I have often dreamed of a far-off place
Where a hero’s welcome would be waiting for me
Solo travel feels like a real adventure. And it is. My first solo trip was in 2010. I went to Parmarth Niketan in Rishikesh for a beginner’s yoga course, met people from all over the world, and had my first taste of independence. It was my first (pleasant) brush with adulthood, despite rigorous surya namaskars, simple breakfasts, and a hot trek up Neer Garh on a June day. I came back fit, confident, and so ready to see more of the world on my own.
Many women feel the same way. According to the Princeton Survey Research Associates, 58% millennials are willing to travel alone, compared to 47% among the older generations. And while 26% millennial American women have already traveled solo, 27% want to! (Source) So if you worry whether traveling alone as a woman is a good idea, you know it must be, so many women can’t be wrong.
Anyway, the main reason I love solo travel is because it gives me a chance to be me. A chance to escape from everyone’s notions of, and questions for, me. As a solo traveler, you’re just you – away from the people you spend your life with. You’re free to re-invent yourself, and live on your terms. Who doesn’t need that?
But, being a solo woman traveler can be challenging, especially in India. During a trip to Varanasi in 2016, standing at the entrance of a narrow lane leading to the famous Vishwanath temple, I was accosted by two young boys offering to act as guides. They asked me where I was from, and if I was a photographer. In this context photographer meant one of those fancy people with enough money to roam about doing absurd things, like clicking photos of boats on the river and sadhus on the ghats. For them, photographer was another word for foreigner. I then had to drive a hard bargain for the temple tour, politely decline requests for my phone number, and insist that I’d see the rest of the city myself.
Or when, during the same trip, I was in my room at The Yoga House on Nagwa Ghat, and overheard a few men complaining about Indian parents these days. How they let their girls stay unmarried till 25, doing nonsense things like jobs, and running astray. I was so angry. Those men were articulating a mindset you might encounter often in India: in big cities and small. And the judgement will seem, at the very least, suffocating.
That said, I do think India is an amazing country to explore. Even for women. In this story by the National Geographic, journalist Margot Bigg says, “In my experience, India’s one of the safest and most accommodating countries for solo women travelers.” And I agree with her.
In my travels, I have found that people look out for you. Returning to Varanasi, on my first evening, I hired a cycle rickshaw. The driver didn’t know his way to Nagwa Ghat and wandered like a Tolkien hero. Soon we were away from the city: the concrete road had turned to a mud path, multi-storey apartments had been replaced by a few lantern-lit huts, and my phone had no hope of a signal. We were in the middle of nowhere on a dark December night.
Along came an old man in a shawl. He snapped at the driver in the local dialect, “Why are you wandering in the dark with this young girl?” We explained where we needed to go. “This is not where she asked you to take her. Go that way.” He gave detailed instructions. “Hurry,” he urged us, “don’t loiter at night.”
This is not a standalone incident. When I get lost on my trips (don’t tell my parents) there will always be someone who goes out of his or her way to ensure that I’m safe. Often that person is a stranger.
But as a female solo traveler there are tips you can use to make sure you stay safe and happy during your India journey. Here are 5 that have worked for me (with song lyrics):
1. Do you know
Where you’re going to?
Plan your travels wisely. You should think about what you’re looking for, and where you’re looking for it.
You might want to chill by a lake but is it going to be Pangong Tso or Pichola? They offer two completely different experiences. Looking for a yoga retreat? Kerala has great options, but will you be able to tolerate the heat? Not keen on Indian food? A place like Panchmarhi is unlikely to have a McDonalds or a Dominos. Research, research, research.
Your travel goals are your own. Figure them out and curate your experience. You can enjoy a raving night life, a spiritual odyssey, and a foodie’s fantasy in India, but usually not all in the same place. Definitely not at the same time. If you do, let me know.
2. I wanna breathe without feelin’ so self-conscious
But it’s hard when the world’s starin’ at you
Clothes are a big part of our
personality – I get that. And if you want to share your travels with
Instagram, like I do, you will want to make for a pretty picture. But if
you wear chiffon minis in Agra, and stilettos in Chandni Chowk, life
will get very complicated very fast.
Blending in is useful. It shows respect for local customs and traditions, a keen awareness of them, and practicality. It also gives you the chance to experience the place more fully. You might feel more confident walking Udaipur’s old city in a blockprint kurta rather than a bodycon dress. (And really, who doesn’t love Rajasthan’s blockprint textiles).
May just be because you feel comfortable, you will seem confident, and less of an innocent/arrogant outsider. (Sadly, those are two ready classifications you can fall into anywhere as a traveler, not just in India).
When you buy local you support small businesses as well. So, your appearance can be meaningful economically, culturally, and aesthetically.
Not saying you shop for a new wardrobe everywhere you go, just saying be aware of what you wear.
3. You know that we are living in a material world
And we are material girls. But we don’t need to rub the world’s nose in it. In non-lyrical terms that means, you should leave your best jewelry at home and not in your baggage. It should definitely not be on you. Keep baubles to a minimum.
A useful habit I’ve got from my parents is to not keep all my cash in one place. I find it also checks the spending. You should also consider carrying money is different forms: cash, forex card, credit card etc. Always have back-up.
4. Where do you come from
Where do you go
As a solo woman traveler you are a creature of mystery. You should not share details of your itinerary with chatty strangers. It’s common sense. You should also not trust anyone immediately, and strike exclusive deals, whether a cab or a restaurant. Take your time. That said, it’s good to have an open mind about people. There are good folk out there.
Last year, when I went to Udaipur and stayed in an AirBnB, the caretaker was a genuinely kind man who offered to show me to a jewelery shop nearby and bring my lunch upstairs, even though the restaurant didn’t offer that service.
Just as you should be cagey about sharing details with outsiders, you should be consistent in sharing them with family. Keep at least one close friend or family member updated about your plans. If you’re in a bad signal area, text updates will work. They can be simple as, “Going to Elefantastic today. Enjoy building the Sales Pipedrive. Byeeee!”
5. From mixed drinks to techno beats its always
Heavy into everything
Solo travel is an exercise in independence. It is equally an exercise of responsibility. Outside your network of friends and family, you are the one taking care of yourself. For that you need to keep your wits about you. Drinking heavily or other indulgences do not go hand in hand with safety.
So walk the middle path, as Buddha advised, then you can sip the wine and hold it too.
I hope you will love India. It has so much to offer. And it waits for you with open arms.
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I’ve already talked about why solo travel is a great idea. And you can think about Pushkar – it’s a lovely place. Do you have any absolutely essential tips that I might have missed? Tell me!