On Women Traveling Alone in India — an Interview with Mariellen Ward

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Mariellen, Tiger Fort, India

Is it safe for a woman to travel alone in India? Yes, it absolutely can be — but traveling in India requires special preparation and practices, especially if you’re a woman.

For this piece, I decided to bring in an expert: Mariellen Ward, a Canadian travel writer and longtime advocate for solo female travel who considers India her “soul culture.” Mariellen is the voice behind Breathe Dream Go, a travel blog focusing on India and the spiritual journey behind travel. She is also the author of Song of India, a short story collection available for free when you sign up for her newsletter.

In this interview, Mariellen reveals how women can travel India safely.

Traveling to India?

Check out the Solo Female Travel in India Guide

You’ve traveled extensively in India. What is it about India that brings you back again and again?

To me, India is the only technicolour country I’ve been to. While I’ve travelled to some fascinating places and had wonderful experiences, India is in a class by itself. “All life is there,” a quote from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, sums it up.

Also, I feel an uncanny affinity for India, and I have since the day I landed back in 2005. I feel India is my “soul culture” … for completely inexpressable reasons. And then there’s the food…

I have travelled in India for 17 months over the last eight years, on six different trips. Most of it was solo travel. I’ve had a few minor incidents — my phone was stolen at a temple in Mumbai by a group of women and my breast was grabbed really quickly by a passing man in Old Delhi — but aside from staring, unwanted attention and people trying to over-charge me, that’s it. Most of my travel in India has been wonderful — exciting, life changing, challenging, rewarding. The great adventure of my life.

The recent attacks on Western women traveling through India have dominated news headlines. What are your thoughts on these horrific events?

I feel heartbroken this is happening in India, heartbroken the women had to suffer these experiences and heartbroken the media has effectively stereotyped India as a dangerous place full of perverts. There are some “badmashes,” no doubt; and Indian society as a whole is not advancing as rapidly as I would like with regards to women’s rights, education and opportunity.

India is a massive nation, with a deeply entrenched, ancient culture currently in the throes of great change. It is, to me, the most fascinating place on earth right now.

I am aware that I am a “white woman” travelling in India, and that I have to face unwanted attention, and take extra precautions. However, personally, I have not had a lot of bad experiences; in fact, I’ve had overwhelmingly good experiences in India. There are many warm, hospitable and helpful people in India, and they are by far the majority.

Ultimately, I think you should travel in India when you’re ready, when you feel called. It’s not for everyone. Go with your eyes open…you may see wondrous things…

Mariellen at Kumbh Mela, India

How can women protect themselves in India?

One, gain an understanding of the culture of India, and how it’s different from the culture you grew up in. In Canada, for example, I might flirt with a waiter. I would not do that in India, where the genders relate differently and the meaning could be misinterpreted.

Two, The attitude you take when you travel in India will influence your experience, in my opinion. Try and have a positive and confident attitude. Be cautious, use common sense, but try and keep your fear in check.

For some reason, India seems to reflect back your inner feelings, expectations and judgments much more quickly and forcefully than other places. If you are afraid, you may have scary experiences. If you are open, trusting and positive (while remaining cautious of course), you are likely to have warm, wonderful experiences. That may sound flakey to some people, but it is honestly my experience and I have heard it from many others as well.

There are some specific tips on my India safety blog post, like getting someone to walk you to a taxi at night and carrying a mobile phone, and my over-riding advice is twofold.

Mariellen, Karnal Lake, India

How should female travelers dress in India? For traditional clothes, is it best to buy a few outfits at markets? Which kinds?

Personally, I’m a big believer in the “when in Rome” school of travel etiquette. Modesty is the key in India. I wear Indian clothes in India, and only modify to make them more western when in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Rishikesh and Goa. Those are the most westernized places in India.

You are already at a disadvantage in India as a western woman, as there are unfortunately many men who view western women as “easy.” Wearing revealing or skimpy clothing just exacerbates that stereotype. On the other hand, wearing modest, Indian clothing gives the signal that you respect the culture. I have found wearing Indian clothes to be a door opener — for the right kinds of doors.

I bring my own shoes, underwear, hats, outdoor gear, all that kind of stuff; and I buy three-piece “suits” (known as a salwar kameez) at stores like FabIndia and Anokhi. And for special occasions, like weddings and some religious events, I wear sarees.

Mariellen with Friends, Taj Mahal

I generally think that wearing a fake wedding ring or pretending to be married while traveling alone isn’t a good idea. You’ve said that you think that this is actually a smart thing to do in India. Could you tell me more about that?

I had an Indian boyfriend from Delhi for many years, and I “upgraded” him to husband when I travelled and wore a gold Indian ring (though that is not an Indian tradition). I found that people were more open, warm and protective towards me when they found out I was a “cultural insider.”

This may not work for everyone, you have to have a familiarity with Indian culture, but it works for me.

I’ve heard that sometimes locals in India will look out for you, especially if they see you getting scammed by others. Have you found this to be true?

Yes, that’s been my experience. Like most Asian countries, India is a very family and community-minded culture, and the social fabric is very strong.

If you are being abused, threatened, cheated or anything like that, and you draw attention to it, the odds are good that people will rally around you and protect you. I think this is especially true for women. I’ve heard many female travelers say this.

There are times when it is just not a good idea to be polite; sometimes you have to speak up, even holler, and make a fuss. Hard for a Canadian like me, but necessary to learn. Having confidence is an important attribute for a female solo traveler.

Mariellen in Chennai

Being a female in a conservative country like India gives you the chance to get to know women intimately in settings where men wouldn’t be welcomed. Have you had any memorable experiences like these?

Oh, yes, too many to recount. I lived in an Indian family home, and was part of my boyfriend’s family, so I had many, many opportunities to interact with the women of the family. They do have a separate world, to a large degree.

When traveling, it’s always a good idea to keep an eye out for groups of women, or women traveling alone, and befriend them. It makes the journey more interesting, safer and you never know where it will lead.

Do you recommend India for first-time solo female travelers, or do you recommend that they start somewhere easier first?

It’s hard to give advice around this, because everyone is different, everyone is on a unique journey. Generally, I advise some hand-holding for your first few weeks in the country, either as part of a group tour or with friends who know India or who are Indian.

I was met at the airport when I first arrived by an Indian man I knew when he was in Canada, many years before. He drove me back to his family’s house in South Delhi…and eventually we became partners and his family basically adopted me.

So, it worked for me! I started with India as first-time solo traveler (except for a short trip in Canada). I was on a spiritual journey, and I was very open, very willing to accept whatever happened as a life lesson. Maybe that’s part of the reason. I know it has worked out well for other women, as well.

Mariellen, Taj Mahal, India, 2006

Many first-time India travelers start off with the Golden Triangle: Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. Do you recommend this route? If not, where else?

Golden Triangle is in many ways a good first route because there is so much tourism infrastructure, whereas in many other parts of the country there is little to none. The only problem is that there are swarms and swarms of people who prey on tourists in this region — beggars, rickshaw drivers, touts, con men, etc. It’s very tiring.

But I do love Delhi (when you get to know it and get out of the central, touristy area) and Rajasthan. I would recommend Rajasthan, for sure, as well as Kerala, for first time travelers.

Which regions in India would you recommend for more seasoned travelers?

Once you have your “India legs” you can begin to branch out and go to the second-tier places, like Rishikesh, Mysore, Pondicherry, Hampi, Mumbai, the tiger reserves and national parks, long train rides…anywhere that has some tourism infrastructure.

For women, I do NOT recommend going too far off the beaten path. Of the highly publicized attacks against foreign women travelling in India over the last couple of years, two were in really remote places that my Indian friends tell me they wouldn’t even travel in.

Mariellen, Elephant Blessing

What would you like to pass on to women traveling on their own in India?

I am very aware that attitudes towards women in India are not the best; women in India do not have the level of respect and freedom we in the west enjoy. But I also think the dangers to female travelers have been somewhat sensationalized by a fear-mongering media. Definitely you have to be cautious, definitely you have to use your common sense and realize you are travelling in a traditional culture.

But I do not think fear is warranted. Fear is a negative attitude that breeds negative experiences. Be cautious, but not fearful. That’s my motto.


Solo Female Travel in India Guide

Mariellen Ward is a professional travel writer and cultural explorer based in Toronto and sometimes Delhi. Breathedreamgo.com, her award-winning travel blog about “meaningful adventure travel,” is inspired by her extensive travels in India. She writes for many print and online sites and founded the WeGoSolo online community for female solo travellers. Mariellen is a Kensington Tours Explorer-in-Residence and the recipient of an Explorer’s Grant, which she will use to trace the life of Mirabai in north India. Though Canadian by birth, Mariellen considers India to be her “soul culture” and has spent many years immersing herself in the culture.

You can also find Mariellen on Facebook and Twitter.

As with any destination, I recommend purchasing travel insurance before traveling to India. I never travel without it and always use World Nomads.

Have you been to India? What are your tips for solo female travelers? Share in the comments!

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