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Probably the most important question for anyone planning a holiday in India, in particular a woman travelling alone, is the question of safety. The reputation the country holds for being unsafe particularly for local and foreign women alike has become a global issue. This has been sharply brought into focus by the appalling recent cases of rape in Delhi. The truth is that women are treated quite differently in India than in other Asian and Western countries. They don’t have the same rights as men and far too many crimes against women go unreported or, worse, unpunished when they are reported. Sadly, women in India are treated as a second class citizen.
The rape case affected me enough to make me wary of going to India. Several times I was asked “Are you going to India? Are you sure? Are you not scared?” Naturally, I was scared! Yes, I did felt unsafe during my trip to India. My first few days back in November 2013 was totally overwhelming, I found traveling there really challenging. While there were no deliberate physical sexual harassment attempts, there were a lot of odd stares. The only exception was one rickshaw driver who was quite aggressive and obnoxious in his dealings with us, even deceitful about the travel route. We terminated our trip with him in the middle of the road and took another transport to eliminate untoward incident.
But, to be fair, we cannot simply stereotype a nation just because bad things happened. We need to understand that harassment can happen to anyone in any part of the world. Though these should be taken quite seriously, it doesn’t mean one should never travel to India.
India is a travel destination absolutely worth seeking, but before you venture on your trip, here are 7 tips that will help you create a safer and far more enriching experiences:
TIP #1: Plan and do research before hand
Plan your itinerary wisely. Search the web about places you want to go, be familiar with the local means of transportation. Check on the issue of safety – this will give you an idea on how you are going to make things work when you get there. A good knowledge about your destination will go a long way.
Search on a good and safe place to stay before booking your accommodation. Make sure that the hotel or hostel is easily accessible. Getting into a taxi alone in a foreign land is at first a little scary, so if your hotel provides transportation from the airport, use it. If not, you can arrange for a taxi at a prepaid taxi booth outside of the airport.
TIP #2: Don’t arrive at a new destination at night
Try to avoid late-night arrivals or departures. This is as much an issue of safety as it is for financial reasons. It wouldn’t be wise travelling at night in an area you are not familiar with. Also Book at least your first night’s accommodation in advance so that you’re confident on where you’re headed when you leave the airport or train station.
TIP #3: Dress appropriately and conservatively
Sari – traditional clothes for women (photo credit: gmanetwork.com)
India is still a very conservative country. Wearing clothes like the local is highly commendable. But if you cant always cover your chest, shoulders, and your legs well below the knees. Favor loose clothes over anything clingy or revealing. If you are on the top-big side, use a scarf across your chest to deflect attention.
TIP #4: Avoid going out after dark
In the bigger touristy destinations, the markets and shops are well lit, but in the rural areas, which I highly recommend visiting, wandering around in the dark will only lead to trouble. Have a taxi driver take you from place to place or a guide to help you navigate the markets and temples at night. Using public transportation (especially if the bus or train carriage is empty) is also not advisable.
TIP #5: Be assertive
India is loud, chaotic and full of people trying to sell you something, always. Whether it’s a taxi driver pushing you to use his services, a woman selling bracelets on the road, in a bus, airport, market or restaurant, don’t be afraid to just say, “NO!”. Please be aware that the Indian’s head bobble can mean yes, no, or maybe, which makes it difficult to firmly tell someone no in India.
I quickly learned that it is best to ignore people, especially salesmen or touts, saying a polite no thank you is still engaging with them and could be mistaken for a sign of interest. Most importantly don’t look an easy target, act confident even if you are not!
TIP #6: Be open minded
One of the streets in New Delhi
One aspect of India that struck me was the large groups of men seemingly loitering on the streets, with few to no women present. Men are everywhere and they will definitely be staring at you. Even though I was travelling with a friend, I still had men staring at me wherever I went.
Always be mindful that an everyday gesture like a smile may be taken as flirtatious and sometime even as an invitation for sex. Being aware of how the local men may perceive you and taking care of not provoking them can make all the difference between safely navigating the streets and being the target of unwanted attention. Of course, not all men are like this and I hate to stereotype – I just think it is something that women need to be mindful of.
Out of curiosity, I asked a manager in a restaurant where we had our dinner about why there is no women working around. Even the hotel were we’ve stayed, cleaning staff consisted exclusively of men. He said that it is because of economic reasons (1) Women cannot work long hours due to the issue of security (2) They can utilize men better than women and (3) As tradition women should be home taking care of their family – while men work for a living.
TIP #7: Be careful who to trust
Architecture student from New Delhi
Part of traveling abroad is to meet the locals. Follow your gut before you expose too much information. Never reveal your contact information, hotel location, room number or other pertinent information on where people can find you. People in India lie all the time to tourists, so a white lie on telling someone you are staying across town is better than being too kind and risk some potential unpleasantness.
Just be mindful about your surroundings and decline any unsolicited offers of help. Try to appear confident and purposeful in all your actions, as any tourist looking lost or hopeless will immediately attract “helping hands” that might not have the best of intentions at heart. If you need direction or a help you choose wisely who to ask for it. We’ve done that several times on the street with very satisfactory results as all the asked individuals went out of their way to provide genuine help to us and without any expectations of getting anything in return.
Walking around Lodi Garden
In some ways I’m quite lucky. I can blend very easily, especially if I put a head scarf on. Couple times I was even taken for a local. I loved and appreciated the care, attention and advice the male workers at the hotel gave us. They cautioned us not to walk around the hotel at night, because it could be dangerous. They always gladly helped us to hire safe transportation and drivers and provided us with all the directions we needed. They were great.
While I agree that for a first time tourist, India can be a daunting country to travel to, and that you always need to be very cautious there, it is also clear to me that this is an amazing place to visit, absolutely worth all the associated troubles you might (or might not) have to go through. Just endure the locals, embrace the chaos and blend in. The rewards certainly outweigh the challenges.