Footloose and Fancy-free: Lessons from an Indian solo female traveler

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I was a little bit of an anomaly and never realised it. I should have read the signs: the stares every time I boarded a long-distance train with no one in tow, the suspicious raise of an eyebrow when I checked into a hotel alone, the extra set of questions to really find out where my family/husband/friends were. If solo women travelers are a rare sight in India, a solo Indian woman traveler is a concept quite unheard of.

Encouraged by parents who believed in bringing us up without disclaimers, I got my first taste of independent travel when I must have been all of ten. Even as I sat in that bus whipping up clouds of dust as it rumbled through rural Gujarat, I remember thoroughly enjoying the feeling of negotiating the world on my own, of not being told what to do, of knowing that this particular memory – this beautiful moment that almost lay suspended in time – was all my own. It is that memory that I have continued to chase in the years that followed, and it is that chase that has led me to the most unlikely nooks around India.

It is after having lived on my own in New Delhi for nearly five years, however, that I have become more conscious of my identity as a solo woman traveler. Not so much due to the lived experience of it, but thanks to the constant conversations surrounding women’s safety in the city, that reached a crescendo with the December 2012 gang rape. I was on a freewheeling journey around India at the time, and I distinctly remember the calls about my safety increasing in frequency and the questions about my location becoming more pointed. It was a strange feeling – to suddenly have my gender come to the forefront of my identity. I have realised now that the fact that it took so long for it to happen is thanks to an upbringing through which I never heard a sermon that began with ‘You need to remember you are a girl…’

That India can be an unnerving place to be a solo woman traveler almost goes without saying, but that this fact fundamentally hinders the joy of travel is equally untrue. I bear living testimony. I have roughed it out – gotten on trucks, jeeps, rickety buses; slept in tents, hotels, ashrams; trudged through the toughest treks in the Himalayas and relaxed on the most isolated beaches – and have never found a reason to stop. Or even slow down. Every journey is only a whetting of the appetite for something longer, grander, more arduous.

That there aren’t more solo female travelers in India because of the image it has cultivated over the years is a pity, because there are few joys that compare to discovering a country on your own, of feeling its pulse, its beating heart, and learning to dance with it. There are a few lessons I have picked up along the way, however, that might make it a smoother ride if you decide you want to break the shackles once and for all.

Chase daylight.

The sunrise at Hampi

It is true that travel around India can be a chastising experience. Unless you are partying in Goa or living it up in Mumbai, the night scene around the country is quite non-existent after 11pm. So in the first few days of travel, train your biological clock to align itself with the sun. Rise with it, and try to be some place safe by the time it retires. You’ll see more, worry less, and definitely lessen your vulnerability.

And I have not even begun gushing about the breathtaking sunrises your new lifestyle will afford.

Dress to blend in.

Decked up in Assamese dokhonas

You will hear plenty of advice on how to dress around India, and here is my tuppence: dress to mingle. This doesn’t exactly mean you don drabby, worn out clothes that cover every inch of your body. Pay heed to context. Wear a strappy dress by all means on a night out in Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore; or a pair of hot shorts in Goa; or a sari to a wedding somewhere; but avoid sticking out because of your wardrobe wherever you go. It will make you an easy target as a solo woman. And, conversely, make you unapproachable to harmless people who might want to talk to you. Dress humble.

Don’t engage too much.

Stations can be overwhelming places. Learn the art of the polite nod.

Stations can be overwhelming places. Learn the art of the polite nod.

I learnt this lesson the hard way. As I alighted from a train in Bangalore the first time I took a long-distance ride, I was pounced upon by coolies in their red uniforms. “Where do you want to go?” “You want a taxi?” “I’ll carry your luggage” “Tell me how much you will give” – in an assortment of languages ranging from fluent Kannada to dodgy Hindi to broken English. Thinking it impolite to ignore them, I started to try and answer each of their questions individually, which I later realised was only an invitation for them to follow me down the platform, across the footbridge, and even outside the station – until I finally ran into the car that had come to pick me up and proceeded to cry copious tears. It was lesson enough, however, and I have now come to perfect the little shake of the head without making eye contact that keeps the touts at bay and my conscience satisfied. Acknowledge, but don’t engage.

Don’t not engage.

A bunch of kids who invited me to a game of cricket while I took a photowalk through Delhi

A bunch of kids who invited me to a game of cricket while I took a photowalk through Delhi

One of the easiest tendencies as a solo female traveler is to slip into a guarded world of one’s own. There are times – and I have definitely been there – when, in an attempt to not be vulnerable, your entire day becomes a conscious obstacle race to avoid any advances. This caged state of mind and body completely defeat the purpose of traveling alone and the joys that come alongwith. Learn to be cautious, but drop that guard. India – more than nearly any country in the world – is the kind that will open up to you in ways that you never thought possible. You will get offered a meal by your co-passengers, you will be told how thin you are, you will be asked where you bought that kurta from. Don’t clam up, treat them as opportunities to engage. More than images, India is the land of a million stories. Give yourself the chance to discover them.

Recognize your advantage.

There might be some unlikely friendships around the corner

There might be some unlikely friendships around the corner

The same factors that put you at a disadvantage while on the road as a single female traveler become your biggest advantage. The fact that you are a woman and alone will inherently make you a more approachable person. You will instigate curiosity, and people will not be afraid to ask you questions. Your vulnerability will give people the permission to appoint themselves your guardians. Don’t resist it. Its a luxury being extended to only you. Your being alone will open up worlds that you would otherwise never be privy to.

Your camera can be distancing or welcoming — depending on how you use it.

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As a novice photographer with a big camera, I initially would resist the urge of taking it out in a number of places because of the immediate hostility and suspicion it would arouse in people around me. I missed a number of amazing photo-ops because of this, but more importantly – as I realised later – missed precious opportunities to interact. The fact is, almost everyone you meet will be enamoured by your camera (thanks to the Bollywood dreams we all swear by) and will want to be clicked by it. Every time you pull out your camera and attract a suspicious glare, combat it with a generous smile and watch the hostility break down. Its beautiful.

Book a side-upper berth.

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That trains are the safest, most reliable, most enjoyable way to get around India goes without saying. Unfortunately, they are booked out well in advance, and that hinders the spirit of backpacking in many ways. Here is what I suggest though: draw up a rough skeleton of an itinerary, and finish booking the long-distance trains two months in advance (when it opens). You can fill it in with whatever you wish later. And when you book, if you are slightly tiny, opt for the side-upper berth. It has enough head-space for you to occupy even while sitting up, and your sleep timings needn’t be dependent on whether the guy in the lower berth is feeling groggy. Read, sleep, do yoga for that matter, and not a fly will be hampered.

But most importantly, trust your gut.

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None of these rules or lessons are universal. If you feel like something is making you uncomfortable, stop right there. If someone seems creepy, find an excuse and leave their company. It might be irrational, or even unnecessary, but my gut has managed to steer me clear of most trouble in the past. And I have learnt not to question it. The more you indulge it, the stronger it will get. And then you needn’t rely on articles like this to tell you how to travel.

To read more about my travel experiences check out my Tripoto profile.

Happy trails!

47 thoughts on “Footloose and Fancy-free: Lessons from an Indian solo female traveler

  1. I love this blog post, and I am so happy to have discovered you Arundhati! I feel the same way as you — the freedom and joy of travel in India far outweighs the inconveniences and the “risks.” And I agree with all of your advice — it is almost exactly the same as my tips for women travelling in India on my India travel blog, Breathedreamgo.com.

    So glad you discovered my tweetchat WeGoSolo, and so glad I discovered you. Perhaps our trails will cross in India one day…

    Mariellen

    1. Lovely seeing you here too Mariellen! I hadn’t realised it, but I came across your blog for women traveling to India while doing my research for this article (I wanted to make sure I don’t repeat what everyone else was saying, so was doing a round-up) — it’s a small (blog) world!

      I think a large part of why I enjoy traveling around India is because the trail is not so well-marked or well-researched. There is an inherent sense of adventure in it. My favourite stories and anecdotes have come from wandering off into places that the traditional tourist has never thought of seeing. Hopefully, as tourism does pick up, we manage to preserve some of this innocence. But I digress…

      Really hope our paths do cross. Nothing like running into a fellow solo traveler – kindred spirits after all :)

  2. Hi

    I have been a solo woman traveller for as long I can remember. Like you, I had parents encouraging me to explore the world and who taught me to be independent.

    The freedom one experiences when traveling alone is indescribable. For me it is add much about discovering myself as discovering the places I visit.

    As long as you have your wits about you, the world can be quite a safe and wonderfully welcoming place.

    1. Hello almost namesake (I am called ‘Aruna’ whenever people can’t pronounce my full name – heh)!

      Completely agree – a large part of going to a new place is discovering a new you. And it comes to you in the most unexpected places, doesn’t it?

      Its always wonderful to hear about Indian women who like to travel solo. Where have you been? Do you blog about your travels? We must exchange notes! :)

    2. Cound’nt agree more…i’ve loved to travel since the time i can remember, venturing on u’r own for the very first time can be daunting, but eventually you grow out of it and the feeling you develop is incredible !

    1. Hey! I haven’t been to either, no. Spent a great part of my time in the Indian Himalayas though – quite incomparable. Do you travel a lot in the hills? I have heard lovely things about both treks – but would love some personal feedback. :)

  3. Whoa…. Ur piece seemed like straight out of my thoughts…. Being a solo Indian woman traveller, I often say these things to people who try to caution me against my solo sojourns…… Cheers!!

    1. Haha, I think most people in my life have quit asking me about why it is that I travel alone now. But one of the reasons I wrote this article is so I can refer them back to it if they do experience a new wind of curiosity :P

      Keep traveling! And definitely keep me posted about your travels :)

  4. Sooooooo inspiring arundathi …I wanna do one… ur the reason for me to figure out my passion.. I knew I luv travelling.. but solo female travellin..opens a new world for me..thank you :*

    1. Oh thank you so much for the kind words Rekha! Didn’t really set out to be an inspiration at all – the more I travel this country the more I realise how little I have really seen. And how making any generalizations is quite silly.

      But please take the first opportunity and just head out with a map! And write in to me about it :)

  5. JUst loved your write-up. EXCELLENT, INSPIRING AND ENCOURAGING. You are an example and ideal figure for all those women who want to travel and explore the world by her own self.
    I am too an avid traveler and traveling now work as a reason to live alive . Himalayan Area attracts me more often ….. three times a year I backpack and roll on. Now I own a little travel Hub too , where I offer consultation and service. BUt in all these affairs my Husband and little boy, MISHTU, is a constant partner. But now reading your article I have said my son beware Boy ..now I will fly alone someday and face the world. But he is too little too understand and at once embraced me tightly saying ” No ma….please don’t leave us ” So will have to wait for some years until he grows up…but I will always remember you as a Guru whenever I will travel alone…………..THANKS FOR SHARING YOUR EXPERIENCE ….

    1. Awww, that’s precious. For now its my parents and friends doing the hanging on to me, don’t know how I’d be able to resist a child tugging at me.

      Thank you for the wonderful words that I am quite undeserving of. I know there are far more hardcore solo women travelers out there who are actually traveling instead of writing about it! But I’ll be very happy if this is the article that contributes to a growth of that community :)

      1. Arundhuti , was really looking for a reply from you. Till I travel alone myself I will quench my thirst by reading your experiences so will keep in touch. I think I have found you in Facebook and drop a request …accept if you feel like and then we two ladies can sharing our experience on our love i.e TRAVELING

  6. The side berth advice – hi5 on that one! I do the same. It’s very convenient and comfortable that side berth. Safe too because it’s the upper berth.
    Good luck with the solo travel. I just took my first one recently and I am trying desperately to do it again. It’s a beautiful experience.

    1. The side-upper berth has been my second home for the longest time now. I think of it as my own cubby hole :D

      Thank you for the luck – definitely need it every once in a while. Keep me updated on your stories whenever you decide to take that second solo trip!

  7. Loved the note of positivism in your post, Arundhati. I travel solo too. Although I must confess I haven’t been on longer solo trips across India. Would love to do that sometime, especially after my solo Eurotrip. Your post comes as a timely encouragement. Thankyou!

    1. Oh you’re more than welcome Usha. I’d love to do a solo EuroTrip some day, and will definitely write in to you for advice then. I feel like there is a serious lack of advice FROM Indian women travelers. So important.

  8. really nice article and helps with clearing the dilemma of travelling alone or not.Its true that there is true hearts content and happiness when travelling alone and also one discovers oneself when exploring places afar.

  9. Loved your article. I think the side berth tip has been passing from one solo traveler (male or female) to another, cause it can really save your life sometimes. I used it a lot during my time in India.

    Wish you many more amazing travel experiences in the future!

  10. Lovely write-up, a very well articulated experience. I ‘ve been planning my solo for long time now. The feeling of freedom, solitude & the opportunity of just being with yourself is unmatched. Watching your sillhouettes, treading your own trails, myriad awestruck visuals & your imagination let loose is ineffable. I am confident to have my own one this year! Thank you!!

  11. Dear Arundathi,

    Absolutely loved your blog. I could completely relate to everything you wrote about.
    Until recently I didn’t realize that there are so many solo-women travelers in India, a country perceptively conservative and not-safe. Then again that’s just a perception.

    A lot of people expressed concerns and apprehensions when I went to MP for the first time. Turns out – as long as you are wary of your surroundings – when need be, you will do just fine.
    One instance, I even got invited to stay over at a kind lady’s place for the night. She only knew me for the 40km distance we traveled together. She reasoned with me that after-all – the women folk should have each others back.

    Hope our paths cross at some point =)

    Cheers

  12. Change the title of this piece from “Lessons from an Indian solo female traveler” … to “Traveling simplified for solo travelers” (y)

  13. Dear Arundhati,
    I just loved your blog .I want to travel solo throughout the whole India ,Eager to explore it and live and breath the experiences that I will have during this trip .I feel solo traveling will be soulful and I would like a bit of a help with your bagful of experiences .
    I am from Pune would like out to chalk out a plan from traveling to whole of India with safe and budget hotels to the mode of travel that would take place to reach destination..would you help me out in this regard ..
    Thankyou
    Keep up the good work
    Solo traveller

  14. Truly an inspiration! I’m on a long tour with a huge group currently. Sometimes just feel like setting off on my own and explore places which fancy me. Now I know I can do it. :)

  15. i loved your blog…its really inspiring for girls like me :)
    i have a question. although many of us would love to go on solo trips, i mean why not we are so cool we don’t need others to enjoy ;) but not all of us can actually afford it. so if you can then please tell us about your expenses as well then we can chalk out our tour accordingly.
    keep up the good work…you go girl <3

  16. Hi arundhati,
    I plan to have my experiment with solo travel.
    Could you please suggest me a good place .
    I stay in pune.to be precise I plan to travel in Gujarat.
    Any help would be appreciated

  17. Now that was just beautiful. I couldn’t agree to you more, especially to the last paragraph. Hope to bump into you sometime somewhere… :)

  18. Hey Arundhati…loved your blog..I am so glad to come across it..I am just back from my first solo trek…met some wonderful people..got stuck in the floods so family and friends made me feel cautious…but reading your blog I am inspired again and ready to pack my bags and leave!!! Also going for my first solo long train journey in december…Your tips will serve me well…thank you so much for sharing and I do agree joy of travel is unmatched by anything else :)

  19. Your blog was awesome aru…it really helps to those women’s who wants to travel alone…even i want to travel kerela…if u give me some tips on…i love to hear that.
    Keep it up, Aru and all the best for ur future…it was really nice to read it :)

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