I remember the first time I took a train by myself from a small town in India to the big bad city of Delhi. While dropping me off, my mother announced to everyone sitting around me that I’d be alone for the journey, in the hope that some good soul would look out for me. I felt like a fresh wound exposed to the elements of nature. All stares & smiles I received on that train ride felt sinister. I wasn’t half as mortified to be journeying alone as I was in realizing that everyone around me knew it. Not much has changed for solo trips that start at home (and that’s a story for another day), but I’ve come a long way, stuffing my pockets with solo adventures.
If you’ve read anything about travelling in India, you’ve probably read scores of reasons why travelling solo in India, especially as a female, is at best, scary. You’ve probably read hundreds of tips to avoid getting ripped, mugged, touted or groped. You’ve probably felt surprised, angry, sorry and nervous, in that order, after reading all that you’ve read. So I present 5 reasons, from personal experiences, to assure you why India isn’t such a scary place after all, to travel, to travel alone, and to travel alone as a female:
1. Your perception is half your experience.
Last year, when I felt my corporate job was burning my soul, I took a 2-month sabbatical to see the the countryside of Europe and take my first solo trip in the high Himalayas of India. I didn’t spend hours reading about travelling solo and the things that could go wrong; I just took off, fearless and trusting, sans the scenarios my parents painted in my head. After the initial solo travel jitters, I quickly realized that making friends was easy, people were helpful, and ignoring the occasional jerk came naturally.
2. Strangers fear for you.
While people are nicer to solo female travellers in most countries, it is particularly so in India (and mostly in a platonic way) because everything you’ve read & heard about the country being unsafe for women has also been read by thousands of other people, many of who will take it upon themselves to ensure that you get around okay. Stuck in Pin Valley and waiting for a ride, I literally had an entire village scrambling to find me a way to get back to my base town of Kaza before nightfall. I was offered food and endless cups of tea, invited to attend a cultural function in the village school, and ended up exchanging life stories with strangers while I waited.
3. You are constantly reminded to be safe.
Even if you do decide to let your guard down, you’ll constantly be reminded of how risky it is to be by yourself, and how unsafe this country is for solo women. On a bus ride during my recent trip to North Kerala, I met a chemistry teacher from the small town of Kannur, who tried to initiate a conversation with me in Malayalam and when I told her in English that I don’t speak the language, she affectionately chided me and made me swear not to tell anyone that again. (How I could pretend to know a language without knowing it is something I refused to argue about). She went on to warn me not to talk to strangers. By the time she alighted from the bus, I knew all about her inheritance, her love for Malayalam literature, and her son’s north Indian friends, and she knew all about my pepper spray!
4. Among 1.1 billion people, you’re hardly ever ‘alone’.
Let’s face it. You must really work hard to find a dark lonely alley to walk along. Unless you are trying to chart an off-road trail, there is no reason to not always be surrounded by plenty of people, locals if not foreigners when you happen to be somewhere less travelled. As I found out, the region with the lowest population density in India also has the friendliest of people; a simple interaction in Spiti for directions or a ride would often turn into a homely meal, or a heartfelt invite to join a family on their yearly pilgrimage.
5. There’s a ‘women-only’ everything.
Say what you may, but that’s a blessing not so much in disguise. From women-only ticketing queues, railways compartments and bus seats, to run-by-women-only taxi services and home stays, having women-friendly services is a reassurance that there are places where (sleazy) men cannot intrude. Feminists may argue against the segregation and fairly so, but when you are passing the night on a bus predominantly filled by men, it is comforting to smile at the woman sitting next to you.