Psssssst! — (If you’re considering traveling to India, whether you are a woman or not, you might also want to read this!)
Before I jump into it, I have to first point out that India is HUGE. Every state you pass through is like a whole other country of its own. Each region varies in dialect, language, culture, and food. Travelling through India is a beautiful experience, but as a solo female traveller, there are a few things I learned about making my way through India.
1. Every region is different. You might not be seen the same way you are in one place, compared to the next.
When you’re travelling, you’ll be “that solo female traveller”, but you’ll be seen and interacted with differently, depending on where you are. For instance, in most areas in the south of India (such as Kerala), women tend to dress more modestly, and shorts and tank tops are not a common sight. Women are also for the most part, treated respectfully and men (aside from staring) don’t tend to interact with women they don’t know. In the northern parts of India however (such as Delhi), women are free to dress however they like and go where they please. However, harassment levels are much higher, and women tend to get unwanted approaches. This brings me to my next point.
2. Check your positionality.
If you’re an Indian native or citizen travelling through your beautiful country, your experience is going to differ from a Caucasian female with blonde hair who has never been to India before. Who you are is going to define your experience, and this includes what you look like.
I myself am Afghan, and so I was able to blend in relatively easily, especially in the north, where people with lighter skin is common. In the south, everyone assumed I was north Indian until I opened my mouth. I used this to my advantage when haggling for prices or trying not to draw attention to myself. I would wear the local clothing, and refrain from speaking unless I needed to and it became a pretty comfortable routine. If you aren’t in a position to blend in however, you need to understand and accept that you will get stared at a lot, and sometimes people will approach you out of curiosity (the audacity! – just kidding), and you must be prepared for this.
3. Sometimes it’s actually better to stand out from the crowd than to blend in.
If you do stand out and can’t do anything about it, use it to your advantage! Blending in is great when you want to quietly observe from a corner, but it can also provide risks sometimes. For instance, as a solo female traveller on a local train, I found it safer if I dressed as a ‘foreigner’ and made it clear that I was not from there. While this caused more stares, it certainly kept me safer.
People who have intentions of harassing or bothering a woman will usually steer away from the loud and clearly foreign person that everyone is staring at. They don’t want to draw attention. While staying in local areas, I was comfortable blending in so I could observe everything and everyone in a natural way. However, I felt safer to stand out while travelling alone; and it definitely worked out for me. Other than very uncomfortable staring, I didn’t have to deal with anything I didn’t want to.
If you need more specifics on dress code, check out this packing guide!
4. People will stare. Most of the time, it’s from curiosity. Sometimes, it’s not so much curiosity as it is harassment (be cautious).
If you’re standing out from everyone around you, it will naturally be the case that you will be stared at.
Travelling in India means lot of staring. It’s up to you to learn to ignore it or self- consciously make your way around and want to die of awkwardness (I was the latter one for quite a few months until I learned to adjust). As a matter of fact, the staring became such a normalized thing for me that when I returned to Canada, I found it weird for a while that I wasn’t getting stared at (#narcissist).
The staring is quite often harmless and is out of innocent curiosity. Everyone wants a look at the foreigner who is awkwardly fumbling around with a dictionary in one hand and google maps on the other, trying to figure their shit out. You gotta admit, it’s kind of a funny sight. Again, this will differ depending on where you are. For instance, Goa seemed like it had more foreigners than it did locals. People staring is not common there. Kerala however, did draw out curiosity from locals, and stares are common, especially if you’re lighter skinned.
5. Always have a safe route and a backup plan in case things go downhill.
In the case that the innocent staring becomes not-so-innocent anymore and starts to lead somewhere uncomfortable, you need to be prepared. Always check your surroundings and be aware of the people and locations around you. When I enter a new location, I scan my surroundings for 3 things:
- Who looks like someone I should be careful to avoid? (this usually entails men or boys who are alone or in groups – better safe than sorry!)
- Who looks like someone I can approach for help if I need it? (this usually entails policemen, security guards, families, couples, elder people, or girls who are alone or in groups)
- if all else fails, what’s the fastest way to leave the area? (be aware of exits, doorways, and main roads/ streets where transportation is available)
Here’s to hoping things never go wrong, but sometimes, things suck and they do go downhill. You need to be street smart, play it safe, always have a plan and don’t take any stupid or unnecessary risks. It’s just not worth it. This doesn’t just apply to those travelling in India; these are safety precautions you should always be taking!
6. Interactions can teach you a lot!
Talk to people and immerse yourself in the experience. Don’t let your fears hold you back and take away from what could have been.
While safety always come first, paranoia and fear should be thrown out the window when it comes to experiences. Always embrace the opportunities you get, as long as you are sure you are safe. Travelling alone as a woman can be a scary and daunting experience, especially for women trying it out for the first time, but it can be an extremely fulfilling and enriching experience, if you let it be.
You are in solitude with only yourself and the occasional friends and people you meet on the road, and everything you experience is yours to enjoy alone. You learn so much about yourself, brave through experiences you never thought you could get through and emerge so much more confident and happier than you ever have been before. Bonus: you’ll have a handful of new skills and a whole lot more stories to gush about with your friends who will probably eventually get annoyed everytime you say “when I was in India” (you know who you are!)
Travelling solo is definitely an experience I would recommend to everyone, whether you are a woman or not.
Most of these pointers can apply to a lot of solo female travelling in various countries, but this piece is written based on my personal experiences of travelling in India.
Remember, always be cautious but don’t forget to have fun and use the opportunities you get!