My girl friends from college and I were recently exchanging stories about solo travel in India. We were in Goa, bathing at the quiet and less-crowded beach at Palolem, when we started narrating stories from our individual experiences. These stories, though hilarious in retrospect, left me wondering if this fairly new concept of solo women travel in India is fraught with its own unique risks. Travelling alone for a woman equal parts empowering and frightening because one can be in a spot that is not of one’s making and beyond one’s control.
Until our previous generations, the women would travel to only familiar places — either ancestral family homes or places of religious importance. Even then they would be in groups, or accompanied by a male relative. The independence and confidence among women to take on the unknown by themselves have come only in the last two decades. One may argue that you can’t be prepared for every incident, and that the fun of travelling solo is to tackle these sudden disruptions. However, there are certain precautions — unobtrusive but intelligent ways — to handle a given scenario.
Be social for support
The old adage, ‘Don’t talk to strangers’, does not hold any water today because the safest stay option for solo women traveller is to definitely make friends — either with a local or with other guests at the place of stay. A friend of mine was in a Corbett Lodge cottage. There was a power cut in the middle of the night and a stranger started banging on her door. Presuming that the man was under alcoholic influence, my friend called another woman guest who was staying at the adjacent cottage. She had met the lady that very morning and befriended her, exchanging numbers. It helped.
In Mussorie many years back, I had encountered a foreigner woman traveller who appeared severely dehydrated and almost faint from a trek. She had lost her way, and had disappeared for almost an entire day. The lodge manager had sent out a search party but since he didn’t know where she was headed for the day, it had been a futile effort.
A smart way of handling untoward experiences is familiarity, keeping someone in the loop about your plans and interacting with other travellers, exchanging notes and being social. If something goes wrong, travellers often band together as a group, even if they are absolute strangers, without intruding in your independence or personal space.
Be indoors by evening
Another important aspect of staying safe is to keep a conservative timing. When in rural areas, on mountains or in jungles, it is best to avoid travelling after sunset. It is not always wise to be alone on a dark road without knowing where exactly you are headed. There maybe no connectivity for you to track your own route, and one wrong turn may lead you into a no man’s land and hours of walking in uncertainty. Most locals are indoors and shops shut down early, so asking for guidance maybe difficult, and although they may be comfortable travelling at night because of their familiarity with the terrain, it is definitely not advisable for solo travellers.
Moreover, you will find greater risk from wild animals than from humans in such areas — whether it is snakes, common monkeys or wild elephants. One can’t predict what animal one will encounter, and in what mood it may be in. Personally, I have had my belongings snatched by a monkey, including drinking water bottles. I have also seen snakes on forest paths so well camouflaged that even in daylight I could have stepped on it.
Be within your stay complex by sundown or soon afterwards, and make sure that if you are not, then someone knows to look for you.
Carry a torch, and info note
A torch is the single most important thing to carry for safety, because you never know when darkness falls in a rush and you may have to figure your way back. Streetlights may be spotty and mountain or jungle trails often have no source of light since they aren’t populated by homes. A strong torch light will help others to spot you as well if you are lost on a less-travelled trail. It also helps to scare away most animals. Always change the batteries and carry an extra set in your pockets whenever you leave your room.
Also, keep a note on yourself with the basic details — name, contact number, blood group etc. This often helps others when you are not able to talk, faint or otherwise lost.