Female solo travel is both difficult and rewarding. In such a rich, traditional culture as India, I faced a new set of challenges in every situation. Whether it was dripping sweat beneath my long salwar kameez or having men snap photos of me without asking, I often felt uncomfortable, uneasy, and unsafe. I was blown away by India’s beauty, generous locals, and stunning range of scenery—but I wouldn’t recommend going there alone.
Can you travel India alone?
Well, of course you can. Before trekking off to India, countless travel bloggers (such as Hippie in Heels) told me Yes! I can travel India alone! Unfortunately, they never told me if I should – whether or not the day-to-day life in India would be exhausting or exhilarating; whether or not the risks were worth the reward.
Things don’t work the same way in developing nations. Buses don’t show up, descriptions don’t meet reality, and people are extremely aggressive (they’re simply trying to live). With the help of my Indian friends, I made it through electrical outages, up hilltop temples, to wedding receptions, and across rivers unscathed. I have a vault of amazing memories and some not-so-great-ones. It definitely is possible to travel India as a woman alone. But I would never, ever, ever recommend it.
Males have much more freedom in countries such as India. As a woman, even showing my ankles, wearing a floor-length dress without tights beneath, or simply looking a male in the eye can be interpreted as a come on. I was constantly hassled, haggled with, and stared at. Certainly, the culture around me was vivid and captivating and new, but it was almost impossible to enjoy it when I felt incessantly bombarded.
One thing I didn’t think about was how much I—a 6’0 white girl—would stand out. Throughout my month in India, I didn’t see more than ten white people. While my Indian friends were well-versed in Western ways, the majority of what uneducated people in India (ie. the shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and impoverished population I was interacting with on a daily basis) know about Caucasians is through Hollywood. I can’t really blame them for having negative views of the rich white girl who claims to be a broke backpacker/student, but I don’t have to pretend I felt comfortable in the sexually repressed, male-dominated culture, where somehow my legs become “tempting, sexual objects” in the relentless 40 degree heat.
I met plenty of Indian women who thought I was crazy for travelling their own country alone. I often agreed with them. I found myself holding my breath, checking my driver’s route on Google maps, and hovering my finger over my suddenly-precious pepper spray. But still, I found time to be amazed; time to jump into the sea, time to laugh and join in temple singing. Sometimes, I even felt safer because of the colour of my skin—the tourism industry is desperate to change the negative image of India. The opinion that I, a foreigner, would be considered more valuable then one of their own women, is one of the country’s many tragedies.
I can’t tell you whether or not you should go to India alone, but I can tell you my experience, and let you make your own decision. While I traversed the country through rail, road, and sky, I posted a few words or photos every day at onemonthinindia.tumblr.com for you to ruminate on.
I think once you get past the magic of India—the flashy colours, the distracting vendors, the constant intense attention—you see it for what it really is: poor. India is rich in culture, but the country is starving. I saw children with ribs like concentration camp victims walk through traffic selling glowsticks. Transvestites clap in the trains next to crawling orphans, all of them touching their fingers to their mouth, pleading for their next meal. Cycle rickshaw drivers, crazed with heat exhaustion, argue an extra 20 rupees for a 2 hour ride. That’s 40 cents, and still not enough to buy a CocaCola. Never in my life have I not been able to afford a CocaCola. I probably never will.
The truth is, there is no “real” India. All I have are my experiences. To me, India is the local politician celebrating his victory with firecrackers in the streets of Hampi. It’s the unreal blue in the eyes of the man that let me haggle him down for an elephant tapestry his wife made. It’s the woman on the train who offered me homemade cakes, even though she couldn’t speak a word of English. It’s the monks in the monkey temple rattling bells in worship to an idol made of tinfoil. It’s the man on the white horse surrounded by a band, proposing in the streets of Jaipur. It’s the auto rickshaw driver who dropped me off at Agra Cannt, looked in my eyes, and said “Next time you’re here, I’m dead.”
I will never again call myself a broke backpacker. I am a millionaire. I have endless opportunities, thousands of choices, hundreds of reasons and ways and places to live, rather than just survive. India challenged my outlook. India exhausted my perspective. India is incredible, and I want to go back. But next time, I am not going alone.