For most of my time in India I was travelling with a couple of friends I’d made in Tibet.
We had a great time, connecting with locals and making new friends everywhere we went. But when we finally parted in Delhi, I found myself alone again, and lonely.
Disconnected and aloof, I travelled through Rajasthan, and eventually in Pushkar decided something had to be done. This didn’t feel right.
So for a change of pace I flew down to the southern state of Kerala, where I spent a few days in Fort Cochin.
It seemed I was the only one staying at my guesthouse and the guys who ran the place watched me, hawk-eyed. When I returned from sight-seeing in the afternoons they already knew where I’d been all day and what I’d eaten for lunch. It was harmless but incredibly irritating.
I became even more irritated when the guy who owned the guesthouse showed up at the market one morning while I was trying to bargain for a bracelet.
I’d almost closed the sale when he got involved. In my eyes, his friendly smile was a leer as he ‘helped’ me complete the transaction and I stormed off.
As I was marching, thin-lipped, back to the guesthouse, yet another guesthouse or cafe owner appeared from nowhere. ‘Hey!’ he called. ‘Where are your friends?’
Then he laughed. I wanted to cry.
Travelling as a woman alone, from the very beginning of my travels round the world last year, I started attracting unwanted attention.
Mostly men, sometimes it was from harmless touts who wanted to sell me stuff or drive me around in their rickshaw from emporium to emporium all day.
Sometimes it was someone who might stand too close on the subway platform and try to convince me to friend them on Facebook so we could go hunting together in Hawaii after they’d just recited me a long and bizarrely sexual poem about spread eagles (wtf?!).
Sometimes I was just asked to take off my sunglasses so they could ‘see my beautiful eyes’.
That is, until I started using a technique I picked up from locals in Egypt.
When running the gauntlet through crowded markets or at bus or train stations, I’ve learned to look confident and acknowledge touts and potential crazies briefly and wordlessly with a slight inclination of the head.
You’re indicating that you’ve clocked them. But you’re not interested. It’s much more effective than ‘no thank you’, which in some countries is a tease to indicate you might be interested in engaging.
But they key? Is not to engage.
These days, touts pretty much leave me well alone. And, thankfully, so do the crazies. It makes some situations much less stressful. But thanks to one brief interaction during my lonely time in Fort Cochin, I realised something.
My attitude? Was kind of permeating all my interactions with locals.
I’d developed a distrust of anyone who approached me. I was convinced anyone who wanted to speak with me was either going to try to sell me something, scam me or, even worse – recite me weird poems.
Not like other Australians
On my final day in Fort Cochin I took a boat trip out into the backwaters of Kerala.
The boat was built to hold about 35 but only myself and two older German couples had shown up for the trip. The guide was pleasant enough but quickly became offended when none of us wanted to buy any fresh oysters. The Germans were afraid of food poisoning.
Me? I just don’t like oysters.
The Germans nattered away in German and I stared out at the water, lonely and grumpy as had become the norm.
The guide sidled up to me. ‘You’re not like other Australians I’ve met,’ he said.
‘Yes. They are very friendly, always smiling. You seem to have distrust. Has something happened to you?‘
I stared at him.
I thought, ‘Oh crap’.
And I felt awful.
Because nothing had happened to me. I’d actually been quite lucky on my trip. Sure, I’d had to deal with inappropriate taxi drivers, weird poems and the odd sneaky grope from greasy-fingered old Indian men at railway stations, but nothing terrible had happened.
I had no reason to be so cynical and unfriendly. I had no reason to distrust every person I met.
Acting like this while I was on my own might have kept me from getting into dubious or dangerous situations, but it had also kept me from having genuine interactions with locals.
It was, I realised, time to get over myself and my loneliness and start smiling again.
The issue of trust and the solo female traveller is all about balance, and trusting your instincts. It’s not about being so snarly that people are too scared to approach you.
Fort Cochin is a gorgeous town, but I wasn’t sad to leave it and the guesthouse spies behind. I took the train to Varkala and sometime during the five hour trip I smiled at the girl sitting next me, who I later discovered was a Chennai-born Tibetan teenager visiting her aunt in the beachside town while her father was working in the US.
Her aunt got on the train a few stops away from Varkala. The young girl said something to her and before I knew what was going on, the aunt was handing me some mango and telling me I was welcome to share their ride to Varakla beach. Then she called a guesthouse she knew and got me a room. Neither of them knew my name and I had barely spoken a word.
All I’d had to do was smile.
Things were looking up.