A list of do’s and don’ts for solo travellers and backpackers in India may be overwhelming, but the parameters of safety in India are beyond the framework of rules and regulations, venturing into realms of societal pressure and conduct.
When one talks about safety, two words that follow are rules and regulations. However, when talking about safety of solo travellers and backpackers in India, the parameters range beyond these two regulating words and into the realm of societal norms and consequent morality. When it comes to women, the issue is far more pressing.
India & You talks to solo travellers, backpackers and foreigners about the problems they encountered (or did not), to come up with a comprehensive understanding of the situation.
Warding Off Negativity
While the list of do’s and don’ts are important, there are pressing issues that one needs to address. This includes the negative publicity of India as a rape country. Sexual assaults and rapes are a gory reality in the country with even children not being spared. Take the instance of the female British tourist who jumped out of a hotel window in Agra (west India) to escape an assertive employee knocking on her door.
However, the situation is not rosy elsewhere either. In the United States of America (US), every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted rape or raped in her lifetime. About 215,000 violent sexual crimes were recorded by the police in the European Union (EU) in 2015. A third of these, nearly 80,000 were rapes. More than nine in ten rape victims and more than eight in ten sexual assault victims were girls and women. Comparatively, in 2016, India recorded 106 rapes a day.
In a blog by Mariellen Ward that discusses if it is safe to travel in India, Ward states, “My biggest concern is that the sensationalising of these crimes against women in India is skewing perception; and missing the big picture. I think it is making India seem more dangerous for travellers than it actually is, compared to other countries (in my opinion); and it is taking the spotlight away from the worldwide problem of violence against women.”
A digital story teller, Ward is the founder of Breathedreamgo, a travel site dedicated to transformational travel.
As Ward discusses how sensationalising may have a negative effect on tourism, it is imperative to say, the issue of safety of women travellers needs to be addressed and be a crucial part of overall safety of women in India. This, one can argue, can be achieved not only by means of making laws but by their proper implementation and ensuring a community or a society that embodies values preventing rape or rape culture.
Ayusmita Banerjee, a student of Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in Kolkata (east India) and a solo woman traveller, states, “If you are travelling by train, firstly when you get your tickets you worry about who your co-passengers would be for the journey. From the dress one wears to the way one carries herself, every moment will be under public scrutiny. Then people look at you at airports and stations with your bags as if expecting someone to come and help you. They keep giving stares till they realise you’re on your own. From checking-in to hotels to roaming about the place on your own, people are always trying extra hard to find an excuse to chat with you.”
What one can take away from Banerjee’s statement is a question that needs answers – is it the fear of an unsafe environment that endangers the safety of women travellers in India or the actual rise in crime rates against women? While statistics hints at the latter, it is also often the anticipation that kills.
Kousumee, a solo woman traveller was molested during her stay in a Mcleodganj (north India) hostel. She described the horrible incident that occurred during her return from a sightseeing trip. “I have had a few drinks and the men anticipated that makes me free and available, especially because I was travelling solo. While the incident was particularly hard to overcome, it made me learn an important lesson – to always go for well-known hotel chains as compared to lesser known hostels, when travelling alone.”
The situation is however, not gory everywhere. Souptik Datta, an avid traveller explains that it depends on where one visits. “I have been almost robbed by fake sadhus (religious ascetic) in Varanasi. The shops and autowallahs (auto rickshaw drivers) will mostly misguide you. This also applies while travelling to the capital (Delhi). Then, there is a picturesque village near Bengaluru called Manchanabele Dam. I camped there on a rooftop holding on to a knife because there were more than 40 drunken men on streets below on a Ganesh Chaturthi (Hindu festival) night and they do not like northerners (openly). This is a huge problem I have faced while travelling alone in south. As far as solo female travellers are concerned, most parts of India are not at all safe. There are weird gazes everywhere. However, two places that I found perfectly safe for both men and women are PuducherryAuroville in south India and a small place in Karnataka called Bylakuppe, which is also called Little Tibet. There is a beach area in Karnataka, Gokarana, where there are many secluded hidden beaches. I camped at Halfmoon Beach, and was the only person on that island for the night with a local dog. It was the safest feeling I ever had.”
Oliver Albergo, a tourist from Italy who is currently engaged in documentation of India, states that he found it mostly safe while travelling to different corners. “As a solo male traveller, I have had no problems while travelling across the country, although this was after a long stay in the country, which made me accustomed to its customs. However, for a beginner, the scenario is different,” he says.
It is often endorsed by travel bloggers and travel agents to get acquainted to the culture of a region before venturing there. This not only provides familiarity in an unknown environment but also helps to avoid hassles due to cultural gaps. Similarly, it is also important to scan the mode of transports and safety regulations before travelling to a new place or embarking on an adventure trip. Solo travellers opting for adventure treks/walks/safaris need to be especially mindful, to avert accidents.
Abhishek Bhatia, a writer and filmmaker, states, “The challenges you face while travelling are mostly mental, but, the main problem that crops up in my mind when I think about it, would be the lack of security. The first major issue was on my ride from Leh to Pangong (north India) last year. I was at Leh, looking around for pocket-friendly ways to reach Pangong and back since my permit wouldn’t allow me to enter Pang Valley. Upon asking around I was asked to rent a four wheeler but that would have exceeded my budget and also extended my schedule. I rented out a two-wheeler and set out on my way the next day. Putting aside the horrendous roads of KhardungLa, the major issue that I faced was the stretch from Hunder/Nubra Valley to Pangong Valley via Shyok. Now, when you travel in a group or at least with one other person, any unfortunate incident can be taken care of. But in a place where there’s no network and you’re travelling solo, there was no person to be seen for stretches of hundred kilometres. While the ride was picturesque and beautiful, there wasn’t a road; it was just pebbles, as it used to be the river Shyok, which now has almost ceased to exist. Travelling solo in roads like this is not only tough but mentally challenging. There should be some form of contact with humans maybe in the form of payphones. Because I still have no clue what I could have done if my vehicle broke down in the middle of the road. Well, except waiting for the next vehicle.”
Quoting Tejbir Singh Anand, the vice president of Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI), “I advice solo travellers in India to engage with a licensed tour operator or a partner agency in India. India is a dynamic country and unlike most European countries where one can just hire a car and drive around, tourists have to rely on local transport, app cabs or rentals. One needs to be extra cautious to prevent laundering of money or harm to self and property and more importantly about the condition of the roads. For that purpose, it is better to have a registered operator who is acquainted with the roads and know which one to avail. On the ATOAI website we now have the minimum safety guidelines for each and every activity that we can offer in the country. So there are 31 verticals that we have identified. Now this is not only aimed at the operators but also aimed at the traveller. So if one wants to travel by road or opt for cycle trails or walking trails, one can go to the particular page and understand the standard operating procedure and the minimum basic standards that an agency is following, so that tourists can also be in sync with them.”
Despite mishaps, solo travelling and backpacking is highly recommended by each of the above travellers, who believe that solo travelling in India is like a never-ending adventure, albeit with precautionary measures. Statistics agree, as recent reports and surveys by the government indicate that the number of people who chose themselves as travel companions rose by 14 pc in 2017. According to a report published by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, the northern state of Punjab ranks first when it comes to single women travellers. The report titled ‘Key Indicators of Domestic Tourism in India’ states that despite the lack of safety and the prevalent notion that women are more vulnerable on their own, 40 pc of all single member overnight trips in India were by women. The percentage was actually higher in rural India (41 pc) and marginally lower in cities (37 pc).