The Great Affair’s Guide to: Traveling alone as a woman in India.
“Time spent in India has a extraordinary effect on one. It acts as a barrier that makes the rest of the world seem unreal.”
― Tahir Shah
Sometimes, when it’s late at night and the house is still and silent, I try to pinpoint it – the moment I fell in love with India.
It happened fast, without me having any say in the matter, and once I was hooked, I knew there was no going back. When I think about it now, it might’ve happened on the second day of the Rickshaw Run, as my friend Citlalli and I joined two other teams to begin our 2,000-mile journey across the country.
The first few hours of the day found us driving through the emerald rice paddies of Assam, one of seven states tucked away in the far northeast corner of India. Citlalli was at the wheel for most of the morning, and I passed the time by leaning out the back of our rickshaw, snapping blurry photos of water buffalos and men on bicycles, ponds of purple water hyacinth and a woman holding a pink umbrella as she planted new rice seedlings. When we crossed the Brahmaputra, which feeds into the largest river delta on earth, I felt a true sense of my place in this world, a tiny drop in a vast sea.
For lunch, we pulled over at a roadside dhaba, a kind of rest stop for long-distance truck drivers. It had a roof of tin and thatch, and was set back from the highway in a shady grove of trees. The eight of us in our convoy gathered around a plastic table, ate dahl and white rice with chapatis, and sipped steaming chai from clear plastic cups. Mark paid for the meal before any of us could chip in. I tried to hand him money, but he refused to accept it and only showed me the handwritten receipt. Our lunch for eight had cost $5.
And it was afterwards, as I stretched out on one of the dhaba’s rope beds and joined the truckers in their afternoon reverie beneath the trees, that I knew I was done for. I’d neglected to follow their example by taking off my sandals and setting them neatly by the foot of my bed, but still the feeling of contentment and aliveness that washed over me was unforgettable.
It was the beauty, the simplicity, the absolute enormity of it all. It was finding myself at home among 1.2 billion people, even as every corner of my comfort zone was being tugged at and torn open.
I knew I would not leave this place the same.
India had never been on my travel radar. Japan and Mongolia, Easter Island and Patagonia – those were the places I spent my time dreaming about and scheming up plans to get there.
But the universe thought otherwise. At a travel blogging conference in Manchester in 2011, I dropped my business card into three hats for three different trips you could win, and was shocked to hear my name called when the third winner was drawn. I had just won a place on the Adventurists’ Rickshaw Run.
After our three-wheeled adventure came to an end, I stayed on in India for three more months, and then returned in August of 2012 for another six months – at times working, volunteering, and traveling, covering the country from the snow-capped hills of Dharamsala to the shores of Cape Kanyakumari. Although I occasionally traveled with others – such as on the Rickshaw Run and on project visits with an NGO called Jeevika Trust – I mostly traveled by myself.
I now frequently get emails from other women wanting to do the same, but who are understandably concerned about the risks involved. I’ve written about the “why” of my love for India, and about the incredible kindness I experienced there. I’ve also given more practical advice in this guest post for Nomadic Matt, where I pulled together insights from fellow female travelers and shared tips for staying safe in India.
My vision for this guide is to finally bring it all together – to take the scary prospect of traveling to India alone for the first time and break it down into manageable steps. As much as I’d like to cover everything, I’ve tried to give a range of tangible tips to help you feel less daunted. And if there is something I haven’t addressed here that you’re still wondering about, please feel free to send me an email at [email protected]
Table of contents
Go when you feel ready to go
Before you leave
What to pack, wear, and read
How to avoid getting sick
How to avoid getting ripped-off
How to avoid getting hurt
To tour or not to tour
Three golden rules
Go when you feel ready to go.
There’s such a thing as a healthy amount of fear – I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been at least a little apprehensive before traveling to India – and then there’s fear that might be trying to tell you something. If you don’t feel you’re ready for India, if you’ve never spent time in a developing country or traveled alone by yourself before, it might not be the right time. That time will come, and when it does, you’ll know it.
I told a white lie above in that I actually had considered going to India once before. I’d even booked a flight to Mumbai. But something didn’t feel right. This was in 2009 and I’d only ever traveled around Europe and New Zealand. So I ate the cost of the flight and went to Thailand instead, where I had family friends who could help me navigate my way through Asia for the first time.
I’m now extremely grateful that I waited to go to India. I’m not sure that the traveler I was in 2009 would have loved it as much as I did two years later. I believe the fear we feel before going there is a good thing, that it means we respect India, but I also think we have to trust our gut and go when the time is right.
Before you leave
The stress of preparing for India can sometimes begin to eclipse your excitement, so to keep that ‘ole anticipation-fear ratio in its proper balance, here are some essential things to take care of before setting out:
- Visa – Give yourself plenty of time to apply for one before your trip. Many countries outsource their Indian visa processing to a third-party company, so you’ll need to find out where to submit your application. To help many readers here get started, US citizens’ visas are processed by BLS International, UK visas by VFS Global, and Australian visas by a different branch of VFS Global.
- Vaccinations – Consult your doctor, or better yet, schedule a visit with a travel and tropical medicine clinic that can advise you on all things vaccinations and immunizations. I got the bare minimum – Hepatitis A, typhoid fever, and diphtheria, tetanus, and polio rolled into one. It’s also recommended to get immunized against things such as rabies, Japanese Encephalitis, etc., but as these can be very costly, it comes down to a personal decision if you want to take the risk or not.
- Malaria pills – The first step is to decide if you even want to take them – many travelers are quite divided on this subject. It depends on where you’re going in India, as well as what time of year (i.e. monsoon season). Also, keep an eye on current disease outbreaks. For instance, one of my good friends on the Rickshaw Run, Nambi, took malaria pills because at the time there was an outbreak of cerebral malaria in Assam, the most severe form of the disease.
- Probiotics – A rather effective preventative measure for warding off Delhi belly is to take probiotic supplements. The higher the count of probiotics per capsule, the more effective they’ll be (this option I bought from Boots pharmacy in the UK has 10 million per capsule). You’ll usually start taking them a week before you leave, and continue taking them for two weeks after you arrive.
What to pack, wear, and read
Dress modestly, ladies! Leave your shoulder-baring tank tops and shorts at home – unless you’re heading to Goa, and even then, be discrete. India is a conservative country, so I always tried to respect that by not dressing inappropriately. My go-to outfits were a knee-length dress with leggings or an ankle-length skirt with a t-shirt, but other female friends that came to visit me brought jeans or khaki pants and did just fine.
Once in India, I also bought traditional Indian attire to wear such as kurtas and shalwar kameez suits. A kurta is a long cotton tunic worn with either leggings or loose trousers, and a good place to pick up contemporary takes on classic pieces is a store called Fabindia (there are branches all across the country).
It’s easy to go a little crazy when packing for India, especially given everything that’s available these days. Did you know they make a bottle now that purifies water via built-in UV technology? Here’s the thing, though: you don’t really need it. Safe drinking water is available all over India – usually for 15 rupees for a 2-liter bottle – it’s just important to make sure the seal around the bottle cap isn’t broken. If it is, point it out to the person you bought it from and they’ll exchange it for a new one.
Three things I do recommend packing are probiotics, sunscreen, and DEET insect repellent (the higher the percentage, the better – yay, chemicals!). Most everything else you can get in India. I was constantly amazed not only by what I could get right over the counter – paracetamol, antiseptic liquid, iodine ointment, bandages, packets of Metrogyl/Metronidazole tablets to deal with Delhi belly infections – but also by how inexpensive it was. Look for the red square crosses over a chemist’s shop and they should be able to help you.
I’m not normally a big guidebook person, but I didn’t think twice about buying the Lonely Planet guide to India. Even though that thing is the size and weight of a brick (literally), I took it with me everywhere on my first three-month trip. Another brick-size essential for all first-time travelers to India is Shantaram. Whereas Lonely Planet gave me the how’s and where’s, Gregory David Roberts’ quintessential novel about love and life in Mumbai was key in helping me understand the heartbeat of India. And finally, for more excellent literary suggestions, check out Jodi Ettenberg’s pre-trip reading list on Legal Nomads.
On a flight from Delhi to Bangkok last year, I met a woman from Argentina who was traveling in Asia for three months. She had originally planned to spend two of those months in India and a month in Thailand, but after just two weeks, she’d decided to head to Thailand earlier than expected. India had been too chaotic, too crowded, she told me. When I asked where she had visited, she said Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur – three tourist hotspots in northern India otherwise known as the Golden Triangle.
My heart sank. I wanted to encourage her to give India a second chance, to go back and explore its corners where the chaos is actually replaced by a certain sense of calm, but it was too late. Now, ever since meeting the Argentinian woman, my biggest piece of advice upon arriving in India is to start your time away from the big cities. Go to the backwaters of Kerala, the Thar Desert outside Jaisalmer, or the Himalayan foothills of Dharamsala. Go to old hill stations like Ooty and Darjeeling or to quiet Colomb Bay in Goa, where I lived in a house by the beach for just $314 a month.
And then keep going. A good friend of mine, Indian travel writer and blogger Shivya Nath, runs a travel company called India Untravelled. Her mission? To get you off the beaten path in rural India. The homestays and villages Shivya has discovered are nothing short of magical. I know the next time I’m in India, I’ll absolutely be checking out this coffee plantation in the hilly forests of the Western Ghats, where it’s possible to stay in bamboo cottages on stilts. That is my idea of heaven.
Your time away from places such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, etc., will give you a chance to find your feet in India and slowly work your way up to the big cities – to acclimate to the crowds, the smells, the trash. And if you’ll permit me to get a little philosophical here, I think putting off big sights such as the Taj Mahal for later on in your trip helps them take on more meaning anyways. Once you’ve found your own version of India and discovered what the country means to you and you alone, it’s nice to then join the masses and pay homage to a truly magnificent structure.
My second biggest piece of advice for when you arrive is to book your first night’s accommodation ahead of time. Even if you leave the rest of your trip wide open, know where you’re going when your plane lands, as a lot of international flights arrive at odd hours of the night. The same goes for arriving by train or bus in a new city in India – touts will be out in full force, waiting to prey on those with no plan. Head straight to the pre-paid taxi counter typically found outside train stations and airports (it’s definitely at both Delhi and Mumbai’s airports) – fares are fixed and you’ll be given a receipt with the license plate number of the taxi on it, which you won’t hand to the driver until you’ve reached your destination.
A word about touts: These are the guys who tell you about the hotel their brother’s uncle’s cousin owns. If they hear the name of your guesthouse, they’ll tell you it’s full or that it closed last year. They’ll promise to find you a cheaper room. Even rickshaw or taxi drivers do this, offering to take you to a better place than the one you’ve booked so they can get a commission. Insist on where you want to go and don’t start to second-guess yourself.
Finally, if you’re planning to be in India for a while and will need to be online a lot during your trip, I highly recommend getting a wifi dongle from Tata Photon+ (and no, they’re not paying me to say that). It’s a little device the size of a flashdrive, and is bought from and easily topped up at phone shops across the country (just look for the brown Tata Photon sign as pictured to the left). Having the dongle meant I didn’t have to worry if a guesthouse had wifi – because in most cases, the basic ones don’t – and as most internet cafes have dated computers, it means you can keep working on your own laptop. The only place I ever had connectivity problems was in the hill town of Ooty; otherwise it worked like a charm.
The Lonely Planet guide I recommended above served me very well in finding basic, clean accommodation throughout India, so I’m only going to highlight three places to stay here – two in Delhi and Mumbai as they’re both massive and often tough nuts to crack, and one in Jaisalmer as it’s my favorite guesthouse in India ever and I can’t not tell you about it. I’ve stayed at each of these places three times, so know they come truly recommended. For other interesting places to say, I’m going to repeat myself and encourage you again to check out the offbeat homestays available with India Untravelled.
Hotel Downtown – 4583 Main Bazaar, Paharganj; +91 11 4154 1529
The Paharganj neighborhood is like the backpackers’ ghetto of Delhi – its Main Bazaar road is lined with low-budget hotels and restaurants, as well as souvenir shops selling one pair of Ali Baba harem pants after another. But what I do like about the area is that it’s literally right across the street from the main New Delhi railway station, meaning if your train gets in late, a cheap bed for the night is only a five-minute walk away.
Where I’ve always stayed in Paharganj is a place called Hotel Downtown. It’s located down a side street on the left side of Main Bazaar Road; keep your eyes peeled slightly upwards for their sign, or ask around for the nearby Everest Café. Starting at 350 rupees a night ($5.50), their rooms are basic and quite uninspiring, and hot water is brought up in a bucket for a shower (unless it’s warm outside and a standard cold shower is preferable), but I’ve always felt safe there – in Delhi, this counts for a lot.
Salvation Army Red Shield House – 30 Merewether Road, Colaba; +91 2284 1824
I’m a creature of habit, so as with Delhi, this is where I’ve stayed every time I passed through Mumbai. Colaba is at the very end of the peninsula on which Mumbai is situated, and although it’s also where tourists congregate in the city, the colonial architecture and Old Bombay vibe make it worthwhile. There aren’t many budget options for accommodation in this area, which is why I love staying at the Salvation Army.
They offer a range of basic rooms – from 10-bed dorms to double rooms with A/C – but I always go with a dorm bed for 250 rupees/night ($5). This includes the use of a locker, filtered water machine to refill your bottle with, and free breakfast, which is usually toast, butter, banana, hardboiled egg, and chai. For all that plus a killer location (it’s directly catty-corner to the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace hotel), it’s hard to beat the price. They also have a curfew of 12am after which the front doors are locked, so again, I was always grateful for the feeling of security here.
Shahi Palace Hotel – near SBBJ Bank, Shiv Road; +91-2992-255 920
As you could perhaps tell from my descriptions of both places in Delhi and Mumbai, atmosphere isn’t generally high on my list when it comes to choosing a guesthouse. My priority is on places that are clean, safe, and cheap, but sometimes it’s nice to stay somewhere that’s just downright pretty for a change. The Shahi Palace Hotel – whose sister guesthouse Star Haveli is just a few doors down – is exactly this, and as rooms start at 750 rupees a night ($12), your budget will still love you.
The rooms have beautifully embroidered bedcovers and wall hangings, window seats, and sandstone walls – although I’m fairly certain it’s is only a dozen or so years old, the place feels as though it’s been there since the time of the maharajas. But what keeps me coming back to this guesthouse is its rooftop. Jaisalmer is home to the one of the oldest still-inhabited forts in the world, and there is nothing quite like eating breakfast with a view of the fort’s golden walls rising up in front of you.
Three words, my friends: Take the train. I have clocked over 300 hours on Indian trains, and am fairly certain that one of my favorite places on earth is the sleeper class. As I once wrote here, the trains in India are a world of their own – a chance to not only interact with locals but watch the country change a thousand times as you pass through it. Here’s what you need to know about booking a ticket:
- The simplest website for booking tickets is Cleartrip.com.
- Tickets are available for purchase up to two months in advance. Don’t put off booking a ticket, as trains fill up incredibly fast.
- If a particular route is sold out, try and get a last-minute ticket through the Tatkal scheme. At 10am on the day prior to the day you want to travel on, a certain number of seats are opened up (from what I can tell, this number varies from journey to journey). You have a better chance of getting a Tatkal ticket by going in person to the nearest railway station’s reservation office. Otherwise, Cleartrip is closed from 8am-12noon every day. Tatkal tickets are sometimes still available when Cleartrip opens up at noon, but if you absolutely need to leave the next day, it’s best not to take your chances.
And now a bit about the five different classes of accommodation available:
- Second class is sitting or standing room only and does not require a reserved ticket; trust me, you will not want to take this class on a long-distance trip.
- Sleeper class has three berths (or beds) on each side of a compartment and two berths on the wall of the aisle, so theoretically eight people should travel in each compartment. It does not have A/C and is cooled by fans and open windows (which are barred). During the day, the middle berths are folded down so that the lower berths become bench seats for everyone. For this reason, I always booked an upper berth, so that I could keep my bags out of the way. No bedding is provided, so it might be wise to bring a travel sleep sack or shawl for sleeping (especially during the winter).
- The three different A/C classes all have windows that cannot be opened, and you are also given pillows, blankets, and sheets. The layout of AC 3-tier is practically identical to the sleeper class in that it has three berths on each wall and two on the side of the aisle. AC 2-tier has two berths on each wall and AC 1-tier (which isn’t always available on some trains) has the same, but with lockable doors.
I prefer the openness of the sleeper class – not only of the windows, but of the passengers themselves. Within minutes, everyone is making friends, sharing their food, and looking out for each other’s children. There’s a fun sense of camaraderie, and in my own experience, I never felt any less safe in the sleeper class. The conductors and armed train guards still pass through on a regular basis. The A/C classes are quieter and people tend to keep to themselves.
No matter which class I’m traveling in, I always secured my backpack to my berth with a bicycle lock. Although I never had any problem with security, I figured it couldn’t hurt. I also made sure to carry toilet paper with me, as bathrooms are of the same quality in every class. I could keep going, but India travel expert Sharell Cook has written this fantastic list of what to expect on long-distance train journeys in India, so please check it out if you still want to know more.
A note about people sharing their food: Indian families often bring their own home-cooked meals with them on the train, and many that I met insisted on sharing their food with me. Although some people highly discourage accepting it as there have been a few cases of the food being drugged and belongings being stolen, I never had a problem. For me, what it comes down to is trust. I usually accepted food after I’d gotten to know the family, chatted with them for a while, and got a sense of whether or not I could trust them. (To read more about this, here’s an interesting thread on the India Mike forum).
Other types of transport: There are long-distance buses, but I don’t recommend them – only because of comfort and price. Tickets tend to be more expensive than sleeper class tickets, and I find it much more difficult to sleep on an overnight bus than on a train berth. If you do need to look into bus tickets, though, do a search for the official State Transport Corporation website for the particular state you’re looking to travel in. Every state has one (as an example, here’s the site for the Tamil Nadu STC). And if you’re short on time and need to fly internally, I recommend two low-cost carriers, IndiGo Airlines and SpiceJet.
How to avoid…
A common way to avoid Delhi belly is to stay away from thin-skinned fruits and raw vegetables (such as the tomato and cucumber garnish that accompanies many meals) as well as meat – the food in India is already swirling with so many flavors I guarantee you won’t miss it. Also, don’t feel like you can’t eat street food; just be sure that it’s served hot and that there aren’t hordes of flies buzzing around. Choose restaurants and shops that seem busy and have a good turnover; an empty restaurant might mean food has been sitting out for a while.
Earlier I mentioned taking probiotics before you start your trip. A way to keep up the probiotic intake once you’re in India is to take advantage of all the kurd that’s available – kurd being yogurt that’s often served as a side dish and is also made into delicious cold drinks called lassi. I’m not sure there’s anything more delightful than drinking a sweet lassi from a little clay pot – India’s version of a disposable paper cup.
A final suggestion here is, especially after you’ve first arrived and even more especially if you’ve just arrived in Delhi, brush your teeth with bottled water.
But, when the worst-case scenario does happen – which it inevitably will – don’t panic. I’ve had Delhi belly six times, and each time, my lovely Indian friend Nambi, a doctor in the UK, got a frantic text from me. Nambi’s advice was always the same: get lots of rest, drink lots of water, and try to keep eating. I would sleep all day, make sure my room was well-stocked with toilet paper, and subsist on a diet of Maaza mango juice, Minute Maid Nimbu Fresh lemon juice, salty crackers, and yogurt with sugar.
Once, after two bouts of Delhi belly close to each other, I ended up going to a small neighborhood clinic where a doctor gave me electrolytes and carbohydrates through an IV. If you get to a point where you feel like you need to seek medical help, ask at your guesthouse for recommendations or consult the local chemist.
Just like you will most likely experience the joys of Delhi belly at least once during your stay, another reality is that you are going to get ripped off. But here are a few tips to hopefully keep that to a minimum:
1. In terms of shopping, haggling is definitely expected in a market environment (unless they’ve got a ‘fixed price’ sign posted). Once a vendor told me the price, I usually started negotiating at half that. The point of equilibrium is when you reach a price you’re both happy with. You’ll also have a better chance at getting a lower price if you buy more than one item from the same vendor. They like to move stock as much as you like to score awesome stuff for friends back home.
2. Something else to be aware of are touts who want to con you into shockingly expensive travel packages. While trying to book a train ticket to Agra, my friend Erin and I were lured into an office that claimed to be associated with the government-owned Indian Railways. They proceeded to tell us tickets were all sold out for the next day, but offered to book us a private car that cost ten times that of a train ticket. How kind of them, right? If something seems more expensive than it should be, it probably is.
3. The last bit of advice I have for this section is in regards to negotiating the price for an auto-rickshaw journey. Every rickshaw has a meter in it; however, only once in nine months did a rickshaw driver ever agree to use it. Instead, you’ll need to agree on the fare before you go. Delhi Tourism has a helpful guide to figuring out how much your fare should cost when taking an auto.
What I’d often do before leaving my apartment or guesthouse was look up my destination on Google Maps. For instance, if a place were 12 kilometers away, that would mean my fare should be around 110 rupees. I never expected a driver to consent to that price – rather, it was more just to know how much I would be overpaying. If the driver refused to go below, say, 130, I would be okay that. If someone insisted on 180 or 200, I’d know better and find another driver. In Delhi, there are some 75,000 autos zipping around – you will find another driver.
And don’t be afraid to bust out a little Hindi. I’d greet a driver and then ask how much by saying, “Kitanā?” (pronounced kitna). The ruse that I spoke much Hindi didn’t last long, but I tried to show I was at least making some effort and this generally helped me get a better price.
One last thing to keep in mind: During my first trip to Fort Cochin in Kerala, I stopped for tea one morning at a chai stall popular with local auto drivers. I asked them if business was good; they replied that it was okay but a little slow, leaving them with no “tea money.” When I asked about this, they explained it as a few extra rupees here and there to pay for their chai. This stuck with me throughout the rest of my time in India. It’s all too easy to get caught up in an economy where haggling and negotiating are allowed, especially with auto drivers. But if I found myself arguing over 10 rupees, I’d stop and realize that maybe this was just his tea money for the day.
And by hurt I mean, how do you stay safe as a woman traveling alone in India? The topic couldn’t be hotter right now – and is especially relevant as yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of a brutal and deadly gang rape in Delhi last December. On the mind of every female traveler in India is how not to get groped, stalked, stared at, and worse. It’s easy to rattle off quick rules – don’t be out at night, especially alone; don’t talk to men you don’t know; don’t use auto-rickshaws or buses after dark. But the difficult part is that there’s no formula for safety. There’s no guarantee bad things won’t happen.
In my opinion, every female traveler – no matter where she is in the world – must strike a fine balance between staying on her guard against potential threats and keeping her heart open to positive encounters and experiences. Knowing when to do one or the other requires a tremendous amount of discernment. Be wise, stay alert in new situations, and don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home.
Learn what normal looks like, and when something deviates from that, avoid it. Transportation in India is often crowded – if a bus is eerily empty, don’t board it. If you find yourself in an empty train carriage (as I once did at the end of a line), move to a different carriage where other people are.
All that being said, I never felt threatened in India. I have blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, and although I always made sure to dress appropriately, I never covered my hair or wore sunglasses as a means of detracting attention. In fact, I would often make a point of not wearing sunglasses – I think our eyes are an important conduit for connection, especially when we don’t share a language with someone. You are going to attract attention no matter your hair color or clothing, but it’s usually from a place of innocent curiosity – they’re often just as curious about you as you are of them.
To tour or not to tour
All that having been said, it could be that you’re still not sold on the idea of exploring India on your own. While I myself am not a big fan of tours, my first experience of India was still within a group context doing the Rickshaw Run, and I can testify that there is certainly comfort in numbers.
A good place to start is with travel company G Adventures. My friend Jodi from Legal Nomads recently went on their two-week “Land of the Maharajas” tour of Rajasthan and posted a brilliant round up of her highlights. If you’re in India for a more extended period of time, doing a short tour at the beginning of your trip might give you a chance to acclimate and gain courage to go out on your own afterwards.
You could also sign up for daytrips or shorter group activities that will enable you to connect with other travelers. I once did a bazaar walk and haveli visit in Old Delhi and enjoyed getting to know the Australian couple also on the tour that afternoon.
As much as I talk about the wonders of the Rickshaw Run, the experience I’m most grateful for in India is the time I spent volunteering with an NGO called Jeevika Trust (“jeevika” being the Hindi word for livelihood). Although they’re based in the UK, they support five grassroots organizations in India, all focused on building rural prosperity through village livelihood projects such as beekeeping, candle making, and crab cultivation, as well as addressing important issues such as women’s empowerment and education.
Devoting part of your time in India to volunteering is a brilliant way to connect with the country on a deeper level. Think about your skills and interests, and look into small organizations that might benefit from what you have to offer. As a writer and photographer, I was able to help Jeevika’s parter NGOs document their work in words and pictures and prepare case studies for future fundraising appeals. Lasting change is difficult to realize in a country as large as India, but I tried to contribute my time and skills in a few concrete, tangible ways.
The important thing is to ensure that an NGO has a positive reputation and that its funds are being put to good use (what I’m saying between the lines here is make sure they’re not corrupt – for more on this issue, read this 2011 article in the Indian Express). A few other NGOs that were recommended to me are Barefoot College, Seva Mandir, and Aravali. I also came across this this of ten inexpensive volunteer opportunities across India that seem reputable, as well as another list of five organizations in Kolkata specifically helping victims of trafficking.
A different idea for getting involved is to spend some time in Auroville, a rather unique city in the southern state of Tamil Nadu that’s a kind of social experiment in human unity. It was founded in 1968 by Sri Aurobindo and a French woman known as The Mother, and is now home to a diverse community representing fifty nationalities. It’s a great place to meet other travelers and there are all sorts of eco-friendly enterprises to volunteer with, including a 100% organic farm and a reforestation project. Shivya Nath (whom I mentioned earlier) recently wrote a fantastic guide to visiting Auroville, breaking down everything you need to know before you go.
I did a call-out on The Great Affair’s Facebook page for tips from people who have been to India themselves. Thanks to everyone who sent one in!
Shivya from The Shooting Star: “Talk to the locals, especially women, as much as you can. Not only is it a great way to see the place through a local lens, but also the women can share tips on places you should definitely avoid and stay safe in general.”
Jasmine: “With the security on the subways, don’t have valuables in your handbag, as you have to put it through the x-ray machine and go through a different area to be body scanned…Money, wallet, and cards were safe in my bra only!”
Haley from Border Lass: “I can say that I have never seen or experienced negative discrimination or felt threatened in India based on the fact that I am a (white) female. You have to remember that the population of India is 1.27 billion people which is more than the population of Europe (733 million) and the USA (316 million) combined. There are also cases of rape in every European country and in every US state every year. So please don’t let the media put anyone off visiting this weird but wonderful, charming but challenging country.”
Dhananjay: “India is a very big country with whole different cultures in it. We have different languages, different colors, different clothes, different foods, different festivals even different gods in one country…If you travel the whole of India, you will feel like you’ve travelled too many different countries.”
Angela from Far & Wise: “One of my favorite tips about solo travel as a woman is to stick close to other women, especially older women, when you’re feeling insecure. Grandmas are not afraid to tell some *kid* what to do or where to go!”
Three final golden rules
1. Embrace the chaos.
Another way of saying this is, go with the flow. India has a flow all its own, and as maddening as it can be at the time, ironically it’s what I always end up missing the most. After leaving this March, I went to Singapore and Japan, two countries that couldn’t be more opposite from India. As I was reprimanded for drinking water on Singapore’s metro and given disapproving looks when I failed to join a queue in the Kyoto train station, I found myself homesick for India, where anything goes and everything flows.
2. Don’t get angry.
I can’t claim credit for this one: Mr. Matt, chief [dis]organizer of the Rickshaw Run, often says this to teams before they set out, and I think it’s massively important to keep in mind. Things go wrong in India – a lot. Trains break down, rickshaw drivers won’t know where your destination is, bank managers can’t process your money transfer. I’m ashamed to say I lost my temper many times in India, but after I’d huffed and puffed for a while, I would try to regain a sense of humor about the situation. Anger never helps.
3. Trust your gut.
Pretty much everything I’ve written here, particularly about staying safe, can be boiled down to these three words. Gut, intuition, that little voice inside you saying someone shouldn’t be trusted – whatever you want to call it, we all have a way of taking stock of a situation or person and sensing whether they’re good or bad. I believe strongly in the power of time spent in India – it is a crash course in compassion, patience, and humility – and what it asks of you in return is heightened awareness and adjusted expectations.
Traveling in India, especially as a woman, may not be easy, but it is a true adventure. You will not leave this place the same.
P.S. A little pre-trip inspiration for you…
To help assuage the panic of packing and preparing for your first trip to India, I thought I would create the following wallpaper to place on your desktop; as a reminder that your upcoming trip is absolutely worth taking. Feel free to click on the image below, download it, and get your desktop as stoked as you are about the wonders that await you in India.