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A woman travelling solo in India is still quite rare. One such traveller shares her experiences and lessons learnt!
By Rakhee Ghelani
For 9 months now my backpack has been my home as I have travelled alone across India. Born and bred in Australia, I chose to move to my ancestral home of India as part of a drastic mid-life change, but first took some time out to explore my new home. From Shimla to Rameswaram and Jaisalmer to Bhubaneswar, I have been fortunate enough to see so much of this amazing country. Being the odd one out here is not always easy. As a single Indian woman with a broad Australian accent I am anything but inconspicuous, but it has certainly been an experience I will savour for the rest of my life.
India is an exhilarating country to be alone in. In the space of only a few minutes you can encounter a full range of emotions from fear to joy; you never quite know what you are going to get. Travelling in Odisha by bus from Puri to Chilika Lake, as my journey approached its destination I realised that I was on the wrong side of this huge lake. Quite quickly and with limited language skills I had to find another solution to get to the other side of the lake before nightfall. I began to fill with apprehension and fear that was palpable by the time I got off the bus in the tiny town of Satapada carrying 20 kgs on my back.
Thankfully the locals were eager to help me out as a crowd of men surrounded me and advised that I had just missed the once a day ferry to Balugaon but I could spend a night in the only hotel in town and for the afternoon all of them would be happy to take me on their boat to see the lake, for a very reasonable price of course. My fear had shifted to relief and excitement about my pending boat trip all in five minutes.
India is an exhilarating country to be alone in. In the space of only a few minutes you can encounter a full range of emotions from fear to joy…
Of course not everyone is well intentioned. Whilst boarding a local bus in Bihar, a state renowned for its lawlessness, I felt a man behind me reach for my arm and yell out, “How much for you?” Before I could turn around and give him a piece of my mind the bus conductor swiftly slapped him across the head and ordered him off the bus. I was so grateful for his chivalry but it couldn’t erase the disgust and fear I felt from that comment. I had allowed myself to let my guard down for a short while but this was a swift reminder that as a woman I needed to be extra vigilant about protecting my person. Not everyone was there to help me.
Solo travel can be liberating
Being alone for days on end can be isolating and lonely at times particularly in large cities; I recall sitting in Bangalore one day and thinking it had been almost two weeks since I had had a real conversation with anyone. However the solitude can also be calming and empowering; you are accountable to no one and can do as you please. I spent three weeks in Rishikesh just doing yoga for four hours a day and looking down at the beautiful Ganga as she rushed her way towards the sea; it was my own personal ashram and an indulgence I am sure would not have been possible if I had been travelling with another.
Travelling alone also gave me the privacy to explore myself and develop new life skills. I spent 10 hours just soaking in the ethereal beauty of Amritsar’s Golden Temple and sitting alone listening to the spiritual chanting of thousands of people in Haridwar’s evening aarti. Because I wasn’t sharing these experiences with anyone I was allowed to lose myself in the moment and just be; being alone made these experiences so personal. In a country with 1.2 billion people, being able to feel peacefully alone amidst a crowd is a skill that has to be learnt, but once it is, it becomes a form of meditation. This is just one of the gifts that travelling alone in India has given me.
Travelling alone also gave me the privacy to explore myself and develop new life skills.
Another skill is the ability to be flexible. I have always been a planned traveller. With my trusty guidebook in hand I enjoyed planning out the details of my travel, but it’s not always easy to do this in India as things rarely run to time and what you are told is not always as it seems. So I have had to abandon my rigid ways and learn to just go with the flow. When my 2 pm train from Delhi to Gaya didn’t depart until 1 am, I learnt how to be comfortable on the platform steps of the New Delhi train station and used it as a Hindi study period.
When I was thrown off the bus from Shimla to Dharamsala in the middle of nowhere because I had the wrong ticket, I learnt how to use my broken Hindi to make sure I got on the right bus when it came past 2 hours later. When I decided to walk the 10km stretch of beach to Adam’s Bridge in Rameswaram and discovered at the end that the only way back was to walk or get on the roof of a fish carrying cargo van and hang on for dear life, I learnt that my fear of heights could be overcome when it was absolutely necessary.
As challenging and sometimes even scary some of these experiences were I have now also learnt to look back on them and smile. My solo journey through India has given me so much and I feel sad now it has come to an end. But as one chapter closes another one opens as I now shift gears from being a solo traveller to a single woman living in India.
*Photo credit: Mahin (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License)