Traveling Alone in India as a Female
Traveling alone in India as a female can be daunting at times, even for the most seasoned travelers. I thought it would be useful to recount some of my stories and experiences I had. As a female solo traveler who usually throws caution to the wind, I got myself into some sticky situations. I will explain the pros and cons of traveling as a solo female, rather than just telling you “don’t do this” or “watch out for that.” This way you can draw your own conclusions and opinions.
For me, the first and probably the only advantage of being a female solo traveler in India was getting access to more residential areas and feeling welcomed by the locals there. Based on my experiences, the women residing in the residential areas during the day were mostly warm and friendly. They may even ask you to sit down with them! In my opinion, neither a man nor a group would have been approached in the same way that I was as a female solo traveler. This was the main positive aspect (and probably the only positive aspect) that I experienced traveling alone as a female.
Let me begin with my favorite activity in India: walking around with no real purpose or destination. While in Mumbai, I did just that. One day, I came upon a market and decided to try to reach the water’s edge to get some good shots of the Sassoon Docks. On my way, I entered a ‘residential’ area, which I later found out is called the Bhavar Slums.
I walked through the small alleyways and quickly realized I was in a slum; a remarkably clean slum I have to admit. To be quite honest, I got a bit nervous walking through these slums. At first, I felt like I was intruding and it was obviously a poverty stricken area, so I worried that perhaps I would get mugged. As there were mostly only women around, it put my mind at ease and my fears diminished upon this realization. There were many homes with a few shops, but not much sunlight, as makeshift roofs covered the miniscule alleyways.
I soon entered a courtyard-esque area where many women were sitting and washing clothes and making food as the kids played. Once the kids saw me, they immediately approached me and asked for their picture to be taken.
Children at play in the slums
Not as many women speak English compared to men in India because most families tend to educate only the males, but you can usually find one female in a group that speaks English well enough to talk with. One woman in this group spoke some English and she asked my name. We started to talk and I told her that I was traveling alone. Often, when you tell people in India that you are not married and traveling alone, they tend to be surprised. Be prepared for this! You may very well be inundated with questions about why you are not married. Or, if you are married, where your husband is. The ladies offered me some food and after talking with them, I gave her some money for the food and I walked on. Nobody asked for money and it was generally a really nice talk with some friendly female locals.
A family of friendly faces
I walked through the slum trying to get to my end destination, which was the water’s edge. I have to say that I was enjoying observing what life was like in the slums even though that was not my intended purpose. During my walk, I passed many women who were inside their homes and I greeted them and told them about my desired destination. More often than not, I was lost and many of the women had their teenage sons show me how to get out of the maze and to the end of the road and toward the water’s edge. Upon arriving at the end of the road, I saw kids playing on old submarines and the women were again doing their laundry and cooking.
Old, unused submarines/local childrens’ playground
Everyone was very friendly and one of the kids even showed me how to fly a kite, which got caught on some scrap medal. Oops! The view from the waterfront was of some luxury condos and the famous Taj Mahal Hotel. It was ironic how the view from the slums is of the most expensive area in Mumbai.
Slums vs luxury of Mumbai
On my way out of the slums, I noticed people gathering around the limit of where the luxury condos of Mumbai meet the slums. I came closer to see what the commotion was all about. The police were demolishing a family’s house in the slums. The woman to whom the house belonged was crying as she saw her home being taken away from her. I actually just read an article that explained how the neighboring luxury condos’ inhabitants are upset that the slums are encroaching upon their area.
Men tearing down a house. There was a big crowd behind me because the woman who owned the house didn’t want to leave her house at first, which caused a scene.
As I walked down the road, nearly every single person was tearing down their home as fast as they could. It seems that when the police tear down a home, they don’t mind breaking these peoples’ possessions. Perhaps the owners felt that it was better if they tore down their houses themselves, so that their most prized possessions remained intact.
A man who just finished taking apart his home. He moved quickly because the police were headed to his house next.
I observed one elderly woman who was sitting while her daughter was frantically tearing things down. The old lady took my hand and touched it to her forehead as she had a stream of tears running down her face. I desperately wanted to help her daughter, but felt that I would have just gotten in the way. I also considered giving her money, but I worried that she would be offended. In the end, we just looked at each other, and after a few seconds of staring at each other I walked away. I saw such sorrow in her face and I’m certain she saw it in mine, too. I walked away in tears and felt so sad that I was unable to do anything. I still remember this moment and I think it will stick with me for the rest of my life. I look back to that moment with much sadness and regret. To this day, I don’t know the significance of the woman placing my hand to her forehead. I think that it might be meant to bring good fortune.
While in Jaisalmer, I had a similar situation. I stumbled upon a more residential neighborhood and it must have been ‘sweep your front porch’ time as it seemed every woman was outside her home doing this. A woman asked me if I was traveling alone and if I was married, which must have been at least the 100th time I had been asked this, no exaggeration! I said no and the woman asked why I wasn’t married. I replied that I haven’t found anyone yet. By this time, about seven other ladies stopped sweeping and had come over. After much talking in Hindi, the woman replied saying, “These women think that you are very lucky not to be married.” I asked her why. The English-speaking woman didn’t ask the others, but just replied, “Many husbands do not treat their wives very nicely.” After talking with her some more, she told me that all marriages are arranged and that Rajasthan is a very traditional state, where the women must cover their faces before marriage. They are also not allowed to speak with men who are not their husbands or relatives.
A residential alleyway in Jaisalmer
A woman by her front door. The morning hangout place for many women in Jaisalmer!
It was actually very similar to Kashmir, which I had visited at the start of my trip. While in Kashmir I met many very young women, nearly children, who came up to me and started asking me questions as they giggled. This happened numerous times while I was here. This being a 99% Muslim area, most women do not talk with men casually, but with a female, it is acceptable. This was undoubtedly another advantage of being a woman traveling alone in India. I had a great opportunity to chat with the women of Jaisalmer to get an idea of their thoughts and perspectives.
In India, there are female-only train cars and they are a godsend. All the women were very helpful in these carriages. They always told me when to get off the train, as sometimes I traveled at night and it was hard to see the signs. It was particularly confusing because they didn’t announce the train stops. The women never asked me where I was staying nor did they try to sell me anything. So many men on trains will ask you this, tell you about a great guesthouse his family owns, and that he will take you there. Some of these men are extremely persistent and it can be very irritating as well as discomforting. This will be discussed later in greater detail in another blog entry.
A female-only train car
Another female-only train, but not as clearly labeled. It is usually the last or 1st carriage on the train. Just look for all the ladies and you can find the female-only carriage. Not all trains have this. I will tell you more about this later.
Even buying food from female vendors was more pleasant. I remember buying some oranges at the train station from an old lady who didn’t speak any English. She asked via a series of hand gestures if I was alone. I said yes, and she immediately smiled, gave me the oranges, and refused to take my money. Although I ended giving her the money for the goods, this act of kindness is something I will never forget.
The point that I’d like to try to get across is that if I was traveling with a man or perhaps even with other females, I don’t think that I would have had as many of these experiences. Like the woman in Rajhasthan told me, Rajhasthani women are not allowed to speak with men who were not related to them. I think this is rather true for not all, but many females in India. The same is true for Kashmir, where the young females do not typically approach males to ask their name. I think when a woman is alone, other women may feel less threatened and they will be more comfortable approaching the individual, particularly if she is smiling and greets them. Strangely enough, I didn’t feel that I was intruding in peoples’ homes when I walked through these residential areas. It was actually the opposite. Since the women welcomed me into their homes and neighborhood, I really felt accepted. Obviously, if you go into someone’s home and take pictures, it would most likely leave a bad taste in their mouth. I did take a few pictures of some children and one of the slums’ walkways when nobody was around. I tried to be discreet and respectful at the same time.
If you look past the vivid, picturesque façade of India you will see the daily hardships that many women face. For the first time ever while traveling, I felt a sense of female camaraderie with the women of India that I encountered. Although we came up in very different parts of the world, geographically and culturally, I feel that we were able to look at one another’s differences in our existences in admiration and respect. I think it was this contrast in our life paths that created a stronger bond and aforementioned female camaraderie.
I will be forever grateful that I had the chance to travel in India alone as a female. I can remain unmarried and still strive. Whenever I remember the women in my travels that kindly received me despite living in what we might consider such harsh circumstances, I feel so lucky to have met them. They helped teach me not to take the freedoms I have for granted.
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