I had just landed in Bangalore when I received this message on Twitter: "I am in Hampi and will be stopping in Bangalore enroute to Mysore - can we meet?"
That was Charlie Tarrant, a backpacker and solo traveler from the United Kingdom whom I had just met online. We had something in common, besides our love for travel -- a passion for Hampi.
Charlie had been backpacking for almost a month in India, traveling across Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan, Mumbai, Hampi and was on her way to Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
She tells me she is now used to being stared at on the roads.
"The main challenge was arriving in Delhi and getting unwanted attention from all the traders and rickshaw pullers." But she found people very friendly, opening their doors to her and sharing their life stories with her.
We realized that we both have another aspect in common. We were both on a sabbatical from corporate life .We spoke about solo travel and she narrated an experience of how a man in Jaipur had told her, "We do not let our wives travel alone."
We were in splits when I heard that she had created a fictional husband in Malaysia and she told every nosy local about how he would be joining her soon. I told her that it was no different for a Indian woman. Eyebrows are raised when we travel solo, too.
In my journeys across the subcontinent, I have met several Indian women -- solo travelers, travel writers, bloggers, backpackers, photographers and tour operators on the road. Although most of them have alternative lives -- they are mothers, wives and professionals -- they wear their passion on their sleeve.
Most of them, like me, were on a sabbatical and were soon addicted to a nomadic way of life. "The first trip is always the most difficult," is what I always tell my friends. But once you get used to the solitude and freedom, there is no turning back.
Age is no bar. Ask the young-at-heart Nisha Jha who has been backpacking for 15 years, or the 20-something Shivya Nath who is now travelling somewhere in the fields of Punjab. Travel, they say, is their very oxygen.
While some women travelers prefer solo backpacking, most others travel in groups and go on cultural tours. Shivya says, "I would prefer trekking solo in the mountains and it's the safest place for women. The people are extremely friendly and you do not have to worry about being harassed. But I would love to explore rustic tourism and go to some remote villages too."
Most women travelers have their own definitive travel goals. While some are specific about wildlife or photography, many are now looking at cultural tourism and festivals.
They travel to exotic corners of the country. To places like Spiti, Kutch, Pushkar, Orchha, Hampi, Thanjavur, Tranquebar or other offbeat locations. Aside from the lure of an interesting location, most of the women I have met are interested in encountering interesting men and women during their travels.
Geetanjali Dhar, a tour operator who turned her passion into business says her North East tours are hugely popular among women. For those looking at all-women customized and fixed departure tours, organizations like WOW are luring them to exotic destinations like Myanmar. And women on the move are raring to go.
However, being a woman traveler, one has to always be on guard and most of these solo travelers have tricks up their sleeves to avert possible trouble. Nisha Jha told me that her trick is to create a fictional friend on the phone to whom she passes on all the information.
"If I am in an auto rickshaw I am always pretending to talk to someone on the phone. I describe the auto driver, tell them where I am headed and even give the number of the auto if required," she says.
The lure of exploring a place on your own is always a double edged sword. It is not the concept of traveling alone, but the destination concerned that may spell trouble.
On many occasions, I trust my instinct and often say no when I am faced with a choice of heading to some remote forests or hikes alone. I was driving through the forests around Nilgiris, when my cab could not go any further. There were no roads and the driver had spotted a snake. As I hiked into the woods, I met a man with a couple of Nepalese guards who offered to show me some birding spots. I figured it is better to be safe than sorry and headed back to the road.
While much is made out of India's unsafe reputation, it is, as Shivya says, just a perception. Take each trip as it comes, do your research, have a presence of mind and make wise decisions. And revel in your own company. Nothing gets better than that.
Pointers for solo women travelers:
- It is best to avoid arriving in a city after sunset.
- Merging with locals always works. Try not to stand out as a tourist in the crowd and leave yourself exposed to potential harm.
- Do not ever share your life story with strangers -- men or women.
- Always inform someone at home of your whereabouts, leave your contact details with them or with someone you know.
- If you are stalked by someone, adopt a confrontation technique. Aggression helps sometimes. And carry a pepper spray or any sharp weapon.
- When you are traveling through a big city, it's always better to take an auto instead of a taxi. Also do not get into a cab where the driver has another passenger or a friend traveling with him.
- When you need directions, ask a woman, or even better find a family.
- When it comes to night life, head out to a crowded market or a bustling restaurant instead of walking solo by a beach.
- And never leave your drinks unattended.
Looking for tours?
Some agencies that cater to solo women travelers:
- WOW Club
- Gypsy Feet
- IT Nature Club