As a woman traveller making my way through Kerala alone, I was often asked if I was Indian.
Now, I look more Indian than most Indians. So my response was a part-amused, part-incredulous “yes.” And what followed was usually different versions of the questions, “Indian girls backpack? Are you not scared?”
While I don’t understand why the onus of being scared lies with Indian women alone, I do understand the skepticism, because the country is thought to be unsafe for women to even step out alone in the evenings, let alone to travel solo.
But I backpacked solo as a budget traveller through Kerala and bits of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and the Andaman and Nicobar islands for six months in 2014, leaving behind a well-paying, comfortable job and my cushy, sunny apartment to get on the road. To stay within my budget, I stayed in the dustiest hotels and the most nondescript home-stays. And even though it was jarring to hustle through the roughest roads in crammed government-run buses that are completely lacking in efficient shock absorbers, I survived.
I loved the idea of doing it all alone but solo backpacking can be difficult, particularly if you’re doing it in India. So, in case you plan to join the struggle, here are a few tidbits that could be of help.
- Bring along only as many bags as you have hands. Backpacking means doing the dirty (and clean) jobs yourself. And that includes carrying all that you pack. Haversacks, for me, have come to symbolise independence because you can’t be truly independent till you are capable of carrying all you got. Kinda symbolic of life, isn’t it?
- Fortify your backpack with an industrial-power pepper spray because if it comes down to using it, you should be able to spray and run. I slapped a guy on Hawa Beach in Kovalam when he groped me, so he got six of his cronies to try and bully me. I made my way out of the crowd screaming, punching and pepper-spraying before a bunch of locals came around to help. Do maintain this thumb rule though: Use the spray only when there is no risk of it being turned on you.
- Own your surroundings. A backpack and camera gear make you look like the traveller you are but can often get you a lot of undesirable attention. So, look like you know the place. Don’t ask strangers for directions and advice, or refer to maps in public places. Instead, jump into a restaurant to look up the map. Also, before getting out, get your host to mark out the places that are considered unsafe for women. And ideally, if you’re visiting the marketplaces and local attractions, aim for the early evening hours—this is a “family-friendly” time when a lone woman doesn’t get undue attention.
- A little fun hurts no one. Smile at the bus conductor, the girl in the seat next to you, the old lady in the shop, the kite-flying child in the alley, and even the cow on the road. Really, a happy, shiny face will take you far. Because I dazzled a bus driver in Munnar with the brightest smile, he happily gave me an extra two minutes to gather all my heavy things and get off the bus.
- Find an address beforehand. For many, the fun of backpacking lies is in reaching a new place and then finding a room to stay at. But I keep that for group trips. When travelling alone, book a place in advance for at least a day to get a feel of the place, learn which parts are safe, and find your way around. No nasty surprises that way.
- Trim the frills. I carried an old, run-down backpack during my travels which camouflaged my fabulous SIGMA 150-500 mm, 10-20 mm lens, and Canon 7D, besides my laptop and other electronics. The idea is not to stand out; you don’t want your gear to scream “expensive” lest it gets stolen.
- Get your street-smart on. Book transport that will get you to your destination while it’s still bright outside. Spend extra on a cab if you have to during late hours; and ask cops for help. I was at Varkala’s North Cliff when I completely ran out of cash at 9 PM. Since I had already had a meal and the establishment didn’t accept cards, (and the entire strip was quaintly free of ATMs), I trekked through the thronging area, reached a town square and spotted a few police officers. I presented my problem to them and one of them graciously drove me to a cash machine 5 kilometres away and back. This also brings me to another point—carry as much cash as is safe and possible.
- When in Rome, do the Toga. Carry a sari with you when travelling so you’re guaranteed entry into some of the fabulous temples around south India. (PS: Padmanabhan temple, I’ll come back for you one day in all my mundu-glory!) Invest in local handloom. Just do.
- This one’s peculiar to Kerala. The people here love tea, coconuts, politics and staring! It’s not a molest-you-with-my-eyes kind of stare—it’s just a stare of intrigue. As you walk by, be prepared for a whole bunch of people to stop sipping their teas, put away the newspapers, and stare at you in leisure. Stare back if you wish, or just walk on. (Actually, with the exception of coconuts, this could be all of India!)