I once spent over a year backpacking throughout India. India amazed me, it blew me away, it frustrated the hell out of me, disgusted me at least once a week, forever altered my perceptions of clean and cheap. I feel in love with the country, travelling way off the beaten path to remote rural areas where I would see no other backpackers for weeks at a time. Every now and again I would meet an intrepid female traveler, someone attempting to take India on by themselves (a sometimes difficult task for a solo female in India). Lucy is one of those people, a female adventurer with a mean left hook, an easy smile and no real plans to settle down. If you’re a female traveler looking to hit the road, this is the girl you want to start following…

1. So how exactly did you find yourself upon the road?

It was 2012 and I was (and possibly still am) the most clueless person on the planet. I’d finished my University degree, had no idea who on earth would hire me, so I sort of fell into managing a cocktail bar. If in doubt, drink! I’m not sure what it was about India, there was no defining moment, it was just somewhere I felt really drawn to so I quit my job, booked a one way ticket and headed to the airport…

2. What was your first impressions upon arriving in India?

I had my flight booked for Thiruvananthapuram (good luck saying that), an airport in the south of India, but with a ten hour layover in Mumbai. I immediately befriended an Australian guy in Mumbai airport, delighted to have someone to share the ten hours with. Alas, he was heading on to Thailand, looked at me in horror and said “You’re staying in India? Who the fuck would voluntarily do that?”

Lucy Smiles Away in Mumbai India Backpacking
I would, I would!

In the ten hour gap, I then realised I’d forgotten to book any accommodation for when I arrived. I spent a good hour sending out last minute Couchsurfing requests and fortunately heard back from two lovely guys who I’m still in touch with, three years later. One of them picked me up from the airport and immediately drove me to a building where apparently people used to be eaten alive by tigers because he thought I might like to see that. I guess my thoughts were “Wow, this country is so unbelievably non-judgemental of how unprepared I am. I think I’m going to like it here”.

3. Did you explore the unknown or stick to the backpacker ghettos?

The nice thing about being so clueless is that generally everywhere is unknown. Because I was staying with Couchsurfers, I was usually the only white face which made me feel like a celebrity. I suppose I spent six months imagining I was Taylor Swift or Beyonce.

4. Tell us about a couple of your craziest moments…

I got the infamous Delhi Belly while in the middle of the Rajasthani desert on the back of a camel with the Prince of Rajasthan. This was not one of my prettiest moments. A lovely girl I’d become friends with on the road and I met the Prince through an Indian guy who had nicknamed himself “Maddie” (after the hit show Mad Max) while we were attempting to sing Hindi karaoke in Jodhpur. We ended up staying with them for four days. We hung out at the Prince’s palace in Jaisalmer and all drove out to an abandoned village in the middle of the night to go swimming and later watch the sunrise. Fun fact: the Prince liked (or claimed to like) my Bruce Springsteen playlist.

Nearly dying trekking Himalayas

I also definitely nearly died while out trekking in the Himalayas. As usual I was totally unprepared and had to borrow shoes, warm clothes and a backpack from the tour guide. His feet were a lot bigger than mine, so I stuffed them with socks. This just made climbing a bit more challenging, and at one point on the way down, you had to do a bit of a leap of faith. My leap went horribly wrong and I started to slide back down sheer ice. Fortunately, the guide was able to throw himself out and catch my leg, pulling me back up and saving me from a pretty nasty fall!

5. How did you find travelling solo?

Travelling solo is a truly amazing experience, something that I would recommend in a heartbeat. People’s reactions tend to vary between “You’re so brave!” and “You’re absolutely mental”. But as anyone who has travelled solo will know, it is neither –it’s just because you have no friends. Okay, I’m kidding, but honestly, just go for it. Learning to enjoy your own company is something I think is so important. Besides, when you’re on your own, people are so much more inviting and welcoming, far more so than when you’re travelling as part of a pair or group.

6. Did you get much hassle from Indian men?

Yes, routinely. But I really think it’s important to remember that you are interesting to them; most people have never seen someone like you before and are naturally going to be curious. I was once asked by a man on the train if I could have sex with him. When I politely turned him down, he looked at me with pleading eyes and said “But I really, really want sex”. Eventually he scuttled off when I showed him the bottom of my shoe (a very rude gesture in India, a way of saying that they are lower than the waste you walk in) after a long back-and-forth “No thank you” process. We were surrounded by other people using the train, and I wasn’t intimidated. I suppose I had to give him credit for trying. Disclaimer – I did not have sex with this man.

7. Did you get your photo taken a lot? I did!

On average I would say at least 100 times a day. I always wondered where the pictures went. Perhaps I am on thousands of Indian family’s mantelpieces, along with family albums? I’ve always hoped so. Aside from the odd creepy person who attempts a photo of you while you’re dosing on a train, or comes and shoves a camera in your face without warning, it actually can be a fun experience if you exercise a sense of humour and some patience. A friend and I were in Mumbai, visiting the Gateway Of India and were bombarded with touts who were carrying cameras and little portable printers. For a few rupees, you could have your photo taken and printed out on the spot. We suddenly became celebrities, with every local family wanting a photo of them with us printed out. We thought it would be hilarious if we offered to autograph the photos, which turned into an hour long session posing and autographing, which we found absolutely hysterical. We tried to see how far we could take the joke, posing with water bottles on our heads, claiming to be offering our prayers to the Gods Canon and Nikon. They joined in which was a massive highlight.

8. Did you have a particular place you really fell in love with?

I have two. I loved Udaipur in the North of India; I had a moment while I was sitting in a little courtyard watching a woman dancing while balancing bowls on her head under the stars, with three kids on my lap playing with my hair and surrounded by the general chaos of India – motorbikes screeching past, the smells of fried Indian food and the entire population of the city wanting to add me on Facebook. I just suddenly felt overwhelming happiness and a sense of “This is what I came here for” – the atmosphere that is, not thousands of friend requests.

Teaching in Kumbalam Kerala India

In a total contrast, my other favourite place was Kumbalam, a tiny little village in the southern state of Kerala. While the north is filled with chaos and colour, Kerala is a lush, green tropical paradise. I’d taken on a teaching position in a school, and convinced the Head Teacher to allow me to take the kids on ‘School Trips’ to the nearby rivers and churches. I later discovered none of them could swim, which is perhaps something the Head teacher should have warned me of, but we made do and the kids seemed to enjoy it!

9. What advice would you give to female solo travellers heading to India?

You will need both patience and a sense of humour. India can be quite daunting – and sadly the stories you may have heard of men trying to touch you or inappropriately approach you are true. The important thing to remember is that for every man looking for an inappropriate squeeze, there are a hundred men who will stand up and defend you if you make a fuss. I was in a queue for a train ticket once, when a man came up and started fondling my bottom. I made a scene, shouting, pointing (and embarrassingly, miming!), and a group of men came up, apologised profusely and removed the man. Always be polite but stand your ground and make it clear you will not be treated inappropriately.

10. What was your favourite food in India?

I absolutely adored masala dosas, a sort of crepe made from rice and lentils, served with potatoes and onions. I was really fortunate in only getting sick once in six months. This was of course, the aforementioned drama where I happened to be in a desert. I had fully planned on returning from my trip tanned and skinny, but I ate enough Indian food to feed a small army and instead returned sun-burnt and about a stone heavier. It was worth it.

11. Do you have any general tips for getting the most out of this amazing country?

Before I left the UK, a friend gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given. She told me that India is the most reflective country in the world; what you put in, you get out. She could not have been more correct. India is a difficult place to get things done – sending a letter or booking a train ticket can be an arduous process when you factor in language barriers, people stopping to ask what country you’re from, if you’d like a pair of these lovely fake Ray Bans, if your father pays for your trips (No he doesn’t, thank you very much!), what’s your height, your weight, etc etc etc – at times you do end up feeling like you’d like to just lock yourself in your room and watch endless episodes of Dexter.But just go with the flow, reminding yourself of what can be gained from each situation; try and turn everything into a funny story.

Traveler Lucy Smiles Away Reflecting in India

After being hassled a thousand times from a tour guide trying to sell me photos of famous landmarks, I found making fun of the situation to be my greatest weapon. The guide showed me a photo of The Red Fort and I asked him (in my most serious voice), if it was a shopping mall. “No madam! Fort! Fort!”. Finally after about six of these deliberately incorrect guesses at different landmarks, he got the joke and squealed “Yes! Taj Mahal is hotel! Look! Swimming pool!”. His utter delight at getting the joke was something that completely made my day and turned him from a pain-in-the-arse into an adorable memory.

12. So, where are you headed next and how can we keep up with your adventures?

At the moment, I’m excited to be planning another trip to India, which I intend to do with just carry-on luggage. The plan is to spend three months wandering around, both working and travelling. After that? Who knows, I like the thought of heading back to South East Asia. Areas of Africa really intrigue me too and I have friends I’ve been meaning to visit in Australia for years. I guess I’m pretty easily persuaded by every blog post I read online about gallivanting around the world! If you have any recommendations of great places for me to get lost and confused, by all means let me know!

Backpacker on camel in Rajasthani desert India

About Lucy: Half English, half American, Lucy is the author of www.lucysmilesaway.com She has spent the last six years travelling and most of that time is spent getting lost and making friends who can read maps. She has spent a lot of time travelling in Asia and Europe, interspersed with trips back to the United States to eat Reese’s Pieces and visit family. She only returns to the UK when she’s in need of a really good fix of cheese. You can like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Thanks for reading – that was fun! 😀

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