••• The International Writers Magazine - India
Traveling India solo: Pros & cons
There's no place on Earth quite like India. Physically, it's a huge land mass with seemingly endless and diverse regions, culturally, it's distinct from many other places tourists tend to go (e.g. Southeast Asia, East Asia, Europe, the Caribbean), and historically ... wow, there's quite a lot to take in!
Originally from the US, I've been traveling extensively for the past decade-plus (mostly in Asia) and I'd always wanted to do a longer-type trip in India. I finally had my chance at the beginning of 2023, when the weather was right (December to February are the winter months in India, meaning no scorching temperatures or interminable rains) and I had enough free time. I thought a friend or two might join me during the trip, but that didn't happen so I ended up doing it solo. And in the interest of helping future travelers navigate this vast and fascinating world, I'd like to share some of the things I learned.
India is a safe place. Never once during my 5-6 weeks of travel time did I feel unsafe or like someone wanted to rob or inflict any other form of violence on me. People are fairly laid back, there are no guns, and even in crowded neighborhoods (e.g. the slums of Mumbai) things feel pretty OK. For example, at one point I went to a place called Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi – a Sufi Muslim shrine, which is in a densely packed warren of extremely narrow alleys – and my tuk-tuk driver warned me to be careful of pickpockets. However, not only did I not lose my wallet, but it turned out to be one of the top experiences of my trip, as the atmosphere in the shrine area was serene and otherworldly! Will you get ripped off in India? Hell yeah! (More on that later). But that's different than getting mugged or feeling threatened.
|There are so many things to see & do! This is a region with thousands of years of history – it's the site of some of the worlds original civilizations as well as the cradle of Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, etc. – so there's a ton of places to visit. If you're interested in ornate and crumbling temples and palaces, unthinkingly enormous forts and things like that, you've come to the right place! Rajasthan, in particular (a state in the northwest) has plenty of that stuff.
Also the Indian landscape is so diverse that it's no problem whatsoever to, say, go on a camel safari in the middle of the desert (see Jaisalamer) one week and be up in the misty foothills of the Himalayas attending a teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (in Dharmshala) the next.
It's definitely cheap. I've spent an ample amount of time in Southeast Asia in the past, which I thought was darn affordable, but then I got to India and discovered my money went even further! Of course, the amount of cash you spend also depends on the level of comfort you seek, but it's not hard to, for example, find a decent hotel for $15-20 a night (and yes, there are much cheaper ones), spend $3 (or less) on all your meals and pay around $8 for a six-hour bus ride. It funny, because the more you travel, the more you realize that the price of stuff is relative – I remember being shocked the first time I got a haircut in India, thinking the guy'd made a mistake when he told me it was only 150 rupees (less than $2), as the previous cut I had in downtown Philadelphia cost me, I kid you not, $35! (that's a 94% increase) for basically the same end-product. But that's the point and what you need to understand when traveling in India – that even though the equivalent of 150 rupees ($2) is what you'd be charged to add extra guac to your burrito at Chipotle in the US, it's a significant amount of money in India, as you can buy a decent lunch with it, etc.
You're basically a walking cash machine to certain segments of the population. I had to learn this the hard way, but whenever a stranger approaches you on the street in India, no matter how nice and friendly they appear, they're always (always!) trying to sell you something.
Here's how this scenario goes: You'll be strolling along in the heart of some historical (read 'tourist') district, when the guy walking next to you will suddenly turn and say, "Hey bro, where you from?" "The USA." "Oh, America, good country! My uncle works there in Houston" [fill in the blanks with the relative/city of your choice]. "So, where are you going today? "Uh, I'm just walking around." "Do you want to see some real miniature paintings [a traditional style of painting in Rajasthan]? My brother is an artist ... his shop is just around the corner."This is the simplified version of this dialogue, to which there are many other variations, including everything from getting invited back to a 'friendly' lady's house to drink milk tea with her family, where her brother tells you she's collecting foreign currency for 'her course at the university' :-), to being handed a flower by a random dude in Pushkar that you're supposed to 'drop it in the lake', only to be later led to a specific spot on said lake by a 'confederate' of the first guy and then given 'instructions' about the proper ceremonial way to dispose of the flower by another man – none of which you asked for – only afterwards being charged a whopping sum for this 'helpful information' (or so I heard; I realized what was going on right before I almost fell for this scam and walked away at the last second).
I'm not trying to make anyone unduly wary about traveling in India. Like I said, it's a very safe place. It's just that you should keep in mind that certain segments of the population (mostly English speakers working in the tourist industry) will see you as a walking ATM machine and subtly try to 'extract funds' from you at every turn. If you can get used to saying 'no' or simply ignoring them (this is hard at first, especially when they seem so genuinely friendly), you'll save a lot of time (and possibly money), but the most important thing to remember, like I said, is that most these guys don't actually want to be your friend, no matter how sociable they appear – they're simply doing their job.
I should probably also add a quick word about bargaining in India here. Some of the people that work the tourist/souvenir shops are absolute masters at this and will no doubt leave you with your head spinning and a scarf you didn't really need in your hands at some point. I'm not very good at bargaining myself, so I can only say that these guys sometimes start at a super-high initial price, and then when you bring it down significantly (or so you think) during the negotiation process – like by more than 50% percent – they'll pretend they don't want to sell it at such a 'low' price, but then at the very last second, as you're walking out the door, they'll suddenly agree, meaning you've probably paid more than the market value of the item even though you thought you were getting a good deal. This process, by the way, can also happen in shops with prominent signs on the walls stating "Fixed Price Only"!
|And let's not even get into tuk-tuk (aka auto rickshaw) and taxi drivers! Let's just say it's best to negotiate the price of one before getting in. Some 'friendly' drivers will say things like, "You can pay me what you want", or – and this one I love – "Money's not the most important thing", but will then proceed to quote you an outrageous price when you reach your destination!
Damn it's crowded, yes it can be dirty, & be careful what you eat. This doesn't apply to everywhere in India, but in big cities there are a lot of people. What this means in a practical sense is that you may find your personal sense of space frequently compromised, and you have to get used to, for instance, pushing your way down a street without sidewalks that's jam-packed with: 1) cars, 2) motorcycles, 3) auto rickshaws, 4) bicycle rickshaws, 5) pedestrians, 6) animals, and 7) miscellaneous people and things (e.g. food stalls, beggars). This can lead to some hairy situations, like where you're dodging moving vehicles or squeezing through the gaps between the side mirror of a tuk-tuk on your right and the horn of an ox on your left, but eventually you realize it's possible to cram a lot more people and vehicles onto a single thoroughfare than you imagined and for everyone to still get where they're going!
About the dirtiness, you're sure to find various piles of shit (mostly from cows, who as sacred animals freely wander the streets, but also from stray dogs and so on) on the street, as well as garbage, paan (betel nut) spittle, piles of food left for animals, etc. It's another aspect of traveling in India that may take some getting used to, especially if you're from a country with a different standard/less animals roaming the streets. Also you will probably find that certainly hotels with positive reviews online appear thoroughly run down and basic in person (stained walls and bathrooms tiles, frayed carpeting, etc.), but again, after spending enough time in India, you realize that a room can be fairly comfortable and eminently livable even though the decor hasn't been updated since the 1980s.
In terms of food, most of the stuff I ate was delicious – I had some excellent Indian vegetarian thalis (a sampling of different curries served on a round tray) – but there was that one moment where, through fate or bad luck or whatever, I ingested the wrong thing. Ironically, it was at a rather upscale rooftop restaurant in a big city (Jaipur), where I ordered malai kofta, the creamy version – a dish I will never place onto my tongue again. Something tasted off about it from the get-go, which in hindsight was a sure sign that I should have stopped eating it, but I was so hungry at the moment that I persisted, the result of which was spending the entire next day (and some of the following one) in bed/on the toilet with food poisoning. The moral of this story is not that you can avoid getting sick from the food in India, because you probably can't. It's that that you should give a thought to what you're putting into your mouth (the fresher the food tastes, the better!) and perhaps pack some medicines in the case you do get diarrhea.
Delhi is insane. This is neither good nor bad, it just is. Mumbai is insane too (as are many large cities in India and throughout the world), but Mumbai is more of a sea-breezy, Victorian-era, Bollywoodish-type insanity. Delhi is simply off the charts. The history of the place is staggering (apparently seven different cities have been built in its vicinity in the past 1,000-plus years) and it's difficult to estimate how much time it would take to see all the ancient sites (I was there for roughly a week and I'm guessing I saw half?). The crowds and the population density are utterly ridiculous, especially in Old Delhi, and yet in other parts of the city there are rows of fancy houses, wide boulevards and gorgeous parks dotted with Mughal ruins (e.g Lodhi Gardens) – the place is a real study in contrasts.
The area where many tourists stay, Paharganj, is also completely bonkers crowded and busy, so it's best to avoid it if you're not into droves of people and vehicles being everywhere. (With the question then becoming, "Where else would you stay in Delhi as a backpacker?" The only answer I can provide to this question is Manjukatilla, the Tibetan enclave area, which is free of cars but I nonetheless found to be exceedingly busy and noisy.) One positive aspect of Paharganj is that it's within walking distance of a Metro station, and this does make a difference – no tuk-tuk drivers or rip-off rates involved! (Although you do inevitably have to find a tuk-tuk or taxi to reach specific sites after alighting from the Metro.)
Despite the negatives, India in an incredible place to visit – its seemingly endless cultural, historical and natural riches rewarding travelers with patience and determination – and I highly recommend it to anyone willing to step out of their comfort zone. I'd add only that it's best to know what you're getting into, especially as a solo traveler, as you basically have to figure everything out on your own. I suggest taking a guidebook along in paper form (so you can read it on trains, buses, etc.), with the one I used for much of my journey being Lonely Planet: Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra.
It helped me narrow down hotel choices (by cross-referencing the ones in the book with online reviews), and I also based my itineraries on the site-specific attractions it covers. Something else I found helpful was chatting with fellow travelers about their journeys, as I received some solid tips this way (e.g. the recommendation of a specific tour guide in the holy city of Pushkar.)
I should probably add that everything I've said here is based solely on my experience, and I'm sure there are many people out there who've traveled more extensively in India than I have and/or had a different experience. I'm not claiming to be an authority, and I only hope that you, dear reader, will someday have the chance to travel this boundless and dynamic country for yourself so that you can judge the accuracy of my words! Namaste.
© Christopher Heise - 11.15.23
Christopher Heise grew up in the USA, but he’s spent the past 15 years or so traveling and working abroad. He’s lived in Germany, Venezuela, Taiwan and India, and he once had the surreal experience of celebrating his birthday on a different continent for four consecutive years. He's a freelance writer featured in Go World Travel Magazine, Indie Shaman, The Traveller Trails, Tibetan Review, etc., and he can be reached at
cjhj17 at gmail.com.
See his Vlog: Wanderlost with Chris H