By Anne Lowrey
I have never been so nervous to travel anywhere as I was to go to India for the first time.
After now having made multiple trips and even lived in Delhi, I can share without hesitation that India is one of my favorite countries in the whole world. I’ve traveled there in a large group, with another female friend, and solo — throughout many of the country’s regions.
If you can, I’d actually recommend going either with someone who has been or in some sort of guided capacity for your first visit. I had the opportunity to go in a group for my first trip, and my companions and local Indian friends shaped my initial experience. I know many women who have not had the glowing experiences that I have, and I think some of that has to with my introduction to the country.
I’ve since been back many times, and I am able to feel safe now that I have specific knowledge about traveling there. If there’s one tip I can give you it’s this: India does not adjust to you; to successfully navigate the country and stay safe, you must adjust to India.
Navigating the Culture
India is a true behemoth of a country. It is huge, varied, and hardly definable, with hundreds of regions and dialects and cuisines. The best thing to do is to narrow in on the part of India you’ll be traveling in, and to seek a local understanding through that lens. You’ll absolutely need an open mind to appreciate India, as it will challenge so much of what you thought you understood about the world (this was my personal experience.)
To me, the most important thing is to buy and wear Indian clothing when you arrive. I don’t pack many of my own clothes, as I know I will go to the market for what’s called ‘salwar kameez’ to wear during my trip. The clothing is comfortable, and it will help you to not stand out as much. I’ve also dyed my hair (I’m naturally blonde) before to blend in more. Avoid wearing western clothing or accessories. I find this to be respectful of the culture, and I found more women willing to approach me for conversation as well.
Corruption is a real problem with the police and other authorities, though most are respectful of and helpful to tourists. A few other generalities worth understanding about India: most people will speak some English, though not every Indian speaks Hindi. It’s important to respect religion (most Indians are Hindu) and for many guests, and you as a visitor to country, are considered to be godlike — a principle known as ‘Atithi Devo Bahava.’ Theft is less of a problem than say being ripped off at the market, though attitudes towards women do present some unique and very real safety concerns.
Personal Safety Concerns
India is one of the most intimidating countries to travel in for women, and rightfully so. Landing in the country was the biggest culture shock I’ve ever experienced. The sheer number of people, the poverty, the sights, smells, and sensory overload…it can leave first-time travelers in a bit of an overwhelmed daze. There is a lot of wealth disparity, and there will be people looking to overcharge uninformed travelers. The savvier you can be when you land, the better. I do this through pre-planning and pre-booking my first couple of days prior to arrival, at the least.
Transportation is the first safety issue I believe needs to be addressed. I recommend hiring a driver (very cost effective as well) if it makes sense in the area you’re traveling in. You can get a feel for whether you can trust them by hiring them for a day in the city in which you arrive, before committing to anything longer. If you’re traveling by train, I recommend the highest class ticket possible (always buy in advance.) In cities like Delhi, there are women-only public transportation options as well (metro.) Avoid buses, choose your rickshaws carefully, and be ready to be shocked by the Indian traffic and roads!
Food and Water
A big concern for many travelers to India is the potential for “Delhi Belly,” as many do get sick from food during their trip. Of the many months I have spent in India, I personally have not had food poisoning. Many but not all of the people I have seen get sick were due to food that had been sitting out for long periods of time (often meat,) or items that are not fresh and made to order. Don’t worry about drinking chai (tea) or eating street food — if it has been boiled, you will more than likely be fine. Drink only bottled water and be careful about fresh vegetables and where they came from (or what they were washed with.)
There are unique challenges for western women traveling in India. Many of the kindest people I’ve met in the world are Indian men, but I have also experienced uncomfortable moments. Most attention is harmless — people of all ages that may approach you to take a picture, the giggles of a group of schoolchildren as you pass by.
Yet some of the attention you may receive as a western woman will be unwanted. It is an unfortunate reality for most all women living in India, and there are ways to minimize it. Taking the women’s-only car for the metro, for example, avoids potentially uncomfortable crowding around men that may not respect your personal space.
Sexual assault is another real concern, though I don’t feel as threatened there as the media would suggest. I traveled with a plastic doorstop that I placed under the door of my hotel rooms, to delay entry of potential intruders and that gave me peace of mind (I do this is other countries besides India.) Another thing to know is that while women’s rights are progressing, there are still beliefs that a woman should not be out at night, for example, that are good to research and be aware of. When in doubt, ask a friend who has spent time in India or a local you can trust.
Though I have heard stories of much worse, the most uncomfortable experiences I have had involve staring. I think back to a night in Varanasi when I was waiting for my train to arrive and I couldn’t escape the gaze of some of the men there. Whether or not I was truly in danger, I felt I was at risk. I found that the simple act of wrapping a head scarf around my hair and face helped tremendously, and I also went to the train office to sit in a public space around authority figures.
It’s best not to remain isolated if you feel unsafe. There are lots of people in India, and many of them are incredibly kind. Surround yourself with them if you feel at all in danger.
My Biggest Tips for traveling while female in India
Eat vegetarian while in India (it is absolutely delicious anyways!)
Wear local clothing and do anything you can to blend in with your appearance
Go in a group when possible, and connect with locals for advice that you can trust
I think the most important thing is to learn how India works (and doesn’t work) and be prepared to adapt as much as you can. This will help you see the best side of the country — a place I love so very much and would hate for any traveler to miss out on. If you embrace traveling in India, you will be rewarded with some of the richest landscapes, cultures, and interactions you can possibly have on this planet.
Anne Lowrey blogs at PartTimeTraveler, and writes for Viator and Trip.com. Catch her on Twitter @anne_elizabeth.