Solo traveling in India (Tuesday, Oct 7, 2008: Delhi)
Back in the U.S., when I was on the road traveling for work, I had a GPS device, Hertz rental car, a mobile phone with internet access, a 4-5 star hotel with meal stipends and assistants back at the office, working 24/7 for my minute travel questions. It’s safe to say, I’ve been spoiled a bit. Okay, I’m a borderline princess at times. I’ll admit it. India is a bit of a stretch for me and outside my comfort zone, but I’ve always had a dream to visit this country. And travel is supposed to open us up, right?
Due to this unforeseen and slightly accident turn of events with my travel companions, I’m left to travel completely on my own for the first time.
In India. Alone. Traveling alone in a developing country. The crash course lessons in female solo travel.
I have to admit, I feel a little naked. Far from familiar faces, I’ve no one to rely on but myself for help. There is no shoulder to cry on when things go wrong. As a first-time solo traveler in India, a part of me is admittedly uncertain and scared, at times. Meanwhile, another part of me feels invigorated and alive for the very first time. It’s my personal AHA moment– Look ma, no hands! The adventure feels rugged, raw, unfiltered. There’s an extreme of experiences and awakenings. This could get addicting.
It’s like being at the head of a roller coaster ride. My blood is racing. This reality is unscripted, un-rehearsed and everything is coming at me quickly. Everything around me is foreign in feeling, new, exciting, scary. I don’t know if I want to scream, shout, laugh or cry. When you’re on your own for the first time in a country like India and you don’t have all the conveniences of safe glass bubble partitions protecting you from the outside world, what do you do?
Solo traveling in India: 9 crash course lessons
What are some crash course lessons for solo traveling in India, you may ask? Well, here’s a few that I learned…
1. It’s okay to trust strangers (sorta).
Your mom probably told you to never trust strangers. When you’re alone, strangers are all you have and traveling alone is the quickest way to learn how to make friends out of strangers. Locals and fellow travelers are your only option for conversation, advice and outside help. While this can feel scary and a dangerous gamble, I am vulnerable and utterly reliant upon them for additional information.
… Lost and can’t find your way back to your guesthouse. Who do you ask directions from?
A local pedestrian, a shopkeeper … a stranger.
… A scary man is following you and you don’t know how to shake him. Who can you turn to for help?
A local woman, a fellow traveler…a stranger.
… You want to know the going rate for a taxi so as not to get ripped off by a scamming taxi. Who can you ask for advice?
A hotel lobby clerk, a shopkeeper, a local woman waiting with her child … a stranger.
Of course, one must utilize street smarts. I rely on intuition to tell me when something doesn’t feel right or if a person gives me bad vibes. I definitely choose *my stranger* with caution and discretion. It’s like driving with your car windows rolled 3/4 of the way up and asking for directions. I never take a stranger’s word for 100% true or accurate, unless it makes sense. And as smart as I try to be,…
Unfortunately, I’m occasionally still make mistakes, am prone to scams and am wide open to being ahem… fucked with!
Read about my Holy and Humorous Underbelly Tour
One rickshaw wallah (yeah, this is his scrawny chicken leg…), dropped me far from my hotel, because I haggled a “local price” and he was not happy about it. My travel gut said something felt wrong, but being foreign to the scramble of crazy back-alley mazes, how could I be certain? I paid the driver and off he went, leaving me in Fuck-you, Goodbye-land! It took around two local pedestrians and one store salesperson to direct me back to my guesthouse.
Sometimes, I take a risk. Stupid mistakes and problematic situations may follow and I must find my way out of them.
2. Trust yourself
Occasionally, I fail in my choices of trusting the right people. This teaches to be stronger in my trust of self.
If my gamble lost, I might give into a good cry, then I get back on my feet to figure out a solution.
What can I trust, when I’m in a land that I know little about? Myself. I discover I am still a problem solver when I travel and this isn’t necessarily bad. It means I learn resourcefulness and quick thinking.
Lost? Ask for directions.
Wallet stolen? Have friends or family wire money for help.
Every problem has a solution and in each tight situation, I trust myself to find a way out. Situations that really test us make us realize how capable we are. Also, everything I survive serves as a lesson to make a more knowledgeable me in the future. Challenging situations offer the gift of empowerment. The greater the challenge, the greater the gift.
3. Laugh… even when you’re scared shitless
Some say laughter cures many things, so laugh your ass off! I know it sounds stupid but try it. If it doesn’t cure you of fear, I promise one thing… it helps hold the tears back when you feel like crying! And just think- you’ll have a thrilling travel story to tell friends when you get home!
When I arrived in Varanasi, I literally wanted to turn around and leave. Not more than six hours into Varanasi of weaving through tiny alley streets by the ghats, strewn with occasional trash heaps with buzzing flies, cow poo smears on the ground and chipping paint falling off buildings, I jumped on the internet and searched for the next flight out and a luxury hotel to put myself up in for the night. Fortunately, I met a fellow traveler in his 40s who had just spent two weeks there and it was his last day. Over tea, he told me how Varanasi is a city you’ll love or hate, but what made him like it was its sense of humor. Sense of humor, whaaaa? How could you find it? But I focused on what he said and began to look for it… I found it. And til today, Varanasi is a city I love.
4. Save money and make friendships along the way.
Being a solo traveler can be instant glue to forging quick friendships.
At hostels and guesthouses, I found other travelers to be in the same budget-mind as me. Many were excited to share tips and adventures about the foreignness they’re experiencing, yet pinching the ruppee and looking to hook up with other budget-minded folks to split costs with! Whether it’s sharing a room, a tour or transportation, backpackers are often keen to cutting their expenses in half.
After my first nightmarish night in Varanasi, I was out looking for new accommodations the next morning. I met Lee from China (photo below) waiting for a room to open in one of the guesthouses I was looking into. She was traveling alone. I instantly nabbed her with a line that might get the average man slapped: Wanna share a room?
That was my personal introduction to her. She gratefully agreed and together, we were able to upgrade to a nice and more spacious room with A.C…. at half the cost of my single (without AC)
5. Respect other travelers’ budgets.
Cheap for me isn’t necessarily “cheap” for others. We forget this applies to locals and fellow travelers. Sometimes, I think I’m being budget-minded and cheap, but I meet others who are traveling on narrower budgets than me.
When I met Lee, she traveling mostly via local bus or train. She passed the opportunity of splitting a 100Rs (roughly $2USD) boat ride on the , even though it was something she really wanted to do. I had taken the boat ride earlier that morning and didn’t mind a second go. I was about to nag “But why? It’s sooo cheap!“, when I caught myself and realized, I have no clue what her lifestyle, job at home, travel style and budget is. She was traveling India for a longer time than I. Whatever her personal situation was, I didn’t know.
6. The world is actually very small.
There’s probably more things you have in common with locals and travelers than you think. You may be from different countries, speak a different language, but you’ll probably be able to find at least one aspect of your life or experiences to share a meaningful exchange on. Being a solo traveler because interactions are often one-on-one, I found myself digging deeper into my social skills to make connections with others.
In Nepal, an old quarry worker and I developed a bridge of exchange, based on the fact we both, wore the same braid style. Sometimes, an exchange is based on being the same sex and understanding the difficulties placed up on us. Or sometimes, it’s as much as having passed through someone’s hometown.
On my last day in Varanasi I met a 6’4″ gawk-ward artsy French boy, Dorian. I told him how I fell in love with this small remote village town in Southern France, Die. I spent a month there several years back to visit a friend teaching English there, but it wasn’t one of those places on the map. He exclaimed in an exuberant scribbly French accent “Die! Mon Dieu- what a coincidence…that’s where I’m from!”
What a very small big world we live in.
7. People want to help you
Being female and traveling alone for the first time can feel scary at every corner, yet there’s a reassurance that you’re never really alone. I find people are more protective for my safety, than they would be others. Sometimes your angels can be locals; at other times, they can be travelers.
At the airport I spent time with an older Israeli couple. Doran and his wife were in India to attend a conference in Hyderbad and we were engrossed in sharing our observations of Indian culture. When I reached Delhi, the couple extended a potential meetup invitation in Rishikesh and a contact number should I get into a tight spot in my travels. In such a short time, this couple had built a firm memory in my heart.
Then, so as I wouldn’t be alone, the couple then hooked me up with a young Israeli solo traveler they’d met also. The Israeli girl asked if I wanted to share an airport cab with herself and a French girl she’d just met on the plane. We were all coincidentally staying in the same place, Paharganj (a backpacking area of budget hotels and guesthouses). The 175 Rs cab ride, divided 3 ways, cost us each $1 per person!
As a soloist, you to learn make friends and pick up fast friendships along the way. It’s the basic traveler spirit and instinct.
8. Embrace the spirit of Jack Keroac
Everything is on your own terms when you travel alone. This can be addictive. More than you know.
Like life, I enjoy going where the road takes me. I like being able to change directions when I feel like it. I like when my “accidents” become good coincidences and lead to experiences, which take me deeper into self-discovery.
There’s a poetry in getting lost and finding yourself. There’s a triumph in bonding with one’s surroundings. The things my environment shows me, the places it takes me… is surprising. Traveling alone somehow feels unfiltered, raw, adventurous, charming and direct. Life reaches out to me and initially, I meet it with slightly scared, nervous and hesitant arms. It won’t bite. Often times it just wants to play with me.
This teaches me how to play with life, enjoy people, find beauty where I might not always look for it.
9. Learning your travel style
There’s often a debate between whether you’re a traveler or a tourist. On the plane and while waiting at baggage claim, I met two other solo backpackers- girl from Israel and one from France. Inside our shared cab ride to Parharganj, the backpacker slum of Delhi, all was alive with travel stories regaling why solo travel was the best way to experience a place, its culture and people. As my fellow solo gals put it:
“Why pay a tour where they have a someone show me ‘What India is’, when I can meet fellow travelers & locals with whom I can discover and create my own experiences of India ?”
This is true. There’s actually tourist in all of us, but somehow solo travel turns us into travelers, in the way some ritual experiences might transform a boy into a man.
I like traveling with an outline of a plan. An occasional tour won’t bother me, but a two-week tour of seeing a bleached India and experiencing it through a glass window? Not for me. For me, I want to experience my own version of authentic India and take it as close to the fire of reality, while avoiding trouble. I want to feel a connection. I want my trip to feel personal.
So let’s hoist up my pants and suck it up! I’m back to Paharganj, staying at $12/night dirty-looking bedsheets #2, Raj’s Cozy Inn Hotel!
As a first-time solo traveler, I’ll be having a both, grand and terrified time! 😉
Any tips for solo traveling tips in India ?
• Is Solo Travel Still Safe for Women? …6 Safety Tips that make it so
• 5 Travel Must Haves for India
•Travel tips for India (recommended)
• How to travel solo in India:Interview with Chiaki Nakashima
• Varanasi’s Humorous Underbelly Tour
• Video: Varanasi’s Ganga Aarti