Traveling as a solo woman in India: Six (not-so-scary) thoughts!
Five months into my amazing India travel experience, made possible by India Someday’s absolutely brilliant You Wander We Pay contest, I bear good news. I’m alive and well, perhaps even glowing, as I dream about where to venture next in this country of chaos and charm.
Probably not what you would expect to read if you, like many others I know, have been too daunted to make your way to India, deterred by the countless blogs which warn women endlessly about the dirt, disorder and demeaning behaviour of the ‘terrible male species.’
Well, here are six thoughts I think you should keep in mind if heading this way. And fear not, they are not designed to scare the chapatti out of you!
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It’s pretty damn amazing here! Mind the media!
All too often, it’s the gloom and doom of life that’s presented to us in our media, instilling fear and emphasizing negativity. Keep that in mind! I’m not suggesting bad things don’t happen – they surely do, all over the world. And huge kudos to those who share their experiences and raise critical awareness of gender based violence of any sort. So I say yes, read it all! Hear the important voices of survivors and fellow travellers, increasing awareness and sharing safety tips. There is lots of good advice out there.
Just beware! It’s not the full story! There are thousands of us women who are having stellar, incident-free expeditions through India, immersing in the culture and commotion, day and night, in cities and villages, with women and men. We’re more than safe, we’re having the time of our lives!
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You will be stared at – You are fascinating!
Whether you’re on the Metro platform in Delhi or walking through a small village in Uttarakhand, you WILL be stared at. You can count on it. All the more so if you have very fair skin or blonde curly hair! I’ve had people literally come stand a foot away from me, looking me up and down, or even sneaking selfie shots with me, as if I wouldn’t notice.
Many women travellers are horrified by this and have told me they feel like sexual objects. While I can empathize, knowing we carry with us our personal and shared histories as women, I personally feel more like an object of cultural curiosity and am not at all offended. Isn’t that a big part of why we’re here too?! One of my favourite parts of travelling in India is the amazing parade of people. I could watch and stare all day!
So yes, I do feel eyes on me, but I feel more like a walking museum of western life than a sexual object. I can feel their fascination with my white skin, my freckles, my smile, my jewellery, my clothes, my bag, my shoes. I feel them wondering about who I am, what I do, how I think, not just what I look like naked. And trust me, I do know that feeling of being objectified – I just happen to feel it much more on the streets of New York City than here in India.
Of course, as with anywhere, there will be some obnoxious souls you might encounter (Indian men will often be the first to warn you about them). But, after 5 months of some pretty intense travel through cities and villages, using public transportation, and following my gut, I’m happy to say that I don’t think that’s the norm. Some men, in fact, might not even look at you at all, declining eye contact even while you’re in conversation.
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Positive Energy is Palpable! Being present. Being open.
I’ve been blown away by the positive energy here in India. Perhaps it’s one of my favourite parts of this country. I’ve travelled to many places around the world and never have I felt so much positivity. From the breath taking natural environments of wide open deserts (Jaisalmer, Rann of Kutch), to the stunning mountains of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. The powerful rivers, the glorious beaches, the endless farmland, and even the chaotic streets are filled with people and cows. The beauty of the land coupled by the brilliant colours of clothing and other textiles can almost even be over-stimulating and nourishing for the eyes and soul! And then there’s the people – for whom the answer to any question is “yes, possible!”
Take it in! Breathe it! Be present and live in the moment! Savour it! Feel its healing power! Let your guard down!
Put those fear-mongering blogs in the back of your mind – and get to know the locals, even the men! Many travellers come to India and spend their time only seeing sites and enjoying the comforts of their accommodations. But being open to the people and culture will truly enrich your experience. It will also get you the directions and guidance you need, sometimes without even asking (the majority of people simply want to connect with you and help – not get in your pants!)
The eye contact to be made, with women and men alike, especially while circling the white marble floors of the Golden Temple grounds, is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Even while on buses or walking the streets, connecting eyes and exchanging genuine smiles (and perhaps a head bobble too) is powerfully beautiful – and harmless! The majority of people, women and men, are sincerely interested in you culturally. Hence, offering you chai because of their Indian hospitality and to interact with you, as a human.
Let your guard down (to whatever extent feels comfy and safe) and be as open as you can to the stellar people here. I for one have found myself eating the most delicious meals, experiencing the incredible wildlife and even dressing in full traditional Kutch exquisite handmade clothing – all because of my openness.
Embracing the positivity, and moving the fear factor to the backseat (still need the info to inform your gut) will surely offer you a truly memorable India experience.
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Strength in Numbers!
No, I don’t mean its better to travel with a crowd, though at times, it sure is fun! I mean there are TONS of us out here. Every week, I’m newly inspired and empowered by the calibre of solo women travellers I meet.
And not just westerners. To many Indians’ surprise, I regularly meet awesome Indian women who have quit their conventional jobs, donned their backpacks and are out exploring their incredible country, many of them blogging about it too. Many others are venturing out for long weekends and shorter trips, plotting their grand plans for longer-term adventures.
We draw strength and passion from each other. We women are oozing with cultural curiosity, passion for nature and desire for healing, self-growth and connection, both for ourselves and others.
Despite our masses, many will still be uber impressed by how brave you are (little do they know how much easier it often is to travel solo). You will still frequently be asked if you are single, if you have kids and why not! Roll with the questions, as you like, having fun and embracing the opportunity for dialogue, even if it feels better to white-lie your answers. All the more interesting if you connect with local women and women’s organizations, bearing witness to their experiences too. One of my favourite moments was chitchatting about periods with the 14 and 19-year-old sisters from Dharamkot whose home I stay in. They loved my diva cup (definitely something I recommend for all menstruating travellers!)
Such an amazing collection of women I feel honoured to now know and learn from (and with). From a 19-year-old German navigating her way through Rajasthan, to the Indian woman who left her marriage and is seeking my travel suggestions, to the Brit in her 70s covering more of the unbeaten path than any other woman I’ve met.
An incredible sisterhood – inspiring, empowering and making a change!
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Being your true self
The more you travel and the more you live, the more you know what makes you tick – what inspires you, challenges you, nourishes you, strengthens you, brings you the most fun and the list could go on. Go after those things and go at the pace that feels right for you. Even if it means straying from the path that you’ve read about, think you’re ‘supposed to do’ or see others doing. This has landed me in the most amazing local and nature scenes, leading me from one great opportunity to the next.
Remember that there are no wrong turns – if you miss seeing a palace, it’s probably because you had an eye-opening conversation or were in a beautiful park. India is a thoroughly overstimulating place! Staying in one area and unfolding the many layers; moving on to experience another terrain, language, style and cuisine; or venturing to a meditation or yoga retreat– all will offer endless anthropological phenomenon.
In India, when asked “why,” the answer is often “why not?” If you keep this philosophy in mind, following your instincts and true-self will be all the more fun.
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Good decisions and following your gut (a few little tips)
5 incident-free months of amazing travel through India (not even Delhi Belly!) I realize I might indeed be blessed with some good fortune. I’ve also followed some decent advice for making wise decisions, even though it sometimes means sacrificing something my ‘true self’ (see above) would want to wear or do! Here are some of the tips I find most helpful.
Dive Into India’s Textiles
Have I mentioned the vibrant colours and amazing patterns of all the textiles and clothing? Well, dive in! Leave your spaghetti-strap tanks at home (in fact, leave everything at home and carry the lightest bag possible!) Hit the markets and shop for some colourful scarves and cotton kurtas (loose, long tunics worn by Indian women). The hardest part will be choosing! Or wear other clothing that keeps you covered. India is a pretty conservative country. Covering your shoulders and legs might make you a little hotter temperature-wise but you’re bound to feel much comfier in other ways. It will certainly help make the inevitable staring feel benign and a colourful kurta will earn you an extra smile or two.
Enjoy the conversation
You’ll be asked over and over again about what country you’re from and often the convo can become much more substantive and interesting. Get into it, enjoy it – and as you should anywhere, have your clear set of boundaries. Be ready to ease yourself out of the conversation as soon as you get any sort of “icky” feeling.
Indulge in Stargazing
The stars can be incredible here. Nothing like stargazing in the countryside, where the dearth of electricity means little light pollution. It’s not easy to hold me back from a good night walk, especially when my strong instincts don’t smell any danger, but I make that sacrifice, both in cities and in villages – I don’t do a lot of walking alone outside at night. Thankfully, there’s almost always something fun going on to watch, talk about, cook, eat or play inside!
Stay in homestays and become a part of the family for a couple of nights
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Take the local transport
Local is often better. In big cities, I love taking public transportation and to get between cities and states, the trains and buses are stellar. Look out for “all-women” cars on local trains, usually all the way at the front or back. Amazing to ride with so much fun colour and energy, a packed car full of traditional women carrying things on their heads and contemporary women heading to a whole array of jobs. There are even special lines for women to purchase tickets and some cities now have a fleet of all-women rickshaws.
For long train travel, I recommend either 2nd class AC or Sleeper Car. In Sleeper, the top bunk is best. There are lots of stories out there of women who have been groped but I have yet to meet someone this has happened to. I love Sleeper Class because it’s always easy to connect with trusted Indian women, many travelling with their families. They will happily keep an eye on your bag when you go to the bathroom, and will certainly offer you some of the home cooked food they brought on their journey. Lots of peddlers and other people can come in and out of the train car, hence being on the top bunk gives you a safe place for your bags and lets you take it all in from a distance. I LOVE these train rides.
Overnight sleeper buses are pretty great too; though beware of the double sleeper. It is meant for two and unless you know who you’re sharing it with, it’s probably not a good idea! Again, upper level is more private but bottom level is definitely less bumpy!
Bottom line ladies, as you would/should anywhere in the world, my best advice while travelling India is to be aware, use common sense, follow your gut and make sure to enjoy the fabulous people and positive energy of this blessed country!
Thank you to India Someday, You Wander We Pay and Incredible India