Ever wanted to plan a big, solo adventure in India but weren’t sure where to begin or how to stay safe? Part 2 of my helpful tips and tricks will get you off on the right foot! And, in case you missed it or just really like reading, Part 1 is still only a click away!
- Prioritize Community.
This was one of the best pieces of advice I got before leaving for India alone. Go to a site like HostelWorld.com and specifically seek out reviews from solo female travelers like yourself. They’ll almost always mention things like safety, how it is to walk alone in the neighborhood at night, and how easy it is to make friends in that guesthouse! I highly suggest picking hostels/guesthouses with wifi in large common areas and communal breakfasts/kitchens so you can easily meet people.
Places that made a point to offer tours of local markets and temples are great too, as it can often be impossible to find one once you reach the site itself, plus you really get to know the people you hike around with for the day. It’s also important to remember that not every local is trying to scam you. I was wandering the alleyways of Varanasi with some friends and some freshly purchased 25 cent kites when a man stopped and offered to teach us how to fly them. Turns out, kites are HUGE in Varanasi, and there’s a massive kite festival there every year. We ended up spending the afternoon on the rooftop of an abandoned building right next to the Manikarnika burning ghat, doing what any respectable adults would do, flying kites! It was easily one of the most memorable moments of my trip, and it never would have happened if we didn’t take a chance on a friendly local with a great vibe.
If an Indian family invites you to dinner – do it! It’s a big part of Indian culture to be hospitable to guests, and the one meal I was able to share in an Indian home was better than any restaurant and accompanied by setting off leftover Diwali fireworks on the rooftop with teenage boys! I regretted not having time to accept offers to share a meal with a Brahmin priest and his wife on this trip and totally swooned over stories fellow backpackers told me about being taken in by a family and shown a more authentic version of Delhi.
- Take Care of Yourself.
Your health on this adventure is of utmost importance so that you can experience all the colorful ecstasy, unexpected brilliance, and frenetic insanity that India has to offer! Unfortunately, this does mean missing out on a few treats while in the country, but trust me, it’s well worth it. Even my strict adherence to these rules couldn’t stop me from getting a stomach bug!
First of all, don’t eat anything that hasn’t been cooked, liquids that haven’t been purified or boiled, or fruit that’s cut or doesn’t have its skin on. Even the oh-so-tempting mango lassis are made by soaking yogurt in tap water before blending, so don’t do it! No ice either. Buy bottled water for 15 cents a liter or bring your own filtration system (I had a SteriPEN with me). Keep your mouth shut in the shower and brush your teeth with a bottle of water too! Whew!
I must admit, I nerded out a little on the vaccines, but most last 5 years to life, and I figured it was a good idea if I wanted to take my little tukas on future adventures in third world countries. I highly recommend getting your Typhoid/Diphtheria, Hepatitis A, and Tetanus shots before you go. I heard really mixed things from my friends about malaria pills, bombarded by stories about awful side effects and the apparent nightmares they can cause. I opted yes for the malaria pills, since the fact that it’s an incurable disease freaked me out to no end, and I’m happy I did. If your trip is confined to mostly Northern India, you’ll probably be fine without, but the newer pills they’ve developed no longer cause terrifying dreamscapes, I’m happy to report!
Lastly, bring traveler’s antibiotics! They will come in handy when you or a buddy fall ill and don’t want to traverse around town looking for a doctor who can prescribe you some. At the end of the day, though, this is all just precaution to make your trip even more excellent that it’s already going to be. Use common sense and take care of your body. The street chai is plentiful, and it’s nearly impossible to turn down. 😉
- Planes vs. Trains
Ok, I’m about to unleash an unpopular and potentially bourgie idea. Planes are the way to go in India (am I a bad backpacker?). Especially if you’re on a 3 week or less trip.
Here’s why: the train schedule in India is incredibly difficult to navigate. You’re likely to end up number 28 on a waiting list, and then you’ll have to log in and check the website every few hours the day before your journey to see if you even have a seat! Even the first class sleeper trains are small and crowded, and the meal situation is dire at best. Planes, on the other hand, are clean, relatively affordable domestically, leave on time, and get you to your destination MUCH faster. But, if you’re looking to ride a train just for the adventure and sheer insanity that will ensue, read on for my Indian train survival guide.
First of all, I really wish that someone would have told me that there’s no dining car on the train, or, if there is, there’s no guarantee that your car will have walking access to it. Instead, people opt to hop off and on the train at certain stations, grabbing snacks at one of the many colorful vendors before the doors slam shut and the train takes off again. The problem with this is that they don’t announce in English how long the train will stay at each stop. In fact, they don’t announce anything in English, so you’re left to befriend your fellow passengers to figure out which town is your destination. I would really recommend buying a pizza the day of your journey and having them package it up in foil or a Ziploc bag to take with you on the train – saves time and stress wondering how or what you’re going to eat! I’d also suggest bringing significantly more food than you think you’ll need. I got stuck on a train in rural India that kept getting stopped and patrolled by men with rifles walking up and down the aisles, turning a 14 hour train ride into a 17 hour train ride (and I only had 1 meal and a cup of chai the whole time). Portable, safe food is most certainly your friend.
Also, if you’re having trouble buying a train ticket online (it is by far the most confusing thing I’ve ever done on the internet), you can definitely take a taxi to the train station the day before you wish to travel and buy them in person. Two of my friends snagged tickets from Varanasi to Agra this way with much less fuss than I put my little type-A heart through! Lastly, The Man in Seat 61 is a GODSEND. A must-read for anyone taking the trains through Asia.
- Bring Treats!
Everyone likes treats. They can be a great way to make friends at your hostel or interact with locals in a simple, organic way. I’m so grateful to my friend, Pam, for recommending this tip before I left. Nearly everywhere you go in India, you will see beggars, many of them children. Apparently these children aren’t even necessarily homeless, their parents might be right around the corner, putting them on the afternoon shift because, hey, cute kids make more money.
I was informed by a few people that these kids have to give their parents everything they bring in at the end of the day, but if you give them something tiny or edible (aka something that’s not worth any money to resell), you get to interact with these little guys and feel awesome, and they get secret treats that their parents don’t know about.
It feels weird writing about this, because it seems so, inherently classist, but I sincerely feel that bringing a smile to some of the poorer kids in India is a fun and incredibly worthwhile part of any trip. After kite flying in Varanasi, for example, we had extra 10 cent kites left over (because we didn’t crash them!), and we ended up with a small parade of children following us as we handed them out. The kids were happy, we were happy, and it was a stellar day. Do it. Trust me!
- Climb all the things. Dine on all the rooftops. Yoga the fuck out with a view.
I brought my yoga mat to India. I didn’t need to, because any class you attend should have extras there ready for you, but I’m so glad I added this extra bulk to my packing list. India is FULL of amazing views. There are balconies and rooftop terraces in urban as well as rural areas, and even the most budget-friendly hostel usually has a dining or common area overlooking the city.
Waking up at 5am most mornings and doing yoga on the roof while watching the sun rise and listening to the sounds of the city waking up were some of my favorite moments in India. Plus, it centered my mind and body for the inevitable chaos that would ensue while venturing around on each day. Utilizing these overlooks for dining or stretching provides a great way to feel like you’re still in the city, while taking a much needed break from it. Parakeets and flying foxes whiz by in Udaipur, singing children skip down the street, and calls to prayer are sounded.
I would also highly recommend climbing ALL THE THINGS. Climb trees on your hikes! Climb up the sides of waterfalls for a better view! Maintain a sense of danger nerd-itude when exploring. This is an adventure, after all. Any temple tours you see that involve hiking to the top of a mountain – do it! It’s incredibly serene and magical to watch the sun rise at Kunjapuri Temple, outside of Rishikesh, with a hot cup of chai in your hands. I am aching to go back and trek all the way to Tungnath next time – the highest temple in the world!
No matter what your friends and family say to try to warn you against traveling to India as a solo female, it can be done safely and on the cheap. Do your research, book your travel/lodging in advance if you’re worried about where you’ll stay, and keep your wits about you! Happy adventuring!
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