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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.