While I was working as a Legal Officer in a small Non-governmental Organisation in Ahmedabad last year, I had the opportunity of meeting some amazing young researchers who came from far and wide to conduct a field study of Environment issues across Gujarat. One among them was a friend, lets call her ‘O’, is probably the most prepared single female traveler I have come across.
We traveled a part of the coast, had droves of people stare at us, met some of the most remarkable people, learned new things from people who are otherwise called ‘illiterate’ and even ate food (largely prawn and catfish) that I might never find elsewhere again!
Sometimes, I think I was destined to meet her – O and I got along like a house on fire and this is a small tribute to the many conversations we had about a single female traveler who would like to visit India. It is difficult, I acknowledge – but with resources and a network in place it is possible.
I shall write about my adventures and mis-adventures with ‘O’ to Shiyalbet some other day, but for now here are ten handy tips for a lone woman traveling in India.
A caveat – these are not foolproof, some can be read in guidebooks, some is of course plain ol’ common sense, but for good measure – each comes from a personal lesson and experience that renders it worthy to share !
1. “Adjust” – A six-letter word that means the same thing whether it is for space, time, food preferences – but ought not to be for water, hygiene and clothing. While venturing out, carrying a small bottle of water from where you trust is always sensible, but re-use and re-fill for responsible travel. If you can, learn a few Hindi catch-phrases for the North and remember that in South India, people enjoy a funny spoken English – but you must speak very slowly.
2. Tickets and reservations in India are not a casual affair. Indian Railways has long Waiting Lists. Bus Tickets booked online should be re-confirmed. Air Tickets have constant SMS updates and the constant need to reconfirm is not necessary anymore, but always look at how much time is required for check-in and security check. High security alerts when floated around cause chaos at airports and flights can be missed if you get stuck in long queues of angry passengers. Tickets are thus as important as your passport and visa, when travelling in India.
3. India is a warm country – extremely hot for eight months a year. The only fabric is that is sensible for sturdy long distance-travel, or outdoors is Cotton. In addition to this, I find carrying a stole (to cover one’s head or legs) is a handy piece of clothing which can be put to multiple uses. Winters in India are severe in the North as compared to the South, but cotton for layers of clothing is always a MUST.
4. Cleavage is something that must be Hidden on a lone woman. In fact, a sensible woman (and I am not trying to be patronizing or gender-insensitive, I speak from hard-learned experiences) will cover her legs too. Yet I find if there is that odd moment where you see a couple of men ogle at your breasts or legs and you have just one jacket or cloth to cover you up – cleavage is what should be hidden. Nothing titillates the Indian male more than Breasts irrespective of size or shape – and for all the brou haha of ‘Indian Culture’ – breasts are of a hypocritical but universal appeal for men of different ages, size, shape, caste, creed or religion. Also it is advisable to keep lingerie that is simple and comfortable on journeys – falling straps, lacy, stringy stuff or lingerie that is tight , not only brings unwanted attention but in the event of you needing to use a bathroom not your own, could become unbearable for long journeys.
5. When you are in doubt, always stick to Vegetarian Food – Rice, Pulses, Lentils and Chapati freshly cooked are what I believe to be one of the most balanced and healthy diets in the world. Dairy products, especially Milk from Amul is always easily available in nearly every corner of India and triple-times more safe than Chicken or Mutton while on the move. This is of course, if you feel queasy or have not acclimatized to Indian food and weather as yet. Sometimes – just remember, Have a Banana!
6. Two essential carry-on items – Mosquito-repellent cream (Odomos or Good Knight Naturals available at any shop around the corner) and a portable Torch. No matter how comfortable your digs, or a guarantee of a Emergency back-up system to power, I have realised that these two items are quite indispensable when needed.
7. The Little Black Book – Something I have found very useful while travelling despite the onslaught of cellphones, laptops, iphones etc, carry a pocket book that lists out all your local contacts, phone numbers and addresses , which is easy to locate and read when the time calls for it. There could be several places or times when all you need to do is refer to the hotel or local house that you are staying and problems disappear in a snap! (For Police, Persons of actual or perceived authority, verifications at odd points – as this shows preparedness, minus technological dependency – your less likely to be taken for a ride!)
8. Eye-contact and Engagement – India is quite paradoxical on several levels. For a lone female traveler a funny thing to remember is never keep your gaze lingering on another man for too long. It is seen as a direct inclination to engage for help, ticket touts or unwanted attention. But you can always smile politely and briefly, especially when a man is accompanied by a woman and talk directly to a woman. Women respond to signs or understand when another woman needs a toilet, change of clothes, water, emergency medicines much more readily at most tourist- thronged places and are highly resourceful.
9 . Questions on your husband, father, caste or country and where you are from once you are introduced to someone new, yet is a perfect stranger are considered perfectly acceptable and un-intrusive. Find a simple answer – “He is on business” “He has to look after emergency” “He is an engineer/ doctor” I am … and then ask people about their families to stop a one-way inquisition. Usually, to ask a woman or family about her children is the best ice-breaker. But if a lone man is trying to talk to you when alone repeatedly, move to the nearest public space as fast as you can without drawing too much attention, but do not engage for more than what is your teleos.
10. India is for the adventurous, despite your preparedness or resourcefulness there is a constant element of unpredictability – my advice to you is the more you resist India the more hostile she becomes. Come with the spirit to learn something new from whom you least expect to, and a wholly different miracle takes place!