Solo female travelling in India - Is it safe?
Travelling to India was one of the most overwhelming and fascinating travel destinations I had ever explored. It was extreme, in all ways. I subconsciously did the whole Eat, Pray, Eat, Love, Eat thing. Julia Roberts and me: same same.
A spiritual endeavour when shit hits the fan and you throw yourself into amazing and uncomfortable situations to see how you make it out alive, or fit through any doors (Fuck you ITALY for your delicious pasta).
I had a very romantic Summer in Europe, but it was easy. It was indulgence. One must put a stop for drinking too many Aperol Spritzers and lovemaking in the islands of Spain. If you’re a traveller like myself, you would agree that we seek the uncomfortable. We grow tired of the abundance of all things delicious. It’s funny how the lazy, easy-come holiday destinations transform into a yearning for something different. Which is why I decided to venture into India for two and a half months, alone.
There are so many different cultures and traditions in India; it’s really impossible to talk about it as one place. The best way to describe India is like someone constantly throwing bombs of colours, flavours, sounds and smells in your face and you screaming “MORE! MORE! GIMME MORE!”.
My adventure started in the hot-mess but amazing city of New Delhi, followed by exploring the land of kings; Rajasthan, and finishing in the south, discovering the beautiful nature of Goa and Kerala.
India can be a difficult country to travel from place to place and going there shouldn’t be based on a quick decision. Preparation and research is key, which is exactly what I didn’t do (don’t be me, please).
Unfortunately, many women have had to rethink their travels to India due to its bad reputation, along side several high profile rape cases. During my travels, I was surprised how accommodating it was for solo female travellers and would highly recommend it.
Travelling alone to India won’t be a vacation, but an incredible life changing experience. As a woman, there are a few things you need to understand and follow which is why I felt so compelled to share my insights and feelings from my journey, so you can at least be prepared for the chaos.
C U L T U R E
I was lucky enough to experience the deeply entrenched and ancient customs in India by attending a three-day wedding with over one thousand guests. There was abundance of food, music, colour and designer gowns. Weddings in India are the most important day for families, no expenses are spared.
There were many customs across the three days, the one I found most significant was the sacred Haldi ceremony which is the held the day before the wedding. A paste made of turmeric is applied on the brides and grooms face and body by the guests. With tearful faces; the grandmothers, aunties and mother of the bride sang traditional songs about her finally leaving the family home.
Witnessing a beautiful and emotional ceremony that has been practiced for thousands of years was something I will remember forever. What surprised me the most was when the bride and groom personally thanked me for coming and asked me on two separate occasions if I had enough to eat or drink.
What I loved most about Indian culture is that they truly honour the role of a host, and see it as a privilege and something deeply important, even if they don’t know you. My friend who I stayed with, Anuj, translated this meaning to “Guest is God”.
I have never been made to feel so comfortable and looked after in my entire life. They wanted me to remember how I was treated here and I am lucky enough to take this away from my travels, and have practiced this with guests that come into my home.
E Y E S W I D E O P E N
My first ten days in New Dehli were a breeze. My friend was my own personal tour guide and took me to hip cafes, bars and great shopping districts.
At this point I felt like India would be easy. Everyone spoke excellent English, Bollywood movies were really entertaining and I cried every time I ate a delicious curry (I am an emotional eater).
My first day alone I was a confident, wide-eyed girl. I’d already travelled half the world and felt like I could handle anything. Wrong. I had a complete culture shock in India. I have travelled to many Asian countries before, but this was such a punch in the face of the best and worst of everything.
The worst was the poverty. The naked children begging you for money is what hurt me the most. And there are so many of these little guys, you sadly grow immune to it and help when you can. There are a few cheeky kids that ask you to buy them milk, when in fact they take you to specific supermarket and the man puts a product on the table you have never heard of. The family members use this method and send their kids to trick tourists. When the kids approached me again, I would always buy them a chai or fruit juice.
I found India to be so helpful to my personal growth and character, when you’re alone, there is so much pressure to make the right decision based on your own thoughts. It’s all up to you. At the end of my journey, I felt very connected with myself and my intuition, as most of my decisions were made purely by gut instinct, which is what most of us fail to listen to.
An example of this was when I first arrived to the Agra train station to see the majestic Taj Mahal and Red Fort. I stepped out onto the platform with ten people asking if I wanted personal tour guide. When you say no, they continue to walk with you until you say yes. Which is exactly what I did. Bravo.
There are many thoughts running through your head; Can I trust this person? Is this man a legitimate worker? Will I be murdered and killed? How will my family know I am okay? How do I get out of this situation if I have to? All these thoughts and yet, I managed to say yes to the tour.
Note: The personal tour guides provide a means to get around Agra and see different monuments, but they do it in THEIR time, not yours. I would recommend research Agra, and do the tours yourself.
T A L L , B L O N D E , W O M A N
There are many warm, hospitable and gracious people in India and they are by far the majority. However, as a tourist and especially being a woman travelling alone, you may get some unwanted and harmless attention.
Being a 181cm tall blonde woman, I was constantly asked to pose for a photograph from complete strangers. At first I obliged to the curious, smiley individuals. But after one week, it became a burden and I started to refuse politely. What would they be doing with these images anyway?
I never felt like I was in danger, but did I feel uncomfortable? Absolutely. Time only allows your confidence to grow, and soon enough your comfort will too.
The staring was very hard to get used to, but I came to realise that it is more of a curiosity than a sexual intension. Although I never had any bad experiences, it is important to be aware of intentional brushing of bodies against women through big crowds. When things like this happen, don’t hesitate to speak up. There are reserved areas for women everywhere, from public transport and even ticket counters.
GET COMFORTABLE NOT BEING COMFORTABLE
Have you joined the gym recently? Great! This will prepare you for squatting almost every time you go to the toilet. I was shocked when I opened the door to one of the public toilets for the first time, and found nothing but a hole in the ground.
In the first week; I was wiping everything before I touched it, constantly using the hand sanitiser and avoiding street food at all costs. Until one day, you stop giving a fuck and start embracing the dirt, and drinking 6 chai teas from the guy on the side walk. Day by day you get more comfortable with your surroundings, the only way is to accept it. Instead of trying to fight it, relax and drink a fuck load of street chai teas and pray to god your ass will be okay.
L E A V E Y O U R E G O A S I D E
As a tourist, you will always encounter moments of miscommunication or lack of understanding. These moments cause you to lose money or get pulled into something you didn’t want to do in the first place. It is very important to leave your ego aside for the sake of your own safety.
While in Jaipur on a particular rainy day, I decided to visit the Monkey Temple. I paid the tuk tuk 40 rupee and starting to walk up the hill. I could feel all 50 pairs of eyes on me, all male. I must have been the only tourist there. Upon entering the derelict street, three men with leather jackets on motorcycles “welcomed me” to the Monkey Temple and me offered a guided tour. One of them had face tattoos. Perfect!
They weren’t tour guides, and I politely thanked them and continued to walk, with them continuing to walk with me. Walking in the rain, not knowing how far the temple was, with three men asking me questions; my gut was telling me to leave. I stopped, and started to walk back down without saying anything to them.
I was once told one of the most important things while travelling is “Information is survival”. If you have information, you are aware and know what is accurate. I was constantly going to places without researching. With some research I would have known how far the temple was or if there are registered tour guides, without this, I was clueless in the rain.
I went back to the first tuk tuk and asked to go back down, he told me it was be 600 rupee. I was shocked, why so much? Because, theres only one way down, and you pay the price they say.
Annoyed, I approached another tuk tuk and the same thing happened. More eyes. More rain. No women. Just me. Now I could see that a tall blonde woman asking different tuk tuks for a fair price was causing some attention. I felt stuck, embarrassed and clueless. It was an “aha” moment when I said, you was 600 rupee? No worries, here is your money, take me away from here.
I swallowed my pride. An expensive and useless trip but in the end, if you feel uncomfortable for whatever reason, just pay the money and go. Don’t compromise your safety to save money or embarrassment.
B E R E S P E C T F U L
Every traveller has something specific in mind to feel safe and comfortable. In India, I constantly wore long clothes and dressed conservatively. You don’t have to be covered from head to toe, but I never wore shorts, skirts or tops that showed my shoulders, chest or back (towards the south near Goa, this changed as they are accustomed to people swimming in the beach and doing yoga). Other things I would recommend:
1. Learn a few words in the language, although everyone speaks excellent English, it is nice to greet in their language.
2. Understand how different their culture is to yours and how some forms of expression may be misinterpreted.
3. Have an attitude – Be confident, be firm.
4. How you feel in India is ultimately what the experience will give back to you, if you feel scared and afraid, you may have scary experiences. If you feel trusting and positive (while remaining on guard and cautious) you will likely have a great experience.
S H O U L D I G O ?
There is no doubt in my mind that you should travel India. I feel like you are bound to change by the experience; the incredible colours, music, temples, culture, food and nature. Also evident is the confronting living conditions like the extreme poverty, dirt, noise, large crowds and traffic.
If it’s your first time in an Asian country, it might be a very big culture shock at first. Consider your first practice solo trip in Thailand or Vietnam before venturing into India. But it depends on the person you are.
Ultimately you should travel to India when you are ready. It is not for everyone; go with your eyes open. If you feel confident alone and want to be thrown amongst the chaos, go for it.
It leaves you with a curiosity of life. I learnt lessons that will stay with me forever. Travel is seemingly nothing without conversations. The people give you their perspective of this world you have no idea about, it was a place I connected with deeply and engaged with the locals to see how they lived, what their traditions were, gave me a new perspective.