“Wait, you’re all alone? I could NEVER travel all by myself.”
I can’t relay the number of times I’ve heard people say this to me, a solo female traveller. And every time, I return their question with a smug smile and respond: “but of course you CAN!”
India can be a daunting country to visit: the disorienting traffic and number of people, the (at times) overwhelming smells, the astounding beauty, the hospitality and warmth, the sheer diversity. It is nothing short of an exhilarating and rewarding hodgepodge of experiences.
But is it truly safe? Yes it is—partially because there will always be people around; you’ll find that you’re actually hardly ever alone.
SURPRISES AND KINDNESS
As a lone female traveller, I’ve found that time and time again people go out of their way to point me in the right direction. Several strangers have taken me or dropped me off exactly where I needed to be, out of kindness and concern. Strangers will offer you food and snacks on trains and public waiting areas. Meandering about the streets of different towns, you’ll likely get invited by families to join them for chai and a snack, even homemade meals—which are always authentic.
I remember while I was travelling solo around North India, in the pink city of Jaipur, I stopped by a popular neighbourhood chai stall. Only locals were milling about, shouting their orders from all corners of the space. I was staring up at the menu painted on a board and could not read a thing.
A kind man with his family noticed me and quickly stepped in, taking me under his wing. Before I could protest he had ordered tea along with a plate of buttered bread for me. Standing in front of his family, I sheepishly obliged. When we had finished off our chai and bun-maska (a buttery, creamy centre enveloped by a warm soft bun), I thanked him profusely, and he scoffed at me—looking almost insulted that I had even thanked him. “Enjoy the rest of your trip around India,” he replied. Then he walked off with his kids in a hurry. This is just one of several examples of benevolence I encountered.
SELFIES AND STARES
Yes, you’ll be stared at and approached by all sorts of people. Staring can be responded in two ways: smile or ignore. I find that smiling opens a window of opportunity for conversation and connection. Ignoring is effective if don’t want to engage. Do draw attention if their stares make you uncomfortable. Making a scene is always effective at warding off unwanted action.
This also means that you shouldn’t be surprised when asked to take selfies with groups and strangers. I find that most people who do approach, do so out of curiosity towards foreigners. Some have rarely if ever seen a lone female traveller—let alone a foreigner.
Again, two things can happen: you can accept their request and share a few laughs. However, if you’re uncomfortable or tired of it, don’t be afraid of refusing with a polite “nay.” People will respect your wishes.
As in any other country, any other city, any other community, take note of behavioural norms and safety precautions. General safety precautions include being wary of how you’re dressed (cover up or dress according to where you are), avoiding being out alone at odd hours in an unknown neighbourhood (common sense, no?), letting people know where you are (always).
For example: in a city like New Delhi, unfortunately reputed to be an unsafe city, make a point to dress conservatively and avoid venturing out past a certain hour alone. Even if you do, be sure that you have safe and reliable means of travel, that people know where you are going and can reach you.
Do your research, know your options:
On that note, these days ride-sharing apps like Uber and Ola make travelling around cities simple: just book a ride and you’re on your way. No need to haggle, no need to worry about safety, a straightforward solution to ensuring you get to where you want to go.
I know, you’re thinking “I can just take Uber everywhere?” The answer is a resounding, “yes!” I find that cities in India are at times more technologically savvy than other places in the world. You can order anything to be delivered to where you are. Everything is now at your fingertips: you’d likely have connectivity in all cities and even in remote areas up in the mountains.
But don’t shy away from taking trains and public transportation! In New Delhi, the metro system is an absolute life-saver. Air-conditioned, cheap, reliable, it makes travel easy (especially if you want to avoid traffic). There’s also a women’s only compartment, which is heavily enforced—by women within the compartment and officers alike.
In Mumbai, riding the local trains is an experience every visitor needs to partake in. This way, you circumvent the city’s notorious traffic, making getting around faster. Moreover, auto rickshaws in Mumbai run by the meter, at any time of day (note that you can’t take an auto down South).
Lastly, hiring a local guide is an amazing way to navigate and explore a city. You’ll get insider information and the security of being guided by someone from the area: all the contextual details to enhance your adventures and exploration.
What are you afraid of?
Sure—you may get caught, as in any other part of the world, in an uncomfortable situation. In these cases, don’t be afraid to reach out to security or policemen. But trust that people in India will treat you as a guest, always ready to lend a helping hand.
Follow your “gut” feeling and err on the side of caution. Be wary of scams, be wary of your surroundings, but ultimately be open to new experiences. Take an auto-rickshaw, learn to haggle prices, fend off shop vendors. Be open, but be firm.
Travelling alone will teach you to learn the art of balancing being kind and open, to being assertive and brave. It’s an artful dance between adventure and sensibility, a life skill that travelling alone as a woman in India will also impart.
So come ready to be taken spontaneously through the streets by a well-intentioned stranger, come ready to be treated to copious amounts of food, come ready be asked to take a selfies.
Come ready to be swept away by the nation: teeming with love, with historical and natural beauty, full of contrasts and contradictions, but consistent cups of sweet masala chai.