a burden.” Then she has a fun way of dealing with the situation. “I start telling people I charge for photos and ask for ten rupees. That usually ends the conversation pretty quickly,” she says.
Do such incidents cause safety concerns? Not really, Margot says. “There are so many people around all the time, making it feel safer. You could be out in the middle of the Thar Desert, minding your own business and, if you give it long enough, you’re sure to cross paths with someone. Or at least stumble upon a chaiwallah.”
BEING THE OBJECT OF UNWANTED ATTENTION, EVEN WHEN IT IS NOT MALICIOUS IN INTENT, CAN BE UNSETTLING.
Unlike Anja and Margot, some visitors chafe at the constant scrutiny. Hamburg resident Anja Dunkel, who lived and worked in Mumbai for several years, and has visited ever winter since then, dislikes being asked to take photos. “In the holiest of places, people seem to be more mesmerized by the fact that I’m a white woman than by any historic sight. I don’t run around with a selfie stick so I can absorb the experience of being in a place. So naturally, I also don’t want to take pictures with strangers.” Being the object of unwanted attention, even when it is not malicious in intent, can be unsettling.
PERKS OF BEING A SOLO WOMAN TRAVELER
Anja loves, however, that people are quick to treat her as a friend or welcome guest rather than an unwanted stranger. Photographer Meesha Holley, of mixed Indian and British descent, agrees. She recounts a time when a young girl hailed her in Kaza, Spiti. “She asked me where I was from and what I was taking photos of, posed for a portrait, and then, taking me completely by surprise, invited me home to show me more of her culture.” Back in the young girl’s house, Meesha met her brother and sister. Though their parents were away, the children didn’t hesitate to show her around their home.
Not only do people trust women more, they also tend to be more protective of them. Often, on road trips through the Himalayas, where it’s hard to predict how long a journey on the winding roads will take, my hosts at the destination have called me to check on my progress, and even asked to speak to the driver so he knows that someone is keeping tab. It’s also why public shaming can be useful tactic when unpleasant situations arise. If someone threatens your personal space, tell them off loudly. Others will intervene to ensure the troublemaker is quickly gone. A lot of people in India speak English, so you’ll usually find someone you can communicate with.
IN TIMES OF TROUBLE
There are, however, rare occasions when things go wrong and no one else is around. Confronted with harassment in such a situation, Meesha found her camera handy. On a visit to Varkala, a beach town in Kerala, she was propositioned by a belligerent fisherman, who wanted to know how much she’d charge. “I turned back, quickly lifted my camera in his direction, and shouted: You’re sick! I’m taking your photo to the police! He quickly began to walk away.”
Many solo women travelers, whether Indian or foreign, have had similar experiences. A quick poll among the women I know revealed that such incidents tend to happen in places that are considered “party spots”, often beaches. Large parts of India are predominantly patriarchal, and while much has changed for women in terms of opportunities and access, mindsets are slower to change. Certain actions are considered “unbecoming” for women in Indian culture. Drinking alcohol, dancing with men, staying out late, wearing small clothes rank high among them. Women who do these things, it is believed, must be immoral and “available”. In fact, as Meesha points out, Indian women are judged more harshly in this paradigm. “Just the fact that an Indian woman is travelling solo is often taken to mean that she is reckless and has loose morals,” she says. In such places, there will be that one man in a hundred, who thinks it’s okay to proposition a lone woman. It’s best to be accompanied by other people while stepping away from the tourist zone, or after dark.
EVERYBODY HAS A STRATEGY
Like me, all the female travelers I spoke to have evolved strategies to stay safe when they travel alone. They dress conservatively, avoid venturing out alone after dark except in well-lit tourist areas, and keep their phones handy. Some carry pepper spray or tasers.
Anja has one more strategy: She avoids big cities. “The unpleasant things about India, the poverty, dirt, noise, crowd, and traffic, are most evident in the cities. When I go beyond, I find the India I keep coming back for. A place of astonishing color, temples, music, culture, nature, and people. India has so many faces and so much for a visitor to discover.”
She ends with a line she’s heard travelers use for India: India is the last country you should visit. After this, no other place will be more interesting, crazy, and beautiful, all at the same time.
I have to agree.
MORE TIPS FOR TRAVELLING SOLO
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that everybody should travel to India. It’s a remarkable country; one that is bound to leave a traveler changed by the experience. And exploring solo is a great way to do it. It only requires taking certain precautions that may sound daunting when put in a list like the one below but are quite simple. In fact, these are precautions I follow wherever I travel, from Southeast Asia to South America.
- Like in other countries, it pays to learn a few words in the local language. Nothing disarms a curious bystander more than a greeting in their own language.
- Dress conservatively. That doesn’t mean you need to be covered head to toe; but shorts paired with a tank top are not advisable. Loose cotton clothing that breathes and shields from skin burn works better for the weather too. Keep a scarf handy in your back for additional cover-up if needed in some situations.
- I tend to pick reputed homestays when I travel because that lends a personal touch to the experience, ensuring I have an ally in a destination even before I get there. Alternatively, if your destination has an affordable hotel by a reputable chain, book the first night there so you have a safe landing spot to launch your explorations from.
- Don’t compromise on your safety to save money. If I try to book the cheapest room I can get in NYC, I’ll probably end up in a seedy neighborhood where trouble lurks around the corner. The same applies to India: Do your research and go for a recommended place.
- Keep a friend or family member apprised of your travel plans. Create a system to check in regularly, say once in three days. Even a Whatsapp message or Facebook post will do the trick. Get a local SIM card with data for your phone, it doesn’t cost much.
- In most places, it is best not to venture out alone after dark. While booking flights, trains, and buses, choose options that get you to your destination in daylight. If its unavoidable have someone from your hotel/homestay come meet you.
- If you’re alone in a cab or a rickshaw and the driver tries to take a friend along, say no. If they don’t agree, get a different taxi/rickshaw.
- Most public transport has spaces just for women; look for these. Even in restaurants, you’ll find “Family Section”. Head straight for those. Added benefit: These usually have air conditioning, though the food costs marginally more.
- Most staring is just curiosity. Try to ignore it. If it bothers you, politely tell the person not too. If it persists, and you feel trouble is lurking, don’t hesitate to make a loud scene.
- Eve-teasing, a phrase you’ll hear often in India to refer to the harassment of women, is often the realm of weak, sexually repressed men who try to take advantage of crowded spaces to cop a feel. As college girls, my friends and I learnt to wear our backpacks in front to prevent “accidental” brushing. And we didn’t hesitate to elbow any man who pressed too close and then blame it on the swerving bus.
- You can also dial 100, the number for the police that works across India. Several big cities and tourist spots, have squads dedicated to addressing women’s safety concerns. However, their response time can be erratic.
And if all this sounds too overwhelming, do remember, these precautions are only meant to protect you in the off chance that something nasty happens. Have a good time, and have plenty of conversations; they’ll make your trip extra special. Most Indians are welcoming, chatty, and happy to share their life stories. Go for it, ladies!