Words and photos by Emma Goldrick
India is easy to have a love-hate relationship with.
For someone, like myself, who craves organisation and structure, coming to terms with the fact that nothing will ever go to plan is just half the fun. And travelling as a solo female, the paradox and rush of India enticed me as much as it terrified me. The chaos and complexity of the nation seem organised into a long-existing hierarchy that governs the order and attitudes in the streets. The tectonic shifts between regions and the contrasting lives of individuals create a country of two, united solemnly through the shared earth. Within a nation so heavily polarised—the wealthy and struggling, the ageing and the emerging—my presence brings a third category: modern femininity.
Embarking on a quest across India can be daunting even for the well-versed traveller—let alone for a young female. Despite this, travelling India solo awards you the ability to fundamentally challenge the way you view and approach the world. My time in India fulfilled every cliché I had been told about life-altering experiences and, despite the hiccups, I miss the adventures every day.
Travelling as a solo female in India comes with a myriad of unique challenges. The following are a few tips and tricks I’ve accumulated over time—of course these are precautionary and should not be deterrents!
Put simply, internal travel in India is potluck. Despite this, there are two things to be wary of that will elevate any complications: Taxi Scams and Purchasing train tickets correctly.
One of the most common scams to get tangled up in occurs in the taxi between the airport and your hotel. Often the taxi driver will ask to call your hotel and then explain, with any number of reasons, why he cannot take you there: ‘The road is closed for a festival,’ ‘They are renovating today,’ ‘They are booked out and lost your booking.’ Then he will kindly offer to take you to his friend’s hotel—a booking he will gain commission for. In this likely situation, remain composed and collected (it is important to remember that for the most part people are not malicious; they are trying to make a little more money to put food on the table). This situation can be avoided by claiming you had already contacted the hotel earlier that morning. If he insists on calling the hotel because he doesn’t know the address, simply tell him to ask another taxi driver for instructions. Avoiding that initial phone call can save you the string of countless arguments that will inevitably follow. If your taxi driver manages to call the hotel and claim one of the many excuses you why shouldn’t go there, calmly and politely say that you have already paid for the accommodation and wish to be dropped their regardless, and if he is unable to drive you, you can get another taxi. The threat of lost business will ensure you are taken to your correct accommodation.
The process of booking trains can be complicated, to say the least. Local trains can be booked at the train station—a relatively simple process. Long-haul/overnight trains become a little more complicated to plan because booking online requires an Indian ID card and credit card. At major railway stations, they’ll likely have a separate wing where you can arrange for these types of tickets—but make sure to bring your passport and visa! For smaller stations, it’s often best to ask your hotel/hostel to book trains for you, something they are very much used to complying with. Do not get suckered in by the countless ‘businesses’ selling fake or ridiculously priced train tickets on the outskirts of the station.
As with anything, once you become familiarised with the system it will no longer seem so daunting. My favourite memories of travelling in India include the equally beautiful and surreal experiences you have on the trains and buses. I spent countless hours lazily watching the countryside drift by as I dangled out the carriage door with a book in one hand and a chai in the other. I recall the incredible stories told to me by a young boy I meet on an overnight train I took from Agra to Jodphur—the same boy who woke me up as I was about to miss my stop. I remember the confused laughter as a man put a chicken on my lap as he boarded the overcrowded bus to Udaipur.
Dealing with attention
It sounds trite to claim that confidence is key, however, in India, walking with purposes allows you to avoid unwanted situations. Of course, for the most part, this is precautionary. Nevertheless, it is important to not appear nervous or unsure and thereby make yourself vulnerable. If you are unsure of something, confidently ask someone in a trusted position—i.e. a hotel staff member or a security guard. If you want to veer on the side of caution, you can also arm yourself with some simple Hindi words such as ‘Nahin dhanyavaad,’ which translates to ‘No thank you’. Learning Hindi and practising it with locals was an enriching experience, and drew a more wanted type of attention. It’s through this engagement that you open yourself up to a host of opportunities. In hairdressers in Udaipur, I was practicing my Hindi by complimenting someone on their haircut, which resulted in an invitation to the wedding they were attending that evening!
Being asked to pose for a photo is part and parcel when travelling in India as a white foreigner, and is only exacerbated for females. Grown men, young girls and families alike, will often stop you in the street and ask to get a photo of you or with you as though you were a celebrity. The desire for and purpose of these photos vary depending on who is asking, so it’s important to remember this before idly agreeing to the line of people queuing for a picture.
When I studied in Mumbai, I was told these photos were often utilised for two purposes, both of which made me feel uneasy. Men using the photos as a reference to their ‘incredible night’ with you, or young girls using the photos in an effort to be like you (white…). While the former makes me more uneasy than the latter, the latter shows the unfortunate effects of Americanisation and westernisation, and it is important to recognise your role in continuing this erroneous admiration of white skin. This gives you an opportunity to bridge the cultural gap and, rather than just posing for a photo, complimenting those young girls and dismantling the idea that admiration should only go one way.
- Carry a scarf with you—in many areas (i.e. temples) you will be required to cover your skin. It is also useful to have your scarf handy if you feel as though you are attracting unwanted male attention.
2. Cover your skin when possible—traditionally female clothing in India is quite conservative, so dressing in accordance to this mitigates the attention you are drawing to yourself.
3. If something happens to make a scene—if an unwanted scenario does arise while travelling, make sure you are vocal and draw attention to it. If people are aware of whatever is happening they’ll intervene.
4. Do not bother ‘risking it’—if a situation seems to be risky, i.e. drinking excessively in an unknown area or being alone at night, it isn’t worth the risk this poses to you.