“You are travelling alone?!”
“Where is your companion?”
“It is not safe for you.”
Just a few examples of the reaction I received from locals upon revealing I was travelling around India ‘alone’. And to make matters even worse, I am a woman. Culturally, it is unheard of for an Indian woman to travel alone, either within her own country or overseas. Therefore, Indian locals are fascinated by encountering a solo female traveller.
My own experience of travelling alone across India is positive. Yes, I received a lot (a lot) of attention, especially from Indian men. But I at no time felt threatened or at risk from any of them. They were curious more than anything else – what is she doing here? If I felt at all uncomfortable in a situation I could easily make my excuses and escape, but I never needed to do this during my trip.
A great example of Indians’ complete incomprehension that I was choosing to travel alone happened on a train in Gujarat (a state that is almost 100% westerner-free). I had booked in to the cheapest class of the train, known as sleeper class. These carriages have metal bars in their windows rather than glass. I was perfectly content looking out the window, minding my own business when the train conductor came to my seat and insisted I come with him.
“Please, you are my guest. You will join me for breakfast.”
I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. He took me all the way up the train to his own personal air-conditioned room in first class, sending a colleague to collect my backpack and bring it along. We ate a breakfast of idli (fermented rice cakes) and drank heavily sweetened coffee together. Then I received the third degree.
“Where are you going?”
“To Dhrangadhra.” (A small rural town in northwest Gujarat.)
“Why do you go there?”
“I’m visiting the Kutch.” (The Kutch is a salt desert. I was heading to the Wild Ass Sanctuary National Park).
“But how will you get there?”
“Someone will meet me at the train station and drive me there.”
“You are married?”
“No, I am not.”
The train conductor exchanged a surprised look with his colleague: “Unmarried.” In India I am not single. I am simply waiting to get married, of course. There was much discussion and disbelief that when I got off the train in Dhrangadhra I would be okay. Their concern was touching, if misplaced, and I had many similar experiences throughout my time in India. Even on arriving in Goa, arguably the most tourist-y part of India, locals could not comprehend that I was not going to meet a friend or that I knew no one in the state. The fact that I was riding solo baffled them beyond belief.
Even more concerning was the attitude of some of my compatriots back in England when I revealed my plans to travel on my own in India. “You’ll be raped” was a response I received more than once, from people I had up until then believed to be intelligent. That’s a damaging and narrow-minded preconception with absolutely no basis in reality. Yes, sometimes women are raped in India. As they are in Australia, America, England etc. As long as you are sensible the risk is no greater in one country than the others.
Back on the train, I dropped another bombshell when the train conductor asked me:
“What is your religion?”
Ah, a difficult question in such a belief-filled country. I plumped for the honest answer. “I don’t have a religion.”
“No religion?!” Conductor and colleague exchanged incredulous looks.
“No… This is very common in England.”
“You don’t pray?!” They looked at me with eyes full of pity for my condemned soul.
After featuring in many, many photos with the train guys, I was reluctantly allowed to disembark the train at Dhrangadhra and continue my solo journey. But these encounters got me thinking – and they happened frequently – why was being alone such a big deal in India?
The conclusion I came to was this: it’s practically impossible to be alone in India. This is a country with a population of almost 1.3 billion people. There are people everywhere. Cities overflow with them, trains and buses are crammed with them, restaurants are full of them, streets teem with all the people. Yes, I was travelling alone in India, but I was in no way lonely. Everywhere I went people smiled and said hello, amused by the novelty of seeing a white girl in their town or on their road. I’m not saying there aren’t dangers to travelling alone in India, but these are the same dangers that travelling alone carries in any country. I wouldn’t walk around the streets of London alone late at night and I wouldn’t do this in Delhi, either.
So, yes, I was alone in India and it is a big deal to the locals. But, actually, I wasn’t alone much at all – people such as the train conductor in Gujarat made sure of that. I was welcomed and looked after all over the country and I hope I opened a few people’s minds to the fact that a woman can travel independently and safely in India.