Isn’t it dangerous for a woman to travel alone in India?
Possibly. Likely. Okay…yes. Given the recent highly publicized instances of gang rape and India’s long history of violence against women in general, I think it is fair to say it’s dangerous. But making generalizations about an entire country or its people is an ongoing grievance of mine. Although I’ve been asked the question a number of times, it would be impossible for me to answer, I can only share my perspective…
on traveling alone…
Sure, there are some risks to traveling alone…but those are also the most compelling reasons to do so. There is a very real possibility that you could become lost and no one would know where to start looking for you. I learned many years ago that this specific type of fear/freedom is the adrenaline rush I crave, so I didn’t take any devices with me – no cell phone, computer or tablet (obviously, that’s not for everyone). I love traveling solo and it is a risk worth taking. I worry more about the risk of not ever traveling alone, missing out on the feeling that I can do anything.
That said, a couple of things to consider when going solo in India:
- Who is going to look after your bag when you use the bathroom? Western style toilets are a luxury, so if you’re like me you’ll devote many awkward moments to trying to secure your belongings while you hover over a hole in the floor.
- Prepare to be pitied. When local people learned I was on my own, they always expressed deep concern and sadness for me. In Indian families, three generations live and vacation together; and upon hearing that I have parents, grandparents, siblings, and a husband they were at once confused as to why the whole gang didn’t come and sad for me that I was away from them.
as a woman…
There’s no sense ignoring that fact that women, whether we’re in India or on the couch in our living room, are more vulnerable than men. Throw different cultures into the mix and who knows what to expect.The scariest travel experience I’ve had so far is getting lost in Prague alone, late at night. I turned a corner and was delighted to see the bridge that gave me my bearings, but that quickly faded when I noticed about six men in their early twenties standing around drinking. My only other option was to try and find a detour, but I’d already been lost for about an hour and for all I knew the next street would be even worse.
At first I scolded myself for judging them – maybe they were just a group of friendly young men who would nobly help me find my way. I think that as women we too often let our perceived obligation to be polite override our intuition. That night, I did. I decided to hold my head up high and walk by them with confidence. Luckily I made it only a few steps before deciding to listen to the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. I ducked into a doorway, heart pumping, trying to think about what to do next. Run? Haha, nope. I’m neither fast nor coordinated. I’m also lost. Act tough? Let’s see, do tough people wear pink satin dresses? Nope. If I only I could create a distraction at the other end of the street and sneak by while they investigated. I watch too many movies.
I’ll never know where this came from, but I placed my purse against my belly, under my dress. I arched my back and grabbed my side with one hand, holding my purse belly with the other, took a deep breath and walked slowly toward them, slightly pigeon toed and wobbly. They noticed me approaching…one need not know Czech to understand the universal language of catcalling. Two walked toward me and my heartbeat surged, but I stayed in over-exaggerated-fake-pregnant character. And an amazing thing happened when they got close enough to see me on the dimly lit street, they looked at each other disappointed, uttered what I assume was a dismissal, and let me pass. I smiled and nodded and continued to wobble by the other four who paid no more than quick passing glance.
By making myself seem even more vulnerable than a lost foreign girl, alone in a pink dress, I was safer than I know I would have been if I’d tried to assert confidence. There’s enough in that for a whole library of analysis, but I digress. Being a woman can be scary anywhere. We have to be resourceful in ways even we don’t understand, but that’s how it goes.
India was nowhere as scary as that night in Prague. In the rural villages I visited, the people were lovely and the men looked after me in a paternal way. They were very respectful, never invading my space or making me feel threatened. They stare relentlessly, which is a little bit alarming; but I soon realized they were intrigued by my pale skin, or the fact that I was alone, or were trying to figure out if I was from Germany or Australia. I would smile at them and receive the famous Indian head wag and sometimes a friendly conversation.
I only visited a handful of cities, with most of my time being spent in Rishikesh (Uttarakhand), Padne (Kerala), and Mandrem (Goa); as such, I’m far from qualified to share my experience on what India is like. I was born and raised in the United States and am far from qualified to comment on that country, either. I can tell you what San Francisco was like in the mid 2000’s, or Eastern Oregon in the 1990’s; but only from my own limited perspective. In India, just like any other country in the world, your safety depends on who you are, where you are, what you’re doing, and when.
My first stop was in Rishikesh, nestled in the Himalayan foothills along the Ganges river. Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of the world, and was also made famous to the West by The Beatles, who wrote much of the White Album at the Maharishi Mahesh ashram. My first morning there I woke at 6am to catch a class at Yoga Vini at the base of the Lakshman Jhula bridge. At that hour I found the city so peaceful I was inclined to tip toe. But that particular day was the Holi Festival, so by 10am there was chaos in the streets. Huge crowds gathered in the squares and on the bridge to dance and throw colours and drink Bhang, a cannabis based drink that leaves them feeling rather happy and a little bit fuzzy. I quickly noticed that the only women in the main squares are tourists, most Indian girls are sensible enough to steer clear of the melee.
I’m glad I went and experienced it, but by early afternoon I’d had enough. A few times I was surrounded by groups of boys who would grab me and push themselves against me under the guise of ‘playing Holi’ which normally includes (lingering and sincere, non-sexual) hugs. I had to stay alert and aware of my surroundings, and found that if I pushed them away and they’d set their sights on the next tourist woman. I was lucky to be there with two male friends and suspect it was the reason the boys weren’t persistent. Experiencing Rishikesh on Holi is like experiencing Amsterdam on King’s Day: one of the best celebrations in the world but a far cry from what the city is like the other 364 days of the year.
Holi was the only time I didn’t feel safe on this trip. The next leg of my trip was a week in Kasaragod, in the South. Kerala is known as “God’s Own Country” in part for it’s natural beauty, but also for the religious diversity. Muslims, Hindus, and Christians live side by side peacefully. I stayed in an amazing resort called Oyster Opera, and was looked after by my wonderful host Mr. Gul. Is it safe? Without a doubt. My entire second week was in Mandrem, Goa, which could have been any other tourist beach town. In Goa I was with a group of about 20 and staying at a nice resort, doing organized activities. Is it safe? Yes – however I think you have to be more wary of people who will take advantage of you. In Kerala I was treated as a guest, whereas in Goa I was, on more than one occasion, a sucker.
I’ve been asked the question many times: is it safe for a woman to travel alone in India? The answer, like most things, depends. For me, it mainly depends on the subtext which is always evident in the person’s tone. Some people ask with curiosity, wondering if they should or could or would. My answer for them is, “maybe not always, but safety should only be one of the factors you consider when choosing an adventure – think about what you have to gain.” Some people ask with a tone of skepticism, they can’t believe anyone would want to, let alone do it. My answer to them is, “no, probably not. You should really stay home.” An answer I see a lot in travel blogs and articles is that “you just have to be smart about it.” But I disagree. Women do have to be extra alert when we travel in India, but unfortunately being smart doesn’t protect women from men – in India, or anywhere else. My answer, to my loved ones, “totally safe! Don’t worry about me!”