Before I left for my trip last year a friend gave me a piece of seemingly useful advice for my first time in India: “Wear a wedding ring. Tell everyone you’re married and you’ll get hassled way less.”
I thought about this tip for about 30 seconds before completely disregarding the idea. If I spent my time in India lying to locals about a fake husband so that they would “hassle me less”, surely I am then just pandering to the already problematic male/female gender divide in the country? Alongside the fact that I am terrible at spinning a tale, I didn’t want to assume that Indian men are so predatory that any single woman is seen as an opportunity. Or that saying I was alone would make me more vulnerable to unwanted attention or, worse, a sexual attack.
See, India has a bad press for violence towards women but I wanted to give the male population of one of the world’s most populous countries the benefit of the doubt.
So I didn’t wear a wedding ring. I wasn’t hassled by anybody, I never once felt threatened by anyone in India and I found the people there to be extremely friendly and welcoming. They also showed touching concern about me travelling alone quite often – they worried about where I was going next, who would meet me there, and would I be safe?
I answered enquiries about my married status (single) and religious beliefs (atheist) as honestly as I could without causing offence or confusion. And I got asked about them a lot. While it was tough at times to explain to locals that I was ‘unmarried’ (how they referred to my single status) by choice and also why I chose to travel alone, without a companion, I preferred to challenge their views and make them think a bit rather than just fob them off with “oh yes, I’m married and my husband is meeting me at the next town. Oh and I’m a Christian of course.”
I’m in no way suggesting women travelling alone in India should go about aggravating the locals, nor am I saying that every person in India thinks and reacts the same way. This is just an overall picture of the culture in India: women do not travel alone; women are generally married at a young-ish age and do not work unless economically necessary to their family; women are religious.
If you’re coming to India from a developed country you are undoubtedly going to challenge one or more of the above assumptions. Which I see as a good thing – challenging a strongly patriarchal society into seeing women in a different way is necessary. Us solo female travellers are one of the best resources for that.
This being said, safety in India is important and I’d like to share a few tips on how to keep your trip fun and drama-free:
Cover up, ladies
I know it’s hot in the Indian sun. What’s not hot is flouncing down the street in shorts and a singlet. Unless you want to upset a lot of people and get stared at more than a catwalk model. A scarf around the head and lower face is a good way to hide lighter-coloured hair and keep out pollution. Cover shoulders and knees at all times. Even if it’s 40 degrees.
Be prepared for your celebrity status
Indians are a curious lot and many will want to take a photo with you. They are usually harmless and just want to show off to their friends/family. If you feel uncomfortable about being in a photograph, politely decline and walk away. If necessary and possible, use your day-bag on seats to create a barrier between yourself and the person next to you (Indians do not have the same sense of personal space as westerners – this is one crowded country!). Be prepared to make someone’s day in India just by waving back at them.
Beware of the dog
The stray dogs, not the people, are what you really need to watch out for in India. They can be pretty feral, especially after dark. Be aware and don’t walk alone or in quiet places at night. Consider a rabies vaccination pre-departure.
Make friends on every journey
Chatting with the locals on public transport gives great peace of mind when it comes to storing luggage and sleeping soundly on a night train. Even if you can’t speak the same language, smiling is a good way to connect with your fellow passengers.
Be prepared for scams
Scams happen (and not just in India). Research online before you go so you can avoid the most obvious pitfalls. Check out our handy guide to avoiding scams while travelling in India.
Be ready for sunset
Walking alone after dark isn’t a good idea in pretty much any country in the world these days. India is no different. If you get caught out after dark stick to busy areas and make sure there is transport around should you need to get back to your accommodation quickly.
India is one of the richest, most beautiful and welcoming countries I have ever visited. From getting lost in Delhi on my first day and following locals through a building site back to the city centre, to venturing into rural Gujarat where the villagers see about 10 white people a year (boy, were they surprised to see me), travelling solo in India is nothing but a colourful, eye-opening, tasty adventure.