As our auto rickshaw arrived at Ajmer’s Bus Stand to drop me off, my stomach was churning and my heart was beating fast. I had been travelling with friends in Rajasthan for about a week, and they were about to take the train back to Delhi and head home. I had another two weeks left in India, and was going to spend most of them traveling alone. I turned to them and said:
You know, in my head I know I’m going to be alright, but right now my heart feels very small.
I was heading to Jodhpur without a hotel booking, and I still didn’t know how I’d get there. I said goodbye to them whilst trying to hold back the tears and headed off.
Tiago, (one of my friends and a seasoned and fearless traveller) had tried to convince me to take an unreserved train to Jodhpur but, even though I knew I should follow his advice, the fear of stepping into a packed train on my own scared me too much, and not having been able to book a train seat, a bus ride seemed the least scary option. As soon as I arrived at the bus stand I became immediately overwhelmed: there were ticket offices everywhere, and I didn’t know where to turn. I looked for the most “official” ticket office booth I could find, and asked about buses to Jodhpur. I had heard some horror stories about suspension-less, rickety buses, so I asked again and again; “Is that a good bus? Deluxe? AC? In what would become a recurring occurrence throughout my journey through India, a gentleman who was also on his way to Jodhpur came to my aid and calmed my fears. It was ok. It was an AC Mercedes bus, the best. But I had to wait half an hour to buy the ticket, so I sat down to wait. After twenty minutes, the ticket guy came out of his booth to tell my I could buy the bus ticket. I was the first one to buy the ticket and got seat number one, just behind the driver. As I got on the bus I thought; “It’s going to be OK”.
I should have taken Tiago’s advice and just got on the train. The bus was indeed a deluxe AC bus in top shape, but the driver drove like he owned the road and I was just behind him so was able to see the madness from a privileged spot. What followed were the longest and scariest four hours of my life. There were moments (when we were overtaking a lorry whilst another one speeded towards us in the opposite direction) when I thought that we would all surely die in a horrific accident. We didn’t, and I made it safely to Jodhpur.
As soon as I arrived I was surrounded by auto rickshaw drivers. I had only the name of a guesthouse I had looked up on TripAdvisor, so I asked one of them to take me there. The guesthouse was full. And it was already dark. Shit! What followed was a whirlwind of visits to random guesthouses and rickshaw trips through the incredibly narrow streets of Jodhpur. I ended up in a place I hadn’t even seen anywhere, in a dark alley of the city centre, but it was too late to look for anything else. Once I had arranged a price and paid for two nights, I checked the web for reviews. Bad news; in one of them someone mentioned they had found a cockroach in their bed.
It might seem laughable to most people, but my biggest fear about traveling alone was not that someone might hurt me, or steal my money, but to find a cockroach in my room and have to deal with it by myself. My fear of cockroaches by now is legendary amongst my friends and acquaintances. As soon as I see one I start shaking and hyperventilating. So that review sent me into a mild panic and I could only fall asleep (with the bedroom lights on) in the early hours of the morning.
Everything changed in the daylight, and my courage came back.
I had decided I had had enough of buses, and that I would do the rest of my traveling by train. I tried to book a train seat to my next destination, Jaisalmer, but once again, there was no seat left. So unreserved train it was. After a day of sightseeing in Jodhpur (which I fell in love with) I bumped into Aasif, one of the guys that I had met during my ordeal to find a room in the previous day. I ended up going with him to have a bite at the guesthouse where he worked. When he heard that I had no room booked in Jaisalmer, he offered to book me a room at a guesthouse that he knew. To calm my uneasiness he told me: “Look, two Brazilian girls that stayed there are arriving to Jodhpur, if you want, you can talk to them and asked them what they thought.” I knew I could talk freely to them in my own language (I’m Portuguese) and when they arrived they gave it a big thumbs up. It was settled, the room was booked and someone would pick me up from the station in Jaisalmer. It was dark and late, so Aasif offered to drive me to my guesthouse on his bike. The thrill of a motorcycle ride through Jodhpur overtook the fear of getting on a stranger’s bike, so I accepted his offer. All good.
On the next morning I took my first unreserved train in India. I jumped the queue, taking advantage of my female status and bought my ticket. 50 rupees for a 300km, 6-hour journey. Unreserved trains were starting to look like a good idea. As the train pulled into the platform (Jodhpur was the first stop) people started to jump onto it. Me and my humongous backpack decided to do as locals do and I jumped onto the still moving train and managed to score a window seat. The next 6 hours were some of the happiest of my life. I was alone, traveling through the desert towards Jaisalmer. The blowing wind filled the train with gusts of sand. Halfway though the journey most of the people left the train and I was able to lie down on my bench. An indescribable joy came over me and I thought:
I’m finally living the life I’ve always wanted for myself.
There was no fear, no doubts, and I think this was the precise moment I fell in love with India. I had overcome my fear of crowded trains, of trusting strangers, of cockroaches, and received so much in return.
Jaisalmer was the only place in India where the fact that I was a woman on my own struck me. Outside the fort there were hardly any women in sight, and men looked at me in a different way from anywhere else in India. Not just with curiosity (as I find was the case everywhere else I visited) but with a more intense gaze, not particularly pleasant. I decided to follow a strategy that seemed to work for me. To smile, be polite, say “nahi, nahi” and just walk away whenever my gut told me so. I still met some wonderful people (and was offered a lot of steaming delicious chai, which seemed to materialize out of thin air after only a few minutes of conversation). And because I decided to follow my gut and trust the owner of my hotel, Amin, I slept in the dunes of the Thar desert, watched a Hindi film in the deliciously rundown Jaisalmer cinema, had the best chilled mango juice I have ever tasted and learned how to eat with my hands.
By the time I took the unreserved train back to Jodhpur, India had won my heart. And once again, that 6-hour trip was one of the happiest parts of my trip. I met a wonderful gentleman who shared his home-made chapattis with me and through him I met a boy that was travelling to Jodhpur to attempt to enter the Indian army, and a family who came from a pilgrimage to a temple. We only spent a few hours together, and only one of them spoke English, but by the end of the journey I had been guided through the complicated world of Hindi kinship terms, had been offered delicious homemade puffed rice chaat, and had told everyone about the Indo-Portuguese wedding I had been to (illustrating my tales with pictures of the bride and groom). I continued my journey south towards Mumbai on the same day, and I never felt afraid again.
So what are my thoughts on
female solo travelling in India?
- The first and more important one is: Don’t let your fear stop you.
- Apart from that, I think it’s important to trust your gut, and politely walk away from situations where you don’t feel comfortable.
- Also, it’s important to ask for help and information. If you think being out after a certain hour might be dangerous, just ask the people in your hotel/guesthouse. They tend to be very protective of women travelling alone, and will not let you go out alone if it’s remotely dangerous.
- Dress appropriately. This might be a bit of a contentious advice, but I think dressing more demurely might save you some unpleasant stares in certain parts of India. You already will stand out as a tourist, so you might as well save yourself any unnecessary grief. In Rajasthan I opted for wearing long sleeves, and only went out with bare shoulders when I got to Mumbai. This actually saved me from some potentially painful sunburns too.
- Try to book your stay before arriving to your destination, and try to arrive during the day. At night everything seems scarier.
- Keep your wits about you. Don’t get crazy drunk or super high when you’re alone.
- Be patient. It won’t help to be impatient and snap at people. Things will get done. Ask nicely.
- Be nice. Smile. It might be tempting to keep a tough façade as a woman travelling alone, but I found a smile works wonders in India. Well, I think it works wonders anywhere, really.
- And finally, don’t lock yourself in a cocoon. Be open to other people. Talk. You will be surprised by the generosity of strangers. On the train from Jodhpur to Mumbai (this time I had a reserved seat in an AC carriage) I met a family who ended up helping me to reach my hotel. They told me where to leave the train, which local train to catch in order to reach Colaba, and how much I should pay for the taxi I had to take from the train station to my hotel. I took their advice and arrived safely (if a little worse for wear after a trip in an incredibly packed local train). On that evening I met an American backpacker and we went out for a beer. When we arrived at the hotel, the receptionist had a message for me. A boy who said he had come from Jodhpur with me had stopped by to see if I had arrived safely.
The American looked at me and said:
And I thought:
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ANITA FARIA is a video editor and lives in London.
She’s also a “professional daydreamer and procrastinator.”
Do you have a travel story that would inspire others to hit the road?