When I told my dad that I was going to India by myself, his face fell. No matter that my cousin had travelled for a year through the country on her own; no matter, too, that I’d been travelling solo on various trips for the last six years.
No: in his opinion, India was something else entirely. The reputation the country holds for being unsafe – particularly for local and foreign women alike – is normally enough to ring all those internal alarm bells, and prompts a concerned parental discussion that solo travellers often face:
“Are you sure you want to go there alone?”
Solo travel for women has, for a long time, been a topic of intense discussion, and it’s flared up again recently due to the tragic murder of Sarai Sierra, an American women travelling through Turkey by herself. The responses on public forums range from saddened to incensed, and comments like, “I would never let my beautiful wife out the door to travel to any country alone” are flooding the internet.
Violence against women is sadly something that occurs the world over. Whether in the cityscapes of a country you’ve never thought to visit, or on the street you grew up on, there will always be tragic incidences like this. But, as women, it’s up to us to face these situations head on, and accept that while there is danger and fear from outside, there is also strength and confidence from within.
Shying away is not an option when it conflicts with doing what you love.
As a woman, should you travel solo?
This time last year I set off for Asia by myself, to spend six months in Nepal, India and Thailand. And today I fly to Ecuador, to spend five months teaching English, followed by a further, unknown amount of time travelling around South America. While my teaching program is with a volunteer company I am, effectively, going by myself – like so many solo female travellers out there, all of whom have faced prejudice and difficulty while abroad.
I don’t yet know what Ecuador holds for me, but from past experience, research and wonderful advice from friends and bloggers, I feel averagely prepared to explore this unfamiliar part of the world. And I’m damned excited about doing it, too.
But I’m not going to sugar coat the reality of solo female travel. Spending four months in India taught me that travelling alone can often, quite simply, suck. It can be difficult, and embarrassing, and sometimes downright scary. And since last December’s horrific gang rape and eventual death of an Indian woman in Delhi (whose name has not been released), there’s been an accompanying backlash, with the prevailing attitude that it is simply not safe for women to travel around India alone.
In my opinion though, India is an incredible country. Despite its many dangers, it’s also one of the most fascinating, diverse and colourful places I’ve ever been to, and I feel strongly that travelling in India is a very personal experience. Sure, you’ll have a wonderful time if you go there with friends, with partners, with family; but if you travel in India by yourself, the benefits are huge.
So here is my Western woman’s guide to solo India travel, based on personal experience and my own opinions. And some of the things I wish I’d done a bit more of.
Dressing the part
In a society as conservative as India’s, the first and most important step to minimising your Western-ness is to wear respectable clothes.
Despite the photo, I don’t actually mean dressing up in Indian outfits- plus that sari I’m wearing is way too fancy for everyday wear!. While many travellers do choose to buy dupattis and salwar kameez (the basic Indian woman’s clothing), and find it to be a good move, I wouldn’t recommend it for your first explorations of India.
The only salwar suit I bought in India, which looked lovely in the store, was actually rather inappropriate to wear wandering around Delhi. The crowning moment came when I pulled it out to wear at my friend’s wedding, only to have the bride make a face and hand me my much more hippy silk skirt and tee shirt to wear…
Instead, I’d suggest having your shoulders, knees and various curvy parts being appropriately covered up, at all times. If you’re on the top-heavy side, then draping a scarf across your chest is a great way to deflect attention.
Depending on the time of year you go to India, you’ll also have to factor in the weather. From March until monsoon season in mid-June, the country heats up steadily, and there’s no escape from spending all your time drenched in sweat. As a result, it’s really sensible to wear loose clothes that dry easily and are breathable – and make sure they don’t get see through when damp! You’ll be stared at enough as it is..
The fast track to celebrity
As a Westerner in India, you are automatically a celebrity. Your skin colour, your clothes, your hair (particularly if you’re blonde): all this Western strangeness is absolutely fascinating to a majority of Indians, especially those who live in areas which don’t have a huge influx of tourism. I’m quite a self conscious person, and the incessant staring that every Western visitor faces in India often got the better of me.
So you’ll have to get used to having your photo taken, whether you’ve given consent or not. Accept that many women will look at you and laugh; try to be gracious about it and remember that all those photos you take of stunning sari-clad ladies without asking permission need some karmic return!
Actively posing for these photos, along with the various family members of the photographer, is also a great way to make momentary friendships: I have a vast collection of photos with my arms encircling smiling Indian women and with various wailing babies on my lap.
The general rule of thumb, though, is to only give the go ahead if there are women or children involved. When a gang of teenage boys ask for a photo and want to put their arms around you, it’s normally time to back off. And if they’re too insistent, and the atmosphere shifts from jokey to a bit threatening, don’t hesitate to make your feelings apparent.
Don’t be scared to show some attitude!
It was really interesting working in Punjab, amongst Indians, as a woman traveling by myself. Because I was Western, I commanded a certain amount of respect; but then I was a woman, so conversely was left out of conversations and situations deemed inappropriate for me. Because I’d decided to go travelling, people were impressed and slightly in awe of my daring; but then I was equally someone to be pitied, because the idea that I was by myself meant I was somehow lacking.
It was a really strange mix of opinions to get my head around. In fact, my whole travelling ethos in general was so interesting to a lot of the local people that I ended up being interviewed about it for the local newspaper!
But the one thing I felt overwhelmingly was that nobody was going to treat me with the respect I felt I deserved - unless I was vocal about it. While I wanted to respect and prescribe to the culture I was living in, there’s a limit; and being Western meant I felt a certain obligation to challenge the stereotype many Indians have about Westerners.
So when men stared at me too much or too blatantly, I stared back unblinkingly. I trained myself to stop being so smily at strangers, and semi-perfected my “shame on you” face for those whose stares looked a bit too pervy for their own good.
It’s difficult to say if these actions were successful (or even if they were advisable!) but I never felt in danger as a result. While there’s still a large amount of sexism in India, I ultimately felt like I was outside of it because I was only a visitor.
You won’t be alone for long
One of the best things about travelling solo in India is how untrue that phrase really is. I don’t think I ever really felt alone in India; whether with fellow Western travellers, Indian work colleagues, impromptu acquaintances on trains and buses, or other tourists at India’s famed landmarks, there was always an opportunity for interaction.
If you’re worried about not meeting anyone, you can search online before arriving in a city – check out a few guesthouse reviews and look for somewhere with a good community vibe, as the places you stay are perfect for meeting people, and can often lead to new travelling buddies. Most of the Indian cities that travellers pass through have various activities and classes happening, like yoga classes or jewellery making. Or you can try joining a tour group for a few weeks to make the culture shock a bit less of a big deal, like I did.
There are also plenty of places in the country that are touristy enough to make you feel comfortable in your Western skin again. If you’re feeling overly white, blind from camera flashes and need a bit of a break, holing up in McLeod Ganj for a week or two with your fellow hippies is often enough to recharge.
On first arrival into India though, the constant streams of people can certainly be overwhelming – which is when you quietly head up to a rooftop cafe and look out over the busy streets below with a cup of chai, and give yourself a chance to breathe.
Safety and intuition: trust your gut!
From my experience, most Indians are a very friendly bunch. And while this can be really lovely – particularly when you’re travelling on your own – you still need to exercise the same amount of caution that you would if you were back home. And because you’ll often be in unfamiliar locations with total strangers, keeping your wits about you is of the utmost importance.
This means keeping a close eye on your possessions, not flashing your cash, informing someone where you’re going, researching the safety of surrounding areas and generally ensuring that you’ve got a back up plan in any given situation.
India is a very intuitive country and I often found myself able to second guess the direction of situations and conversations. If you don’t feel comfortable, it’s up to you to extract yourself from what’s happening. Don’t just go along with someone’s plans because you’re too polite to say no.
Be really careful about who you trust yourself to be alone with, and if you’re worried, search out a family with children or a group of women and explain that you’d like to stand near them or with them. Anyone I did this with were more than happy to accommodate – particularly on trains, at stations and at night. Even scoping out the people who look trustworthy is a sensible move, just to feel a bit safer. And speaking of your gut…
Get ready to get sick
The hygiene in India is simply not good. The streets are dirty and home to piles of litter, the sanitation in bathrooms is mediocre at best, and you often don’t see your food being prepared.
Basically, getting diarrhoea in India is a rite of passage that pretty much every traveller goes through. And I’m not going to lie: it’s dehabilitating, it’s miserable, it makes you hate everything, and it can start your brain thinking that it might just be easier to go home. But don’t give in!! There’s light at the end of the tunnel. And while it might be the most painful form of weight loss you’ve ever experienced, it’s also an education like no other.
Once you’ve had your first bout of Delhi Belly (which can and will be contracted everywhere else in the country, as well as Delhi), you start to appreciate the value in a little bottle of hand sanitiser and a requisite thought process before you ingest absolutely anything, which goes along the lines of, ”just how sick could this make me?”
- Rules of the water: never eat ice. It’ll be frozen from tap water. Never drink from the tap, brush your teeth with tap water, or even open your mouth in the shower; stick to drinking only bottled or filtered water. Many people say you shouldn’t eat the ice cream in India, either, as the melting and refreezing causes tons of bacteria to breed.
- Rules of the food: if it’s from a street stall, make sure it’s either sizzling hot or you see the stall holder cooking it. If you need to, ask them to quickly throw it back on the heat for a few minutes. In a restaurant, it’s probably best to keep cold fruits and vegetables off limits, as they’ve normally been washed in tap water. Same goes for those limp bits of lettuce that pass for salad. And, like anywhere else in the world, if it tastes strange, don’t keep eating it!
- Rules of the street: wear closed shoes when you’re walking anywhere that looks particularly unhygienic If you have an open cut literally anywhere on your body, keep it covered and by every means necessary do NOT let it get in contact with any liquid you don’t know the origin of.
- Rules of the animals: most street dogs have tics, so it’s sensible not to get too cosy. The mosquitos vary according to region, but it’s usually a good idea to wear repellent just in case. There’s also a number of other bugs and insects flitting around, so it could help out with them too. Otherwise you could end up with my mysterious leg bites (I’m not going to share that photo now, but it can be found over here for those who care to look…)
- Rules of the people: while you might be sanitizing your hands all the live-long day, but the same can’t be expected of every Indian you interact with. When you’re taking your change from a street seller, those exceedingly thin ten rupee notes are also exceedingly filthy. Keep it in mind when you’re scratching your nose or rubbing lip salve on, please!
The most important thing to remember is that you’ll never know what makes you sick. There’s no point in avoiding all meat, ice cubes and street food just to gargle absentmindedly in the shower and spend the next three weeks on the loo.
Be sensible, but equally don’t be silly. If you’ve had a case of diarrhoea for more than three days, with or without a fever, call in a doctor for some heavy-duty antibiotics. There’s no reason to put up with “the sickness” any longer than you have to!
Keep an open mind
After more than four months working, volunteering, living and travelling in India, I still don’t have a handle on the place. It has the capacity to make me infuriated and enraptured, happy and helpless, crazy and calm – and I love it, hate it, can’t believe it, and already want to go back for more.
It’s with deep regret that I’ve talked to people who’ve been to India, struggled with any number of the above situations, and decided the country is a write off. I’m not saying they’re wrong, but I don’t think they’ve understood the wonderful uniqueness of India.
It carries you along in a tide of noise, colour, spice, sweat and heat, and the only thing you can really do is let it. Because the craziness is what makes India truly India. The times I felt the most helpless and freaked out were often followed by the most wonderful and memorable experiences of my whole trip.
And the learning curve I went through as a result of travelling through India by myself has changed me, irrefutably. It’s something that I’ll always be thankful for.
What have you learned from travelling solo? Do you have any other tips for women who plan to travel alone?
NB: There is a great deal of attention focused on the issues regarding solo female travel at the moment, due to the tragic events surrounding Sarai Sierra, an American woman who was killed while travelling in Turkey by herself. While events like this cannot always be prevented, the solo female blogging community is keen to help out those who still want to travel solo. Follow #WeGoSolo on Twitter for more.