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For a long time, I've avoided telling this story. It wasn't that I was ashamed or even traumatized, but rather because I worried my tale would only perpetuate the myth that it's too dangerous for women to travel alone. Plus, with headlines in the news of girls being gang-raped in public busses in Delhi, I felt contributing to the narrative with another "I was attacked in India " story would only fuel the idea that India is a hostile place for women travelers — which was not my experience.
I love India and it remains one of my favorite places to visit. Certain areas in certain cities might be unsafe, and women should always take reasonable precautions when traveling alone, but that could be said of anywhere. I've traveled to over 40 countries and to this day, and the most afraid I've ever been was during a near-mugging in the United States, when I was chased through a subway station in Brooklyn. In the 10 years that I've been traveling abroad alone, I can count on one hand the number of times I've felt afraid or even uncomfortable as a result of my solo female status.
However, I was warned against hiking alone in India. When I'd first arrived in Jaipur, in the desert region of Rajasthan in Northern India, a female backpacker had relayed a story of being robbed at knifepoint.
"Take someone with you," she'd advised when I'd told her of my plan to hike up a mountain on my own to visit a famous hilltop fort.
I hadn't heeded her advice, though, opting instead to make the journey up the winding, desolate switchbacks solo.
At that point, I'd been in India for four months and was feeling invincible, hardened by weeks of dusty bus rides and bug-infested hotel stays. I'd already survived food poisoning, a stampede of wild elephants, and a 20-hour train ride squashed between a goat and a crate full of chickens. I could handle India, sister. I didn't need a chaperone. Besides, it was two in the afternoon. Muggings didn't happen in broad light at popular tourist destinations, right?
I was heading back to my hotel and was about halfway down the mountain when it happened. I rounded the bend in the trail to find three men standing in the center of the path.
They were staring, though that wasn't what put me on edge. I was a curly-haired 24-year-old white girl traveling on my own in area of the world where female solo travelers, and white women in general, weren't in abundant supply; being stared at was the norm. What made my heart beat a little faster and prompted me to pull my shawl closer to my chest was the way they were staring; they were leering.
I didn't know it right then, but I was about to be attacked.
I scooted around the men, who were now nudging one another and making rude noises at me. Don't be paranoid, I remember thinking. Just keep walking.
That wasn't easy to do, considering I'd been feeling on-edge since that morning. Only a few hours prior, a man had exposed himself to me outside of a Hindu temple. I'd been walking toward the temple's main entrance when the stranger had saddled up behind me, unbuttoned his jeans and proceeded to do something that he had no business doing in public, let alone outside a sacred house of worship. I'd screamed and thrown a rock at him, not because I'd been afraid so much as I'd been shocked and irritated. I'd heard of things like that happening to female backpackers, but like with any rare occurrence, I hadn't imagined it would ever happen to me.
Now, as I maneuvered past the men and continued down the trail, I started to breathe an inward sigh of relief. Confrontation avoided. I was in the clear.
But then I heard footsteps.
"Hey, " one of them said as they caught up with me. I kept walking.
"Hey, hey, hey," they taunted as I picked up my pace. For a second, I wondered if there might be an innocent reason for why they were stopping me. Maybe I'd dropped something on the trail? Or maybe they were just being friendly and wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing in India? But then one of them grabbed my arm, yanking me to a stop.
I turned and eyed them as they circled closer to me, cutting off my route down the trail. They looked to be teenagers — tall and thin, with barely a wisp of a mustache between them.
Fight and scream or run? I thought, weighing my options. Even though it was mid afternoon, the entire hillside was vacant. No one would hear me scream. The trail was steep, and I was wearing an ankle-length skirt, which would make running difficult. If they chose to chase me, I'd probably fall before I reached safety.
Until that point, I'd been holding onto the hope that this was all some big cultural misunderstanding. Maybe I was letting my run-in with the flasher color my view of the situation and this was just three teenagers looking for a flirty conversation with a foreigner on a sunny afternoon. But all lingering doubts vanished the moment they started groping my chest.
When one of them started to fumble with my shirt, I snapped into action, my moment of indecision over. Using the water bottle I'd been holding as a makeshift weapon, I swung it as hard as I could at one of the men. It connected with the side of his face with a loud crack, and he stepped back, though probably more out of shock than pain. I shoved at the man holding my arm and screamed, making a fist with my free hand and holding it up to his face like I was going to punch him. I had no idea what I'd do if I had to follow up on that threat because I'd never punched anyone in my life.
"Get away from me!" I screamed and then kept right on screaming. "I'm going to kill you!" I shouted, followed by a string of curse words. I figured that even if they didn't speak English, they'd likely recognize the F-word.
All three of them were staring at me then, but this time in apparent surprise. Maybe they hadn't expected me to react the way I had. Maybe I'd caught them off guard. Or maybe they were just considering their next move. I decided not to stick around to find out, however, and used their hesitation as an opportunity to escape.
I ran. And I kept running, not daring to look back until I reached the beginnings of the city neighborhood below.
That wasn't my first frightening encounter abroad, and in the eight years since it happened, it hasn't been my last either. I still frequently travel solo, though, and not in spite of having lived through several scary near-misses, but perhaps because of them. While I'm more cautious now and no longer naively believe that "it'll never happen to me," I refuse to let my fear of "what if" get the best of me.
While much of my time in the subcontinent was challenging, I learned more about myself and what I was capable of after spending four months navigating through the crowded city markets and colorful camel fairs in India than I did during my entire four years in college. Travel in general —and India in particular — taught me that I can be brave, that I can be resilient, but most of all, that I can rely on myself to survive through those moments that feel impossibly, frighteningly difficult.
That's what makes solo travel a beautiful adventure — and 100 percent worth the risk.