Our map of India was the size of a tablecloth, and our folder of can't-miss sights bulged with papers. In the winter of 2013-2014, during a wave of sexual attacks on women in India, I, a smallish woman, was thrilled to be traveling there with a strapping 6-foot man. But when illness grounded him, I panicked. Despite decades of intrepid, solo travel, those crime stats rattled me, even as he urged, "You have to go for both of us."
Then I discovered the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. Held each January in the capital of the storied state of Rajasthan, it draws more than 200,000 people over five days of author readings, signings and debates, plus music, dance and food.
For a lone female bookworm, there was no better intro to the subcontinent: A safe place to hear emerging and established talent, savour Indian culture and cuisine, and meet friendly strangers from cities I'd later visit. Having attended the 2012 Sydney Writers' Festival and several American book fairs, I knew these events were a blast.
But I really hit the Jaipur jackpot when two Australian women I'd spent time with invited me on their post-fest tour of Rajasthan. Seven days later, as we parted in New Delhi, I knew I'd be fine alone for the next six weeks, given all I'd learned from Yogi, our Indian driver, and the savvy Aussies.
I'm now mulling other foreign lit-ventures: the Hay Festival Wales, in the Welsh border town of Hay-On-Wye, 240 kilometres from London, and the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, on the dazzling Indonesian island of Bali.
But you don't need a passport for a good book wallow. Homegrown celebrations of the written and spoken word abound. Lasting a day to a week, American gatherings include regional to global writers of prose, poetry and graphic works across many political, religious, age, gender, social, scientific, cultural and ethnic spectra. And they often include concerts, foodie fare, pub crawls, artsy vendors and local tours.
Two of them made my domestic wish list: the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival in the French Quarter (one beloved event is the Stella and Stanley shouting contest a la Williams's fraught play A Streetcar Named Desire), and the Texas Book Festival in Austin, founded by ex-librarian Laura Bush in 1995, when husband George W. was governor.
"What makes a book festival great for solo women travelers is that the festival has done all the work for you," says Julie Wernersbach, literary director of the Austin weekend. "You just show up. You meet people standing in line waiting for a book signing or sitting next to you at a reading. You can do yoga with authors, rent a kayak to go boating with authors. There are blocks of rooms in hotels we have already vetted. For safety, the streets are closed in and around the state capitol, which is already a destination. There are lit crawls in bars and galleries, so it's a nice way to see nightlife that might otherwise be intimidating if you're a single woman."
Feeling flush? Stay in the authors' hotels, the better to corner them in the lobby or bar. Buy priority access, even at free festivals, for entry to private parties and meals, line-skipping privileges, even valet parking. This is, after all, a vacation. If a festival is part of a longer trip, start rather than end with it because locals are great sources of insider travel intel and can also be welcoming hosts and guides.
An Australian woman I met at the Sydney Writers' Festival passed me along to her brother in Tasmania, who later provided a terrific tour of the gorgeous countryside around Hobart, and invited me on his radio talk show to discuss the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign. Two years later, an Indian couple from the Jaipur fest not only hosted a small, home-cooked dinner for me in New Delhi, after which they performed traditional music and song, but later took me to the India Art Fair, a grand exhibition of modern and contemporary South Asian work I probably would have otherwise missed.
As I tell my solo vagabond girlfriends, it's the best of all worlds: great books, new friends, safe travel.
To find literary festival listings, check book lovers' resources such as the African American Literature Book Club or Everfest.com. For US events, try Bookreporter.com. Hoping to integrate a book festival into your 2019 travel planning? Here is a chronological list of some of this year's major gatherings in the United States and around the world:
Jan. 24-28: Jaipur Literature Festival. Free. More than 200 South Asian and global authors and performers. One-day "delegate" passes cost about NZ$123, all five days NZ$468. Both cover meals and other events with writers and friendly fellow delegates. Jaipur also sponsors small US events in New York, Houston and Boulder, Colorado, in September.
Feb. 16: Savannah Book Festival. Free. Some 40 authors in venues throughout the Georgia city's historic downtown. Festival Saturday is bracketed by opening, keynote and closing talks Feb. 14-17, US$20 each.
March 20-24: Virginia Festival of the Book. Featuring 250 authors in 70 spots across Charlottesville and Albemarle County. Most events free, but some featuring hot authors and food cost US$22 to US$60.
March 27-31: Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Book Festival. Five days of workshops, lectures, plays, discussions and tours. Single events US$10 to US$50; packages covering some or all 40-plus activities, US$200 to US$600.
March 29-31: Saints and Sinners Literary Festival. An international celebration of LGBTQ authors, partly overlapping the Williams event in New Orleans. US$50 per day pass, US$150 for the whole shebang.
March 30: Ujamaa Book Festival. Free. Forty authors gather at a hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. Sponsored by Harambee Books & Artworks, which focuses on African American writers and artisans.
April 13-14: Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Readings, panel talks and cooking demos. Free and paid events. A US$100 two-day package buys priority entry and valet parking.
April 25-May 13: Buenos Aires Book Fair. Brush up on your Spanish (limited translation) and join a million public and industry attendees at more than 1000 events. Some free, some paid but not yet priced because of high inflation rates.
April 29-May 5: Sydney Writers' Festival. A week-long celebration of more than 200 Aussie and international authors; some free events, some paid.
May 4-5: Bay Area Book Festival. Free and paid events in downtown Berkeley, California; US$10 and US$15 passes for priority entrance.
May 23-June 2: Hay Festival Wales. With just 1500 residents but over a dozen bookstores, Hay draws more than 200,000 bibliophiles to its tented fields for a glorious spring lit-fix. Hay also hosts a smaller Wales festival in December, plus others during the year in Europe and Latin America.
June 8-9: Printers Row Lit Fest. Free. In this former hub of book production, the Chicago Tribune hosts author readings and signings, sellers of new and used volumes, food vendors and performers.
July 20: Harlem Book Fair. Free. Outdoor readings and panel discussions by 60 to 75 authors and poets, plus music events and vendors draw 20,000 book lovers to what organisers call America's largest African-American lit fest.
Aug. 31: Library of Congress National Book Festival. Free. Another Laura Bush legacy from her White House years. Several hundred authors speak inside the city's cavernous convention center.
Sept. 22: Brooklyn Book Festival. More than 300 authors on 14 stages, plus 250 booksellers and other vendors at an outdoor market. During Bookends (Sept. 16-23), multiple literary offerings in all five New York boroughs.
Oct. 23-27: Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. International tourists at this festival in Bali pay NZ$123 for a day pass, NZ$412 for four days' access to 70 programs. Organisers offer hotel packages that hint at chance meetings with authors.
Oct. 26-27: Texas Book Festival. Most events free. Features 250-plus authors in the State Capitol building in Austin and nearby venues; many local exhibitors and food sellers, plus special events. A US$100 donation buys priority seating and signing-line access for two people at select events.
October: Alaska Book Week. Free. No dates yet. Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and other locales host a total of three dozen lectures, panels, readings, discussions, and even an artistic bookmark contest.
Nov. 4-10: Lagos Book and Art Festival. Nigeria. Check the website for details closer to the event.
Nov. 9: Portland Book Festival. Formerly called "Wordstock," the day-long, multivenue celebration in Oregon draws more than 100 American and international authors; US$15 for advance tickets,US$20 at the door (both include a US$5 book voucher).
Nov. 17-24: Miami Book Fair. Eight days of events with 500-plus authors. Given the community's Latin and Caribbean cultures, some writers present in Spanish, French or Haitian Creole. with real-time translations. Daily tickets for the separate Street Fair and the Congress of Authors are free to US$10, depending on age. "Evenings With" speakers require tickets, US$20 and up.