Ever the over-achiever, I did an enormous amount of research before embarking on my first solo trip to India. I jumped on phone calls and talked extensively with girlfriends who had been before, in addition to scouring top travel blogs and sites like TripAdvisor and HostelWorld. Below are the tips I found most helpful – many of which I discovered on my own, out in the wild. Part 2 can be found here. Enjoy!
- Cover Yourself.
I know, I know… It’s not the most feminist approach to open up with SHIELD YOUR BODY FROM THE INEVITABLE KNIVES OF THE MALE GAZE, but it’s important to remember that India has a much more patriarchal culture than the Western world. Misogyny is a very real thing, and literally everyone you meet will happily talk to you about their arranged marriages. From the moment I got on my plane from Delhi to Rajasthan, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. A quick jaunt down the aisle to the bathroom meant 30 people staring at me, slack-jawed.
Temples and tourists sites are no different. India is a BIG place, and there are loads of domestic tourists from smaller or less frequented cities who want to see all the same sites and palaces as you do but perhaps haven’t seen many Westerners. The quickest way to avoid unwanted attention, sales tactics, and random street groping is to make sure you plan an afternoon of shopping for more traditional Indian garb one of the first 2 days you’re there.
Make sure your breasts, shoulders, and legs are covered in baggy/loose fitting clothing. I liked to always carry a scarf and wrap my head up in it to appear even more inconspicuous. Think of it as dress up! It’s hot and quite humid in most parts of India, so the clothes you purchase there will be more appropriate for the climate. Don’t pack too much before you leave, because clothes are cheap as chips in India and beautifully made, for the most part. Plus, you get the souvenir of a whole new wardrobe when you get home!
- Morning > Night
This one I learned by accident but kept it up the entire trip (thanks, jet lag!). Try to stay up as late as you can your first day in India, rather than opting for a nap. Go to bed around 9 or 10pm and wake up with the sun.
In almost every city you visit, there will be sunrise yoga, markets, and morning rituals (especially along the Ganges River). The locals are out in full force, and the light beaming through the morning mist is stunning. A simple walk around your hostel’s neighborhood or along the Ganges will put you eye to eye with singing school-children, local women doing their washing, Sadhus meditating, and little Brahmin priests in training doing a very silly looking version of yoga. 😉
The few times I did venture out into the cities at night, it was cacophonous, crowded, difficult to get around, and full of traffic. Because India is not as developed as what I’m accustomed to, the shacks and vinyl signs marking storefronts began to all blur together at night, making it really tough to find anything, even if your rickshaw driver swears it’s “right down that alley!” Also, it’s worth noting that many regions and cities in India are dry, so alcohol isn’t really an option if you want to go out at night and get wild. I did have one fun walk around Varanasi in the evening, but I was accompanied by friends (and, to be fair, we did get followed by a fake sadhu for about a mile). In my opinion, mornings are where it’s at in India!
- Stay on Your Toes but Remain Open to Experience.
“You’re going to get raped!” was one of the first things out of everyone’s mouths when I told them that I would be traveling through India alone and without a tour group. The notion that India’s misogynistic culture was pervasive seemed to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Unfortunately, most of the rapes and violence against women that we hear about so frequently on the news involve Indian women. Eve teasing is a bit of an epidemic out there, and it’s a good idea to read up on it here.
That being said, I can happily report that I most certainly did not get raped and didn’t even encounter the random street groping that I’ve heard other female tourists complain about. Okay, maaaaybe once someone grazed my boob in a crowd, and maaaaybe the fake sadhu tried to touch my friend’s butt, but it was subtle and I did not feel threatened in the least. From the stories I’ve heard, if a man does try to grab you, especially on a bus or in a public place, shove him away, make a bit of a scene, and make sure that people know that what he did is NOT OK. The crowd will have your back.
As I already mentioned in tip #1, I would highly recommend covering up to avoid unwanted attention. Random men will still approach you all the time, regardless, offering you tours or drives through the mountains on their motorcycle. It’s up to you to stay on your toes and exercise good judgment. Be polite, yet firm. State boundaries and ask questions. If you’re one of those people who has a hard time saying no, practice saying no in the mirror before you jump on that plane. You’re going to have to do it. A lot. Carry pepper spray or something small if it helps you to feel safer when walking alone.
- Take Photos with All the Cute Families!
So, yes, men will definitely approach you at random in the street to offer you tours or take a photo with you (a practice which maaaaay or may not be a weird, sexual thing so they can brag to their friends later). But, there are also huge droves of domestic tourists nearly everywhere you’ll go in the form of the cutest, friendliest Indian families that you’ll ever meet who are going to flip out that you are in the same temple as they are.
At first, it might be alarming to constantly be approached by people requesting ”1 photo?” at all the sites and markets, but I found it really fun to swan dive into the strangeness and take on the impromptu photoshoots that often involved a mother shoving a baby into my arms as she yelled commands to her children and other family members to pose in different variations, most certainly taking SO many more than just “1 photo.” Indian people were often really excited and genuinely curious about where I was from and what brought me to their country, so these little paparazzi moments felt like a fun and silly way to be a celebrity for a moment.
I once got pulled to the front of the line for a bus ride down a mountain once simply because I had been talking to the sweetest family about their 3 year old’s digital camera obsession at the Monsoon Palace. The giddy memories are innumerable – a 12 year old girl was so excited to meet me that she kissed me on the cheek, and once, while hiking deep in the mountains, another little girl was so excited to practice her English with me that she forgot her name!
- Tigers and Elephants Are Real.
When my trek out of Rishikesh got cancelled and I only had 7 days left of my India journey, I decided that 8am yoga followed by a massive hike every day was the most logical plan B.
On a friendly afternoon jaunt to one of Rishikesh’s well-known waterfalls, I skipped past langur monkeys the size of toddlers and scampered up a less-taken side trail with a lovely creek leading to the Ganges River. On the trail, I encountered lots of GIANT animal dung, thinking to myself, “Hmm. That’s odd, I don’t remember there being many horses in Rishikesh.” Later that evening in my guesthouse, the staff seemed really concerned that I had been out hiking alone, citing snakes, tigers, and ELEPHANTS as potential dangers if I stayed out too late. For real.
Lesson learned – If you’re going to hike in the Himalayas, don’t lose track of time and stay out past evening. Stay on your toes if you’re going to hike alone, and tell a friend or someone at your hostel where you’ll be if you know you’re going to take a gypsy cab up to a mountain temple and scramble your way back into town (i.e. the famously frantic Neelkanth temple).
Hope this helps you get a handle on the MASSIVE undertaking that is an adventure in India. Look for part two soon! To be continued…