The modern woman is repeatedly told that they can do anything. The point is driven home at every opportunity and they’re made to feel like the world is theirs for the taking. But kit her out with a backpack, hiking boots, send her out with no companions by her side and watch how fast that illusion shatters. Whether 1717 or 2017, women are just too damn fragile to be going out alone, right? Wrong. The prevalent judgement surrounding women learning, experiencing and exploring new places on their own is a sad fact of life.
Women around the world are wary of travelling alone, but this fear is exacerbated the second you hit Indian soil. Whether it’s the lingering eyes or spine-chilling headlines, India has definitely given itself a bad rep when it comes to embracing solo travellers of the female persuasion but we’re here to tell you, it’s not as bad as it seems!
If you’re ready to take the plunge and walk out your door, there’s absolutely nothing to stop you. We’re not ignorant enough to believe it’s all unicorns and candy floss out there - you should be mindful of the culture you’re exploring, stay alert and maybe brush up on your self-defense - probably the same precautions you would take every day. If you keep a level head there’s no reason not to leave the herd in your wake and jet off on your own solo adventure. If you still don’t believe us, here are 10 women who’ve done just that and returned with tales to tell and wisdom to share.
Contributions have been edited for length and clarity.
I. Cheryl Mukherji, 21 || Graduate in Applied Psychology
Travelling is a personal experience and shouldn’t be bound by social construct and norms.
I was 19 when I decided to travel solo for the first time. I didn’t mention it to my parents until I had done enough research about the place I wanted to visit but being a Bengali, West Bengal was not only a safe bet but also had a different kind of nostalgia than what I was used to. I was never raised in Kolkata, but like every stereotypical Bengali child, I was raised to learn Rabindra Sangeet, watch Satyajit Ray’s movies, and hum along to children’s rhymes.
I come from a family of doctors who weigh decisions in pros and cons, rationality and logic. There were short discussions everyday at home for a gradual systematic sensitisation so none of them take it as a shock. I would’ve done this had I been a boy too.
I had only ever travelled with my parents before and they were always short trips with all possible luxuries at our disposal. My solo travels are the stark opposite of this. They last as long as two months at a stretch, with sufficient recourses, healthy and cheap meals; I don’t carry a rigid itinerary, I prefer walking and using public transportation to save costs, carry a bar of soap to wash my clothes myself. And I don’t have to worry about who’s in the plan with me. So the whole dynamic changed for me when I chose to switch from a family traveller to a solo traveller.
Were you given the same opportunities as male travellers?
A lot of times I have felt I have been discriminated against because I was a woman solo traveller. In some places, adventure sports are costlier for women because they “need more assistance” and “more supervision” than the male participants. As a woman I wasn’t allowed to enter some places of faith. Travel agents do not want to take documented responsibility of women solo travellers. Time restrictions and reporting hours to the hostel are strict for solo women travellers, with extra fuss about permissions and signed papers. These are only some of the problems. Men do not have to go through these things. But the larger problem still remains the taboo against women solo travellers due to various reasons that men wouldn’t have to consider before booking their tickets.
I am not very big on giving advice, but as a woman, travelling solo makes one as self conscious as empowered. One is more aware of their weaknesses and strengths. One learns to love themselves without waiting for someone else to do it first. And that makes all the difference.
II. Mitalee Chandwani, 30 || Associate Creative Head
Make it. See more. Do more. Be more.
My first solo trip was 6 years ago. I yearn for the sea and love the water to bits. I wanted to run away to an island and I had to quit my job to do it. With not much money in my pocket, and no one else willing to join me, I decided to just go! A 32 hour train ride cutting across the breadth of the country later I’d crossed 5 states to reach Calcutta. In my 10 days there I found nature, heritage, art (old and new), food and some baul music where I learned to play the khaumuk. From there my journey to the islands began. A 10 day diving trip, turned into 35 days on the islands. I found friends, family, the underwater, the love for slow travels and the loss of fear of being alone.
Reactions were strange. From family and friends, even from fellow travellers. Family found solace (not really) in knowing I was going to a ‘formal institution’ to learn scuba diving (it’s pretty true right). A lot of people on the road couldn’t believe a young Indian girl was travelling alone to the emptiness of the islands. How was I allowed? Wasn’t it a taboo? Aren’t you married yet? Back then the islands were still sparse. There were no proper roads. Huts were far apart, nights were dark and empty. Very few Indians came by, no families. And a handful of travellers from across the world following some tracks.
How did you feel locals responded to your presence?
Honestly, Indians are really nice people. A smile does no harm ever and usually a smile is returned. I’ve hitched rides (on road and at sea), gotten served free meals when nothing else served, gotten protected by an overtly sweet man I was unsure about, had long conversations about life and the after life with fakirs and sadhus, spoken politics, agriculture, environment with a 30 year old pahadi and an 80 year old French sadhu. It’s all about how you are in the environment I guess. The vibes you send out.
I’ve managed to be safe. I’m always more aware of my environment while travelling than at home. I did travel with a pocket knife then but I did also realise wasn’t the smartest idea cause I freeze in tense situations. I’ve turned things up a bit though; a pepper spray, a scarf to cover up at all times, emergency dial numbers on the inside of the bag, are just some things I do. But usually if its going to get dark, just know your way back, or learn to gauge your new friends.
I learned to honestly just be OK with myself. The great thing about travelling solo is you can cut off when you want to. And if you feel like having conversations you just have to make that first move. You are more open to meeting new people by yourself than with a group. You’re having your own conversations in a group. But you share so much more and learn so much more when alone. True sharing of cultures breeds there.
III. Niharika Pathak, 24 || Engineer turned full-time traveller
You are never really alone.
One word that describes me the best is adventurous. I have always wanted to explore the magnificent planet earth, on my own terms. Hence on my 24th birthday I gifted myself the freedom of wanderlust. I had been working two jobs and saving 60% of my salary for two years to take this step. Taking a year long sabbatical to travel was unheard of in my family and the place where I come from. Quitting a super settled job to travel, was super unacceptable. In the beginning, I educated my family and told them about my plan. It was a matter of one heart to heart conversation and they were on board with full support and love.
I decided to split my time between volunteering and traveling. So far, my journey to Everest, has been the closest to my heart. Spending a month in the Himalayas was surreal. I got in touch with my roots and have a very fresh approach to life and generic things post the expedition.
I started my year of solo travels motorbiking through Ladakh. Initially I thought, traveling solo, that too on a bike, would be extremely difficult for a female of a tender age. But finding a group of travelers from all across India, who surprising float on the same wavelength, renewed my faith in going solo. All the fellow bikers were extremely supportive of me, they appreciated my efforts and never did I feel out of place. I had my guard too high in the beginning and they made me feel comfortable. I learned it was safe to let it down.
Next up was volunteering in Amritsar. The place where I was teaching English, the owner told me that I am the only Indian volunteer he has ever had. He was very supportive and gave pointers on how to plan the onward journey.
In Rajasthan - my plan was to go super local. I arrived in Jaipur and took the local bus to Ajmer and then Pushkar for the camel fair. I also went to Kumbalgarh. A seller of local bangles asked me where I was from and upon hearing I am on my own, he appreciated my guts and gifted me two bangles. He said whenever you wear them remember me. He was a true well wisher.
What surprised you most about your journey?
India is and has progressed at a tremendous rate. I have seen locals welcoming solo female travelers into their homes. Indians are very accepting and I have felt love in a tangible way traveling here. I thought that once people found out I am on my own, specially boys, they will try to have a go at me, or make me uncomfortable. That has changed, I have made some great (male) friends on the road.
I thought figuring out railways, buses and planning logistics will be extremely difficult, it really wasn’t. Everything is online and booking stuff is super easy. You do need a debit/credit card, which most travelers have. Yes, I do feel male travelers can do much more than us. I sometimes feel restricted from going out after dark. But I am determined to keep going irrespective.
When I was in Pushkar, demonetization happened, overnight. I had 200 rupees to my name. ATMs weren’t functioning and I had no way to get cash. I shared my problem with the hostel manager and without asking he offered me 2000 rupees in 100 rupees bills. He knew that next day i had to take the bus to Jaipur and the fare and food had to be managed and paid in cash. I repaid him later by transferring money but at that moment when I was five minutes shy of a meltdown he came to my rescue.
You are never really alone.
Along the journey you will find people, soul sisters, who share your thought process, who maybe equally broken and would fall in love with you for exactly what you are. And you will fall in love with them too.
IV. Oindrilla Gupta, 21 || Journalist
Women do not travel to prove they can brave all odds. They travel to seek something.
I left Mumbai on the 4th of September. I went to Mcleodganj, Dharamkot and took the Triund Trek. The Travel bug bit me in June 2015, when I fell in love with someone who has a wandering soul. The first trek of my life was with him, he taught me all the tricks and encouraged me to be on my own and travel solo, at least once.
My parents, especially my Baba was shocked. Shocked isn’t even the word. I think he was crestfallen with the idea of a single girl travelling alone. However, he later gave in because he knows I am a rebel (just like him) What surprised me is that after I reached Mcleodganj, it was my Maa who kept panicking throughout the day and called me at least thrice, while my Baba was all composed. My friends thought I am mad and “Trying to be filmy” But my best friends were excited to listen to all the stories after my return. I had no misconceptions. Only a nervous and a restless heart. My friends did though. On my return they asked me if I had bumped into any Bunny, like how Naina bumped into one in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. Face palming is the only thing I could do. The locals treated me like a queen. Never had I felt that appreciated by strangers. Apart from just making memories, I made a lot of friends.
What do women need to keep in mind before a solo trip?
Research is key. You need to have a basic knowledge about the place you are going to. And thankfully, our generation is blessed with speedy internet facilities. Secondly, act confident. You need to have that bold look on your face when you cross shady gullies, or places that have an air of uncertainty. That will make others feel as if you belong to that place and they will refrain from taking you for granted. Thirdly, use the local transportation systems to commute. They are way safer than cabs. Fourthly, pack sensibly. You already have the weight of nervousness and being responsible. Don’t make your backpack heavy.
I think when it comes to the idea of solo female travelling, it is much more than just women demanding for their rights of being as liberated as men. Women do not travel to show the world that they can brave all odds. At least not me, or the other female travellers I happen to know. All of us, be it men or women, travel to seek something. And as far as India is concerned, I think in metro cities, the idea is gradually sinking in. At the end of the day, it is all about a person’s mentality, and the tourist’s ability to take that leap of faith, which makes him/her a traveller.
V. Priya Krishnamoorthy, 35 || Arts Manager
Do not fear the unknown
I was 17 when I first travelled solo. It was just a train journey from Mumbai to Chennai. Although, I had people dropping me off and picking me at the two different stations, I discovered I could travel on my own, without fear or company. I recently travelled solo to Assam. I couch-surfed, lived in run-down hotels, lodges and home-stays. In Guwahati, I stayed with a male couch-surfer. He was curious about my travelling solo. ‘How do you know if you will be safe at my place?’ he asked. It was a valid question. I said, ‘I always see what others travellers, particularly female travellers, have to say about a host.’ It is true. I always look at references when I engage with a community site like couch-surfing or Air BnB.
I enjoy the local experience. Therefore, I seek out hosts, travellers who adhere to the travel code. It means respecting the other’s space. Travel sites are not dating websites. You connect to support and facilitate travel. Nothing more. Further, as a solo female traveller, it is only fair that I acknowledge and appreciate the time and help offered by a host without crossing any imaginary boundaries. Someone else’s home is not yours. It is also not a hotel. For example, I try not to stay out too late, create a mess or be intrusive.
I also enjoy travelling without an itinerary. It is a challenge especially when you are a female traveller, for there is comfort in having things in place. Recently, while I was in Guwahati, I tried planning my onward itinerary to Majuli, a river island in the north of Assam. On reaching Jorhat, a town known mostly as the transit point to Majuli, I decided to stay put for the day. I had no hotel bookings, no clue where to head and my phone was on the verge of losing battery. I turned to my host from Guwahati, my friends, his friends for help. They all did. Eventually, a distant cousin of a close friend’s husband’s friend took me to a lane packed with budget hotels. I hopped a few places. Then, settled on a small room with a clean bathroom, available for all of Rs 500/- per night. I called up a local, a friend of my host from Guwahati. He generously offered to take me out for lunch to a small restaurant that served the local fare. This outing turned into a three-way, three hour discussion on the local cuisine, recipes, and ingredients with him and the restaurant owner. As a solo female traveller, it is also important to be just a wee bit ‘besharam’ as I call it. When you need help, there is no shame in asking for it. If you seek an experience, why shy away from going after it?
What have you learned about yourself during your travels?
While I have travelled solo in India, there are just a handful of places where I feel completely at ease. Orissa, Maharashtra, Ladakh, parts of Kerala and Goa. Most areas that see international travellers are generally safe for solo women travellers. I recently discovered that I could travel solo in the North Eastern states. I can blindly travel solo in Himachal Pradesh where I have found the locals being extremely supportive of solo travellers. There a few things you live and learn.
When I first started travelling on my own, I thought I could never go beyond a few days in India. Over the years, I find it incredibly safe to travel in India or outside of it if you remain sensible and stay away from judgement. I always thought it might be difficult to enjoy my own company. It was hard at first. The more I travel, the more I have begun enjoying my own company.
When I am travelling solo, I coax myself out of my comfort zone to step out, ask questions, have conversations, smile often and reserve judgement. Mostly, it involves keeping fear at bay. Fear of being attacked, abused, judged. However, it is also incredibly rewarding to put yourself out there. I involve myself more deeply in the landscape around me. Travelling solo also changes the way you look at the world around you. It brings in more awareness, more compassion and boosts your confidence. And, you carry this with you even after your travels are done.
VI. Rashi Arora, 24 || Documentary Photography
‘Travel is never a matter of money, but of courage’- Paulo Coelho
As an individual I feel the need to travel solo as every journey that I take enhances a fresh perspective and self motivation in me. Vivek Express as a project came to my mind the last year when I was studying in London. I had decided to document this journey as a part of my final dissertation as this was also going to be exhibited for the final show. Vivek Express is the longest train in India which covers 4273 kilometres in 85 hours and 5 days. The train begins from Dibrugarh in Assam and ends in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu. It crosses 8 states and has 57 stations in total. The reason to do this project was to experience the positives as well as the negatives of this journey in every way that people faced during travelling in this train. For my love of confined spaces, I wanted to experience living my days in that space for the 10 days to and fro that I was going to do as I had planned to do this journey twice.
How was prolonged train travel different from standard backpacking?
People in India especially in the remote villages are still of the opinion that women are better off staying at home. In this train people were stuffed as they had no reservations, they were travelling with unconfirmed tickets and it looked exactly like a fish market. People were stunned to see me alone especially in the general and sleeper compartments as they couldn’t accept the fact of a woman being so independent and travelling all by herself. They did ask me strange questions like how could my parents agree to let me travel alone, why I didn’t have a man to accompany me, the reason of why was I documenting this train and what would I do of the images, how could I leave my luggage all alone, etc. I did reply to them, some understood but still I could read their minds and understand their facial expressions that they wouldn’t agree to my facts.
Vivek Express as a journey has been special to me as on this trip I have learned two things which were very important - self motivation and patience. I strongly feel this journey was necessary for me as a solo traveller as when in a group your mind gets distracted in various things and it’s impossible to focus on your work, it becomes more of a leisure trip than a work trip. As Thomas Jefferson quotes “One travels more usefully when alone, because he reflects more.”
VII. Shivani Shivkumar, 24 || Freelance Stylist
Don’t let yourself FEEL like a single female traveller.
Recently, I took a trip to Hampi, a temple town in Karnataka. This was one among my 13 other solo trips. Hampi is a beautiful village in and around South India, an overnight bus ride is the top option to get there. The trip began when a friend handed me a polaroid from his visits to the South. People often tag women travelling unsafe but my family has been quite liberal and easy going with me and my brother.
I did face some travel troubles, like when you board a bus from Hubli to Hampi the bus conductors can look vexed all the time. Language is one trouble,if you’ve been to Karnataka you’ll know. It’s not Hindi or English only sign language works!
What did you enjoy most about your travels?
Well, India is getting there slowly, I think the culture developed over years is so strong that new age activities will take only little more time to be adapted by whole of a nation. Women are still restricted from travelling alone or late.
The cherry on top of this dismal cake is that when you’re travelling alone you meet interesting people, you explore places alone, you stay independent of expenditures, you find so much time for self-reflection, you find amazing local foods, you are the master of your travel routes and you can sleep in your chaddis!
When I took my first solo trip I was scared I might be misguided or stay lost in a unknown area but, yes I was younger and quite probable to feel so then, now I know just how to route it. For women who haven’t haven’t taken a solo trip, pack those haversacks and set off.
More travel, more learning.
VIII. Sonia Suresh, 28 || Student at UCLA
Don’t plan too much. Your best guidebook is other travellers and locals.
I travelled around India from December 2015-July 2016. My trip is pretty atypical than many of the other European/American travellers I encountered. I first started in Bangalore for some family weddings, went to Mumbai for another wedding and then travelled extensively through both the North and South of India.
I knew I wanted to go alone from the start. I had done some solo traveling in South America the previous year and really enjoyed the freedom and ease of travelling alone.
My parents were initially horrified because I was going to quit a good job and take an undetermined amount of time “off”. However after explaining how I was going to get my affairs in order before I left (namely applying for grad school) they were onboard with the decision. I was told story after story of all the terrible things that happen to people in India, often people would go off on tangents unrelated to travelling. I got the feeling that many Indians are, sadly, deeply mistrusting and fearful of their own country.
While traveling, many locals were confused by me. I look Indian and I often wore a kurta and bindi when not in touristy places. However I don’t know Hindi and my mannerisms and accent are very American. My giant backpack was a giveaway as well. I was always treated with kindness however. Many people went out of their way to help me, from people giving me motorcycle lifts to bus stations to offering home cooked meals.
Did you always feel that India was equipped to deal with female travellers?
I encountered many more solo female travellers than I had expected to. I felt like there were informally a lot of people who were looking out for me. For example, many bus operators would put me on the seat behind the bus driver. There are many female only spaces that I was not expecting to encounter like train cars and waiting areas. With more and more hostels opening up, its easier to meet people then perhaps in the past when hostels were less common. It was quite easy for me to meet other travellers. Like I mentioned earlier, I think the mainstream rhetoric maybe doesn’t encourage it but within the travel industry I found it to be a fairly welcoming space for solo females.
I learned a lot about myself, I had a lot of time for reflection, reading and writing. I was able to develop confidence in my traveling skills. After traveling in India, I feel like I can easily travel anywhere. I was able to have certain experiences I may not have had in a group where we would have to come to a group decision about where to go, or which activity to do. I was able to meet a lot more people because I had to put myself out there and strike up conversations with strangers. I met some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met while on this trip.
IX. Soniya Kanchan, 23 || Freelancer - Digital Media
Don’t let the fear guide you, let it be your instincts.
In May 2017, I finally got to make the trip I’d been planning for over a year, a solo excursion to Mcleodganj. My parents had no opposition to the idea, in fact they were very supportive. Unlike, the other trips I’ve taken, there were a lot of things that needed to be considered in this one. I had to take care of a lot of things, safe transport, safe stay, the budget constraints. And I could only go out during specific times since I was still wary of travelling alone.
What advantages do solo travellers have over groups?
India as a country is quite judgmental, specially when it comes to an independent woman. Mcleodganj as a place is quite safe. I felt great warmth there, although I went at a time where there was a lot of tourist and I was more scared of them. The tourists there were mostly travelling in their own cars, playing loud music, drinking and walking in the street which was a scary situation but I did not encounter any specific issue.
I thought, it would be difficult getting a room, it was not. I thought I might be misguided to places but I did not face any issue. And I thought it would be ordeal for myself which was not the case. By going alone I found I had so many more opportunities to do exactly what I wanted to do. From the restaurant I chose to eat at, the dishes I sampled, the amount of time I could actually give to a place I wanted to see. I could even see the same place over and over again if the mood struck me, it was liberating.
X. Supriya Suriyanarayanan|| Interiors Contractor
I feel strangers are more often exceptions than the norm. They’ll always surprise you.
I gifted myself a camera to try my hand at photography. I’ve been fascinated with Rajasthan for as long as I can remember and it seemed like the ideal place to give my camera a workout. While I’ve traveled alone for work often, this was my first solo leisure trip. This was around the time when there were a spate of women-related crimes and it seemed like like that was all we saw in the news. We read about a female tourist who was raped near Jaipur and my husband was quite concerned with me choosing Rajasthan as my first solo travel destination. I heard similar concerns from almost everybody who heard about my trip.
Do you believe India is ready for the concept of solo female travellers?
While think the concept of solo travel (more so for married women traveling without their husbands) is definitely alien to a lot of folks outside the cities. However, the acceptance of solo female travellers seems to have increased in the past two years, since an increasing number of women choose to travel alone or with women-only groups. I wouldn’t call this a whole-hearted acceptance, but more of a “I’m not going to understand this concept” acceptance.
There were a couple of small-ish instances when I felt a little vulnerable - one was with a rogue auto driver who kept deciding where I should go and the other was when there were a group of guys in a car who followed my auto home. Both instances occurred later in the evening. However these are instances I could have faced back in Bangalore too, so that says something about the safety of women in our towns and cities. I trust my gut. I know this sounds like a vague thing to say, but if your gut says something feels off, it’s probably right.
And err on the side of caution, at least until you gain confidence traveling alone. We can’t live in fear of going to new places or worry about the intentions of all the people we meet and our instinct will help us differentiate between what feels right or wrong. Though I’ve had to be wary I learned how easy and rewarding it is to connect with strangers and how much more immersive travel can be if I travel alone.
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