If you’re traveling to India…
…And you’re alone, female, western, blonde, or have strange hair in any capacity…
I’ve got a few things to share with you.
1. BE PREPARED FOR STARES. And I mean, a lot of them. And by a lot of them, I mean a SHIT TON OF THEM. I have traveled through Central and South America by myself, and through the Middle East with a partner. Never, in any of my forays, have I received so much attention as I did, alone or otherwise, as in India. I’ve never been to China, Japan, Vietnam, etc, so maybe the attention rivals travel experiences in those parts. I’ll let you all know once I make my way over there.
2. Turbans, hair wraps, and over-shawling doesn’t always help. These are good ways to ‘blend in’, but let’s be real, ‘blending in’ is a bit of a misnomer. Covering exposed skin, wearing loose pants or long flowy skirts are all good ways to attract less attention. But really, there’s no way to hide the extra-fair skin of your face, neck or hands, or the 5 foot 8 inches of bulky American womanhood. My dreadlocks tended to create a Marge Simpson-style pile on top of my head when I turban-wrapped the locks. It drew looks, but it was still better than leaving them exposed.
3. It’s okay to say no to photographs. And trust me, people WILL ask you to pose for pictures. Because the more you say yes, the more others nearby will begin to request photos, which prompts others nearby to request photos…and so on, and so forth. This is a fact I learned the hard way in Vrindavan.
4. The staring isn’t necessarily rude. I mean sure, we might think it is. And after several weeks of unforgiving staring, it even feels rude. Like, viscerally, gut-wrenchingly rude. But remember, some of these people have never seen somebody like you. Don’t take it personally. It’s in our culture to avoid getting caught looking at somebody — ever been on a subway or bus while you people-watched, and then one of those people caught you doing it? So awkward. And mildly offensive. But that’s in AMERICA, where our own special set of cultural norms prevails.
5. Do your research and prepare accordingly. India makes the news for a lot of different reasons, but one of the things I was most concerned about prior to my trip was the prevalence of sexual assault against women. Sexual assault can occur anywhere, at any time. But knowing that I was going to be flying solo for a large portion of my trip, and on top of that, attracting a lot of attention for looking ‘different’ AND as a woman, I wanted to be prepared — mentally, emotionally, AND physically. Luckily, thankfully, I had no issues during my trip. But I helped mitigate the possibility by traveling in 1st class on the train, arranging taxis in advance when I needed to go to the airport or the bus station, and going halves-ies on private cars with a friend when possible.
Sexual assault is not a problem unique to India – but when traveling alone in ANY country, it’s important to be aware of potential dangers and how to best protect against them, to the best of your ability. For some women, this means personal defense skills, carrying mace, never traveling alone, and so forth. For me in India, I did my best to travel WITH somebody when I could, or to otherwise arrange as many parts of the travel route as I could in advance.
6. Interesting conversations are lurking everywhere. One of my favorite memories from the trip through India was my overnight train ride from Haridwar to Delhi, where one of my cabin mates was an older Sikh man who worked as a nuclear engineer. One of his conversation starters was “What god do you follow?” followed by “What do you think about reincarnation?” These are excellent conversation-starters; for people who like to talk about that sort of stuff, that is.
By the same token, one of the classic pieces of advice given to single female travelers is to be careful when younger men try to engage you in conversation. Sometimes, western women are stereotyped as ‘easy’, so it could be an attempt to woo you, scam you, or just get to know you. Who knows? You gotta use your gut when you travel the world, and as a solo female traveler in India, it’s no different.
7. Get a phone. Even if you get a cheap flip-phone with a SIM card while you’re in India, having a phone serves a couple key purposes. It’s a good idea in case of EMERGENCY, and it also makes buying bus/train/plane tickets easier online. My train ticket was originally waitlisted, and I had no idea until my friend informed me mere hours before the departure. She knew because all the ticket updates were coming to her phone, since I had used her number for the obligatory mobile input for purchasing the ticket. Furthermore, I ran into many situations where utilizing the free wifi of a coffee shop or restaurant entailed inputting an Indian mobile number…places like the airport, Starbucks, super-classy malls, etc.
8. Be careful at night. As a general rule, I didn’t go anywhere alone after nightfall, even in Rishikesh where I felt overall much safer and less observed. Coming from a country where I can safely and soundly wander most streets by myself at night, this was a difficult adjustment. It really depends on what area you’re in, as it does for ALL countries. For example, when I used to live in Valparaiso, Chile, and even here in Cusco, Peru, there are parts you know to avoid at night, and other parts that you feel fine walking alone after dark. However, given the general spectacle that could be created with the hair and whatnot, I tried to arrange all my after-dark dealings in the company of friends.
9. Adjust your expectations as much as you can. Arriving to India as open-minded and prepared as possible will go a long way for your first experience. I had a lot of friction at the beginning of my trip because I felt stifled — needing to stay in at night, cover myself up, avert the eyes of men because it might be construed as a sexual invitation, etc. Those things are hard for me adapt to, and it’s just the way I am. I adapted, of course; but the different social standing and attitude toward women in general was a tough pill to swallow. Just being open to going with the cultural flow, wherever that flow might take you, will do a lot to make your trip more pleasant…and possibly less fraught with feminist flares and diatribes (like mine).
Only five weeks in India taught me A LOT about myself as a traveler and seeker. I’m EAGER to go back, and can’t wait to visit more of the country; but I know that when I go next time, I will most likely have a full-time travel partner (hopefully my boyfriend!) to make things a bit easier.
For more information about sexual assault and personal safety in India, check these resources:
Solo Female Travel in India: Is It Safe?, from Adventurous Kate
Sexual Violence in India: Women See Little Progress, from CBC News
Court Convicts Four Men for Sexually Assaulting, Killing Woman in New Delhi Bus, from Huffington Post