India: Travel Tips for Women
I have traveled alone extensively in India, and have always felt safe, despite putting myself in questionable circumstances. I disregarded the U.S. State Department’s warnings and traveled to Kashmir and skied there at a resort, Gulmarg, that is three miles from the Line of Control over which Pakistan and India bicker. I backpacked across the Indian Himalayas during winter, and grabbed jeep rides to whatever town they happened to be going. I spent a summer in Southern India, where daytime temperatures soared to 107 degrees F. (41.67 C.). I have never contracted food poisoning, never been robbed, and other than a few minor incidences have never felt physically threatened.
But my travels could have easily gone wrong. I’ve been lucky, but also prudent, for the most part. Here are my tips for women traveling alone in India:
- Dress modestly. Always. No shorts, short skirts, or tank tops. No tight T-shirts, no showing cleavage. No matter hot it gets—and it gets really, really hot in India—cover up. I almost always wear a salwar kameez. Local tailors in every town will custom make them for you. But, I prefer to buy them ready wear at FabIndia (chain store with zillions of locations), which is the Indian version of Anthropolgie. There are some exceptions to my salwar kameez rule: Goan beaches, mountain/rock climbing in Manali, skiing, yoga. Temperature is not a factor. Regardless of how hot it gets on the Indian plains I cover up, and you should too.
- Carry a shawl or scarf with you. You’ll need to cover your head to enter temples and gurdwaras and other holy sites.
- Avoid animal products. This is not me trying to sneak in a plug for veganism. This is pure practicality. Electrical blackouts are the norm in India, making refrigeration unreliable. Eating animal products = food poisoning.
- Pack your must-have personal care products. Tampons are nearly impossible to find in most towns. Bring sunscreen, a headlamp and torch (for frequent blackouts), a personal water filtration system, sugar substitute for coffee/tea, oil of oregano (a few drops a day keep bacteria away), hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, money belt for under your clothes, pumice stone for scrubbing the filth off your feet if you wear sandals/flip-flops, bug spray (citronella won’t cut it in India, opt for chemicals). Dr. Bronner’s all purpose liquid soap multitasks as shampoo and clothes detergent. Bring a lock to secure your belongs during long train/bus rides. Possibly the most important item of all: toilet paper.
- Clothes to bring: Rain jacket if you’re traveling to the mountains (which I highly recommend), sunhat, sensible shoes, yoga clothes—capris and full-length tops. Clothes not to bring: whites (it’s astonishing how quickly dirt gathers on everything), booty yoga shorts, bandeaus/bra tops, anything see-through or revealing.
- Know how to say, “Thank You.” Danyavaad in Hindi, Sukriya in Urdu. India has 22 official languages, one of which is English.
- No PDAs. If you hook up while traveling, keep the romance in your room.
- Add leg day to your workouts to prepare for India. Squat toilets are still the norm in most places outside the major cities/tourist areas.
- Don’t make eye contact with random men on the street. They will think you’re coming on to them. During my travels, I’ve made many guy friends. I’ve even gone on dates with local men. But when I’m dealing with locals, I channel my most proper, chaste, ladylike qualities. No come hither looks. No flirty conversations.
- Be polite, but take no shit. My minor incidences with men occurred when I let my guard down for fear of coming across as a rude American. One young man followed me back to my hotel (unbeknownst to me) and when I opened the door, he tried to push his way in and kiss me. I kneed him in the groin (thank you, Model Mugging workshop).
- But don’t assume the worst. You will get hit on in India. Relentlessly. Regardless of your age. If you’re traveling alone, men assume you want to be hit on. But not all of them. Some will genuinely find you interesting. Develop your radar so you can tell which is which.
- Planes, trains, automobiles? If you travel up north and take shared jeeps from town to town, buy two seats. Jeep drivers pack as many people as possible into one vehicle. Flights between cities are inexpensive, but can mean unwanted overnight stays to make connections. Trains are…let’s just say fly whenever possible.
- Carry extra passport-sized photos for permits. You need special permits to enter Sikkim. If you’re in Dharamsala during the Dalai Lama’s teachings, you’ll need a permit to attend. Extra photos come in handy. Also, carry multiple copies of your passport and Indian visa.
For more information on what to expect as a woman traveling alone in India: My Worst Date. Ever.