Muscling up the courage to go to India as a solo female traveler takes guts.
India is no walk in the park; especially for women. But despite its added challenges, it’s a destination absolutely worth seeking. No one returns from India without being either dramatically changed or incredibly inspired; myself included.
I’ve spent many a month alone in India, learning only from experience how to make it less hard.
For those travel buddy-less women feeling the pull toward the motherland, I hope that my acquired wisdom can inspire the confidence needed to go it alone. While there’s no way to really prepare yourself (India is unparalleled), these 12 tips will help you to strategize your travel and avoid extra attention from the get-go.
1. First things first, the usual street smarts should of course be employed. Be aware of your surroundings, avoid flirtatious behavior, don’t walk alone at night, and don’t hesitate to be assertive. India is not unsafe, but like anywhere else, you have to be on your toes.
2. Be prepared for nonstop staring (which is simply a social norm) and, unfortunately, the rare grope. As an obvious out-of-towner in this enormous, sometimes daunting, hustle and bustle of the country of India, the greatest challenge will be navigating your way through an exotic culture of opposites—nearly nothing seems to be or be done as it was back home. That includes that outside of big cities, Indian women never travel alone. As both a Westerner and an anomaly you will be a magnet for attention. Most attention is harmless, and the journey will be a lot easier if you make peace with all eyes being on you.
3. Prebook a hotel for your first several nights in India. The minute you step out of the airport, expect to be bombarded by taxi and rickshaw hawkers. They’ll use all kinds of tricks to get you to stay at their affiliated hotels. Having your accomodation prearranged will alleviate the hustle.
Even if you’re on a budget, these are the days you should splurge (and in India that may only be $20 a night) for a well reputed hotel in a traveler-friendly area. A comfortable and safe introduction to India will start you off on the right foot.
4. Getting into a taxi alone in a foreign land is at first a little scary, so if your hotel provides transportation from the airport, use it. If not, you can arrange for a taxi at a prepaid taxi booth outside of the airport (Lonely Planet guides always map their locations). This will also alleviate the hawker hustle.
5. Plan your travel so that you don’t arrive anywhere new in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, many overnight buses and trains arrive in the wee hours of the morning. I find this good reason to travel during the day, even if it takes all day. If you must arrive at night, arrange your accommodation ahead of time to avoid wandering empty streets alone.
6. Consider staying in ashrams rather than hotels or guesthouses, especially in the big cities and pilgrimage sites. An ashram stay is not for everyone– they usually have strict rules regarding curfews, drugs and alcohol, but they do provide a safe and welcoming environment for women, a chance to meet other Westerners and Indians, clean food, and the spiritual experience that is India.
7. Trains are hands down the best way to travel in India and most long routes have women-only cars. They fill up quickly, so book your seat at the station or on www.cleartrip.com as soon as you decide where and when you’re going (and that goes for all train trips).
The next best option is booking the 3AC and higher classes. Their bunks usually have curtains and foot traffic is minimized.
Sleeper class is the train’s most adventurous and budget friendly option, but it can include unwanted attention from the unceasing passerbys. Book an upper berth for the most privacy, where you’ll be somewhat tucked away.
8. Many of the big city’s metros and local trains also have women only cars for short trips. When this option is available, take advantage.
9. Strategize when your bus stops for a bathroom break. There’s rarely a toilet involved. Instead, you’re given only a few minutes and an open field. Follow the lead of other Indian women on the bus who go together. They have an eye for finding privacy amidst the very public pit stops; and going in a group ensures the bus won’t leave without you.
And wear a long skirt on bus rides to act as a shield from curious, wandering eyes when you pop a squat.
10. Take a backpack instead of a roller suitcase. In India, sidewalks and ramps for wheels rarely exist. A backpack will make your life so much easier, unless it’s heavier than you can handle! Plus, as a woman alone you never want to look like you’re struggling.
Pack as light as possible. Strategize your outfits so that everything can be interchanged and layered (it can get cold in India!) Minimize your toiletries—hairspray, perfume and makeup are not much needed here—and you can readily replenish shampoos and toothpastes. Do however bring extra pads and tampons; outside of the cities and tourist areas they are nearly impossible to find.
11. Dressing conservatively will gain respect. Always cover your chest, shoulders, and your legs well below the knees. Favor loose clothes over anything clingy or revealing.
Even better, dress like a local. Most Indians love seeing this, as it shows that you respect and take interest in their culture. Sarees should generally be reserved for Indian women (no one can pull them off like they do) but you can quickly and inexpensively have a beautiful salwar kameez or Punjabi suit made up at a tailor.
12. Swap any expensive Western jewelry for inexpensive Indian jewelry. This might include a fake wedding band. You will be asked time and time again throughout your trip if you’re married, and having a ring and an “Indian husband living in Delhi” will quiet many a curious man.
Both India’s beauties and challenges make the experience, but those challenges can be eased by heeding the advice of women who have already walked the path. We would all agree that you’re embarking on a life-changing adventure.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Roshan Raj/Flickr