A female traveler’s guide to surviving India
MY PRE-ARRANGED HOTEL PICK-UP DOESN’T SHOW. In a jetlagged haze, I make my way out of the airport and into a taxi. I feel apprehensive trusting my safety and belongings to the hands of the driver.
He is chatty and establishes himself as my ‘friend.’ I start feeling at ease and let my guard down, slightly. Within minutes he stops to let another man into the cab. I protest. They both look at me like I’m crazy. “But Ma’am, this is my brother!” he yells. I stand my ground. I grab my backpack and threaten to jump out, but the passenger relents and leaves the cab. I am unnerved. Did I just avoid a scam or am I being excessively paranoid?
It can be tough traveling around India as a solo woman, and it’s important to use your common sense and maintain a sense of humor. Here are some tips to help you deal with the unfamiliar, and focus on the real reasons for your trip.
My first few days I found the stares aggravating, but they’re something you have to get used to. The best thing is to ignore them, and avoid staring back as it may be misconstrued as a come-on. The stares are mostly friendly curiosity, but some Indian men have formed false notions of the sexual availability of foreign women and may move on from staring to invasive questions, whistling, following, and even groping. Challenge the adamant ogler in a loud, curt tone to attract the attention of onlookers. This is generally enough to get rid of your unwanted admirer. Keep conversations short with men who are inquiring about your marital status or commenting on your appearance.
Lack of personal space
Whether on a crowded bus or sardine-canned in the Delhi Metro, you should be prepared to share your personal space. But know where to draw the line. On one long trip, I experienced an unspoken cross-cultural comradeship when a sari-clad, elderly Rajasthani woman made a seat in my lap. But that feeling of female connection quickly disappeared the moment she got up and an able-bodied adult man eagerly jumped in her place.
Even when you think your personal space is safe, beware – a camel driver may ask to share your camel! As majestic as my camel trek through the Rajasthani desert was, it would have been a lot more comfortable if I had asserted I wasn’t comfortable with an uninvited passenger straddling my behind.
It is when personal space is lacking that you are more likely to be grabbed inappropriately. In crowded places, people might suggestively press up against you and rest errant limbs on your body. You should remove any displaced limbs and return them to the owner, and move away from the cheeky perpetrator. Do not feel intimidated about speaking up.
Dress conservatively to help ward off unwanted stares and sexual harassment. I found that when I dressed in local clothes like the salwar kameez (the dress and pants combination worn by many Indian women), I was hassled a little less by lewd men, rickshaw drivers, and shop owners. I even won the smiles of local women as we passed in the street.
Avoid skimpy clothing, and keep a dupatta (a kind of long, multi-purpose scarf) on hand to cover your shoulders and chest, and in more conservative areas your hips, butt, and hair all at the same time. Skirts should be long enough to cover most of your legs.
The dress code is strict when visiting religious sites, and you are usually encouraged to cover your head with a scarf if you visit a temple or mosque. And don’t mistake sari petticoats and cholis (sari blouses) for skirts: to locals, wearing a petticoat or choli in public is like walking around half dressed.
I recommend you pre-arrange an airport pick-up via your hotel. If, as in my case, no-one shows up, a prepaid radio cab service such as EasyCabs is the safest option, and available in most cities. After calling the operator, you receive a text with the driver’s registration number. You can also book online. For regular prepaid taxis, make a point of writing down the car registration and name of the driver, and hand it to the airport police.
Avoid taking taxis alone at night when the streets are deserted. Never allow more than one man in the car, even if the driver insists it is his brother. I read this specific piece of advice in a guide book after my incident – and was relieved I’d used good judgment in getting myself out of a potentially unsafe situation.
On train rides, I was more comfortable in ladies-only carriages, though they do get very crowded with women and children. I also found I faced less hassle when I paid for a more expensive class such as the 2AC or 3AC – air conditioned carriages with either two or three tiered berths. Some trains have a flashier 1AC class which comes with locking doors. On overnight trains, it’s best to sleep on the top bunk so you get more privacy and put a bit of distance between you and potential gropers. Remember to lock up all your belongings.
Play it safe
Women have reported instances of sexual harassment from all sorts of people, including yoga teachers, masseurs, and other therapists. To keep safe, you should research the reputation of the therapist or instructor before going into a solo session. You can often find this information in guide books or by talking to fellow travelers. Also exercise caution when choosing a tour operator, and stick to companies recommended in guide books or endorsed by the Travel Agents Association of India. A reputable company may cost more, but investing those few extra rupees is well worth it.
Have you ever traveled to India? What advice would you give to female travelers?