Adventure, India, Solo female travel

Trust and the solo female traveller

July 3, 2011

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.

Disengaging

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.

‘Oh?’

‘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.

Sharing rickshaws

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.

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33 Comments

  • Reply Naomi July 3, 2011 at 11:10 am

    I LOVE this post. This reminds me, so accutely, of everything I felt while I was in Morocco – I had such high walls up that helped me shut out the creepers trying to chat up a solo blonde foreigner in their city, but that also shut out many positive interractions I could have had. Thankfully, I found my trust again in the last town I visited (i was just telling a friend this story yesterday!!) but it wasn’t until I got back home to Germany and started scowling at children who waved to me on the bus that I realised what insane defenses I’d built during my trip. I haven’t been to India, though I desperately want to go, but I know that whenever I go, I’m going to have to prepare myself to feel this way again, and try and keep myself safe while still keeping myself open to the positive interactions.

    • Reply MeganRTW July 5, 2011 at 10:24 am

      I had a moment just like you had in Germany when I was back in Sydney, Naomi – I was going to the ATM and my heart was beating a little faster because I was stressed someone might try and rob me (I hate using ATMs when I’m travelling alone!!). Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and I turned round ready to let rip – and it was a little old lady who thought I was a friend of hers. Oops!

      I imagine Morocco would be similar to Egypt – I found that a really frustrating place to travel and in my eight days there I didn’t let me guard down once.

  • Reply Claire July 4, 2011 at 7:20 am

    I can understand why you have these defenses in overdrive. I have only been doing this a few weeks now, but I can see that I am different when alone, vs when I am with other people. There needs to be a balance of keeping our wits about us but also being open to experience what we came to experience. Good thing the guide called you out!

    • Reply MeganRTW July 5, 2011 at 10:25 am

      You’re right Claire – the guide made me feel pretty crappy but I’m glad he said something.

      I’ve noticed that here in Guatemala I have such a different perception of the cities when I’m with people and when I’m alone. Walking alone Xela felt quite dodgy (everything is always locked and shuttered, and the streets frequently very quiet) but when I was walking with others I wondered what my problem was…!

  • Reply Alousie July 4, 2011 at 7:34 am

    This was a fantastic post. There’s definitely a learning curve between being too cautious and being too trusting. I know when I travel alone, even if I’m enjoying myself I often look too serious. I have to remember to smile, and look more approachable because it always leads to better travels.

    • Reply MeganRTW July 5, 2011 at 10:27 am

      Thanks Alouise. I naturally frown a lot, so I always have to remind myself to smile – it doesn’t come naturally ;)

      But here in Guatemala it’s customary to say hello or good day to people when you pass them in the street, so I’ve been trying that out and have been surprised by the reactions – everyone is so friendly, and no one takes it as an invitation to sell me something or scam me.

      If you said hello to someone on the street in India then a lot of the time they would either wonder what you want to buy from them or think you want to marry them!

  • Reply Heather July 5, 2011 at 3:21 am

    I loved this post. Beautiful photos, as always, with a lesson/experience that’s even more so. You’re a great story-teller and ever since we “met” a month or so ago, I find myself looking forward to new posts from you.

    I haven’t found myself in this situation before, but I did attempt to navigate a week in Istanbul with folks yelling out to me constantly. You know I want to go to India badly, and I think it’ll be tricky to learn how to respond — what’s too closed off or too open??

    • Reply MeganRTW July 5, 2011 at 10:30 am

      Aww Heather thanks for the lovely comments.

      Istanbul can be a little crazy if you haven’t experienced anything like that before (though I found the Grand Bazaar less intense than I’d been lead to expect). As for what is too closed off and what is too open, it just depends on the country.

      For example, in India you should try to avoid eye contact with men you don’t know, especially if you’re alone. Too open there would be smiling at strange men or letting them be overly friendly to you.

      But in Guatemala, it’s okay to be friendly with the men here – they don’t take it as a come on, but the locals generally don’t like it if you photograph them. In India, everyone wants to be a star. It’s such a fine line to walk.

  • Reply Lauren July 6, 2011 at 2:56 am

    I love this post, and what you say is so true! Whilst I’ve yet to leave for my trip I’ve realised that every walking around my hometown, if someone approaches me and tries to start a conversation, I’m so wary of them and reluctant to engage. It’s something I really want to try and change.

    And a sexual eagle poem?! What the hell?!?!

    • Reply MeganRTW July 6, 2011 at 3:55 am

      Thanks Lauren. If someone tried to talk to me on the street in Sydney I’d probably keep walking!

      I know, the eagle poem was bizarre…and the subway took ages to arrive…worst 15 minutes ever!! :D

  • Reply Kris Koeller July 6, 2011 at 4:48 am

    Well said, a really interesting persepctive.

  • Reply Idelish (Jeremy & Shirlene) July 6, 2011 at 5:01 am

    Wonderful post! I love the way you story-tell… it is very engaging!

    I have been fortunate enough to always travel as a couple or with family and friends. I don’t think i’ll enjoy traveling solo as a woman… and if I think about it, the situations you cited above are the reasons why I don’t think i’ll enjoy traveling alone. I have much respect for you for being so courageous and adventurous!

    I also agree that the balance between being distrustful and being trusting while traveling. It’s a fine line that one needs to learn and adjust to as they go from one place to another.

    Cheers,
    Shirlene

    • Reply MeganRTW July 6, 2011 at 11:29 am

      Thanks for your comment, Shirlene :) I don’t want it to sound like I was having all these terrible situations – because I wasn’t. They were funny more than anything, but I was so paranoid of getting myself into something it would be hard to get out of that I closed myself off from people.

      Happily I’ve been doing much better here in Guatemala. Smiling really does work :)

  • Reply Elise July 6, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    I’ve said before and I’ll say it again…..I really admire you for travelling in India (mostly) solo! I really don’t think I could have done that. And like you said, while we may travel sometimes with a cautious attitude and think that people are ‘out to get us’ all we really need to do is…smile :-)

    Not sure what my reaction would have been if someone had recited a weird sexual poem about spread eagles!!!

    • Reply MeganRTW July 6, 2011 at 11:24 pm

      I think it would have been similar to my reaction, Elise – I was trying so hard not to laugh and to work out how I could disentangle myself from the situation!

  • Reply julie July 6, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Nice one Megan! One of my faves from you so far.

    How’s the Spanish going? Been dancing yet?

    • Reply MeganRTW July 6, 2011 at 11:24 pm

      Aw thanks Julie!

      No me gusta bailar!! ;)

  • Reply Nomadic Chick July 6, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Great post! Honestly, I think it can be India itself at times. By the end I had lost my travel mojo, on top of dealing with my health challenges. I stopped smiling and just needed to recharge. And maybe we all need that? Woman or not?

    I was lucky, where you were not. I was never groped. Maybe once, but if I was, it was very subtle. The fact is in India being a foreigner is 20 times more intense. Sounds like you needed to figure out the balance between caution and enjoyment. And you did!

    • Reply MeganRTW July 6, 2011 at 11:28 pm

      Thanks Jeannie. I was definitely starting to lose my travel mojo, and coming back to Sydney for a couple of months helped. And yes, I agree that happens to everyone regardless of gender.

      I was grabbed in Turkey, India and Egypt (and frequently approached by weirdos in the USA, urgh!) despite wearing long, loose clothing – every time it infuriated me but I really tried not to fixate on it because that could have spoiled the whole trip.

      I wish it hadn’t taken me until India to figure it all out! I’ve only been here in Central America for 3 weeks and already my experiences are so different simply because I’m more relaxed, open and being more friendly.

  • Reply MithunOnTheNet July 7, 2011 at 6:40 am

    Came across this post via Reddit/Travel. Because I’m Indian I was a bit worried with where you were heading (fearing the worst, like rape). There’s nothing more upsetting (being a solo traveller myself) than hearing bad things about your own country from fellow travellers.

    It’s true, most locals here just stare at foreigners like they have never anything like it before. And if you’re an attractive white woman, it only gets worse. The sad part is the perception that men here have that white women are ‘easy’ just because they may wear string tops or bikinis at a beach. I’m glad it never went from ‘bad’ to ‘terrible’ for you and I hope you left India with a few good memories.

    Bookmarking your website.

    P.S: I’m from Kerala, though I have yet to put up my photos from my visit to charming Fort Cochin :)

    • Reply MeganRTW July 9, 2011 at 6:56 am

      Thanks for your comment, Mithun! I left India with loads of good memories and I can’t wait to go back. I know many other girls who have had very positive experiences in the country, too – the important thing about traveling in India is to be prepared for the attention and to slightly adjust your behaviour, but don’t go over the top like I did at first!

  • Reply Caz Makepeace July 7, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    I love this post Megan. you are brave for travelling India on your own. I think our fears often get in the way of having authentic experiences with others. Sometimes it only takes a sentence or two from a well meaning stranger to snap us back to reality. Travelling solo as a woman would definitely make you that much more nervous.
    It’s amazing how much can change with a simple smile as well.

    • Reply MeganRTW July 9, 2011 at 6:54 am

      Thanks for your kind words, Caz! I have been smiling like an idiot and talking with so many locals since I got to Guatemala – I still rely on my ‘solo sense’ for not doing silly things like walking alone late at night but I am being so much more open to potential interactions. It’s been great.

  • Reply Erin in Costa Rica July 28, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    I love this post! I have off days sometimes, spreading negative vibes. And I use to have them a lot more in my past, so I’ve gone through a similar ah-hah moment like you did. All we have to do is smile :) Love it!

    • Reply MeganRTW July 30, 2011 at 5:34 am

      I’m definitely feeling the results of my A-ha moment here in Central America, Erin! This trip feels so different to the last and I am most definitely smiling more.

  • Reply Vinay December 17, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    Hi Megan

    I just got to read your stories. I must tell you, its fantastic. Being an Indian, I totally endorse your perspective. Its always better to avoid conversation with stangers and some basic safety steps, you will be fine travlling solo in India. hey, to tell you, the average Indian families are great host and treat tourists well. I will follow your RTW jouney keenly. All the best

    • Reply MeganRTW December 23, 2011 at 9:09 am

      Thanks for your comment, Vinay. I agree – most Indians are so welcoming and are so proud to share their countries with tourists. I can’t wait to go back in 2012!

  • Reply laura December 26, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    As an American I want to apologize on behalf of the losers that weirded you out. I’m not sure where in the US this happened but I don’t believe it to be too common an occurrence.

    When I went to Hong Kong a woman approached me. She began asking me questions about myself, why I was traveling alone, and telling me about her life. I’m from NYC so I default to complete and utter distrust of people. Needless to say, regardless of what her motives may’ve actually been, I got away from her as quickly as humanly possible.

    I think it’s OK to be distrusting, we have to believe in our natural instincts and at the end of the day, I’d rather be too cautious and miss out than guilt myself into being a little more lax and suffer an irrevocable predicament while abroad, alone, and time zones away from my support system.

  • Reply patia January 1, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    good of you to open this thought process up for we women who wonder, “… is it just me ? how in blue blazes do i think this through?”. The best idea i received was from a handsome young man in Paris who attended the Front Desk in the modest hotel where I stayed…. he remarked of a woman who traveled solo with pictures of her kids and mate and warm smiles as she showed them to him when she stayed. Pretentious perhaps but having a wedding band and a picture of family which you might bring out to showcase as “extra protection” was smart then and it is still smart today. Pleasant little experience as well. Be well and thank you for sharing :)

  • Reply patia January 8, 2012 at 5:44 am

    L/NYwrote about TRUST while in China as a “New Comment” – received thoughts via email update. The concept of “Trust” is held deep and dear to our hearts as we would love to plan and travel independently across the globe. BRAVO to you, Megan, our heroine, and more blessings to you as your model for leadership captures our imaginations and simply creates a better world for we girls – your generous spirit of sharing your journey across what can often be a very dangerous experience for a young woman, presenting as a woman in the 21st century. I’d be amiss if i did not point to the obvious – incredible pleasures and wonderful experiences and challenges that certainly override the potential for darkness for most of us most of the time.

  • Reply Emily July 14, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    Great article, Im travelling to India solo in a couple of weeks, and I am slightly worried about it! I went to Egypt, Jordan and Morocco with my boyfriend at the time last year, and I had more than one iffy occurence to do with men, mostly in the times we weren’t together, but also occasionally while he was there. These including groping.. men touching themselves on trains.. and being followed. This is because of two things… firstly I let my guard down and try to as you say, not shut off experiences with the locals. and secondly.. when I get nervous… I cant help but get a big smile on my face. Its a reaction that I have little control over! I’m hoping India will be a learning curve for me in learning how better to act. And that I learn fast enough so my holiday will not become focused on the uneasiness I may feel from unwanted male attention….

    • Reply MeganRTW July 14, 2012 at 6:50 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Emily! If you’ve already been to Egypt, Jordan and Morocco you have some idea of what you may experience in India (such as the staring!). The key is to not let it effect your travels through the region. Overwhelmingingly, people in India are just curious and, as a solo female, people will always be looking out for you. I should clarify that I never, ever felt unsafe in India – just frustrated by the incessant attention!

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