5 Tips for Any Solo Female Heading to India
So, ever the over-achiever, I did an enormous amount of research before embarking on my first solo trip to India. I jumped on phone calls and talked extensively with girlfriends who had been before, in addition to scouring top travel blogs and sites like TripAdvisor and HostelWorld. Below are the tips I found most helpful – many of which I discovered on my own out in the wild. Enjoy!
1. Cover Yourself.
I know, I know… It’s not the most feminist approach to open up with SHIELD YOUR BODY FROM THE INEVITABLE KNIVES OF THE MALE GAZE, but it’s important to remember that India has a much more patriarchal culture than the Western world. Misogyny is a very real thing, and literally everyone you meet will happily talk to you about their arranged marriages. From the moment I got on my plane from Delhi to Rajasthan, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. A quick jaunt down the aisle to the bathroom meant 30 people staring at me, slack-jawed. Temples and tourists sites are no different. India is a BIG place, and there are loads of domestic tourists from smaller or less frequented cities who want to see all the same sites and palaces as you do but perhaps haven’t seen many Westerners. The quickest way to avoid unwanted attention, sales tactics, and random street groping is to make sure you plan an afternoon of shopping for more traditional Indian garb one of the first 2 days you’re there. Make sure your breasts, shoulders, and legs are covered in baggy/loose fitting clothing. I liked to always carry a scarf and wrap my head up in it to appear even more inconspicuous. Think of it as dress up! It’s hot and quite humid in most parts of India, so the clothes you purchase there will be more appropriate for the climate. Don’t pack too much before you leave, because clothes are cheap as chips there and beautifully made, for the most part. Plus, you get the souvenir of a whole new wardrobe when you get home!
2. Morning > Night
This one I learned by accident but kept it up the entire trip (thanks, jet lag!). Try to stay up as late as you can your first day in India, rather than opting for a nap. Go to bed around 9 or 10pm and wake up with the sun. In almost every city you visit, there will be sunrise yoga, markets, and morning rituals (especially along the Ganges River). The locals are out in full force, and the light beaming through the morning mist is stunning. A simple walk around your hostel’s neighborhood or along the Ganges will put you eye to eye with singing schoolchildren, local women doing their washing, sadhus meditating, and little Brahmin priests in training doing a very silly looking version of yoga. ;) The few times I did venture out into the cities at night, it was cacophonous, crowded, difficult to get around, and full of traffic. Because India is not as developed as what I’m accustomed to, the shacks and vinyl signs marking storefronts began to all blur together at night, making it really tough to find anything, even if your rickshaw driver swears it’s “right down that alley!” Also, it’s worth noting that many regions and cities in India are dry, so alcohol isn’t really an option if you want to go out at night and get wild. I did have one fun walk around Varanasi in the evening, but I was accompanied by friends (and, to be fair, we did get followed by a fake sadhu for about a mile). In my opinion, mornings are where it’s at in India!
3. Stay on Your Toes but Remain Open to Experience.
“You’re going to get raped!” was one of the first things out of everyone’s mouths when I told them that I would be traveling through India alone and without a tour group. The notion that India’s misogynistic culture was pervasive seemed to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Unfortunately, most of the rapes and violence against women that we hear about so frequently on the news involve Indian women. Eve teasing is a bit of an epidemic out there, and it’s a good idea to read up on it here. That being said, I can happily report that I most certainly did not get raped and didn’t even encounter the random street groping that I’ve heard other female tourists complain about. Okay, maaaaybe once someone grazed my boob in a crowd, and maaaaybe the fake sadhu tried to touch my friend’s butt, but it was subtle and I did not feel threatened in the least. From the stories I’ve heard, if a man does try to grab you, especially on a bus or in a public place, shove him back, make a bit of a scene, and make sure that people know that what he did is NOT OK. The crowd will have your back. As I already mentioned in tip #1, I would highly recommend covering up to avoid unwanted attention. Random men will still approach you all the time, regardless, offering you tours or drives through the mountains on their motorcycle. It’s up to you to stay on your toes and exercise good judgment. Be polite, yet firm. State boundaries and ask questions. If you’re one of those people who has a hard time saying no, practice saying no in the mirror before you jump on that plane. You’re going to have to do it. A lot. Carry pepper spray or something small if it helps you to feel safer when walking alone.
4. Take Care of Yourself.
Your health on this adventure is of utmost importance so that you can experience all the colorful ecstasy, unexpected brilliance, and frenetic insanity that India has to offer! Unfortunately, this does mean missing out on a few treats while in the country, but trust me, it’s well worth it. Even my strict adherence to these rules couldn’t stop me from getting a stomach bug! First of all, don’t eat anything that hasn’t been cooked, liquids that haven’t been purified or boiled, or fruit that’s cut or doesn’t have its skin on. Even the oh-so-tempting mango lassis are made by soaking yogurt in tap water before blending, so don’t do it! No ice either. Buy bottled water for 15 cents a liter or bring your own filtration system (I had a SteriPEN with me). Keep your mouth shut in the shower and brush your teeth with a bottle of water too! Whew! I must admit, I nerded out a little on the vaccines, but most last 5 years to life, and I figured it was a good idea if I wanted to take my little tukas on future adventures in third world countries. I highly recommend getting your Typhoid/Diphtheria, Hepatitis A, and Tetanus shots before you go. I heard really mixed things from my friends about malaria pills, bombarded by stories about awful side effects and the apparent nightmares they can cause. I opted yes for the malaria pills, since the fact that it’s an incurable disease freaked me out to no end, and I’m happy I did. If your trip is confined to mostly Northern India, you’ll probably be fine without, but the newer pills they’ve developed no longer cause terrifying dreamscapes, I’m happy to report! Lastly, bring traveler’s antibiotics! They will come in handy when you or a buddy fall ill and don’t want to traverse around town looking for a doctor who can prescribe you some. At the end of the day, though, this is all just precaution to make your trip even more excellent that it’s already going to be. Use common sense and take care of your body. The street chai is plentiful, and it’s nearly impossible to turn down. ;)
5. Planes vs. Trains
Ok, I’m about to unleash an unpopular and potentially bourgie idea. Planes are the way to go in India (am I a bad backpacker?). Especially if you’re on a 3 week or less trip. Here’s why: the train schedule in India is incredibly difficult to navigate. You’re likely to end up number 28 on a waiting list, and then you’ll have to log in and check the website every few hours the day before your journey to see if you even have a seat! Even the first class sleeper trains are small and crowded, and the meal situation is dire at best. Planes, on the other hand, are clean, relatively affordable domestically, leave on time, and get you to your destination MUCH faster. But, if you’re looking to ride a train just for the adventure and sheer insanity that will ensue, read on for my Indian train survival guide. First of all, I really wish that someone would have told me that there’s no dining car on the train, or, if there is, there’s no guarantee that your car will have walking access to it. Instead, people opt to hop off and on the train at certain stations, grabbing snacks at one of the many colorful vendors before the doors slam shut and the train takes off again. The problem with this is that they don’t announce in English how long the train will stay at each stop. In fact, they don’t announce anything in English, so you’re left to befriend your fellow passengers to figure out which town is your destination. I would really recommend buying a pizza the day of your journey and having them package it up in foil or a Ziploc bag to take with you on the train – saves time and stress wondering how or what you’re going to eat! I’d also suggest bringing significantly more food than you think you’ll need. I got stuck on a train in rural India that kept getting stopped and patrolled by men with rifles walking up and down the aisles, turning a 14 hour train ride into a 17 hour train ride (and I only had 1 meal and a cup of chai the whole time). Portable, safe food is most certainly your friend. Also, if you’re having trouble buying a train ticket online (it is by far the most confusing thing I’ve ever done on the internet), you can definitely take a taxi to the train station the day before you wish to travel and buy them in person. Two of my friends snagged tickets from Varanasi to Agra this way with much less fuss than I put my little type-A heart through! Lastly, The Man in Seat 61 is a GODSEND. A must-read for anyone taking the trains through Asia. www.seat61.com
No matter what your friends and family say to try to warn you against traveling to India as a solo female, it can be done safely and on the cheap. Do your research, book your travel/lodging in advance if you’re worried about where you’ll stay, and keep your wits about you! Happy adventuring!