6 Things to Consider Before You Visit India
1. Is India safe or not?
My considered answer is that India is uncomfortable but it is not unsafe. It’s a challenge. India grabs hold of you at the level of the heart, India forces you to have all your senses engaged. You will either love it or hate it but you really should expect to feel both emotions within the space of a day or even an hour. India has a magic trick of turning all your preconceptions into misconceptions and all your assumptions into an opportunity to learn more than you ever thought was possible in this land of the never-ending story.
2. Should you consider traveling in India?
India is a destination of the heart. If India calls you, you will come. If you are looking for an inexpensive holiday somewhere in Asia and think India may be a country to have on your “been there done that list” then perhaps you might like to consider other options.
I have lived and worked and travelled in India for almost twenty years now and have experienced life at every level. I have lived in posh enclaves, slept out at temples with a bunch of madmen, lived in villages and rocked it in five star hotels. In terms of travel I have experienced every single class from Bullock Cart to Jet Plane. Gradually I think I have adjusted my life in India to the fact that I live in a totally patriarchal country where women who are not protected (by having a husband or a travel companion) are not respected.
The issue of whether India is a safe country for women to travel in is something I have almost remained silent on in recent months because I have also been wondering the same thing myself. I run a niche travel business for women travel in India, I promote safe travel for women in India, organise itineraries and put solo travellers in touch with my contacts all over India because this is how we travel anyway in India. Why do we travel like this in India? Because there is a mindset here that to be alone is to be vulnerable. This is a reflection of the organisation of society as much as it is a cautionary measure. Most Indians travel with the entire extended family, caught in the maelstrom of an Indian family on the move may be a maid or two, a kitchen sink and a random sadhu baba.
3. What precautions should you take?
From the Indian point of view, if one must travel alone in India and to a place where they haven’t been before then lots of precautions are taken. People will generally search around their contacts to find someone they know whom the traveller can call if ‘anything should happen.’ Recently, for example, I was overnighting in a city in Rajasthan, and an Indian friend who lives and works in Dubai heard about this and looked up an old college buddy from maybe 15 years back and gave me an introduction to the guy. In the same way I have been contacted by Indian friends whenever their friends or contacts have been traveling in the area where I live.
We do this because we know that this is India and shit can happen in a heartbeat. I do this because Indians and Gemini women are natural communicators and networkers. The web of contacts all over this vast country is a way of making a personal geography of the country. It’s also a way the Indians make friends; they rarely rely on random encounters but work through introductions through other friends.
Remember that in India the night belongs to drunks, dacoits (robbers) and dogs. Knowing this, most Indians are inside the comfort and safety of their own homes by 10 pm. Try not to arrive anywhere in the wee hours of the morning or night and if you are out late visiting them stay with your friends and go home in the morning.
So if locals travel in this way, then what is the advice for women who want to travel to India solo?
Advertisement: So if locals travel this way, then what advice do we have for women who want to travel to India solo?
4. What are the most uncomfortable places to be a woman alone in India?
The Northern Tourist Belt is hard work. Rajasthan and Delhi are probably the most difficult places to be a woman alone in terms of having the feeling of being watched or ogled or assessed.
Young boys especially in Rajasthan will make smart ass comments (be thankful that you don’t understand Hindi), men in Delhi have a habit of using your breasts as a bumper bar for them, and groups of males congregating on street corners in parks and other public places will perv at you in a most unsettling way.
It’s a sad but true fact that men in India own the public space, so every time you are outside on the street you will notice that men expect females to step aside for them. In their minds you shouldn’t even be out on the damn street and in some places (Jodhpur in Rajasthan is an example: the men take your presence on the street as a personal challenge and are often quite confrontational if not downright rude). Don’t expect any common courtesy as a general rule because this simply does not occur to men outside the home where women are the civilising influence and where men dare not misbehave.
But since you are a traveller and you actually need to be in a public space in order to travel and see the sights then how do you manage that? If you walked down a street in New York you would not feel obliged to make friends with everyone there would you? So when you walk down a city street in India and people call out in a friendly way or when men follow you in Connaught Place (a famous fishing ground for disreputable and unlicensed Kashmiri men masquerading as tourist guides), DO NOT RESPOND. Easy huh?
If you want a guide in India then there are professionals who are licensed and passionate about their jobs and who are strictly professional. I will shortly be compiling a list or reputable guides on my site.
5. What is public transportation like?
Trains, planes, and automobiles: For those who say, “You have to travel second class train travel in India to really experience the country,” I say, GET A LIFE. I totally do not recommend this as a comfortable form of travel for a woman alone, no matter how hardcore your budget. Second class train travel is considered public space, it’s dirty and uncomfortable and unsafe too at times. By far the most comfortable mode of transport is by 2nd or 3rd AC train travel. Mostly your fellow passengers will not stare at you, they are also more likely to strike up interesting conversation and be really very helpful.
Buses: Some state governments run AC tourist buses, which I totally recommend. In fact I recommend government buses above private buses (these are the ones you get by purchasing a ticket at a travel agency or through your hotel). Government buses arrive at a legitimate bus stand while private buses dump you at a place where they get a hefty commission from the shark like packs of auto walla who linger there. This is definitely uncomfortable as they auto walla hustle you for business, they get into your body space and bully you with shouting and intimidating tactics. Sometimes it can also be dangerous–women have reported abductions or attempted abductions in auto.
6. What practices should you avoid as a single woman traveler in India?
DON’T get into a taxi or auto where the auto driver has a friend or who picks up a friend on the way. If this happens then you are well within your rights to INSIST that the auto walla stop and let either you (the fare paying passenger) or his mate out. DO SNAP A PIC OF THE AUTO REGISTRATION before you get into the vehicle. It’s quite okay for the driver to see you doing this. Don’t be shy.
DON’T get into vehicles with strangers AT ALL EVER.
DON’T Travel in a private bus at night unless you have purchased two seats to guarantee your safety.
DON’T Take a massage or a spa treatment from a man. Especially do not allow a man into your hotel room to give you a massage no matter how your hotel or guest house insists that the fellow is safe.
DON’T share food from strangers whilst traveling. There have been instances where people have been poisoned and robbed on trains and buses.
DON’T kiss a sadhu. I know!! Sadhus are supposed to have renounced the world–especially gold and women. Any sadhu you meet as a tourist is pretty much guaranteed to be on the make. Genuine sadhus are usually found in the jungle far away from the tourist trail.
DON’T make the mistake of taking a guide from an agency operating in a tourist area. These guys are unlicensed and often expect sexual favours as part of the exchange of services. As a single woman in India it’s important to remember that 95% of men over the age of 26 in India will be married.
DO consider your budget. The only real way to see India safely on a budget is to travel in the off season where rates are lower and people have time to talk to their guests. Hard core budget travel in India can compromise your safety in India. It’s as simple as that. To save a few hundred rupees here and there women often end up making bad choices, which can end up as unfortunate and uncomfortable experiences.
DO remember that you are on holiday and not going into a war zone. You don’t have to win, you don’t have to change the world, you simply need to make things easy on yourself. And when you do, a whole other world opens up to you. You will be charmed and delighted and fall in love with the simple things of life, and you will wonder what the fuss is all about.
Dianne Sharma Winter describes herself as a Non Resident Indiaphile. A travel writer, tour leader and modern day explorer of what makes India tick, she belongs to the south pacific paradise island of New Zealand. She lives full time On The Road, mostly in India and enjoys listening to stories in chai shops, getting lost in translation and found again. She specialises in designing personalised tineraries for travel to India. Check out her website here.
Safety in India: 6 Things to Consider Before You Visit India