Can women travel alone anywhere that men can?
When I had told my friends and family my plan to travel India alone as a female, I got some pretty questionable stares, and a lot of earth-shattering nerve-induced reactions. To be honest, I, myself, was nervous, but felt I had a point to prove; that woman can travel alone anywhere that men can. I think in my stubborn attempt to go simply because I was told I can’t made me forget something along the way; no one is invincible.
I tried to hype myself up for the trip by looking at glamorous photos of girls in pretty dresses in front of the Taj Mahal, but deep down, I knew that was not the reality of it. The pictures I was looking at were most likely sponsored trips and those girls were either with their boyfriend photographer, or being driven around in a private air-conditioned car all day. Neither of those would be a reality for me. I’m a broke solo backpacker.
When I was about to board for my flight to Mumbai, I got into a strong, slightly aggressive mindset and thought, “here we go.” I had my dukes up, per se.
I landed in Mumbai and needed to transfer to the domestic terminal for my flight to Jaipur. Immigration was effortless and before I knew it, my passport had the Indian entry stamp on it. Step one.
To transfer between terminals at the monster that is the Mumbai International Airport, you need to take a taxi as there is no tram / air train. There was a line for “Woman-driven taxi,” and I thought, “Cool! India gets it!” I prepaid for a woman-driven taxi and was told to go to “Lot 3,” only to see a group of men staring at me waiting for me to pick one of their cars. Someone who worked at the airport didn’t say a word, but grabbed my bag and threw it in the back of a male taxi. “No, I hired a woman,” I grand-stammed.
“No. You go with man,” as he continued to throw my bag in the backseat of this strange man’s car. What am I to do? I got in the car with the man who stared at me from the mirror in the front seat without smiling or muttering a word. An uncomfortable taxi ride, to say the least, but hey, I made it to the domestic terminal, overall harmless.
Once I finally made it to Jaipur, I got a good night of sleep and headed out first thing in the morning.
India blew my mind. I had heard there would be poverty when you turned your head left, and royalty when you turned your head right, and I don’t think there’s a better way to describe it. I saw families on the street bathing their kids out of a bucket in front of a palace. The men do indeed stare, in the way I was warned, and it’s not always at your face. But I lived in New York City and Los Angeles for twelve years of my life, so seeing homeless people and dealing with street harassment unfortunately have just become the normal to me. While this was a new level of discomfort, at first, I thought it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I know my best bet is to never make eye contact with anyone trying to get my unwarranted attention, and for the first day or two in Jaipur, with a few arguments along the way, it worked.
But here’s the thing; in Los Angeles and New York City, I knew where I was going, I knew where the nearby bodega was for me to run in and hide, I spoke the same language, and I felt like there were people around me I could trust. Was it in my head? Is it because I’ve read to be overly cautious in India? Perhaps a little, but it was also based off of my minimal experience there. I had a little boy run up to me within my first hour of walking around, tugging on my dress, saying “Give me money!” which meant his mother or father was not too far behind him, being the one that encouraged him to do so. This didn’t exactly surprise me, I didn’t think I was going to show up in India and not be totally and utterly mind-blown, but reading something is different than experiencing it.
I saw beautiful palaces, I ate delicious food (and I didn’t shit my pants! So not everything you read is true), I hardly spent any money, I met plenty of lovely people amongst the herds of not so lovely ones. But I was uncomfortable; and not in the way where “life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” If I was truly afraid of discomfort, I wouldn’t have quit my cushy well-paying job, sold all of my shit and bought a one way. I was uncomfortable in the sense that I started to fear for my safety. I didn’t even want to go outside. I was harassed for money (this is unavoidable; male or female), a cop swiped his hand across my ass (in my head, if this had happened, I would’ve caused a scene; but it was a person of authority so I remained powerless), and all I wanted was to be left alone. But it reminded me that being a woman in this world seldom means being left alone. I didn’t want to walk around and have the fear of being kidnapped or raped, and I didn’t think it was necessarily going to happen, but the fact that I had to question if I was going to die there was enough to make me want to leave.
I only had a few days left in India and I tried to stick it out. I wanted to check out this town called Varanasi, so I booked an overnight 12-hour bus ride from Agra. The “sleeper bus,” as they are called, was something that excited me. Aside from all the other things I heard about India, I heard you haven’t truly experienced it until you take one of those sleeper buses. I booked it for that night and began to pack my bag. A lovely man worked at my hostel, and I showed him my ticket and asked where I go to get the bus.
“I don’t want to freak you out, but you booked a portion of a double bed which means you’re sharing a bed with someone,” he informed me.
I thought he had to be kidding. Sharing a bed with a complete and total stranger on an overnight rickety bus? Now, sure, I’m an adventurous person: I’m always down for something if it’s going to be, well, an adventure. But sharing a bus with a stranger in a place where a woman is raped every twenty minutes? Where acid attacks are still a prevalent thing (granted they are often planned verses random)? Where female infanticide is common because it’s engrained in the culture that women are lower status? These aren’t things I was making up in my head; these are facts. Earlier that day I had gone to a place called “Sheroes,” a café run by acid-attack survivors. That alone made me incredibly emotional because this isn’t a pretty picture on Instagram, this is the reality of the way life is here. Upon finding out I had to share a bed when I was already the most vulnerable version of myself, I realized I needed to admit I couldn’t handle India anymore. It was frustrating because there were four days left in the trip, and I could brave it out and stick to the original plan; get on the bus and spoon with a random person, keeping my fingers crossed that it’s a woman, and most likely make it to Varanasi in one piece. But for what? I didn’t want to. Why do something I don’t want to do?
India broke me. It shook me to my core. I was angry that society hasn’t gotten their shit together yet; that the world has such a long way to go before women are considered of equal status, not only in India, but on a global scale. While it felt like an easy route to feel sorry for the women that live there and are stuck there, I instead saw strength and courage that they face this life every single day. I got frustrated that the only people really selling India are those that go to yoga retreats and have the comfort of a private driver (I was told this by almost everyone; “In order to enjoy it, you need to hire a private driver”). I didn’t want to do it comfortably, I wanted to see the real thing. However, I, unfortunately, could not handle the real thing.
I cried on the floor of my hostel and decided to not get on the bus. I started searching Skyscanner frantically for one ways to anywhere, and remembered that India is pretty far from everything (except for Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, according to the cheapest flights). I ended up spending way too much money on a flight to Italy, my safe place, and finally did book myself a private car to the airport in Delhi. I hate to say I couldn’t have gotten out of there fast enough, but… I couldn’t have gotten out of there fast enough.
I don’t discourage women from traveling to India, and I don’t even discourage them from traveling alone. But know what you’re signing up for. Instagram is sadly ruining the world by misleading travelers from harsh realities. I am still proud of myself for being brave enough to give India a try; but I’m not stubborn enough to tell you it was amazing and that “India is fine!” You are in a country where despite how strong you are, you’re not invincible, and unfortunately the odds are against you.
Kaitlyn spent one week in India.