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Surviving India as a solo female traveler

Ahhh...India. Everyday is an adventure in this exciting country. If you are thinking of visiting the country & wondering if you should go as a solo female- here is a long article of my personal experience. Hopefully it will help.

Highlights: Tips & tricks on surviving India for solo female travelers.
Cast of characters: Just me!!!
Logistics/ links:
An asian girls positive experience on traveling the country
News report of fatal Delhi bus gang rape
British woman jumps from balcony to escape gang rape attempt
Swiss woman gang rape 
When: I traveled around Rajahstan for 3 weeks in December, 2012
Location: India is massive. This article only applies to these places listed:
Delhi- Jaipur- Abhaneri daytrip- Jodhpur- Jaisalmer- Udaipur- Agra- Varanasi- Kolkata

I have heard the southern & northern part of the country are very different from Rajahstan. People are nicer, places more quiet. Of course if you are just going to stay in a yoga compound at Rishikesh for your whole trip, you are going to have a completely different experience.
Cost: n/a
Trip report: Hmm…how do I start? I strongly love & strongly hate India at the same time. There is no other country like it. Its the ultimate cultural destination for travelers. At most other countries, they put on performances & shows featuring traditional way of life, dress, environment- in India it is everywhere around you. No shows needed.

I have read many articles before going. I felt a lot of them really downplayed the negative experiences. Many people warn about the hassles, but still encourage solo females to go. After a few days of traveling around the country, I realized my guidebook was written by all-male authors. I had no idea of the intensity of the hassling from touts & street boys. Men followed me around and it was very clear that they only want either sex or my tourist dollars every time. Fortunately I was not harmed or groped, but I still would not say that the hassles are harmless. It did feel like they would jump at you if they had an opportunity. Most people go on trips to have a good time. It may be safe, but its definitely going to be miserable.

The environment may feel like this fantastical lost world, but the people are very much up to date with current times (and unfortunately, current evils). As soon as I started walking around, I immediately knew this country will harden me as a traveler. Usually a big smile just comes naturally when posing for pics at an exotic location, but I actually had a hard time to even just smile for photos. You learn to cuss off people when normally you smile at everyone. I feel like just 3 weeks here aged me 5 years. The old saying 'just use your common sense' does not apply & is not enough here!

See the list of places I have been to on the left of screen. So far, India has been the only place where I felt uncomfortable traveling. I dread the question “So, how do you like India?” I respond by saying its a beautiful country, amazing culture (all true). And then they ask- “How about the people"?” Urgh. I say “Some are nice, some not so nice”. To which they say- “That’s everywhere my friend!”. That’s true, but a lot of people also say I have been everywhere. Everywhere else- 90% of the people I meet are nice, but here it is the reverse.

While traveling around, I heard stories from other women also having a very hard time. One girl was unfortunate to be on an overnight train ride with 300 teenage boys! They were all crowding her & ‘petting’ her. I felt soo bad when I overheard her story. She was almost in tears. At the same time, thank god I wasn’t in that train! I have heard many other stories from solo female travelers who are white, black, asian, latino & all pretty much had the same experience as mine. The local men are super sharp. They can detect a foreigner a mile away.

The post focuses mostly on what women have to deal with. Info about other tourist scams, poop everywhere, health & hygiene issues, transportation adventures, etc. deserve their own articles.

What does it feel like for a foreign solo lady traveler to walk around the streets of India?

- The staring!!! It feels like you are the only female wearing a bikini in the midst of an all male construction site. Even if you are covered up in local style dress. Even if you are wearing loose, baggy clothing. You will get everybody’s attention if you look the slightest bit foreign. I am a black haired, brown- skinned SE Asian, I was very wrong when I thought I would blend in. So if you are white, blond haired & blue eyed….don’t say I did not warn you.

A lot of online articles I’ve read just tells women travelers that you will be fine if you dress conservatively or dress like a local. That was not my experience. I did both & still got soooo much unwanted attention.
Pack of boys following me around

- Being following around!!!! I felt like the pied piper of boys. There will be a guy wanting to talk to you while there are already 30 (literally) other guys already crowding & wanting to talk to you. And more are coming!!! And no, they will not seem like respectful, nice boys. They are going to be ‘dirty, bad boys’- as one of them actually told me. They will start a conversation about 3 way lesbian sex within 30 seconds of introduction. You will not find one moment of peace unless your are holed up in your hotel room.

- Photos!!!! People will take your picture, all the time everywhere. People will want you to take their picture too. I was actually able to charge 10 rupees when a guy wanted me to take his picture, with my camera. What the hell am I going to do with his picture?! I just delete it right after. So weird. I started making ugly faces whenever people took my picture. Lol!

- Touts & street boys. The touts are only half the problem. I actually don’t mind the touts much. Male travelers get off easy. The ‘street boys’ are what gets to me. You are going to be harassed & followed around. “Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, madam, madam, madam, madam…where you from?”

- Walking around on the streets. I felt very intimidated to even just go out and walk around the streets…even during daytime. I’m not kidding about only getting peace in your hotel room. Even some of the hotel staff members give off a pervy vibe or want to sell you something. As soon as you get out of your hotel room- brace yourself. Don’t even think of walking around at night on your own.
Extremely disproportionate ratio of men/women everywhere in India

- Big towns, small towns. Elsewhere in the planet, people are generally nicer at smaller towns, but India is special. The major cities Delhi, Agra & Jaipur were pretty bad, but it was even more worse when I visited the small town of Abhaneri. Packs of boys who seem to have never seen a girl wearing a baseball hat followed me around.

Khajuraho was actually on my list of places to visit. I changed my mind after visiting a monkey temple in Jaipur with this 15 yr old guide (he's supposed to be my protector from aggressive monkeys). If a monkey temple visit can lead to uncomfortable talks about sex (we saw monkeys mating)- Kama sutra temples are definitely out of the question. I heard the local men in Khajuraho act like studs driving around on their motorcycles. They have the impression that every single foreign visitor wants to get laid. This is very unfortunate as prostitution is rampant. I heard this guy offered an under-aged girl for $10. Very sad.

Udaipur, Jaisalmer & Varanasi were more tame. I actually had some normal conversations with decent local men at Varanasi.

Do not even think of going to the Holi Festival. They do not ‘throw’ the colorful powder on you. They have the pigments on their hands & use that excuse to tear off your clothes & grope you. I have heard this from the local men & fellow male travelers. It is dangerous. Kinda disappointing after seeing all those online pictures of smiling female travelers with colors all over them.

- Male dominated everything 1. Everybody knows of India’s preference for male babies. This is evident anywhere you go. The streets are dominated by packs of men. The trains, the buses, the attractions, everywhere feels like it is 90% men & only 10% women. Just take a look at the lines for gents & ladies, the ladies only train carriages, the metro women’s only carriage. The ladies only sections are going to be just a small fraction of the mens.
Men's line at Taj Mahal ticket counter. There was another line for women, it was so short it doesn't even show in this picture. No line for foreigners, luckily.

- Male dominated everything 2. 99% of the people you’ll be dealing with are gonna be guys. India actually reminds me of Egypt a bit when it comes to unwanted attention. It’s very similar the way women are treated. ‘Eve teasing’= groups of men sexually assaulting women in public, the staring. Women not being allowed to work at tourism related industries like hotels, restaurants, stores etc. When I was in Egypt, I was stared at like I had 2 heads regardless of me dressing conservatively- loose pants, non-fitting t-shirts. This post obviously only talks about encounters with the male population. Indian women are angels. Its too bad I did not get to meet many of them.

- Join a tour group or bring male friends along. I recommend going solo only if you have very, very thick skin. It really is only for the brave. The marvelous grandeur of the attractions was just overwhelmed by the negative experience of having to deal with the ‘street boys’. It made it not worth it for me. Travel with a tour group or at least 2-3 male friends. Traveling with only 1 or 2 girls will not be enough to stave off the attention.

My first day in Delhi, I actually traveled with a white Australian guy. He got ALL the attention! Hahaha! Nobody bothered me at all! I should have just tagged along with him the whole trip if I had known.

- Clothing/ Dress. Interestingly enough, if you dress like a local woman (local women look like princesses), you’ll get a bit less attention. If you dress in conservative but foreign looking clothes, you will still get a f*#@load of attention.

The clothes that will bring all the boys to the yard. This would make me invisible in the Philippines but has the opposite effect in India.

Look ma! No boobs! Shawls are a MUST to cover your chest.

Blend in perfectly. This is me with a punjabi top & my regular pants. I wore a shawl for my chest also. I was almost incognito with this get up & I don't look too shabby either.

Upon arriving in India, immediately buy traditional, local dress. By immediately, I mean on your very first day in India. There’s a lot of stores along Chandni Chowk that sell the whole fabric ensemble for like 350 rupees (not tailored yet). You can easily find somebody who will custom tailor your outfit. I paid 250 rupees for the tailor work of 1 punjabi outfit.

I got rid of my baseball hat which was a dead giveaway for me as a tourist. This gave me an even darker skin which helped a lot. Dark sunglasses also help tremendously. If guys can see even a hint that you have boobs, that is no good. Women wear pashminas, scarves, shawls to cover up their chest. Wear a wedding ring, dark sunglasses, ear phones.

Once you’ve purchased your fabric- you can pick from 3 types of local dress: punjabi (pants), saree(the 7m wrap around fabric dress) & rajahstani (mid-riff baring dress). I found the punjabi to be the most comfy.
Punjabi dress

Rajahstani dress

Saree dress

- Around attractions. Use audio guides at tourist attractions help stop packs of guys from talking to you. Also do not look at them. If you see a family or a group of foreigners or women, walk close to them.

There are official tour guides right outside tourist attractions. It’s a very good deal  for getting all the history (& discouraging boys approaching you all the time) BUT they will take you to souvenir shops right after & try to pressure you into buying something (tout warning). For the street boy warning- my guide was very friendly. Too friendly that at the end of the tour he wanted me to be his girlfriend & asked for a kiss.

- Attitude. Make sure you develop a heart of stone to ignore, snub, yell, reject guys. When they start saying “Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, madam, madam, madam…” Do react by yelling “CHALLO!!!” with a go-away hand gesture (go-away hand gesture is very important, as Challo can also mean come with me)

- Dealing with men. When they tell you they don’t have a ‘Friend’ & they want you to be their ‘Friend’- they mean girlfriend. They want you to be their girlfriend. Just say no. Do not give them a kiss on their cheek. Just do the namaste hand thing instead of a handshake. If the conversation starts getting sexual, don’t indulge them. Immediately tell them it is not respectful to talk about that topic. If a man invites you for a motorcycle ride to go see the sunset, do not go unless you are ready to have sex with him. When walking around the streets, don’t look at them, don’t talk to them, don’t acknowledge them. Sad, I know.

It’s very easy to judge the entire country from your encounter with 1 or 2 people. There are many nasty Indian men, but also keep in mind there are many good ones as well. The women are kind & wonderful. Try to stay positive as much as possible.

To go or not to go?
As a solo female- I strongly discourage it. In a group with a lot of guys -absolutely!

India is insanely beautiful. It is as beautiful as much as it is ugly. I love it & I hate it. Towards the later part of my trip, I am leaning more towards loving the country. It is unlike any other place in the world. The places feel like surreal fantasy scenes from movies. It is the ultimate destination for photography & travel enthusiasts. Its got that elusive, authentic, lost in time, other worldly feel that travelers crave for.

I have met many solo women who keep coming back to India after swearing it off on their first visit. With these lessons learned, I actually might come back myself. I’ve met solo women who end up staying in India for years or even permanently. For travel enthusiasts & adventurous souls- it is just one of those places that must be experienced. Everyday is an exciting adventure in India. Every moment is a memorable experience. The country is one of the top highlights of my travels & I will never forget the memories!

Amazing blue city of Jodhpur

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