Safe Solo Travel Can Come at a Price

How I Hated Being Safe in India

A woman was just raped. And by the time you finish reading this post, at least (at the very least) five more women in this world will have been raped.*

But, when a female traveller was raped in India this last month, it made international news. As did a story about a woman travelling with her husband in India, whose rapists were arrested this week. (And today, we’ve learned that a Norwegian woman was arrested—and then “pardoned”— in the U.A.E for going to police after being raped by her co-worker. But that’s another post all together.)

Despite the statistics we live with everyday,* much attention has been focused on women travelling alone, especially those travelling in India. In some ways, that’s great—the more we talk about something, the closer we get to changing it. But the international coverage of women who are raped while travelling has a way of swaying our collective public opinion in a way that is not at all helpful.

I spent two months in India and I never felt unsafe. Uncomfortable and irritated, yes, but never unsafe. I never experienced any hassles or real threats. And yet the notion that you do have to be extra careful while travelling in India never left my head.  In fact, it made me think differently about men on the street. It made me a man-hater. I hated it, but that was my reality.

I still plan to return to India when I can. I grew to like it there after two months, and there is still so much to see. I have no intention of changing my plans. Just like suburban teenagers shouldn’t stop going to parties with football players in attendance, women travellers (and their friends and families) shouldn’t consider India a forbidden place.

There were many moments during my solo travels on the subcontinent where my finely tuned critical decision-making skills were needed to assess my situation. They usually helped me decide that the man in question was legit and I was good to go—like the fella who approached me on the train platform in Jaipur when I arrived at night (dark out, but not late). I was aloof and vague, but finally decided that his rickshaw-arranging services would be in my best interest. I was firm, confident, and made him follow me the length of the station before I agreed to go in *his* rickshaw, which wasn’t actually his. He was just the “approachable” young guy who worked the platform in this enterprise.

I took my time, sized him up, and choose to follow his runner across the crowded lot to a rickshaw with a driver waiting, rather than try to pick another guy from the ranks. (I do appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit in India–and an organized businessman or group of businessmen is much more trustworthy than some dude on the street offering me a ride.) I also made it clear I had been in India for a while, had been to Jaipur before, already had a hotel booking, knew exactly where my hotel was, and was perfectly happy to carry my own bags, thank-you. (It’s worth noting that I work through the same critical decision making process and confidence performance while travelling alone anywhere, even in my own hometown—but with more “knowledge” it doesn’t have to start from a place of man-hating.)

But the reality is, in the course of two months, only once did I find myself in a situation that seemed like it could lead to problems—if the men in question had been predators. At the time, I felt bad for acting as I did—most of the men and boys I encountered on my travels were kind, helpful, and honorable. But while you can be too careful in life, you can’t be too careful when you’re a woman on a quiet side road all by yourself in Goa, surrounded by four young Indian labourers . . .

On a gorgeous January day in South Goa, I took a solo moto trip from Colva to Palolem. I was careful: I had GPS on my phone, a full tank of gas, the best safety attire I could muster, sunscreen on my knuckles, and I had timed it out to be home before dark.

And it was an awesome day.

I was taking a small side road from Palolem to check out another highly recommended but quiet, uncrowded beach, and my hat blew off my head (yes, I admit, I had forgotten to put on the hard-to-come-by helmet for this little side trip, but I promise that I wore it on the N-17). I stopped my scooter on the side of the road and ran back to get the hat.

As I was walking back to my scooter, a small truck sputtered to a stop 15 metres or so in front on the opposite side–a bunch of young guys (four, if I recall correctly) dropped from the little five-wheeler truck and started wandering towards my scooter. I picked up my pace. As they approached me—without any sense of urgency—their leader was saying “petrol” and waving his hands slightly in a beckoning manner. I suddenly realized the truck had run out of gas and he was asking if they could have some of mine to get them into town.

I’m fairly certain they had no sinister intent. They were just a bunch of young guys trying to make do with the options before them—something people do remarkably well in India. But it was just about a week since the Delhi gang rape, so despite the fact that Goa is a very different place from Delhi, the issue was high on my mind.

As was my customary general response to male strangers in India, I shook my head and said no. I was on my scooter before they reached it and I started the engine.

The leader widened his approach, I imagine to get an angle on my fuel gauge, and the others sort of encircled me in a casual and not particularly threatening way.

What did I do?

I shook my head no again and rode off between them!

They laughed. In a sort of “I can’t believe she just did that” sort of way. And they called after me.

They had probably assumed, as I got on the scooter and turned on the motor, that I didn’t understand them (since they were not speaking English), and they were preparing to explain their problem by pointing to the fuel gauge and being persuasive. Then all of a sudden, I scooted off so fast one of them had to jump back.

They had no idea that what they were doing was a problem for me. Sure, I had gas to spare, but the tank was under my seat and I was alone—to give them some gas would require me to get off my scooter, remove the key, and open the seat, all the while surrounded by young men I didn’t know and couldn’t understand.

Chances are it would have been fine and I would have made some new friends. But even in broad daylight, it was a no-brainer. It was an instinctual response; less than a minute passed from our vehicles’ paths almost crossing to me driving away.

I didn’t feel scared or unsafe—in fact I found it sort of amusing. It made me giggle to think that they had thought asking me for gas was a good idea! As I got on my scooter, turned it on, shook my head, and drove off, I had just enough time to think “Are you guys crazy?”

And I hate that. I hate that if I had been travelling with a male companion, we could have helped the guys out and maybe even gotten a home-cooked meal out of it. I hate that good men must live in a society were I have to assume they are predators. I hate that I had to be cold, aloof, and closed off around men in India until they were proven otherwise. I hate that some women in India must live this reality every day. And I hate that another five women will have to survive our global rape culture since you started reading this.

And I hate that even though I’m probably at a greater risk of being raped on while a date in North America than I was at risk of being raped while travelling alone in India, I still had to be a man-hater.

My only consolation is that while they may have been inconvenienced, I didn’t strand those four guys on the side of some deserted road. They could have easily walked to the shop at the next junction not too far away, and I’m sure they did.

In response to the less-than-measured news coverage of the issue and a desire to seek out their community, a great group of travellers organized the #WeGoSolo movement on Twitter. 

And to learn more about safe travel in India, read Breathedreamgo.com’s tips for travelling in India.

I’m not a man-hater in real life, I just played one while travelling in India. And in truth, it didn’t take long for me to drop my man-hating veneer—but I was still more cold, guarded, and cautious than is usual for me, which made me terribly un-fun at times. And I hated that.

*Statistics on rape vary widely, as do definitions and reporting. The U.S. Department of Justice has reported that every 2 minutes a woman in the US is sexually assaulted. It’s every 17 minutes in Canada. It’s 20 minutes in India; 2 hours in Delhi alone. Population, reporting standards, definitions and statistical modelling are all variables in determining the credibility of any “official” global stat. However, if one takes the various official statistics of countries that calculate them at face value and then factors in every country across the globe, and then considers the number of rapes and sexual assaults that never go reported, as well as the prevalence of rape in conflict zones and other troubled environments like slums, refugee camps, and the lairs of sex traffickers, I don’t think it’s hyperbole for me to assert that a woman is raped somewhere in the world every minute of every day. In fact, that’s probably a low estimate. Reported rapes and sexual assaults in the U.S. regularly exceeds 300,000 per year. One rape per minute is just over half a million rapes a year. One rape per minute world-wide is a colossal understatement.