“Are you really going to India by yourself?” The smile on my mum’s face dropped, and was replaced with shock in her eyes. This seemed to be the typical response whenever I mentioned travelling solo to India.
The words ‘fear’ and ‘India’ seemed to be synonymous to each other. However, India was always a place that fascinated me, and as I watched some of my friends who travelled there come back with a newfound sense of life, marvelling at how incredible their trip was and dreaming of going back, this fascination only grew.
I needed to visit this magical place, and spontaneously bought a one-way ticket to Goa in December 2016 with no plan of what the next few months would hold in store for me.
I spent a month in the South, exploring the laid-back beaches of Goa and the mind-blowing prehistoric rock formations of Hampi, but it was Northern India that truly stole my heart.
My unforgettable three months in Northern India began in Jaipur. Also known as the Pink City, because its buildings were constructed out of pink stones, Jaipur is vibrant with historical architecture and colorful bazaars. With dazzling palaces that looked like they were out of a Disney fairytale, impenetrable fortresses and an endless selection of market stalls, Jaipur was an explosion of activity, scents and sounds.
Then, I caught a bus to Pushkar, a holy town with mountainous views on one side, and stunning views of the Thar Desert on the other. It was like a whole new world here. Every morning, I would walk pass the herd of cows that grazed near my guesthouse, greet the sadhu (a religious devotee of Hinduism that abstains from worldly pleasures) that lived near the bridge and pass the smiling shopkeepers who would acknowledge me with a “namaste, ji.” This quaint little town quickly became my home for three weeks, as I fell in love with its laid-back vibe and friendly people.
My final destination was located further up North. Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of India, nestled at the foothills of the Himalayas. This town is the gateway to some of India’s most scenic trekking trails, and home to the aqua-blue waters of the sacred Ganga River. Days were spent practicing yoga, taking in the picturesque views at the many selection of healthy cafes or exploring the surrounding natural surroundings. Rishikesh was the perfect location to unwind from the rest of my trip.
I was quickly enthralled by Northern India’s sights, delicious food and welcoming culture. I grew to love the chaos in the streets when I realised how entertaining it all actually was – some of my most memorable nights were spent sitting at a local corner-shop sipping chai and watching the craziness of it all. India is a country of contradictions, and to understand its beauty, I had to look past all its externalities.
Traveling alone was definitely challenging at times. As I was in India shortly after the money crisis occurred, it was often difficult to find a functioning ATM. On one instance, all the ATMs in Pushkar weren’t working, and I had to ride a bus for an hour, then pay a lot of money to a tuk-tuk driver in the next town. It probably took 10 attempts before I found a working one.
Then there was that time I convinced myself that I knew how to ride a scooter. The first time that happened, the scooter skidded under me and somehow fell. Thankfully, the accident left more marks on the scooter then it did on me. The second time, I almost ran into a little kid who didn’t seem to understand English and refused to move away from the road (again, luckily nobody got hurt).
Regardless, this trip changed my life in so many positive ways. I’d been travelling solo through Europe and Nepal for six months by the time I decided I was going to India, but India was so different to anything I’d ever experienced.
Solo travelling through India opened my eyes to the completely different realities that people live in, and here are some lessons that I took from my trip.
Always Trust Your Instincts
This is the number one lesson that I learnt. Your intuition is your most valuable tool, especially when you are by yourself. Don’t be afraid to follow your instincts if you are in a situation where you feel stuck because when something feels right, it usually is.
Trusting my instincts also opened doors to so many new opportunities that I never would have experienced whilst I was in Northern India. The more I became comfortable with myself, the better I became at adapting to new and unfamiliar situations.
My almost non-existent sense of direction meant that I was constantly lost. Even with Google Maps, roads in India can be a confusing muddle of alleyways, and I couldn’t read any of the street signs. Most of the time, I had to memorise the multiple ways I could get to my guesthouse by identifying a certain landmark, and sometimes I would end up at a place I was supposed to be with no idea how I even got there!
Jaipur was the first Indian city I travelled to, and its never-ending traffic, crowds of people and thick layer of dust that permeated the air were all sensory overloads that left me overwhelmed. I was constantly being hassled to buy something everywhere I went, and felt like I had to always watch my back, especially in tourist areas. During my first few days there, I was lonely, tired and vulnerable.
But vulnerability doesn’t necessarily have to be a drawback. It taught me how to break down the walls of my limited beliefs and step outside my comfort zone. If I was lonely, I had no choice but to try and make friends, which always ended up being easier than I thought it would be. Being vulnerable taught me how to open up to new people and to reflect on my own emotions instead of running away from them.
Trust the Kindness of Strangers
I’m sure that we’ve all been told not to trust strangers as we were growing up. Solo travel really disputed that perspective in my eyes, and so many times have strangers ended up as a good friend or saviour in disguise.
Walking down the main streets of Pushkar always brought a new, random adventure. One of my fondest memories was of the time I was utterly lost in looking for my guesthouse, and ended up somewhere random in the Thar desert. I passed by a yard with a camel sitting in it, and naturally, stopped to take a photo. A little girl came out of the house next to it and grabbed my hand, pulling me towards the garden that her mother was tending to.
I ended up spending the afternoon with their family, even though none of them spoke a word English. It was a beautiful experience- they shared some fruit with their garden with me, we somehow still managed to communicate despite the language barrier and I learnt so much about Pushkar’s culture just by that single experience.
Northern India does have a reputation for being more dangerous compared to the South, with higher rates of theft and other crimes, but it is generally pretty easy to meet people travelling in Northern India as most places have established ‘traveller areas’ with cafes and restaurants.
As a female, it can get a bit daunting when approached by local men. If they are just trying to make conversation, maintain a friendly but assertive attitude. But if you feel uncomfortable around them, make it clear that you are uninterested, and walk away. Sometimes the men in Northern India are overbearing, but stay strong and remain confident.
However, don’t be afraid to make friends with locals! Most of them generally just want to help you, and are as curious about your culture as you are about theirs.
Acknowledge Life in a Different Light
No matter how many stories I was told or how many pictures I had seen of India, nothing would have ever prepared me for the reality of being there. Mountains of garbage cover one side of a street, yet lavish houses fit for royalty stand proudly on the other. Understandably, it can be a puzzling and difficult place to travel to for some.
The best part about Northern India is that there are so many different landscapes you are able to enjoy. For example, I went camping at a beautiful, secluded waterfall overlooking the Himalayas in Rishikesh, witnessed a very special sunset aarti where thousands of people swarmed to the holy Ganga River to sing praises in Haridwar, and lived in an ashram for a month to study yoga.
There is so much to enjoy beyond the big cities of Northern India such as nature, culture and mouth-watering food. The trick is to look beyond the obvious – seek out activities that interest you instead of sticking to the usual touristy things everyone else does. That’s when you’ll really get a dose of the magical India that you’ve heard so much about.