When I was twenty-one years old, I had already lived on four continents. Thus, the thought of spending ten weeks alone in India did not frighten me nearly as much as it did my parents. Fearless, spontaneous and inquisitive, I was a true traveler in the best and the worst ways. Despite my experience, I had never traveled like this. I had never gotten on a plane with more than a backpack and an incomplete itinerary. What I learned from my time in India is that traveling alone is less glamorous if you are a woman. Women must calculate risk uniquely. We are seldom in the position to take a chance.
During my first week in India, I found myself in Jaipur, a city in the desert of Rajasthan. On my last day there, I headed to the Amber Fort, a beautiful palace built of sandstone and marble that sits atop a small mountain. The heat of the Indian desert in June feels like walking into a sauna with – if you are a woman – long pants and a shirt that covers your shoulders. I hired a tour guide for the trip who offered a reasonable rate and was very kind. I wore a fake wedding ring, and he asked me about my husband. I lied beautifully: “My husband is a lawyer and is waiting for me in our hotel room.” I hated relying on a man, albeit a fake man, to feel safe, but I learned to do it frequently in India.
After an hour or two, it was time to leave. My tour guide said, “You can either walk, or you can ride down on my motorcycle.” The trip down was far; I had ridden on an elephant on the way up. It was over one hundred degrees outside. I had never ridden on a motorcycle. The choice was clear. “I’ll go with you,” I replied.
As the words left my mouth, a voice in my head shouted, “Are you actually about to get on a motorcycle with a strange man you met an hour ago?” Another voice replied, “Yes, you are.”
“Put your arms around me, for safety” he said. I gripped the sides of the vehicle instead. He accepted the choice, and we were off. As we winded down the path of that ancient Indian palace, I felt an unknown sense of freedom and excitement. I smiled as the warm wind grazed my face: Today I’ve ridden on an elephant and a motorcycle, I thought. Even if this is the last thing I do, it will be worth it. Luckily, it was not. At my request, he took me back to my taxi where I paid him and we went our separate ways.
A month later I was much less confident in the goodness of humanity. I was sick of receiving constant attention from men. I felt like most people I met tried to rip me off. Nevertheless, what I love most about traveling is the spiritual experience of solitude. I did not want this taken away from me. Many mountains surround Dharamsala, the North Indian city where I lived. One day my friend Ted raved about a day hike he took alone the week before. He told me it was a well-marked path and that I should go as well. I thought that sounded like a good way to spend my Saturday.
On the way up the mountain, I got lost and ran into a man who offered to guide me. Knowing my pepper spray and pocketknife were close by, I agreed. I walked with him for a few hundred yards and then he went on his way. “See,” I thought, “there are nice people in the world!” When I reached the top of the mountain, I was speechless: peaks filled with Tibetan prayer flags surrounded me. Horses grazed freely. There was a striking view of Dharamsala, and I spent at least an hour taking it all in.
Around 3pm clouds starting rolling over the mountain. Imagine a distant white cloud floating towards you until you are entirely encapsulated by it and cannot see two feet ahead. It is amazing and terrifying. A cloud like that meant rain. Unless I left immediately, I would be caught hiking blindly in a monsoon.
I walked quickly through the fog on the trip down. Very suddenly, I noticed a man walking a few feet behind me. “Where did he come from?” I thought, but I stayed calm and kept moving. The man hurried to catch up with me and began walked directly beside me, in sync with my step. I noticed he was wearing sandals. That seemed weird.
“I’m your friend,” he said with a grin. I did not respond. He then held out a pack of cigarettes and offered me one; I said “No” firmly. “I’m your friend, you’re my sister,” he insisted. I grew increasingly uncomfortable, “I am not your sister. Please walk ahead of me.” I stopped to let him pass. He took a several steps, then stopped and turned around.