As promised in this post, I’m writing a few posts with my advice on travelling to India. The advice is based on my experience, and that of other travellers whom I know and trust. There is a lot of bad and sugar coated advice out there, designed to please tourism boards and PR / Marketing folk who are selling Incredible India, rather than offering practical advice. If you have any other tips or advice that you think would be helpful, please do feel free to comment on it here too.
So here goes, some of my tips for women travelling in India, some is for solo travel while other tips are relevant for any women.
What should you wear?
Yes the feminist in me believes that women should wear whatever they want. Regardless of what you wear, I know no woman is inviting stares, wolf whistles, assault or rape. But this is India! This is a country where men and women rarely kiss in public and where the standard Bollywood movie theme is for a man to harass a woman who is resisting him until she just gives in, or worse he rapes her and then she gives in.
So, wear whatever you want to in India, but if you’d like to perhaps reduce the amount of undesirable attention you receive, then here’s some tips I followed:
- Cover cleavage: You don’t have to wear a turtleneck, but covering up your cleavage and being a bit modest will go a long way towards being culturally sensitive;
- Covering your arms isn’t necessary, but as a rule of thumb when travelling in small towns or rural places, I tend to cover at least to my elbows. If it’s too hot, buy a dupatta and use that to cover your shoulders. It will protect you from the sun and also hopefully take away some attention;
- You don’t need to wear Indian clothes to fit in. Trust me, everyone knows you are a foreigner, and no matter how bright or traditional your kurta, no one is going to believe any different. I’m Indian and everyone can tell I’m foreign by the way I walk and the way I wear my hair (so I’ve been told). If you do feel comfortable in a kurta then of course go ahead. They’re super comfortable and perfect for the heat. But remember, that’s not a dress, they are worn with a pair of leggings, churidhars (the pants that come in at the ankle) or salwar (the baggy pants). Wear them with jeans if you prefer, but do not wear a kurta on it’s own unless you want everyone to think you are walking around half naked;
- If you like the blouses or petticoats that go under sarees, or even churidhars (the pants that tie up around your waist and come in tight at the ankles), wear them by all means, but don’t wear them as outer garments. These are under-garments and wearing them as a top with jeans, as a skirt or a pair of pants without a kurta, is basically like wearing your underwear out in public. They are not meant to be worn as a stand alone item, and therefore you will attract attention and may even offend people;
- Cover your legs: In most parts of India, except perhaps Goa and Mumbai, it’s best to cover your legs, at least up to your calves. Take your lead from the women around you, if the Indian women are covered then best follow suit;
- Loosen the clothing: If you’re more comfortable in tight clothes, and you don’t mind the stares then go for it. But generally, Indian clothing is not overly revealing and kurtas are quite loose. It actually makes sense, particularly in the heat as you’ll be more comfortable in loose clothing;
- If you’re living in a big city like Mumbai, or going out to a bar or club, you’ll notice that a lot of local women are wearing not very much. So what’s with all my tips?? What you should remember, is that these women are most likely being driven straight to the bar or club, and either have a driver waiting or a friend to take them home. They’re not hanging out in the street at 3am trying to hail a rickshaw. If you want to wear what they’re wearing and feel ok at the end of the night, perhaps take a shawl with you and / or arrange a driver to get you home;
- You don’t need to wear a wedding ring or pretend you are married. By all means do so if you don’t want to answer questions about being single, but be prepared for a zillion more questions about your husband, in-laws, children and why on earth they aren’t with you. I’ve never pretended to be married here and it hasn’t caused a problem, I’m just a bit of a curiousity. Married women are assaulted and raped everyday in India, pretending to be married is no protection against assault. And I’ve heard some people say you should pretend you’re married to an Indian man to gain acceptance, trust me that won’t make you part of Indian society either. I’ve got plenty of friends who are foreigners who’ve married Indian men, they’re certainly part of their immediate family but sadly still viewed as foreign by most people, regardless of how long they live here. So don’t bother, besides you’ll be easily found out anyway when the questions start coming.
Tips on Finding Somewhere to Stay
When I travelled alone, I followed a few rules of thumb with finding somewhere to stay:
- If I was arriving after 6pm, I’d arrange accommodation for at least the first night in advance and try to arrange a pick-up. Buses and trains tend to be late, and there’s nothing worse than turning up in the dark and trying to negotiate a rickshaw driver to somewhere you don’t know. It cost a bit more, but I always felt my safety was worth it. I remember deliberately booking a train to Gaya in Bihar (a notoriously dangerous state in India) that arrived at 2pm in the afternoon for this very reason, unfortunately it was 7 hours late and I hadn’t booked accommodation or a pick-up. The rickshaw ride into Bodhgaya was one of my most terrifying, two young boys trying to take dirt roads as short-cuts while I had to scream at them until they turned around and went back onto the main road;
- If alone, stay on a busy street: Invest in ear plugs if the noise is too much, but being close to people is really important. Especially if you need to get out and buy something at night, or are coming home in the dark. You don’t want to be walking in a dark lane way alone, or traversing deserted streets;
- Make sure there’s somewhere to eat nearby: I rarely venture out alone at night when I’m travelling alone in India, unless I know the place well (like I do with Bombay), so I always find it helpful to stay somewhere that had a restaurant or had a dhaba nearby (like next door or down the road). It meant I could eat dinner at a reasonable hour and not worry about having to get back to my hotel. Once I became more familiar with a place, I could then venture further afield.
Tips on Getting Around
I take public transport pretty much anywhere in India, but there are still some general rules that I followed:
- Travel during the day wherever possible. I did take some night buses, but generally preferred daytime travel so I could land during the day, and get out if it wasn’t feeling safe. I was once thrown off a bus in the middle of rural Himachal Pradesh for having the wrong ticket, so it was quite lucky I was travelling during the day and had a spare few daylight hours to sit around the roadside waiting for the next bus.
- Stay near other women: On buses, usually the first couple of rows are for women so push your way up to the front. On long distance trains, if I found myself near a group of men, I would always ask the conductor to move me and they never had an issue doing this. There’s safety in numbers, and I always found that other women would look out for me.
- Cover yourself on the overnight train: I travel with a silk sheet that I slip into when sleeping on public transport. I find it comfortable to sleep in my own linen and it also covers me completely, so I don’t have the problem of a blanket falling off me in the middle of sleep, thereby revealing something I don’t want to reveal.
- Be loud: If for some reason you’re not comfortable with a situation, a driver is making you feel creepy or other passengers are staring, speak loudly and clearly. Loud enough for others to hear you. It’s not a fail safe deterrent, particularly if there’s a pack mentality going on, but I’ve used this with rickshaw drivers and men staring at me on buses and have found it works. Usually someone else, male or female, will hear and get involved. In one situation, a man was trying to proposition me on a bus, and the ticket collector threw him off the bus for me!
- Hire a driver in the evening: If you’re heading out at night somewhere you don’t know, I’d suggest hiring a driver for the evening rather than relying on public transport. You can proposition most normal taxi drivers to stay with you for an evening, or hire a private car service. In Delhi, I would go to one of the corner stands with taxis and negotiate with the owner, a driver and car for 8 hours would cost me about Rs850. Mumbai costs a bit more, a lot more in Chennai, and a lot less in a rural place. It just means that someone is there to take me home, and I can go out feeling safe in the knowledge I don’t need to find transport at the end of a night. Just remember to give your driver some Rs for dinner.
- Use the Women’s carriages: Trains in many cities have women’s carriages (in Delhi’s metro it’s the first carriage, in Mumbai they have stripes on the carriage, just look for where the women are standing on the platform). There is a reason they exist, and they can make your journey more comfortable. I accidentally got on a mixed carriage in Delhi once and got out at the next station feeling like almost every part of my body had been violated. My only caveat would be during peak hour in Mumbai, be careful as the women’s carriages are brutal. There’s so much pushing and shoving, I always end up with bruises. So either stand out-of-the-way, or wait until later to get a train home.
That’s a start for now. If you’ve got any other tips you’d like to share or questions you’d like to ask please do so. I’ll be writing some more tips in another post soon.