Why women travellers should not avoid India
What not to wear ... dressing appropriately for local standards is one way to help avoid unwanted attention in India. Photo: Getty Images
There's no need for solo females to avoid India, if they travel smart, writes Ute Junker.
Georgia Arlott's experience with aggressive men in India, featured on Fairfax Media sites yesterday, paints a picture of a society where no woman traveller could be safe. But an entire nation should not be written off due to one person's bad experience.
Women can travel safely in India, but some caution and common sense is advised.
My first night in Delhi, I had a leisurely dinner with friends, and arrived back late to the YWCA where I was staying. Three male staff were waiting up for me. "Madam, we wondered when you were coming back," they said.
One of the most memorable aspects of travelling solo in India was the care and concern shown by men at every stage of my journey. Many had never had anything to do with a western woman before; none of them had ever encountered one travelling on her own. They were slightly perplexed, and very protective.
Take the three men with whom I shared a first-class sleeper compartment from Delhi to Trivandrum, a journey that took the best part of four days. Having just completed an arduous trek - followed by one hell of a party – I slept for the first 16 hours on the train. When I awoke, my bunk mates told me that the dinner wallah had wanted to wake me up for meals, but they had stopped him.
"You need sleep more than you need food," they told me firmly.
Clearly, they had appointed themselves my guardians. Over the next few days, they marshalled the constant stream of visitors that stopped by our compartment, intrigued by the solo female traveller. Mainly businessmen, our visitors inevitably wanted to show off their sales books. I'd leaf through them politely, until the point when my bodyguards decided we'd had enough visitors for the day, and sent them packing.
That's not to say no men tried their luck. During my stay in India, I got my share of lewd suggestions and even the odd wandering hand – but no more so than in other countries. When someone was out of line, I found the most effective technique to be a public scolding.
"What do you think you're doing?" I would ask, loudly. "How would you feel if a man treated your mother or sister like that?"
It's a technique that works in most countries, and India is no exception. The offender would quickly move away, hands raised and looking apologetic.
On the odd occasion when an admirer was a bit too persistent – following me down the street, for instance – the information that I was on my way to meet my (non-existent) husband was enough to discourage him.
Having said that, India is not the best place to take your first solo trip. Any Westerner walking down any street will attract attention - anything from silent staring to beggars trying to block your way. Women naturally attract more attention than men. It takes confidence and experience to shrug that off and enjoy your holiday. That's second nature to an experienced solo traveller, but it can be challenging to novices.
As always when travelling alone, your best companion is your common sense. Dress appropriately for local standards – this is not the place to parade your fave mini-skirt and crop top ensemble – and be prepared to spend a bit more on accommodation, even if you're on a budget: staying in a good part of town is always a wise strategy.
Mostly, I advise solo travellers to avoid crowds, but in India's busy cities, that's simply not possible. Still, avoid festivals unless you have someone to go with. In any country, festival crowds don't play by the usual rules, and men are much more likely to take a chance when they know they can fade into the mass if something goes wrong. It's not worth the risk.
Teaming up with one or two other travellers you meet on the way may give you more flexibility, but travelling with a group of girls won't bring safety in numbers. You'll just attract more attention, rather than less.
Even if you're usually a "wherever the road takes me" traveller, take the time to plan things out. Don't arrive in a new town without having accommodation booked. Climbing into a cab by yourself and asking a cab driver to take you to a decent hotel is not the smartest move.
And don't go taking the road less travelled. While popular tourist areas such as Delhi, Rajasthan and Kerala are fairly safe, save less-developed states for another trip, when you're with a friend.
The single most important thing to pack, however, is confidence. Walk purposefully, look as if you know what you're doing, and be ready to call out bad behaviour, and you'll find the worst of it passes you by.