Monday, May 20, 2013

Solo Female Travel In India

Travel in India, on my own, and as a women, was one of the toughest, most challenging, and shock-inducing experiences I have had as a traveller.  I described it to a friend over drinks as sometimes scary, and she reckons I have never referred to anywhere as that before. The chaos, the frustrations of things, and the smells and grit were full on – but that was nothing compared to the treatment I felt simply because I am a woman.

Being a pretty independent traveller, this trip was one of the first times I seriously counted down til I was back with the group. I went to Kolkata on my own, recharged with the group in Chennai, and then ventured out on my own again for a couple of days in Mumbai.

When I was travelling with Dave and Fi, or any of the other blokes in the Flagger group, both Fi and I were completely invisible and seemed to have no voice in the interactions – Dave needed to negotiate, make decisions and give direction for all of us. No driver or vendor even gave us a glance for such things. Because we were women.

This is something that you hear about, and read about, but nothing really, fully prepares you for the experience of it.

Of course, when I was by myself, and clearly the person to pay, the men had to deal with my requests and bargaining. With my directions, and questions. Male taxi drivers, or food wallahs would then serve me, but would show their reluctance at having to deal with a woman.

They certainly did not change tack like this for an Indian woman, incidents of such treatment we witnessed all the time. I remember being at a food stall at the cricket behind an Indian girl in a sari, trying to order her lunch. The vendor served everyone around her, each new man that would approach the stall, and then looked past her to take my order. I had her ask for her lunch, before I asked for mine, otherwise she was completely invisible to them.

One of the other elements of travel in India as a woman, a white woman, was the staring. We were constantly stared at by the men around us, walking past us. Watched and photographed at the cricket. Asked by men and families to pose in photos with them. Pretty unnerving at times, creepy at others. I have never had my boobs stared at so openly before! Keeping our sunglasses on as we left a cricket game, or around some of the touristy sights, helped me feel like I could ignore the stares, and that helped me stop worry about them.

I would hate to think what they do with the photos. Although they were never that excited about me taking a copy of the same photo on my camera. The first photo on this post was taken by the woman's husband, who was none too pleased at the request to take one for me. She was lovely, though!

The worry about safety when I was on my own was another major feature of this trip. Moreso than most other places I have been to (although up there with Jo'burg and Kingston for it's edginess).

My pre-paid taxi from the airport to my booked hotel in Mumbai got very lost, and the more confused he got about where he needed to go, the more angry and aggressive he became. At me. He stopped a couple of times to ask directions from other drivers and people on the street, so rudely, then to demand more money from me for the trip. He stopped and demanded I get out at one point, because he didn't know where to go. But I certainly didn't know where I was at that point, and he seemed to have been getting helpful directions which indicated we were not far away from where I needed to be, so I stayed firm. He then picked someone up off the side of the road, and I felt sick...stories running through my head about the possibilities of this turn of events....but thankfully, it was a guy who worked for my hotel, and he helped get me to the right place.

A man urinated in front of me in the street in Kolkata, just took it out right there, and then seemed to be following me along the street for awhile. In broad daylight. I just kept walking, trying to stay calm, and not look lost, and tried then to make eye contact with other people who were passing by the quiet street. All fine in the end, but it did not feel right there for a bit!

Late at night in Mumbai, there was some knocking on my hotel door. I ignored it at first, but as it persisted and there was a request to open the door, things started to feel wrong. I held firm that I would not open the door, however the voice on the other side started saying he was the police. Soon there were more and more voices outside my door, demanding that I needed to open the door, for checks. They could not answer me about what the checks were for, nor would they comply to my request that the person stating he was the police slide his ID under the door to prove it. I assume because I was a woman. I am sure he would have for a male voice on inside of the door. Eventually, against every ounce of good judgement, I opened the door - to find every male who worked at the hotel out there around my door, and a man in uniform. He was checking who was staying at the hotel. He asked me a ton of questions, clearly prying about why a girl would be here on her own. Once I talked about being in India for the cricket, and the main staff explained this to the officer, things soon abated, and he moved on.

I loved and hated India, all at the same time. It has such poles of experiences. But these experiences, simply because of my gender, was definitely one of the most pervasively negative feelings about my 5 weeks there. It was confronting, and shocking, and so sad to have all those notions of the place confirmed, and then exceeded. India was named the fourth-worst place in the world to be a woman, and since the Dehli Gang Rape, and the public outcry about it, there seems to be a slightly heightened consciousness about women, their safety and standing in India. But this is such a systemic problem, something that will take much work, and much commitment by the country to make meaningful change.

As a traveller, my tips are to stay alert, trust your instincts, try and maintain a smile and a sense of humour, but stand your ground. You will balance the bad moments with the amazing ones. But mostly, as a woman, you have the chance to share such special brief moments with Indian woman you come across, with a smile, a hello, or a glance, a gesture, that feels important. A seed of hope. And of beauty.


  1. What a post! So much insight. So much of what happened is unnerving. And so great and sad that india is progressing slowly.
    This post is very valuable for anyone traveling to s male dominated culture. Bravo for writing it.

    1. Thanks Carly!
      Hope it helps someone travel to India, and keep safe.

  2. What good advice. I agree. Always go with your gut feeling. It's there for a reason. Excellent post.

    1. Totally. Gut feelings are our survival tools!

  3. AND what about the mirror adjusting every time we got into a tuk tuk so the driver had a "better" view of his female clientele...excellent post...Fiona

    1. Oh, how could I forget that! Ha! Eeeeew, so creepy and vile!
      Thanks for the comment Fi!

  4. I can understand that it can be hard for women travelling solo in India.

  5. India is a magnificent land of rich culture which always remain a point of admiration for the foreign tourists.thanks for sharing the information with site visitors.
    Tour and Travel Companies in Chandigarh


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