From Our ReadersWomen Traveling Alone: The Risks And The DangerFrom Our Readers

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.

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  1. Thank you for this great and insightful article – very vivid and moving. I just wish the title of this piece was worded to both caution AND inspire women – not just to create fear. Solo travel is a beautiful thing and taking risks is a part of our shared human experience.

  2. I am currently studying away in Morocco and I cannot tell you how true the statement that men and women are not equal in their abilities to travel alone in this world freely is. I cannot leave my college campus without men yelling at me, pulling over and asking me to get in their cars, and the constant staring. In Marrakech a group of men tried to grab me and my friends as we were walking with one of my guy friends. We had to literally tear our arms away from them. It’s been extremely annoying having to rely on men to do anything off of my college campus, and if I do go off campus I have to bring at least 3 other girls with me. But in the end I’m glad that I’m here and I have the opportunity to live in such a beautiful country for 4 months. In the end I think it makes me stronger as a woman. I’m now not afraid to stand up for myself and tell people that I’m not going to be walked all over. It’s empowering and belittling at the exact same time. I hope everyone gets a chance to travel abroad and see how intense, amazing, wonderful, and terrifying traveling alone as a woman can be. I’m so glad that this post was written. I really appreciated the fact that she was so open about her experiences and frustrations!

  3. This article has come at a perfect time for me. I’m debating travelling alone this summer in Ireland. I want to spend 4 weeks in Dublin to take dance classes and experience the arts scene because I feel drawn to the work of the dance companies in that city. My friends don’t have the time or money to do this trip, and part of the reason I was to do it is to experience a different kind of independence, to not be on someone else’s schedule for once. It is a shame, I’ve realized, that women have to be so cautious with our adventures. Like you said, being able to travel alone is a privilege that not everyone shares. Doing this is important to me though, and it’s reassuring to read that you still encourage solo travel even after your experience in India. Thanks for the article :)

    • Yes! Absolutely do it. That sounds like it would be a great experience for you. Solo travel just makes you more who you are.

    • Last summer, I also spent some time in Dublin. It is great! I did take some risks like walking by myself at night and exploring new places during the day, but I don’t regret anything I did there. The arts scene is truly incredible. I recommend the Abbey Theatre

  4. This is a very brave and raw post which I have found inspiring and insightful all rolled into one! Well done for writing this – I’m sure many women will appreciate this piece, as I have done.

  5. This post was so real and riveting. I think Ali should be one of your regularly featured authors. Her perspective speaks to all women and I felt that this advice was great. So glad she was open and candid with her experience.

  6. Hi Alison,

    I know that to sympathize is futile now, but you do have my empathy. I live in India, and I love my country, but yes, it is NOT s safe place which encourages people to have faith and belief in a fellow country person.

    People here, man or woman, have their share of insecurities. It is a nation whose leaders are selfish and misguided, youth disillusioned and old who have seen everything.

    This is not a snake charmer country or any such thing, we have well educated people too. But it’s the character that matters, the ingrained sensibilities. India is a nation of oppressed women. Where women are almost always never thought equal.

    Hope you have better experiences on your other travels !

    Swathi Narumanchi

  7. I have been travelling and living in different countries for a year now. I ran away at 19 and did multiple solo overseas trips in my teens. The first reaction I get from people when they find out I’m alone is “wow, you’re so brave!” And that has kind of annoyed me.

    I have met about 50 other solo (mostly young 20-27) female travellers in all my time travelling and only 2 solo male travellers. (An American in Amsterdam who was living in Spain, and one in Salzburg. That is it.)

    I have had no problems, I’m not “fearful” of travelling alone, but I am prepared. It sucks that I have to think about the fact that my body attracts unwanted attention and that just talking to a man is often percieved as an “invitation”. It sucks that I have to carry weapons for my own safety and it sucks my family has to worry. But I would absolutely recommend travelling solo, it has been an amazing journey so far with no end in sight.

    But I wish people wouldn’t look at me in such a ‘wow, how unusual of you, a pretty white girl travelling alone with just a backpack!’ when in reality, that is not at all unusual or exceptionally “brave”.

    I’ve always wanted to go to India … your article has only increased that desire. The point of travelling is to experience the world, and other cultures. And other cultures view women as inferior – still! Experiencing that will only fuel my fire and give insight. Can’t wait to be there!

  8. This was awesome – and really reasonated with how I feel when I’m travelling – that balance of travelling solo (which I love) and keeping yourself safe. There’s a few things I look back on and wonder if it was the best choice but some of my most memorable travelling experiences happened that way. I guess it’s about trusting your instincts and, like you say, taking smaller, calculated risks.