22 June 2015

Tips for women travelling alone in India

People often ask me if it's safe for a woman to travel alone in India, and I don't hesitate to say that there's no reason why a woman shouldn't. During my travels in India, I have travelled mostly alone. Yes, I have been groped, flashed, and harassed, but this has happened to me (and many other women across the world) not only in India... unfortunately these are hassles women face everywhere. You can stay safe by taking a few precautions, using common sense, and trusting your instincts, just like you would anywhere else.

Here are my 10 tips on how to stay safe:

1. Take your cues from Indian women by observing them. You’ll notice that Indian women do not smile at men they don’t know and keep any necessary verbal contact to a minimum. Though people in India do easily strike up casual conversations in public, this is less common between men and women. Don’t go out of your way to be friendly to a man you don’t know or smile at him because this can be misinterpreted. In some cultures being friendly is being polite, but in India public interactions are a lot more formal. Don’t worry about appearing rude but rather aim to act with respect instead of trying to be friendly.

2. Try wearing Indian clothes. As a foreign woman, you will stand out and attract curiosity. A good way to try to blend in and not attract more attention to yourself is by wearing Indian clothes. This doesn’t mean you have to wear a nine-yard sari… Again, observe how young Indian women dress. A kurta (tunic) worn over jeans, for example, is a popular look and one many foreigners are comfortable wearing.

3. Don't use headphones while walking. While walking on the street (especially at night), avoid using headphones or your phone which can distract you from your surroundings and what’s going on around you. If you need to make a call or send a text message, stop in a well-lit public place.

4. Save these numbers. Save the numbers for the police (100) and 24-hour Women’s Helpline (181) in your phone in case you need assistance.

5. Make sure your door has a good look. Sliding locks and ideal because they can’t be opened from the outside. Before responding to a knock and opening the door, ask who’s there. Once I was woken up in the middle of the night in a hotel in Bhubaneswar by someone rattling the door, trying to open it. Luckily he gave up and left, but I didn't sleep the rest of the night!

6. Don’t get into a taxi if the driver is accompanied by another man. If you have a weird feeling about a taxi driver, just take another cab. When traveling at night, it’s better to use a call taxi or app-based service since your name, phone number, and pick-up and drop-off locations are tracked.

7. Wear a wedding ring or another sign of marriage. Some women travellers pretend they’re married, even if they’re not. You can wear a fake wedding ring or even toe rings (a Hindu sign of marriage – second toe of each foot!) or something that looks like a mangalasutra, the Hindu wedding necklace. This is an old trick to ward off unwanted attention but I'm not sure if it works!

8. Consider the train for overnight trips. For overnight trips, consider taking the train instead of the bus. Buses often arrive at odd hours. Train stations are usually always busy and safer places to wait for daybreak than bus stations.

9. Ask to change seats. If you happen to find yourself in a train compartment of men (it's happened to me) and you don't feel comfortable, ask the conductor to move you to one where there are other women or families. He'll find some man travelling alone somewhere, and tell him to switch seats with you. On sleepers, you’ll be out of sight in the upper berth and can even cover yourself with a sheet to make yourself less noticeable.

10. Use the ladies’ seats on buses. If a man happens to be sitting in a ladies seat, don’t hesitate to ask him to give it up. Some trains have ladies-only train compartments and waiting rooms, and there are often women-only queues at train stations. During one of my first trips to India, I used to disregard ladies' seats on buses because it seemed silly... until I had a man next to me “falling asleep” on my shoulder. I had to keep “waking him up” by jabbing my elbow into his ribs! I now always squeeze in with the ladies!