Solo Female Travel, the kindness of strangers and using common sense.

There’s been a lot written about this over recent years, I’ve read some articles, disregarded others and didn’t honestly pay that much attention to it. Foolishly perhaps, given the growth in this as a ‘business.’ Then, a couple of years ago, someone who had written many articles on the subject contacted me for an interview which I thought was a little odd. You see, despite having travelled alone around India for around 20 years, I never considered myself a ‘solo female traveller.’ On all of my trips to India between 1998 and 2006 I was traveling for work, so of course no one could accompany me, or was likely to want to; 19, 20, 21 day trips, a different destination every night, checking out the sightseeing and cramming in several hotel visits in between just didn’t appeal to those who could only take 4 weeks holiday a year. I loved it. But you see, I was always met at the airport by a representative from my local office, escorted to my car, introduced to my driver, the itinerary gone through and I was on my way. More often that not, given that I was a tour operator, some say ‘of repute’ others of ‘ill repute’ I was met at each hotel and wined and dined and on occasion, oh okay then, frequent occasions, rather spoiled.

I’ve met fascinating people, lords, ladies, royalty, ridden priceless Marwari stallions, had picnics the likes of which haven’t been seen since the days of the Raj, private dinners in rose petal strews dining rooms, champagne breakfasts, musical performances laid on exclusively for me in the middle of deserts, you name it, you see what I mean by ‘rather spoiled.’ In between all this, I had private guides to escort me, sometimes bore me, the odd brave soul who tried to make me shop but all of whom were there to ensure I got around safely and somewhat better educated on the topic in hand than I’d been before. Have I ever felt alone, threatened, unsafe? No, never, not for a moment.

And this, at a slower pace, and possibly with not quite so much attention, is how the luxury client travels and so, is India safe for solo women travellers, well in this instance, I’d have to say, yes!

Yes, I got hit on occasionally, such is the nature of this industry, but being a woman of very little self-belief, I never took this seriously and have unfailingly managed to fob these attempts of by either ignoring them of laughing in a ‘Me? You’re hitting on me? You’ve GOT to be kidding!’ kind of incredulous hysteria. You may as well have told me I was a Kate Moss lookalike. Preposterous beyond belief, and not just because I’m a foot too short. I have been led to believe that some travel agents/tour operators/tour guides are rather partial to such attentions. However, I choose to leave this there. Each to their own. The fact is, the choice of yay or nay is there.

Since then, I have lived in India for going on 13 years, alone. I have run a lodge in Kanha National Park alone, I have lived in Jaipur and Delhi, alone and I have traveled somewhat more adventurously, yes, you guessed it, alone! Perhaps I’ve been lucky, perhaps I have a ‘Don’t even try it mate!’ demeanour but rarely have I had a bad experience. If anything, being a single white female, I’ve been looked after. When I’ve been stuck, on one occasion at the side of the NH8 after a bus crash, the other passengers took me under their wing to ensure I knew what the contingency plan was and to ensure that I arrived at my destination safely, bus driver skill set permitting.

This was not a one off, many other such occurrences have taken place and in a country where ‘Guest is God,’ this is not uncommon. I once got escorted out of a protest I had unwittingly wondered into in deepest darkest Rajasthan, in an area which did have a reputation for not being incredibly safe, by a man on a motorbike. I’d made two phone calls to friends asking for advice and who both said, ‘What the hell are you doing there? It’s not safe, get out immediately.” At this point, I got out of the car to buy a bottle of water when I was promptly approached by a man who reiterated my friends’ concerns by saying,

‘Excuse me madam, but you shouldn’t be here,’

‘I’ve heard,’ was my reply.

He glanced around and, looking at my car smiled and said, “Is this yours?’ I beamed as proudly as a mum on sports day and nodded in the affirmative. The next one hour saw us having great fun pitting Ambassador car (mine) and motorbike (his) as we hurtled (selective memory) cross country and out of the situation. However, once in safety he didn’t abandon me but insisted on speaking to the owner of the hotel I was trying to reach to ensure that I was on the right trajectory and continued guiding me until he was certain I couldn’t get lost.

However, I am not stating that to travel as a woman is 100% safe in India. As mentioned, it’s my hood, I negotiate it confidently, I have a bravado in my demeanour and I know not to feel that I have to be polite in certain circumstances.  There are various things you need to get used to and ways in which you can help yourselves have a great trip.

  1. Indians will stare blatantly and unreservedly independently or in groups. This I can 100% guarantee. Get used to it and learn to ignore it, you can’t avoid it. Do take note of the fact though that it is done out of curiosity and is very rarely threatening, well, unless you’ve run over someone’s cow. I tend not to notice it anymore, blinkers on and walk straight ahead. But some occasions still stand out in my memory. Twenty years ago in restaurant a five star hotel in Kodaikanal one, obviously affluent, lady dining with her husband was staring at me so hard she kept missing her mouth; at a motorway dhaba in Rajasthan, this time when traveling with two white men, a bus full of locals pulled up and we were immediately the star attraction. Forget ablutions or stocking up on the picnic, there was clearly no point in them continuing on their sightseeing mission, they were going to see nothing more exotic than 3 foreigners drinking cokes and eating bags of Lays. At this point I may have started stuffing Lays into my ear just for the hell of it and often wonder what they made of that. Most recently, just last month in fact, I spent a couple of minutes half-way up a hill, bending down to peer into a hole beyond which there were allegedly caves where sages would stay when on pilgrimage. I straightened up and turned around to discover I’d been giving at least 30 people, who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere, a perfect view of my posterior. This is another Indian phenomenon, it is like magic, honestly, when you truly think that you are in middle of nowhere in India, people (usually many) appear from nowhere. A magic trick even Simon Cowell will marvel at. But it’s not even shall we say, just villagers or the uneducated, I’ve been in shopping malls in Jaipur where young jeans and t-shirt clad millennial have come a cropper at the top of an escalator because they were staring.
  2. Respect the local sensibilities and allow for the fact that many people are uneducated and you are in a culturally different land. I would advocate at all times to dress sensibly, keep shoulders and arms and legs covered up. I always carry a dupatta or a shawl. This is a county where many married men will never even have seen their own wives naked. The only sex scenes many of them will have seen on TV contain only white women. In Indian films, despite erotically charged dances in the monsoons etc, you never see a kiss or a sex scene or naked women. I despair of young girls who turn up in India wearing strappy tops and shorts which are so tight you can practically see what they’ve had for breakfast and then complain that they have been harassed. Now don’t get me wrong, there is never an excuse for a man attacking a woman, but please do THINK. I am not an advocate of women should be able to wear what they want where they want, well I am, but a hell of a lot of education needs to take place in this country first. And apart from anything else dressing conservatively is not only common sense, its respectful!
  3. Be aware and be cautious and be firm rather than polite. Particularly in the bigger tourist destinations, touts are out in their hundreds and they are a clever and wily bunch. I’ve had seasoned travellers taken in by these guys, they are true professionals. Keep on your guard and be vigilant. Do not be afraid to say no, and be firm. The best thing to do if you are approached by touts is not even to make eye contact and don’t do that quintessential British/Western thing of being polite, even a, ‘No thank you,’ is encouragement to these guys. Be firm and be rude if you have to be. Do not feel that you have to be polite. It’s not just touts in cities though. If you find yourself in a situation that you don’t feel comfortable in, don’t panic or show panic but be firm and don’t feel that you have to be polite. I’ve heard of ladies who’ve agreed to a massage in their room only to have men turn up to do it. If it doesn’t feel right, say NO. We don’t like hurting feelings but this is someone you will never see again and your safety is far more important than their feelings.
  4. Choose accommodation wisely. Easy for me to say as the pampered princess of luxury travel to India I know but, over the last 10 years I’ve been a much more off beat traveller and on this trip in particular I’ve experimented. I haven’t called in favours and I’ve tried out a variety of accommodation from budget chains to budget independents to staying with friends in their homestays to five stars to pitching up unannounced knowing that owners are away in charming little boutique hotels. The entire trip has gone without a hitch. In one budget branded hotel in Bangalore I was obviously the only woman staying there, I did noticeably become less open and chatty than I would usually be and ensured that my door was locked and bolted but, this was just common sense, a precaution rather than me feeling unsafe. At breakfast a bunch of noisy 20 somethings immediately quietened down at my arrival and continued to behave. I did, perhaps unkindly, wonder if they would have acted the same if I’d been 25 years younger and more scantily clad.

There is the option to book through a reputed operator. I’ve arranged trips for solo women who have had a great time. I put them in homestays in Delhi where they were taken out to markets, to the local temple and gained an insight into Indian culture, in Agra they have learnt about cooking home cooked meals and in Jaipur sent a horse riding friend of mine to a place where I know the owner is a keen horseman and there is nothing he doesn’t know about the Marwari Horse, a breed we are unaware of in the UK. Choose wisely and it can be a hugely rewarding experience! I think a carefully chosen home stay is a brilliant choice for a solo traveler, but then also you know yourself. You’ll know whether you want to be sociable or not. I love the interactions in these smaller places but sometimes, I want to be anonymous and will stay in a more traditional, international style hotel for this.

  1. You will be regarded as an anomaly and people will be curious.  Most women, particularly in rural India are married off at an early age, it is unusual for Indian women to travel alone. I am close to the travel blogging fraternity and know that there are many adventurous female travelers out there, but still, this is the exception rather than the rule. There are three standard questions that tend to be asked by a driver, by people on a train, people in the streets, you name it: A. Your country? B. Your good name? C. You are married? Remember the no compunction about staring bit? Well, the personal question is phase two of this.  But again, its rarely threatening, merely curiosity and in a country where women rarely are unmarried by their mid 20’s and don’t travel alone, you will be subject to this curiosity.
  2. Overall and in general, use common sense. Would you go wondering on your own late at night in London or New York? Would you risk going into areas you don’t know or are known to be dodgy, would you accept lifts from strangers? No, so don’t do it in India.

Over the last 13 years since living here, I have taken public buses, trains and regularly take autos, I have met some fantastic people. In fact, two of the people I can rely on the most in India are my regular taxi driver in Delhi who I chanced upon once by taking a local black and yellow cab and my auto driver in Jaipur, who rescued me from a braying mob of auto rickshaw wallas (a possibly exaggeration) at Jaipur train station and has been the most faithful guide ever since. I happily recommend them both to all my single lady friends and clients who are traveling.

I’ve stayed in budget hotels as well as luxury with seldom a circumstance arising that I have felt uncomfortable with. As I have mentioned, I do appreciate that I have a bravado that most don’t have, the ability to play dumb with a frightening lack of effort, and tend to be able to circumnavigate most awkward situations with relative ease. These factors doubtless ease my journeys around the sub continent. I actually prefer traveling on my own now, I tend to be more adventurous and meet far more people than I do when traveling with friends when one tends to become more insular. However, without fail, whatever the destination, transport method or whether I am accompanied or not, I always operate with a fair amount of common sense as well as respect for the country, culture and situation that I am traveling in. And that never waivers!

However, this is only my version of being a single lady traveler in India. I started as a spoiled luxury tour operator who initially traveled with the security of a tour operator and local offices behind me.  Then I  moved to India and, having had experience of traveling there used this to help me adopt a bravado which has seen me have few issues.  I have had an extraordinary twenty one years and Iook forward to many many more. I’ve made incredible friends and had fantastic experiences.

Being white can be a huge advantage and it can also (in terms of main destinations where there are a lot of touts) be to your detriment. I have traveled on a budget and I have traveled with female Indian friends and noticed how differently they are treated in some instances to how I am treated. Now, 21 years down the line, also, I am a woman of a ‘certain age,’ no longer a 20 or 30 something and therefore also am starting to be treated differently from how I was when I was younger.   Most recently, I met up with Malini, founder of F5 Escapes, a travel company which caters to the Indian single female traveler who educated me on a whole lot of experiences and factors that I have never had to consider and which was a real eye opener. She is doing invaluable work in this field and I will be featuring her interview in the next couple of weeks.

My summation is that there is no simple category when it comes to being a solo, female traveller. Yes there is a common denominator however, age, nationality and personality are also determining factors. Each single female traveler I am sure we will  have had very different experiences when traveling solo in any country and I would love to hear about these so that a fuller picture of travel is given. I personally have had far far worse experiences in France, Paris in particular, than I have ever had in India or Delhi.  But each person’s travel experience will be unique to them.

But, is travel to India as a solo female traveler safe?  Yes, I think it is but common sense must be used and respecting the local culture is essential.

 

One comment

  1. Great article, friend! Very apt, to the point and humourous enough to engage interest till the end. The right kind of observations and advice. It’s funny you should mention the “magic trick” – people suddenly materialising out of no where, in the middle of no where. My clients never fail to be astonished when they actually experience this “trick” for themselves. Traveling in India can be a truly delightful experience, if we retain simple common sense at all times. “Wisdom is the reward for surviving our own stupidity.”

    Some more tips for solo women travellers here – https://www.worldwideholidaysclub.com/the-best-india-experience/

    Liked by 1 person

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