My trip to India was still in the early planning stages when I began receiving cautionary advice from traveling friends. “Don’t drink the water,” “only stay in upscale hotels,” “I hope you’re traveling with a man.” While I appreciated the words of warning and some of the tips were unquestionably true (ahem, never drink the tap water), I found much of the advice to be slightly more hyped than reality required.
Yes India is huge, and hot, and often overwhelming, but it is also beautiful, surprising and on a different scale than anywhere else I’ve ever been. I discovered that with some forethought, common sense and a few very unflattering outfits, female traveling around India was vastly more rewarding than I ever imagined it could be. Sure male travelers will elicit a few less stares, but traveling as a woman allowed for a lot of unexpected perks like the wonderful conversations I was able to have with Indian women. While the tips below mostly apply to women, hopefully some of the suggestions will be helpful to visitors regardless of gender.
Before going to India my only image of the country was women in bright saris and camel treks through the desert. Certainly those scenes exist but the truth is that India’s incredible geographic and cultural diversity often makes this massive nation feel like several different countries in one. Imagine snowy towns overlooking Himalayan peaks, jungle covered coastline and stretches of sea, the Taj Mahal – it’s all there. There is so much to take in, and travel distances can be so long that time is best spent devoted to certain regions rather than trying to see everything in one go. Decide what version of the country you want to see and go for it. India will not disappoint.
The single best decision I made on this trip was to plan ahead. I have to imagine that many of the horror stories I heard, of unliveable hotel rooms filled with bed bugs and roaches were products of arriving in an overbooked town, without a reservation, and having to make do with whatever was available. Planning ahead avoided this unpleasant possibility, and allowed me to find the best options within my budget. As a general rule, I tried to have lodging booked about a week in advance. Guesthouses filled up much more quickly than I had anticipated, and the big city hotels were often booked up weeks ahead. I found that cross-referencing guide book suggestions with websites, like tripadvisor.com, was the most foolproof way of finding the right accommodation for me.
Planning ahead in terms of transport was also crucial to the trip. Trains are certainly the most fun and local way of getting around but many of the distances were so long that flights came in handy. Both trains and planes require a little forethought and with night trains in particular it is suggested to book a few weeks ahead if possible. Throw an Indian holiday into the calendar and booking ahead changes from a convenient option to an absolute necessity.
Perhaps the thing I struggled with most was the constant staring. My travel companions and I would stop to tie a shoe, or check a map, only to look up and discover that about 20 people had stopped to stare at us in the meantime. While avoiding stares completely is impossible, dressing a little frumpily can help keep the stares curious rather than lecherous.
Wearing the traditional salwar kameez is a comfortable and appropriate way to respect culture and stay covered. I found that wearing long dresses, or skirts and loose shirts, and sweaters served the same purpose. Scarves were also a daily must and served the dual function of keeping the outfit both demure and chic. Covering your hair is certainly not a necessity but I discovered that having my hair pulled back helped a lot to keep away unwanted glances. The finishing touch? Dark sunglasses. They allowed me to avoid uncomfortable eye contact and were also a very handy dust shield.
With the pollution, humidity, open sewers and often-questionable culinary hygiene staying healthy might become one of the biggest challenges of the trip. Let’s start with the fundamentals: it’s hot, it’s sweaty, there is minimal clothes washing and often uncomfortable traveling positions. If you have ever in your life found yourself with a delicate infection below the belt then now is the time to stock up on all the meds you would need if that pesky condition came back. Going to a male-staffed pharmacist to explain your predicament is far less than fun and having the proper medications already in your bag can spare you many embarrassing conversations as well as potentially dodgy remedies. While we’re on the topic of the nitty-gritty, make sure to pack your tampons. Tampons are often hard to find in India and when you do find them the prices are through the roof.
Last but not least, bring your vitamins and probiotics. The Indian diet is probably very different from your diet at home and a bottle of supplements will be put to good use along the journey. I credit a daily probiotic for keeping my stomach in tiptop share for the entirety of my six-week journey.
Finally, remember your mother’s advice. Don’t do things that make you uncomfortable, don’t take candy from strangers and don’t trust every Tom, Dick or Harry who promises you the best. None of these words are anymore than common sense but staying true to your instincts and staying on your toes are the best things you can do to have the most enjoyable and safe trip.
Along that vein, in many of the places I traveled my friends and I found that the only people out after dark were men. Rather than joining the band of brothers we used the night-time hours to do things like read, write and chat over tea rather than venturing out. Of course this was a matter of personal preference but it was also a refreshing way to spend the evenings.
Traveling as a woman in India means you need to stay a bit guarded but it also yields many lovely benefits. Indian women were constantly looking out for my friends and me; clucking away pesky leers, leading us to the women’s only lines and talking to us about our journey. This cross-cultural sorority was one of my very favourite things about India.
Elena is an American writer who lived in Thailand for two and a half years after graduating from Princeton University. She writes and blogs about travel and culture for sites including travelfish.org. She currently lives in New York City. Follow her on twitter @eleshepp
Explore Northern India with these tips from a traveler that has been, seen and tasted the local cuisine.