Solo traveling is wonderful. Overall. But there are some things I wish I knew before I went off on my first adventure as a solo traveler. When we plan a trip, we tend to imagine it from highlight to highlight. Crazy temperatures, sweaty armpits and uncomfortable situations? No way! We just fantasize about the beautiful places we will see. It doesn’t really cross our minds that there are still 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in every minute. And they can’t all be perfect and instagramable.
I think my first experience as a solo traveler (to India) illustrates this perfectly. Keep in mind that I was VERY young and VERY insecure at the time 😉
Welcome to F’ing India
When I arrived in New Delhi, I remember stepping out of the airport in the middle of the night. When the sliding doors opened, it was like stepping into a hot oven. Taxi drivers were yelling, screaming, pulling my backpack and there I was: In 40 degrees celsius, having my first India experience and it wasn’t pretty. To be completely honest, I felt the urge to turn around and take the first flight back to Holland.
I found the driver I was looking for and started the ride to the Nehru Bazar. Along the way I passed a garbage dump. Little kids were going through the gigantic mountains garbage. The smell was unbearable and yet there they were. Filthy, hungry and poor. When I reached my hotel, a man was sleeping next to a cow on the dirty streets. The hotel owner kicked him away when he helped me carry my backpack. As I locked myself into my room for the night, I couldn’t escape the noise, the smell and the heat. Just as I wanted to switch off the light, I noticed a huge cockroach in my bedroom. Welcome to F’ing India.
One does not simply cross the Nehru Bazar
The next morning, I wanted to take a shower. As I looked in the tub while trying to figure out how the shower worked I saw a bunch of cockroaches crawling around in the tub and I decided that taking a shower was a NOPE. I walked to the balcony in the hallway and looked over the Nehru Bazar that was bursting with life. I remember just sitting there for an eternity before I actually dared to step outside. Boy was I up for a challenge.
Morning view over the Nehru Bazar
I learned that one does not simply cross the Nehru Bazar. No. It takes about 300 salesmen who are deaf to the word no, 150 beggars who cling to your arms trying to get a rupee out of you and atleast 5 near death experiences with reckless riksha drivers. I really wanted to see the beauty of it all but the chaos was simply too overwhelming for my brain to process. And I will never forget the heat, the smell and the terrible thick smoggy air. The experience of trying to buy a train ticket to Varanasi is one I really don’t want to go back to so let’s just say I felt filthy, hot, tired and defeated after roughly 12 hours in India.
The narrow street leading to the trainstation
Even lunch was a challenge
After some more near-death experiences making my way back to the bazar, I suddenly felt hungry. There were little streetfood stands and restaurants everywhere, but which one to pick? I learned to always go for the one with the biggest line of locals, but there was one of my problems: I felt extremely uncomfortable with the local men all staring at me as if they had never seen a girl before. I didn’t really dare to enter the eateries on my own. After a few blocks I found a place where a hippie traveler was seemingly enjoying the food. That looked like the best option so far.
As I sat down, I immediately had that uncomfortable feeling again. Eating alone wasn’t something I was used to. Looking at the menu I had no idea what to order. And the cockroaches, they were e-ve-ry-whe-re! I felt the need to talk to someone but there was no one to talk to… Except for the long haired hippie. Luckily, he broke the ice by starting the conversation and I remember exactly how it went:
Hippie: “Hey man, you new in India?”
Me: “Yes is it that obvious?”
Hippie: “Yeah man, you still have the deer in the headlights look but it will wear off in a few days. This country is awesome man. And you know what?” *points at the swastika symbol on the temple across the street* “They love Hitler in this country man!!”
I tried to explain that the swastika symbol has a totally different meaning in the Hindu belief but he wouldn’t have it. He had spent 6 months in India and All he had learned was that the whole country were a bunch of Nazi sympathisants. Believe it or not, it made me feel a little better.
The first riksha ride
When I was planning my trip, one of the things I was looking forward to was doing a riksha ride. So after my first lunch, I decided to go for it. It didn’t go as expected at all. I found a riksha and told the man I wanted to go to the Red Fort. The price the riksha driver names was ridiculous. I knew it should cost me about 70-100 rupees so I haggled. As a result, the man got offended and started yelling at me. And again, all around me were men staring at me. I ended up paying tripple the amount I had in mind and went off to the fort.
Before I go on I need to tell you that traffic in India is crazy. A 3 lane road is used as if it has 8 lanes and driving against the traffic is perfectly normal. In the poorer area’s of Delhi, children run across the busy roads when they spot a foreigner in a riksha, risking their lives to reach you to get some rupees. I was in no way prepared for the experience. I pretty much had my eyes closed the whole way and I was genuinly surprised when I reached the Fort in one piece.
Red Fort in Delhi
The fort was absolutely gorgeous. Although I still felt insecure, I did feel proud for reaching the fort. I walked around enjoying the garden and the views. There weren’t as many people staring at me so that was probably the first relief of the entire day. It didn’t last long though… A group of boys had spotted me and came up to me. Without asking they started posing with me while the other guys took pictures. It was perfectly fine, they didn’t really do anything besides invading my privacy, but because I was alone I did feel intimidated. This was something I had to learn to deal with over the next month.
Sharing the ride, and dinner!
As the sun started to set, I decided to take a riksha back to the area of my hotel. I walked to the side of the road and got overwhelmed by the amount of riksha drivers who were all over me. Time to bargain and see if I could do better. So there I was, sweaty, tired, overwhelmed yelling over a few cents for a deathride back to my hotel. I felt ridiculous. Luckily a Canadian couple spotted me struggle. They offered to share the riksha and seriously, I wanted to hug them. Now I knew what the rides were like, and I had people to share the experience with, it was so much better!
We had a good laugh and after sharing my first-day experiences with them they invited me to come and have dinner with them. I listened to their amazing stories about India over a fantastic curry. When we said goodbye, I had a beer at the balcony of my hotel. Overlooking the now quiet bazar I had no idea how to feel. I felt like I had failed the test for solo travelers, but somehow managed not to drown.
I promised myself that tomorrow would be better.
And it was.
Are you planning a trip to India?
If you are a woman traveling alone please keep in mind that India has been marked “Unsafe”. That doesn’t mean you can’t go but please do your research in advance and always keep your eyes wide open.
1: India is a big country so check out where you want to start your trip. Order your guide on Amazon.com (Lonely Planet did the trick for me)
2: Find a good deal for your ticket on Skyscanner.com
3: I really recommend to book atleast the first two nights in advance. For most people getting used to India takes a while. Knowing where to go from the airport really helps! If possible, have your hotel pick you up when you arrive. Saves you from a lot of stress 😉 Booking.com usually has the best deals.