Surviving India's Big Cities as a Solo Female Traveller
So, as you probably know I’ve just spent 5 weeks in India as a solo female traveller. Actually, only one of those I was truly on my own as I was going my yoga teacher training for the first month in Rishikesh. After that I travelled the Golden Triangle for a week by myself. To be honest it has felt like one of the longest weeks of my life. I am satisfied and exhausted in equal measure but I truly believe that being by myself has been the main reason for that. It’s not easy being a female by yourself in India, but it’s also very rewarding. Here are my tips for surviving in India’s big cities:
Get a SIM card
I read a lot in advance about how tricky it is to get a SIM card in India as a foreigner and it did put me off. I spent my first month in India in one town, with easy access to wifi everywhere and was really spoilt. As soon as I left Rishikesh I knew I should have taken the trouble to get a SIM card. Everywhere else I went I always needed one to book a train or bus online, to connect to any ‘free’ wifi in cafes or airports or even just to have wifi to google ‘good places to eat round here’ so I didn’t need to keep going back to my hostel when I wanted to find a nice café to escape the intensity of India’s cities!
If you’re staying in India longer than a week, or are travelling around a lot I would recommend taking the time to get the SIM – India is hard enough to achieve things in, let alone making it harder for yourself!
Wear a headscarf
It might seem extreme but every time I went out alone in India’s big cities (apart from New Delhi) I wore a headscarf. Just a simple thin cotton scarf which I threw over my head and shoulders; but it had so many benefits! Firstly, it protected me from the sun, secondly it protected me from more hassling!! I still got hassled, but I noticed that the hassling was less intense, frequent and aggressive when I was wearing the scarf compared to when I was not. It gave me the confidence, particular when paired with dark shades, that I wasn’t sticking out like a sore thumb!
Download Google Maps Offline or Maps Me
SIM card or not, everywhere I go when I travel I download the city area offline in Google Maps before I arrive. This gives me the confidence to know that the taxi or tuktuk driver is taking me in the right direction, lets me know how far things are so I can barter harder, and I even used it to check that I was getting off at the right bus/train station when the signs were all in Hindi or there were no signs at all!
Other travellers I met used Maps Me which I think works pretty well too – entirely your preference!
Walk with purpose
Aided by Google Maps or not, always walk as if you know where you’re going, even if you don’t! The ‘Hello, hello, madam, madam’s are easier to shrug off if you act like you’re heading somewhere specific. It also helps deter those who want to offer their assistance to help you find your way, via their friends chai shop or jewellery store…
Say ‘No Thank You’
I’ll be saying this in my sleep for the next few months after spending 5 weeks in this country! A polite, but firm ‘no, thank you’ and a purposeful walk usually made most advances from tuktuk drivers, photo requesters and salesmen disappear fairly quickly. If needed, a shake of the hand usually did the trick too.
I met a few people who would look at the item they were selling first and then say no; it didn’t work. Neither did saying ‘no…sorry’ as they just tried to play more on the guilt that the ‘sorry’ portrayed. I never met anyone who was aggressive with their ‘no’s and certainly wouldn’t recommend that; these people are just trying to make a living after all.
Say goodbye to personal space
With that many people living on top of each other, the roads and the pavements seem to operate laws which only natives seem to understand. Namely, if there’s even an inch of a gap, then it’s fair play to drive, walk or sit in it. People will walk/drive towards you and expect you to get out of the way, they’ll stand in a group blocking an alleyway and completely ignore you standing there waiting for them to move, or worse, they’ll just walk that little bit too close to you.
Mostly the answer is; get used to it. But of course, use your instincts; if there’s someone walking a bit too close and it’s really making you uncomfortable, then just cross the road, or make them know that you see them. Usually they’re just curious to see you up close as a westerner, and get scared off when they see you’ve clocked them!
One final word on personal space; and that’s the request for a photo every five minutes, or worse still, a secret photo of you disguised as a selfie or some other scene where they just so happen to catch you in the background. It annoyed me, so I always held my hand up to my face or turned the other way when I saw this. When people asked for photos it was mostly a polite but firm ‘no, thank you’, unless it was a kid or a nice-looking lady who said please.
Not everyone is trying to get something out of you. It might be hard to believe after your first few days in a big Indian city, but I found that when I trusted people who tried to talk to me, I actually got a lot out of it! There was the man who had very little English who helped me get on the right bus in Jaipur. He had the biggest grin and very little teeth and approached me on a day when I was not in my best frame of mind (India-belly – thank you) but I soon realised that he was harmless, and actually, despite our very limited conversation, without him I might have given up waiting for the bus and wasted a valuable 150 rupees on a tuktuk that day!
Put yourself out there
You’ve read it before, but I’ll say it again. Travelling India solo (especially as a girl) can be tiring! It’s overwhelming to the senses and I found myself exhausted in half a day in a big city. Not only are you soaking up everything you can about the places with your senses, but you’re also on high alert for scams and secret photos and not getting mown down by a rogue scooter driver. The same day that I got the local bus thanks to the toothless man I had had enough of touring forts by myself by midday. I was going to quit and hide out in the hostel for the afternoon when I noticed a Portuguese couple who were staying at the same hostel as me. I approached them (so unlike me back home – not wanting to invade someone else’s space or time!) and they said they were heading to another fort. I (also unlike me) invited myself along and ended up having the most pleasant afternoon with them, and even got to see this Step-Well which I didn’t even know about and take my favourite photo of my travels so far!
Moral of the story; just when you’re about to give up, push on forward, put yourself out there and it will pay off!