The first time I ever went overseas, I was 16 years old and off to Germany, where I would spend four months on a Rotary Exchange program. That’s where I got my first taste of travelling. And since then, I’ve spent all my spare time and money doing as much of it as I possibly can.
Back in 2013 I was desperate to visit India after reading the book that inspired thousands of people just like me – Shantaram. The book’s colourful and powerful descriptions of India’s people and culture and food lit up my imagination and I wanted to see it all for myself. I was single, and my friends either didn’t have time or didn’t have the inclination to go with me, so I decided to do it by myself.
It was a decision that I will never regret. And while there were definitely some nervous questions from my friends and family, I was 100% convinced that it would be safe to do alone. Granted, I ended up doing a version of India that many people call “India light”, which to be honest, is a good place to start if you’ve never travelled by yourself.
Here’s my experience of travelling to India, all by myself. *By the way, these photos were shot in 2013 on a little Fujifilm X20 point and shoot and haven’t been edited at all.
Solo Female Travel in India
Staying in an Airbnb Apartment in Mumbai
My trip started with five days in Mumbai, where I decided not to book a room in a hotel, but rather in an Airbnb apartment in the suburb of Bandra with a young British/American couple. On my first night in their apartment, they were off to a wedding… and invited me along. There was no way I was going to turn down an opportunity like that, so not even 8 hours after touchdown, I was already at my first Indian wedding. This is one of the best things about Airbnb!
Reality Tours, Mumbai
My hosts Stef and Pete work for a non-profit organisation called Reality Tours – a social business that uses a profit sharing model to fund their sister-NGO Reality Gives. They employ young people who live in Dharavi (the biggest slum in Asia) as tour guides, and use their community-sensitive walking tours to educate tourists on the slum, it’s community-centric way of life and it’s people.
Reality uses the profits from the tours to implement amazing community work, which you learn more about on the tour. Coming from South Africa, I’m particularly sensitive about slum tours and never ever want the community to feel exploited, and I found my trip with Reality to be the opposite of exploitation. Young locals are eager to show travellers around their home and share stories about this interesting community, where an estimated 1 million people live in just over 2.1 square kilometres of space.
I ended up having lunch with three of the tour guides who told me all about their Aussie rules football league and insisted, I mean insisted, on paying my share of the bill. Talk about experiences that famous Indian hospitality! If you’re interested in visiting the Dharavi community while you’re in Mumbai, you should definitely contact Reality.
Mumbai with A Female Tour Guide
In a huge and frenetic city like Mumbai, it can be daunting to navigate and explore on your own, especially if it’s the first time you’re travelling alone. I booked a female tour guide and a driver for the first two days of my stay. This was invaluable and I would recommend it a thousand times over. My guide Lakshmi Kishore, took me under her wing and treated me like her own daughter. She told me about her family and about life in Mumbai and what an arranged marriage is like and she really opened my eyes to a whole world I knew very little about.
Spending my first 2 days in Mumbai with Lakshmi ensured a “soft landing” into the crazy pace of the city. She introduced me to fascinating locals and explained a lot of cultural elements that I would have missed out on without her. She took me to a small Koli fishing village where tourist don’t normally find themselves. She showed me around Bandra, the neighbourhood I was staying in, and after learning about my obsession with food, took me to a series of street food stalls that still make my mouth water at the thought. “If there’s a long queue, it’s safe for tourists like you”.
Surfing and Yoga in Kerala
After five hot, busy, incredible days in Mumbai, I boarded a plane to Kerala, where I would spend ten days learning to surf and watching the sun go down from rooftop yoga sessions. Soul & Surf, which remains one of the best places I’ve ever stayed, is perched high on the clifftops of Varkala, a bustling beachside town. It’s not a retreat or ashram, it’s not a hotel, and it’s not a backpackers. It’s a restored house with cool, airy rooms, wifi, a lush garden and gorgeous, friendly staffers from around the world.
You don’t have to surf or do yoga. You can spend the days doing whatever you please, in the company of likeminded travellers from around the world. I booked a “Nice Room” as they call it, which had a big bed, ceiling fan, private shower and balcony.
Here, I would wake up with the sun, eat a tiny banana and drink a strong coffee before spending two to three hours in the warm surf with a very patient teacher. Back at Soul & Surf, salty and exhausted, I’d enjoy a vegan or vegetarian brunch around 11am. For the rest of the day, I’d relax on the lawn, nap, explore Varkala, suntan on the beach and eat so many delicious things it’s ridiculous.
My time in India was really one of the happiest times of my life. I felt so strong and healthy, all my senses were constantly heightened. And I never felt unsafe. Of course, I took the obvious precautions; don’t walk alone at night, always be vigilant about keeping your belongings safe, etc.
Tips for Your First Solo Trip to India
Where to stay
Bandra is kind of the “hipster” neighbourhood in Mumbai and you’ll find some nice Airbnb apartments here. There are also some nice restaurants and beautiful architecture to explore.
Book a guide
Find a great female tour guide for your fist couple of days. She’ll be able to ease you into the pace and culture and introduce you to many fascination locals. It’s a good way to find your feet and calm down a bit if you’re nervous about travelling by yourself.
Stay with locals
If you want to learn about the culture and experience Mumbai like the locals do, book to stay with them through Airbnb. In my case, the couple I was staying with invited friends over one night and we ordered beers and pizza – much better than a lonely night in a hotel room!
Even though Mumbai is more relaxed about dressing than more rural parts of India, it will make you feel more comfortable if you’re dressed a little more on the modest side. Try to cover your shoulders and knees. I did and I felt more comfortable than I would have if I’d been wearing a tight tank top and shorts, for instance.
Try the street food!
This is best done with a local, since the choices can be overwhelming! Lakshmi took me to all the best street food vendors in Mumbai – the ones she eats at and introduced me to pani puri – a crispy shell filled with a mixture of flavoured water, tamarind chutney, chili, masala, potato, onion and chickpeas and wada pav – a patty of deep fried mashed potato, served on a soft white roll with green chutney and a salted chili. I ate and ate everything in sight and I still dream about those street stall feasts.
If you’re thinking about doing India by yourself, I would say GO FOR IT!