Traveling in India can be a most exciting experience. It doesn’t offer fantastic luxury or superior comfort. But it never fails to attract record numbers of tourists from all walks of life from around the world. The reason for this is that travel in India is like a journey into the ancient mists of time.
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India is like a living museum; home to colourful arts, crafts, timeless traditions and beliefs, and a way of life that has more or less died out in the more developed countries of the world. The quaint cultures and lifestyles that have flourished for centuries in the rural heart of India seem blissfully unperturbed and impervious to the ravages of western ideas and culture brought in with the advent of satellite TV in the cities.
While the quaint and idyllic settings can seem romantic from far, it is necessary for you, the traveller to be sensitive to the customs and traditions of the local communities. Understanding the finer nuances of social mores and customs that have been developed over centuries can be a little tricky.
A little advance preparation and a genuine, healthy respect for the differences you will witness here, could well be the tipping point between having a happy holiday or a frightful experience. Ignorance would be no excuse for a holiday gone haywire.
This short article will try to give a few common-sense tips, primarily for women, to keep you safe while traveling in India. So, let us take a peep below the surface into the mysterious thought processes that shape life and tradition in India.
Women Traveling in India
India has seen an unusual spate in recent incidents of rape and attacks on women travellers in various parts of the country.
It is essential to realize that, culturally speaking, around 70 per cent of India is just belatedly waking up to the awareness of their arrival in the 21stcentury. They may look and behave like your average, peace-loving citizen. But inside their heads they could be living way back in the deep, dark recesses of primordial time, with survival being the only consideration. Weakness then, in any form, is an opportunity that must be exploited.
How far the individual will go in his efforts to exploit will depend on his threat perception from the situation and his fear of getting caught.
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Traditionally, persons perceived as soft targets in any country in the world have always been children, women and foreigners or travellers/tourists. As a woman traveller, this puts you at twice the risk of being targeted. You do have a definite need to be alert at all times.
It is my experience that danger to life and limb lurks everywhere; even in the safest corners of our homes. But, to live life joyously is a protection in itself. However, a little common-sense preparation and studying up on the culture and customs of the regions you plan to visit, will definitely add a lot of happiness to your trip.
Some of the tips I have for the ladies comes from my own personal experience of wandering around in not-so-safe places. These are by no means exhaustive. But, they are helpful nevertheless.
I won’t say that the men in India are bigoted. It’s just that the poor guys are still trying to come to terms with the shock of the fact that women can now dare to assert their independence; that they can dare to be proud of their sexuality; AND show it off, too.
1. Single women travellers attract unusual attention in India. One, or even two more travel companions definitely makes for a fair amount of peace of mind. Stick together at all times, even for a short walk from your hotel to the corner Dominos’ or MacDonald’s. It is not an acceptable situation in any strong, self-respecting woman’s opinion. But then, prevention is always the better part of valour. (Sorry for mixing up two clichés!)
2. Do not hasten to trust the men you encounter, no matter how distinguished he may look or gentle he may seem. I am not saying the guys you meet would all be untrustworthy. It would be prudent to be cautious at all times. I remember an old saying I grew up with: “Just because a man might look like your father, it does not necessarily mean that he would have fatherly feelings toward you.”
3. Do not eat or drink anything offered by strangers or fellow travellers. Do not leave your drink unattended while at a bar or disco. And definitely do not go back to a drink that you may have left unattended, even for a brief moment.
4. Dress sensibly and modestly at all times, but especially if you are visiting a monument or religious place. Most religious places in India would also require women visitors to cover their heads while visiting.
5. While travelling at night especially, avoid traveling in buses, train-compartments, autos, tuk-tuks and other forms of public transport when you see that there is not a single, other woman passenger on board. The more women you see on board, increases the level of safety you will enjoy.
6. Traveling like the locals do, will definitely add local flavour to your trip. But do try to get a first-hand account from the locals about the pitfalls and inconveniences associated with the different modes of transport.
7. Do be polite, definitely. But do not be afraid to snub that annoying and persistent male attention on the streets or in public places. Do be prudent and alert at all times, though. And definitely do be prepared to fight tooth and nail, single-handedly – if need be, should push come to shove and the persistent booger turns out to be one of those nasty punks with a bad case of the overbearing ‘male chauvinist pig’ syndrome. Do not try to be overly brave. Do your damage. And then run like the wind… as fast and far away as possible. Should such an incident ever occur, do not continue staying in the area. Shift hotels immediately.
8. Areas around railway stations the world over are usually dens of iniquity. They are crowded, impersonal and packed with migrants, drug addicts, prostitutes, pimps and other colourful characters from the lower levels of society. Try to choose your accommodation in better areas. Safety over savings is the catch-phrase here.
9. If you need to seek directions, don’t just approach the first set of people you encounter on the street. Avoid individuals that are unkempt, unwashed, un-bathed and dirtily dressed. They could be hobos, vagabonds, beggars or worse still, drug addicts. Definitely people you don’t want to interact with. In any case, avoid approaching random persons on the street. It would be better to walk into a reasonably busy shop or local business. Addresses are always easier to trace than random passers-by.
For All Travellers in India
And now, we can go on to cover some of the more general situations that could face all travellers.
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1. The touts, the shysters and the street-side carpet-curio salesmen! Do not get swayed by these sweet-talking, suave, pretty boys. They are not as innocent as they look. They are to be found in every down-town city center or in and around historical monuments frequented by tourists. They usually target young, single, women travellers or gullible, elderly women and couples. They are usually pretty-looking, street-smart young men, skilfully skirting the borderline of the law and propriety in order to sell curios, carpets, package tours or even buy or sell black market foreign currency. They usually pay hefty kick-backs to corrupt elements within the local authorities for turning a blind eye to their scams. So don’t expect a sympathetic hearing should you need to report an untoward incident at the hands of any one of these pretty boys.
2. Those pesky auto and cab drivers that hang out outside almost every hotel and restaurant up and down town… They hassle you with their demands for outrageous fares and persistently try to get you to visit their favorite carpet showroom before you even agree to get into their vehicle. Don’t let them faze you. Check the fare to your destination and fix it in advance. Forget any detours for a shopping stop, no matter how attractive it may sound.
3. The carpet and curio shops, usually privately owned, will generally sell you traditional handcrafted items at outrageous prices. It happens all around the world. Aside for a hefty margin for the establishment, the prices will also include a cut for your friendly cab driver and guide and of course, your friendly neighbourhood tour operator who has planned all your local travel arrangements. Beware; bargain, for all you are worth. But, at the first suitable opportunity that presents itself… cut and run.
4. Should you still be interested though, in shopping for local handicraft items and gifts to carry home from your trip, then do check out the local guide books, conveniently placed in your hotel room. But, getting there could be a bit of a challenge trying to avoid the ubiquitous, friendly, overly enthusiastic auto and cab drivers who would be happy to take you to every other shop but the one you wish to go!
5. Religion is a highly sensitive topic in India. Strict neutrality is the key here. Especially if you are visiting the myriads of temples and religious monuments of different faiths, that make up the religious milieu.
Finally, the real purpose of your travel away from home surroundings is to get an experience that is different. Experiencing difference may sometimes stretch the limits of your tolerance. But it surely does not need to be a dangerous or an unsafe experience.
The basic guarantee of a happy travel experience boils down to a simple formula: Be informed; be alert; be safe.