No fancy hotels. Rather, I try to blend in. Eating in corner dives, markets, or street corners. Dressed simply, I squeeze into crowded buses or trains. My handbag carries water and snacks. Money and cell phones are hidden close to my body.
My tolerance level is pretty high. I don’t get frazzled or freak out easily. My long-time motto: expect the unexpected.
As I was planning a solo visit to northern India, I tried to prevent dangers. Pre-booked rooms and trains, keeping cautionary tips from Indian friends in mind.
“Don’t Go Out At Night, Unless in a Large Group”
I stuck to that rule. Almost. On three occasions, I ventured out. Admittedly, not totally prepared. As a result, I felt potential dangers each time. Following are my scenarios, including exit strategies, as well as lessons learned from my mistakes.
By the time I got to Jaipur, I was feeling lousy. What my weather app deemed as “unhealthy air quality” kept me bunkered in all day. By mid-afternoon, I felt antsy. My homestay family said it was fine to take in a sound and light show and catch an Uber back.
What they didn’t know was that Uber drivers didn’t seem to go that far out of town at night.
After the show, I patched into Uber. ETA: 20 minutes. Meanwhile, all the visitors drove away in their own cars, with hired drivers, or tour buses. My driver canceled, as did a chain of other Uber drivers.
For the next 30 odd minutes it was just me, and a few creepy men. Stranded.
Then, I saw a cute young Indian honeymoon-like couple. Forget the privacy. I asked them for a ride into town. The nice husband and wife even waited with me at their destination until another Uber came to take me back to my place, safe and sound.
Jumping Bean Jitters
Walking to the outskirts of what ended up as my favorite town, I was thirsty. I sampled six-in-one-chais and chatted with the vendor. This guy wasn’t your ordinary chai wallah. Well-spoken, he commented that he freelances as a guide in Pushkar. And, by the way, he could take me, alone, on his motorcycle, into the hinterlands to see hidden temples and sages.
I went — with just a tad of apprehension. Even when he veered off the road in a secluded area, stopped the motor, and told me to hop off. I was calm.
Hidden in the wilderness was a small cave that served as a temple. It took my breath away. The next stop was a visit with two babas in another cave. The third stop was to a remote temple where a small group of men was praying. My guide called most of the men, brother, or cousin. I felt like a sister. Safe and respected.
In this state of bliss, I didn’t care about the time. But as sunset approached, my driver suggested we return. We said goodbye at his cafe, a good 30-40 minute walk from my hostel. In my drug-free altered state, I didn’t ask him to drop me closer into town or find me another ride.
I spotted an older Indian woman, so walked in tandem with her. She spoke no English, but I understood she worked making chapatis. I stopped when she stopped. I ate dinner next to the fire where her chapatis were puffing up.
Pure bliss. Until I registered the dark night, and no vehicles in these too-narrow-for-a-car streets.
I walked toward the city center and at last, I spotted a cluster of tuk-tuk drivers. The price to my hostel? More than what I paid from one city to another. I said I’d walk. They directed me down a dark alleyway. I high-tailed to the first tourist-friendly spot I could find. I approached the front desk and explained my concerns. He summoned a tuk-tuk driver, negotiated for me, and took a photo of the driver’s license plate.
Potential dangers averted. Safe and sound in my hostel.
Jumping Heart Jitters
Varanasi, one of the most sacred places in India, is not the safest. In fact, my hostel prepared a color-coded map. One color: do-not-enter any time of day. Second color: no-go zone after dark. In theory, great tip. In reality, almost impossible to decipher when you need it.
A highlight in Varanasi is sunset aarti services. Many tour companies suggest riverboat tours to see aarti. Locals nixed that idea.
So I went to aarti, seated on the ground, along with hundreds of people. As one of the few foreigners there, the friendly families next to me, each took selfies with me. I was close to bliss but had a nagging concern about finding a ride to my far away hostel.
I left early, walking the well-lit two-kilometer waterfront stretch equipped with video surveillance. But mid-way, against my instincts, I followed someone’s directions into the maze of the city center to find a ride. I winded through the narrow streets, repeatedly asking where to find a tuk-tuk. At last, I got to a main commercial road.
I approached half a dozen open-aired tuk-tuks. Showed them the name of the street I needed to get to. However, they couldn’t understand me, nor could they read the English script.
Finally, I found someone who nodded affirmatively. I sat in his tuk-tuk, feeling comfortable and safe until three other guys piled in his converted motorcycle. Needless to say, I hopped out.
Stranded, again, I walked around until I found an elderly driver who seemed to be able to read my address. However, once on the road, my GPS kept showing we were getting farther and farther from the destination. Through gestures, the driver assured me he knew the best roads. I guess he did. He dropped me off, again, safe and sound.
- Skip the night outings unless you pre-arrange return transportation.
- Always carry a fully-charged smartphone with international service or a local SIM card.
- Be assertive. Ask for what you need from people with whom you feel comfortable.
- Trust your instincts.
- Never ride in a non-shared vehicle with other passengers.
- Bring your address written in the local script.
- Never go down dark alleyways.
- Avoid clusters of men.