Solo female travel in India | Check out these 5 easy tips to travel safe and happy |

Is it safe to travel alone in India as a woman? Yes, I would argue. Here are 5 tips I would like to share with solo female travelers in India. But they would work abroad as well.

solo female traveler India, desi postcards
Crazy hair don’t care

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?

Boats. Ganga, Varanasi, desi postcards, monochrome , India
Boats on the Ganga, Varanasi 2016

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?

lake pichola, Udaipur, udaipur cafes, desipostcards
Lake Pichola is love, Udaipur 2018

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

Jaipur cotton, cotton fabric, desipostcards
Cotton fabric, Jaipur 2018

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

Udaipur, Rajasthani jewellery, desipostcards, silver rings
Beautiful peacock ring, Udaipur 2018 (Did not buy it!)

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.
* * *

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!

Best of Pushkar: the small town and its tall tales | Offbeat Pushkar

Pushkar is a small town but immensely popular with travelers. Is it the lake, Pushkar’s resorts, the Brahma temple, Pushkar’s famous holi or the camel fair? Let’s look at the true Pushkar experience.

Pushkar Lake

Shiva thunders the final syllables of the curse, and from Brahma’s trembling fingers, the blue lotus falls. Down it floats to a valley and rests where a lake forms. There Brahma follows, to live his remaining years among the forgetful.
This is Pushkar.

***

Pushkar Lake by day
By daylight

Once, there were mountains here. Tall and erect in the first flush of youth. Now, like old men, their spines weather-sawed, they squat and peer with dim eyes. They have seen.

Temples and worship. Waves of destruction. One king raise what another had razed. Resilience they have seen and surrender too. But they hunch over the lake for one reason: to greet the gods and goddesses who gather every sunrise and sunset.

***

Pushkar persists. Today it is a hipster’s paradise, a hippie’s den, an easy weekend-getaway, a speed-date with the desert, and Rajasthan’s very own rose-garden. It is also one of the very few places in the royal state not known for its forts.

The lake, which is the centre of this circumstance, is rimmed by temples and restaurants. You can sit on the ghats, barefoot for an evening, and watch as sky and water change their colours in tandem; you can see the flock of ducks showboating; shirtless fire-eaters, girls with hula-hoops, waiters with call-centre accents, local women selling fish food, old couples with the faces of compromise, young ones smiling for their selfies, pandits who insist you cover your head before they give you prasad, families and friends chatting as they complete the parikramas.

If you choose to have dinner at one of the lake side cafes, you will find dishes such as risotto, lasagna, and ratatouille vying for space with the predictable pizzas, pastas and parathas. It is all vegetarian. You will also have the Insta Yogi favourites: mango lassi, honey lemon ginger, and chai teas. The question is will you be adventurous enough to have a Rajasthani risotto? Or will you stick to the tested kachori? It will be a tough decision to make. However, if you journey all the way from Zaragoza to Pushkar only to order gazpachos, there is little justification other than a sense of humour. On the other hand, I tried something labelled coconut cream – it was grated coconut and water – inedible.

Your success with dishes will vary from café to café. As will your success with understanding the waiter’s accent. And he will, naturally, attend to the diners who can reward him with a tip that’s bigger than the bill for your entire meal.

Preferring foreign customers to locals is common across India but you cannot ignore it in Pushkar. The economics of it, I can easily understand, but the politics of it is harder to digest. Maybe Pushkar finds itself in the shadow of tourism hotspots like Jaipur and Udaipur and seeks to mirror them. Maybe it aspires to Varanasi. But is it a city of religion or resorts? Both, you might feel, without conviction.

Local shopping in Pushkar
An artisan making blocks for printing

You see it in the shop selling Rajasthani staples: silver wares and jewellery, bound journals, leather bags and shoes, namkeens, pickles, marble statuettes, puppets, fabrics and so on. What is truly Pushkar’s is the desi gulaab. This rose is smaller and less sturdy than its English cousin. It has a lovely fragrance and is used in teas, jams, water and oils. But Pushkar, often lost in the shadows of its neighbours, sets little store by what is its own.

What it touts instead are borrowings, and new age shops offering to kit you out for enlightenment. These are dingy little affairs, advertising crystal malas, rudraksha beads, chanting CDs, and chakra oils. If only monks would shop at Pushkar – enlightenment would cost them nothing more than a few thousand rupees and a couple of hours.

***

However, there is Pushkar’s holi when the town transforms into a rave. There is, too, the camel fair – a calendar event for many a traveler. Pushkar knows to make way for plentiness, it knows how to yield inches of self for the other.

***

Pushkar camel rides
4 year old Rajesh, a sweet natured boy

If you move away from its centre to the calm of resorts, you will find an Ananta, a Westin or a Taj Gateway. Experts in hospitality, they will offer you samplers with Udaipuri ghoomars and Jaisalmeri kalbeliyas, lal maans and camel cart rides.

***


Still, Pushkar persists. Perhaps, as you thread its lanes, as you spend time on one of its spartan ghats, you will stumble across its ancient soul. Perhaps you will meet it disguised as an old man in white cotton, sitting by noon on a mile-marker, watching cars race by; or in the guise of a woman hurrying around the temples, urging the gods; perhaps, when the sun is setting and the lake is a blue-pink-gold shimmer, you will feel your heart bloom.

That will be Pushkar.

Why solo travel is totally not weird | 5 reasons why you must travel solo

Let’s talk about why solo travel is a historical tradition and the amazing benefits it offers.

Rishikesh, August 2016

India has a history of solo travellers. In the 8th century BCE, the first mention of sramanas pops up. These were mendicants, holy men, and wanderers outside the pale of society and its rituals. In the Rig Veda, they have a unique title which means both naked and girdled with the wind.

Now, their fashion choices don’t concern me . But the metaphorical interpretation of being girdled with the wind does. It can be interpreted as being in constant motion. I feel that they were on to a good thing.

Think also of the solo travelers who were doing with reed and papyrus what I’m doing with keyboard and Word docs – creating travel narratives. Faxian in the 4th century, for example. Dude walked from Ancient China to Ancient India to get a few copies of Buddhist texts. His travelogues are a great source of information about the time and place. Not entirely trustworthy (he wrote that the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka were dragons. I’m open to the idea but, mate, I don’t think so). And he lived to the age of 85 (walking is good for you. I’ll write about that another time). Faxian wasn’t alone. There were also Xuanzang a couple of centuries later, travelling to Nalanda to study, and Ibn Battuta on a pilgrimage in the 13th century. 

We know a fair amount about our history and culture thanks to these adventurous folk who were willing to put in a huge amount of labour for knowledge. Faxian wanted books, Xuanzang wanted to go to university, and Ibn Battuta was on a pilgrimage of sorts. Isn’t that amazing! 

What I realise, as I think about them, is that solo travelers rarely set out to terrorize and invade. To do that, you need to be in groups. Then you can take over a place and total it. Difficult if you’re solo.

And isn’t solo traveling a good metaphor for life? (Excuse me, if it’s been done to death). But, you get a solo return ticket out of your mum. Even when you’re twins.

Now that I’ve set up the historical context of it, and explained why it’s not weird at all, here’s why I think present day solo travel makes a huge amount of sense. Even if the world, like Melisandre’s night, “is dark and full of terrors.” It was more so back in the day when dragons inhabited Sri Lanka.

Travel is great for anyone. It’s good to get out and see the world. And here’s why it is especially worthwhile as a solo endeavour.

  1. You fire new synapses in your brain

    Literally. Brain wiring is sensitive to change, as research has proved. And a change of surroundings, of company, of usual habits can help your brain work new cells. What makes it especially potent in the context of solo travel is you are in the midst of this new-ness (of place, people, food, weather, etc). 
    And as a solo traveler you’re more likely to make the following choices – book an Airbnb in the old city or a hostel rather than a resort, talk to locals, try out recommendations. This might read like an assumption but you are likely, when solo, to yolo. I mean prioritizing adventure over comfort.
    This is critical to rewiring the brain. Adam Galinsky, a Columbia professor who researches the connections between creativity and travel, argues that simply going abroad is not going to trigger creativity, but immersing yourself in the local culture will.

  2. You get confidence

    Speaking from experience here. As one of the more introverted and awkward people on the planet, traveling solo was a challenge. Just asking for second helpings during dinner at a host’s place, figuring out the train schedule, getting lost and then finding your way, all give you a sense that you can survive challenges, and that you are capable. On your own. As you are.
    Solo travel certainly has done that for me. And that quiet confidence is what you can take back to your everyday life and struggles. Life is all the better for it.

  3. You are the boss

    Daily life takes away a sense of control, doesn’t it? Just booking a cab and the driver cancelling because it’s not a cash trip, taking meetings or calls scheduled for odd hours, or being dragged to family functions you could not care less about. It reminds me of the Zen parable, ‘Ask the horse!’

    That changes when you travel solo. You have to appreciate the number of choices that become available to you: where you stay, when you wake up, whether to order soup for breakfast or scrambled eggs for dinner, which sight you see, whether to talk or stay silent all day, . . . everything is your decision! 

    Guaranteed to make you feel like you can breathe a free air.

  4. You are away from all the drama

    All the drama of arguments about where to go, what to do, when to do it, why were you snoring, go away. As does the hustle of everyday life.

    Like that time I was in Udaipur and went for lunch to a cafe that brightly advertised its Trip Advisor credentials only to be really put off by the lunch. But now I know. And I didn’t blame myself for it. So it was all chill.

    Solo, you don’t spend a lot of valuable vacay time arguing about the agenda for the day. There is often no agenda for the day.

  5. You find out who you are 

    While on a work trip to Philadelphia in 2016, I was steadfastly avoiding beef and pork, because of my Hindu upbringing. However, one breakfast had a nice bagel with scrambled eggs on offer. With the first bite, I realised that it was as advertised with something extra. Later, I found that extra flavour was bacon.
    Now, my brain busied itself. Part of me was like, “You weren’t supposed to eat bacon. That’s bad karma.” The other part pleaded, “But I didn’t know. . . “

    On the whole, what I found out was I keep away from certain things (alcohol, certain meats) because it’s not a big deal to me, and it makes my family happy. Also, that my religious beliefs are not built on fear. Most importantly, it made me realise that I don’t like bacon (count until 10 before you react, please).

    That was a lot of learning for the price of a breakfast. When you travel, if you’re open and let the light in, you’ll see the shape of yourself – that rare thing the sramanas were looking for. And that in itself makes it worth the whole experience. 


    What say you about solo travel? Do you always need a Samwise to your Frodo? Or are you happiest in your own company?