“I am not one of Gloria Steinem’s disciples, however, I get very upset when I am not addressed as an equal. Good thing I knew the situation prior to coming to India. I made sure to avoid eye contact with all men (unless involved in a conversation at the hotel, etc.) & wore dark glasses when out during the day to avoid any unwanted advances. I think that helped tremendously until I had built up my confidence & became more familiar with how the men/women culture works in India.”
K, my 54 year old, female traveling companion to South India
No books, TV show or even a magazine can really identify what a true India experience will be. Each person has a reason for going to India, and as such they will be looking to fill their mind in the capacity their agenda outlines. One thing is certain for all female tourists of India; you do need to take more precaution to ensure a safe, fun, and rewarding journey. The following 10 tips for women traveling in India will help prepare the novice tourist as well as the returning sage.
10 Tips for Women Traveling in India
1. Carry Yourself Well
Body language is examined, analyzed, then reanalyzed and finally beaten with a stick by Indians. Smoking, drinking, dancing, and public displays of affection are often regarded as being signs of poor moral character in India. If your intention is to travel around India in a pot induced haze you’ll create every opportunity to be a target.
Touching between people of the opposite sex in public is unusual. Even married couples avoid any display of affection publicly. It will be better if you do not shake hands with a person of the opposite sex unless the other person extends his or her hand first. Say Hello or Hi when greeting strangers or if you feel comfortable, try pressing your palms together in front of your body while saying Namaste. You can also say Ji when addressing older Indians. This works for hello, yes, agreed, I hear you, etc. It’s a terrific opening or ending word that fits an endless list of situations.
Sunglasses can be misunderstood by locals. Wear them to avoid touts or aggressive salesmen while continuing to walk. Do remove them when conversing with guides, waiters, drivers or locals during legitimate conversations.
2. Stay Safe
Preventing sexual harassment in India can be a lesson in contradictions. Keep your arms folded in front of you in large crowds and on public transportation. Don’t take the aisle seats as you are less likely to be brushed against in the window seat. Different parts of the country follow different seating rules for women on buses and trains. Ask about women only sections when purchasing tickets, upon entering a bus or train, and of course look for other women on board. Carry a book, notepad or computer as a prop when traveling or sitting in an open space. This gives the illusion that you are busy and not open to conversation.
Should you encounter a situation involving groping or eve teasing (verbal or physical), don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. Be sure to make it known you do not appreciate this behavior. Indian men are generally cowards when confronted about such activities. Do keep in mind that fighting back, raising of your voice or retaliating can cause more harm than good. Be aware of your surroundings and know when it’s better to flee than to fight.
Dance clubs, pubs, 5-star hotels are good places for entertainment or for drinks. However, having a male companion or at least another female with you is a good idea. If you are single and in a bar, someone will make a pass at you. Tread lightly knowing the above advice. Always make it known when you are not comfortable with the situation.
It’s best not to initiate conversations that could be construed as flirtatious or personal and avoid answering personal questions about yourself. Avoid talking in a friendly manner with men you meet in buses, trains, restaurants, shopping places, etc. It may be viewed as a flirtation. It may also lead to unwanted and unexpected sexual advances. You want to appear confident and in control while accessible.
Avoid friendship offers from Indian men who will appear overly enthusiastic about their new foreign friend. If you are interested in the company of an Indian male ask about his interest. Is this a one night encounter or is he looking for more? Because of India’s repressed societal outlook on male-female relationships, Indian men do not have a lot of one on one experience conversing with women. They are VERY clingy, needy and insecure. Personalities that make a great friend rarely translate into great relationships. Be very honest about each person’s intentions including candid questions about STD’s and HIV.
3. Sleep Tight
Pick hotels or places to stay which are well lit and close to action. Ask for a room near the elevator or staircase. Look for women only hostels or women owned accommodations. Lock your door at all times. Young men are the backbone of most Indian hotels and guest houses. Avoid answering the door in anything but street clothes. This can cause mixed signals to the male staff or fellow guests.
Some places may be able to connect you with female tour guides or even specially arranged tours for women within the city you are visiting.
4. Pack Accordingly
Carry your passport, travelers checks, money, credit cards etc. in an inner shirt/jeans pocket. Even better is a hidden belt wallet that lays inside your pants hidden from view. Or, try a neck pouch that hangs inside your shirt. More Money Safe Travel Tips
Bring a small carry-all bag capable of hanging across your body. Inside being along a couple packs of tissues, a small bottle of hand sanitizer or wet wipes, bum wipes and/or toilet paper, a cell phone, notepad, small coins for tips, business cards for yourself, hotel and driver (if applicable).
A wide brimmed hat and sunglasses will help combat the constant glaring sun. Sunscreen should be a permanent item in your bag. Bring a small sewing kit, first aid kit and pocket knife. You just never know. Thinking of bringing delicate fabrics? Unless you’re staying in 5 star comfort forget about anything that isn’t washable such as cotton or linen.
5. Hire a Driver
Riding the train once or twice can be fun. Catching a bus in India a few times can be an educating experience. I say skip that and hire a driver. Any travel agency can assist in booking an English speaking driver with options on vehicle types based on budget. With a driver you’ll be picked up at the airport upon arrival, taken directly to your hotel without any worry of whether you’re being tricked or overcharged. Every morning you’ll be met at a prearranged time at your hotel and taken to the sites of each city you visit. The best part of hiring a driver is the independence you gain. Now you can dash off to that site you read about a few miles from town without the trouble of looking up bus schedules. You have a translator usually speaking several Indian languages based on the region you are visiting. And you gain a bodyguard who is constantly watching out for your safety. The last thing he wants is to place a foreign tourist in a bad situation. He’ll advise you on places which are safe, not so safe, and definitely NOT safe.
Wanna spend the day sitting around the pool? No worries, your driver can take the day off. Most are reachable by cell phone if you decide later you want to move about. At the end of your journey you’ll have a ride to the airport.
6. Stay Healthy
Staying healthy is tremendously important. Know your limits before venturing out alone to a new area, on a hike in the hot sun or deciding today is the day to try a new food that most wouldn’t consider. Eat well cooked foods avoiding fresh vegetables and fruits which can’t be peeled. The temptation to eat something crunchy increases with every day in India, revert to crackers or other prepackaged items. Drink plenty of bottled or purified water while avoiding heavily sugary liquids such as colas or energy drinks. Be sure your immunizations are up to date, you’ve packed any prescription medications as well as any vitamin supplements that may be part of your normal routine at home. More importantly be sure you have antibiotics for persistent traveler’s diarrhea or other ailments. And don’t be afraid to take breaks. A 5 minute rest or long lunch can do wonders for rejuvenating the body. Try an ayurvedic massage, take a yoga class or just relax by the pool.
7. Be Smart
We all want to be individuals taking the road less traveled. For the sake of safety and your enjoyment, plan your itinerary by recommendations from guide books, online suggestions, travel agencies or in-person advice. Avoid going out late at night in the dark. If you really must see that special place no-one has been to for 50 years at the end of an overgrown path through the jungle, be sure to take someone with you and notify your circle of friends.
Read the local paper or catch the morning newscasts for any activities which may impact your plans. Festivals, political visits or political issues, games or any other type of public uprising can be a rather uncomfortable experience in India. Avoid large demonstrations by men or political rallies. While they may make for great photos they are a recipe filled with raging testosterone. Women typically are not seen during street festivals. Drunken men are more prone to sexually aggressive behavior during these times. That said, you can always find a friendly Indian female to turn for assistance but you need to initiate the conversation.
8. Reach Out
Make friends with local women and fellow foreigners staying at your accommodation. Use online services such as Travel Buddies or Couchsurfing to create a network of contacts before you arrive. It is rare to find a traveler who isn’t looking to make new friends or wouldn’t appreciate some company. Ask to join in on a day of sightseeing, go to dinner, watch a movie or just sit and converse. There is comfort and safety in a group. With these new contacts you can broaden your knowledge of local customs, find places to see, places to avoid, and how to move about safely. At the same time, keep in mind women of all cultures are just as likely to take advantage of a wide-eyed novice female traveler. Use common sense when reaching out to others.
Indian women can be rather straightforward at times. Conversations about your appearance, your dress, what jewelry you are wearing, how you style your hair and so much more may catch you off guard. It’s all meant in good fun, take it as a compliment.
Keep in touch with friends and family. If you are a woman traveling alone in India this is especially important. If you have a preset itinerary, stick to it as closely as possible. Register with your country’s embassy prior to arrival. This involves a few minutes online sharing dates, starting and ending locations and your best contact information. Email or call home frequently with the contact information for the places you are staying. Make your whereabouts known to your hostel, guest house, hotel front desk.
Get a cell phone for your stay in India. Or use your mobile from home with a locally purchased SIM card. Basic phones cost as little as Rs 200 at the local market. Program numbers such as the police, hotel numbers, travel agency contact numbers, travel partners, etc. Tell any friends you’ll call them from your next location as you enter a taxi or tuk tuk. Whether you actually do this or not, you’ve given the driver a cause to get you to your destination safely and in a timely manner. Another trick that works well is making calls to other friends or contacts during your ride informing them of your location and a time line for meeting.
10. Dress conservatively
Indian women in modern cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore confidently walk the streets in denim jeans, western short sleeve tops and high heels, but that’s not the norm for female tourists. India is still a socially conservative country where local women wear saris or salwar kameez (Punjabi suits) everday. Baring of shoulders, arms, legs and cleavage can instantly earn you the title of a prostitute in rural areas. And unless you plan to roam the beaches of Goa for your entire India holiday, knowing what is considered appropriate attire may be confusing.
It’s not uncommon to find female travelers in India wearing the popular salwar kameez, a light and breezy tunic top over loose fitting pants paired with a long lightweight scarf called a dupatta. Skip this and the sources advising you to wear these. Shopkeepers will be elated to sell you these outfits, even trip over themselves to offer custom made designs because they want a sale. Wanna know the truth? Locals are quieting laughing at women who parade around the streets in their clothing. In an effort to fit in you have effectively made yourself stick out even more. To some men you appear to be actively looking for an Indian mate or quick relationships. And to beggars or touts you are instantly marked as target.
Wear long sleeve cotton or linen tops either pull over or button up, casual cotton pants or travelers pants made of various synthetic materials. Do pick up at least one dupatta or blouse at the local market. This act will aid in creating relationships with the local women as well as making visits to temples, mosques or other religious sites much easier. Sandals, walking shoes or flip flops are all appropriate choices for footwear. Forget the purse and jewelry. Find a modest watch, simple studs for the ears and a utilitarian bag which can comfortably wrap around your body. You are dressing for the hot, sunny, dusty environment of India, being mindful of watchful eyes not just by men but Indian women too.