I have travelled to several countries in Asia alone and have felt safe, when I was there. But I have been to India on my own – in fact lived there for six months, and I know it is not that rosy all the time. Eve-teasing (Strangers start making cat calls as you walk pass) is all so common. Following the widely publicised cases of rape in India, it is only natural for women to give up travelling to India, especially if they are alone.
When you are in a foreign land alone immersed in a culture that is so unlike your own, it can be quite unnerving. But I found the experience in India to be very rewarding and I strongly believe that women should not let fear stop them from discovering what India has to offer.
I have included the top 10 tips for travelling solo in India. But always remember – no amount of guidebooks, travel advice and tour guides can keep you safe. It is common sense that will carry you through.
1. Read, research and talk to people who have been there
Before you step out into the streets of India, do the necessary research. It not only helps with planning an itinerary, but having a clear direction in mind gives you the confidence while travelling without appearing lost and vulnerable. For instance, blogs and forums give you the first dips into the security situation of a place, and you can access that information even before you fly.
- Tripadvisor provide a variety of reviews that can help you make a decision.
- Speaking to friends who have embarked on a similar trip is the best way to get first-hand information of the destination.
- Women Travel Blog has some great resources
- Women Travel the World has some excellent local guides and tour operators who are women.
Most importantly, a savvy female traveller is less likely to get hit on and get harassed. You will also know when someone is lying to you, and that is enough to set the alarm bells ringing.
2. Make friends and talk to locals – families, rickshaw wallas and Indian women
This applies to all places, not only in India. Locals will be able to share with you stories and security related developments that happened recently. They might be able to advise you whether a certain place is safe, or if it is fine to head out during the later hours of the evening. Apart from security related matters, they usually have the best recommendations for food, sights and activities.
3. Wear the local dress
Purchasing the local Punjabi dress (Salwar Kameez) not only ingratiates you with the locals, but it is a sign of your local knowledge. If it’s too bright for you, you can match the Salwar Kameez with jeans. Most people buy the Salwar Kameez with a local friend and it is a sign that you know someone local in the city. It is the first deterrent to any bad hats lurking around.
4. Learn the most common key words of the local language
In India, English is sufficient to get around, but it always helps to know a few basic words of the local language of the state you’re visiting. For example, if you intend to hop around North India, Hindi will come in useful. If you’re travelling in Tamil Nadu, learn some Tamil. It always helps, be it when you are looking for directions, haggling and or just having a polite conversation. It shows people and potential felons that You Know Your Stuff.
A few key Hindi words would be “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Thank you”, “Left”, “Right”, “Stop”. Also learn your numbers, and tens! I found that to be very useful, especially as certain areas in India such as Gurgaon and Chandigarh are demarcated by Sectors. I used to stay in Sector 31.
5. Avoid staying out late
During the six months in India, I tried to avoid staying out later than 7pm. Reason being, when it gets dark, you tend not to remember the route home so easily (that’s for me), and the opportunities to request help from decent people such as families and students are greatly reduced.
In the winter months of November to January, the day gets shorter and gets dark before 6pm. Try to be back at your hostel or hotel by then. I know it can be a bummer to go back too early, but it is always easy to keep yourself occupied at night, be it indulging in a good book or watching an old Bollywood movie on cable. For a late night meal, head down to the cafe of your guesthouse or hotel – it is safer there.
6. Avoid deserted areas
Remember, a lot of safety rules that you would use in your home country can be applied while travelling aboard. Stay clear of deserted areas as you cannot ask for help when you need to. If you are being followed, go into a shop, and try to exit via the back door. If not, take a walk round the various bazaars, and make sure you don’t return home unless you are very sure that the person following you has gone.
7. Be alert on public transport
The recent shocking news about the Delhi rape case has shattered the world’s impression of the safety of India and its public transportation.
The truth is, such horrors have happened before, the only difference is that this time it has happened to a college graduate, in the most brutal of manner. I was personally threatened while on a long distance night bus back from Dehra Dun to Delhi.
To me, it is fine to take the metros and buses in the day, to the more busy locations. But as a solo female traveller, avoid night buses – it is mostly full of men, and even if there were ladies, they are accompanied by their brothers, boyfriends or husbands.
As for long distance buses, it is your call really. Always sit on the seat closer to the aisle, so you can get out if you feel uncomfortable. If you are uncomfortable, tell the person that you are, in clear, fluent English. You can complain to the bus conductor too, in a bid to shame the offender. A man sat very close to me before on the bus, and I felt very uncomfortable. I told him politely in English, and he shifted to the side for the rest of the journey.
Before you board the bus, take note of the passengers in it. If it is full with families, old people and village women, go ahead. In the event that it is filled with young potential thug looking men, take the next bus, or the train instead. Trains are usually safer than buses, especially if you purchase the upper class AC tickets.
The metro in Delhi comes with a Ladies only compartment, and that saves the hassle of getting brushed by strange men which leaves you wondering if it was on purpose or not.
8. Don’t share (too much) with strangers
Indian men are very pro-active, and I find myself getting approached by travellers at railway stations, on the bus and even at KFC. I think it is fine to share information about your country, or current news affairs, but avoid telling too much about your travel itinerary. Never say that you’re alone. If you have to lie, say that you are staying with a friend, and he or she is busy at work to bring you around. Try to avoid meeting the “second time” if he suggests showing you around, unless you both really share a connection.
Remember, you can never tell if a sheep is masquerading as a wolf on the first look. Trust your instincts but don’t get complacent. It’s always better to err on the side of caution.
9. Guard your drink, in the presence of strangers
Checking out the nightlife scene is fine when you are alone. But the same rules apply to any expedition to a nightclub. Be watchful of your drink, never take a sip from a glass that you have left unattended for even a minute. Drink for a bottle, and watch your limit. You want to return to your accommodation, sober and solo at the same time.
10. Adopt a no-nonsense attitude when you have to
Not all of us were born strong, or have the courage to tell people off. When you feel that your well-being is being compromised, be it somebody who is molesting you or even standing too close, be sure to advise him politely. Most of the time they will move away.
Never be aggressive, but don’t be afraid to fight for your rights when you have to. Women should not suffer in silence, but neither should they be too aggressive that it ends up stirring up unwanted trouble for themselves. The key is to strike a balance.
Don’t Let Fear Stop You
India is a great place to travel to, if you don’t want to take yourself too seriously. There are thousands of lovely places to visit and most importantly, there is a stream of nice, gracious people waiting to be discovered. It is a country that you can fall in love with. For all the discomfort and insecurity she brings, there is a steady stream of smiles that awaits you in India.
So don’t let fear stop you from that.
Written by Phebe The Travelling Squid
Phebe is the author of The Travelling Squid, a travel blog filled with tips and anecdotes of her “career of travelling”, which began at a tender age of 19. Despite having been to many top destinations, India continues to remain as Phebe’s favourite place in the world. Phebe has a bad sense of direction but continues to travel, sometimes alone because of her quirky habits and intensely inquisitive mind.