A young woman photojournalist shares her experiences of travelling solo in India, along with some important tips.
In India, I may be nothing but a fool to suggest that Indian women should travel alone. Your parents and mine will not approve of what I’m about to say, neither will your relatives, your professors and maybe, even your friends.
I’m a young photojournalist, living in Mumbai and have travelled alone in and outside India. Last month, I decided to take a break and go to Puri in Odisha; the Rath Yatra would be in full swing and it would be a great time for me to do some street photography. I was nervous getting on the train, but I settled into my general class sleeper and mentally prepared myself for the 38-hour journey. As luck would have it, a group of men occupied the sleepers around me and my mother had warned me about picking fights with staring men. I decided to take her advice and ignored the vulgar staring for the two days and nights on the train.
As the first day passed, a few men got off the train and as luck would have it again, a woman with her family werein front of me now. I befriended them, we shared food and conversation and all of a sudden, I felt much safer. By then, the entire compartment was aware that there was a young woman traveling alone and several men passed by just to take a look at this uncommon specimen. My knife stayed in my pocket through the night. I checked into my hotel in Puri and the hotel manager was flabbergasted that that I was there alone. He tried questioning me about my ‘husband’ and what kind of work I did. I took a safety call and lied that friends would join me in a day or two and that I was there for work. I, also, made a fake booking for my imaginary friends. For the next couple of days, I wandered through the streets of Puri, on its beaches and waded through the thousands of pilgrims with my camera. On one occasion, I had a man follow me around so I walked towards the nearest policemen in sight and stood next to them, pretending to wave out to my imaginary friends. He disappeared. The truth remains that, besides the lascivious staring, I had no major problems.
In the past, I have landed up in Nepal on a whim and never have I refused an assignment for fear of travelling solo. More danger lies in not taking risks. You and me will have many friends who will project an extremely independent and liberal outlook but will not dare to take even an air-conditioned bus to the nearest city. Don’t wait for them. At the end of the day, if you really love travelling, don’t let the ogling, excessive safety measures or the need to make imaginary friends stop you. You will realise that there is no better safety net than following your instincts, and listening to your instincts only comes with practice. I have always chosen and enjoyed travelling cheap, so I have no problems with second-class compartments, dhaba food, dormitories and tap water. Don’t make financial excuses for not being able to travel.
It is extremely rare to find an Indian woman travelling alone in her country and nobody is to blame because nobody does it. So, when you do, it will seem like the entire railway station came to a standstill when they noticed you with your backpack. Make sure you research routes, maps, transport, accommodation and important phone numbers before you get to a place. As much as I hate to say it, it’s important to dress appropriately and blend in with the locals. Keep a knife or pepper spray with you, if that is what makes you feel safe. My basic training in Muay Thai and Wing Tzun makes me a little confident of being able to defend myself against an attacker so, a course in self-defense or martial arts may help your confidence but most women travelers you will meet will have no training.
You are taking a big risk by traveling alone, especially in India, but you will make new friends, you will meet strangers who will look out for you and you will understand that the world can be much kinder than it is made out to be. It doesn’t have to be a fifty-hour train ride across the country, it could be a music festival that’s three hours away, that you’ve always dreamed of going to but you couldn’t find friends who could accompany you. Leave them behind.
Remember: When you, as a young Indian woman, decide to step out of your house alone, you are not just setting a precedent and inspiring women; you are also taking a stand and proving that it is possible and acceptable for an Indian woman to travel alone.