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.
The man stood 10 feet below, blocking the path and staring at me. Running up the mountain would be futile. I was terrified, but had no other option: I had to pass him. I would do it quickly and confidently. I took a deep breath and walked down the trail, but as I passed he grabbed my arm and twisted it. I screamed out and fell to the ground, where he kept me from moving. In that moment of contact all I could think was: “I am about to be raped.” He separated himself from me to remove his pants, giving me the moment I needed to pull out my pepper spray and pocketknife. Before I thought to use either weapon, I rolled onto my feet and started running away, tripping over my water bottle, phone and other items that were left behind. Sometimes people will praise me for getting away, but nothing that happened in those two, maybe three minutes was a choice: it was an entirely instinctive, adrenaline-based reaction.
With pepper spray in one hand and my knife in the other, I ran. He chased after me, but I did not look back. When I started running, he was pulling his pants back up. I had a head start. I looked down at my hiking boots as I jumped between rocks, trying not to sprain an ankle, and thought of his sandals. “You can outrun him,” I told myself. I turned my head and saw his shadow through the fog. He was still chasing me.
“Get yourself together,” I told myself out loud, “Don’t f**king cry. Don’t be such a baby. Just keep running. You can cry later.” I kept hoping I would find somebody, but the path was barren. It seemed like everybody had descended before the clouds rolled in.
Finally the man gave up, but I still didn’t feel safe. Who else might be on this mountain? Does he know a shortcut to ambush the trail further ahead? I did not stop running for an hour and a half, continuing to yell at myself: “Don’t cry, just get off the mountain.” Eventually I came upon an Australian couple hiking with a guide. I managed to blurt out, “Can I walk with you?” before bursting into tears.
This experience changed my perspective. I got angry. We live in a world where my friend, Ted can hike a well-marked path on his own, but I cannot. The threat of rape became a reality. I felt like an idiot for going on a hike alone. I needed to accept that I was oppressed by my gender, that I had very little control and that taking risks is a privilege not all of us have.
Every society asks women to monitor their actions instead of demanding that men change their behavior. I was not surprised, but I was hurt, when the first question the Australian couple asked me was “Wasn’t there somebody you could have hiked with?” I did not think what happened was my fault, but I also realized that my desire to deconstruct patriarchy did not mean I could separate myself from the system.
When we got to the bottom I answered a lot of questions: Why didn’t you use the pepper-spray when he attacked you? Why were you hiking alone? Why didn’t you stab him? Why didn’t you stop right away to tell somebody? In my head I was screaming: this is what it means to blame a victim, guys.
After several weeks living in Dharamsala, I felt comfortable. I felt safe. When a friend told me I should take a day hike alone on a busy path, I didn’t think twice. What I learned from that experience was this: always think three times. I looked back to that motorcycle ride. That was so stupid! He could have taken me anywhere. He could have murdered me. But now, almost three years later, I have the memory of overlooking a mountainous Indian countryside while speeding down a narrow path on the backseat of a motorcycle. I am happy I have that, but I doubt I will ever trust another stranger the way I trusted him.
Women should take risks. Women should travel alone. It is not fair for us to live in constant fear, nor should we. However, we must also accept and adapt to the reality of wherever we travel, rather than challenging preexisting and culturally specific gender binaries we cannot control.
A month after the hike I left Dharamsala to travel alone again. I still took risks, but I took smaller, safer risks. I became very cautious: once in Haridwar I spent a whole day in my hotel room after the concierge barked that only sluts travel alone. But still, of course, I persevered I traveled alone on a train. I walked the streets of Delhi alone during the day, and took rickshaw and taxi rides by myself. I meditated in Rishikesh. I slept in the Golden Temple of Amritsar, and danced on the border of India and Pakistan; for the most part, I felt happy and safe doing these things, but somehow, everything had changed.
You can read more from Alison Vingiano on her blog.
Feature image via.