This advice applies MOSTLY IF YOU ARE TRAVELING ALONE BEFORE OR AFTER THE TRAINING. There are a lot of foreigners in Rishikesh so you can feel comfortable here as long as you’re dressed and behave modestly. It’s offered for your education about cultural context about women in India, so you can flow gracefully as possible within the system that you’re visiting.
Women in India rarely go anywhere alone. In fact, aloneness in general is considered to be a sad thing, which is why most Indians travel in herds. “The more the merrier!” is a strong preference, which is why you’ll observe 5 people on a scooter and if you make local friends they’ll be happy go with you everywhere. Togetherness is the assumed preference. Boundaries as you know them do not exist.
It used to be that if someone saw a woman alone, they’d assume there was something wrong with her, or that she had no family, and this makes a solo female traveler have to think a little differently.
It’s a bit different in the big cities like Delhi, with women now driving scooters and commuting to office jobs, but there’s also a clash between new and old mindsets that results in the famous abuses against woman in Delhi. When traveling anywhere in India, it’s important to understand perceptions and try to manage them cleverly.
If you are careful you can have some very enjoyable travels. You’ll be looked upon with amazement more than anything, so try to be savvy so your solo status is not mis-perceived as vulnerability.
There are all sorts of things I could mention about general travel in India, but you must also read about those things in the guidebooks. Below are some finer points especially for women solo travelers, gathered from my personal experience of almost 5 years in India combined, over the past 15 years. 2010-2015 I have been mostly in Delhi which is now internationally famous for being unsafe for women. Here’s how I manage to maintain a sense of grace, regardless:
ALWAYS know ahead of time where your next home base is (i.e. hotel, ashram, hostel, etc.), and how far it is from the train/bus/airport. Otherwise, you leave yourself vulnerable to touts and unscrupulous taxi drivers, which is the source of most people’s bad experiences. (In India, it is NOT wise to just show up at a new town and ask around where a good place is to stay, like you might be able to do in Europe.)
Look up the location of your hotel in advance (on a paper map or on googlemaps), so you know how far it is from your arrival station and have an idea of the general direction and landmarks nearby if possible. Sometimes there are 2 hotels by the same name, in opposite parts of the city, so know the address, not just the name. If you book a day or two ahead at hotels.com (at an internet cafe, now in every town), you can see the hotel’s location on the map before you book, pay in advance and print out your voucher, guaranteeing you a place to stay, and it also has the contact number of the hotel.
Do not go roaming around when you’re tired, hungry, thirsty, or overwhelmed. You must have a clear, calm, confident presence when you’re in public or your weakness will be preyed upon immediately by the many experts in the field of taking advantage of travelers, especially single women!
Don’t talk to people who talk to you in touristy areas. In other words, be cautious about engaging in conversation or even acknowledge the presence of people who approach you with offers of help. They will almost always be men, and may have either a sexual or financial agenda. If you need help, find someone on the “safe” list below, and ask them.
Do not get in a rickshaw or taxi alone with a man who has offered to take you somewhere special to buy things. This is likely a scam. (Please read more about how to avoid touts and scams in your guidebook.)
Try to avoid arriving at a new location after dark. In this extremely family-oriented culture, usually the only people out at night, especially late night, are looking for trouble. If you must arrive somewhere new at night, or if it happens accidentally (as in the case of a train delay), be sure you’ve done your homework as above. If you’re staying at the sort of hotel or ashram that offers airport pickup service, always use it.
Hitch on to other foreigner travellers especially when going from point A to point B, for company, advise, to save money in transit, and safety in numbers. You’ll feel a lot more comfortable. Being with just one other person totally changes the dynamic of how people perceive you.
If you need help, directions, etc. Look for the following types of people:
Other foreign travelers
Well dressed grandfather or grandmother figures
Pairs or groups of girls, college age
Other ladies of any age
Police are NOT NECESSARILY a safe place to turn for help. Corruption is rampant. If you ask a police officer for help, you’ll may be expected to bribe them. I don’t have much experience with this, but I hear it’s commonplace.
Sometimes groups of young, very clean cut, innocent-looking, English-speaking boys are OK to ask for help if no one else is around.
*Indian people are very friendly and will almost always go out of their way to help you. However, do be beware of agendas which might be present. Use your intuition.
If you need to wait somewhere, look for a temple courtyard, a cafe, or a place where families are congregating.
Which could be Rule #1: God will take care of you. If you find yourself in an unplanned situation, be smart (as above) but don’t freak out. Smile inside knowing that whatever happens is for your good. Try to keep an attitude of curiosity about how this unexpected situation is going to work out in your favor!
Indian people will stare at you with unflinching curiosity. While it may be unnerving to you, and tiresome, it’s not considered rude here so don’t take offense. In my fun moments, I pretend I’m a Bengal tiger, and go about my business, understanding full well that zoo visitors would naturally stare at such a glorious and exotic creature as me! People will ask to have their picture taken with you at monuments, too, just to say to their friends, “Look, here I am standing with a tiger in front of the Taj Mahal! Isn’t that something?”
My music teacher remarks frequently, and with some disdain, that in foreign countries people will sit next to each other on a train for hours and not speak a word. In India, it’s considered half the fun to learn all about their seat-mate, and after an hour they’d know his name, how much money he make, the names, ages, and jobs of all of his relatives, and probably know about his various aches and pains. Anyone in the “If you need help” list would be safe to engage in conversation, but please don’t talk to single Indian men unless you want to have to fight them off later.
Status and marriage are very important in Indian society. You’ll be asked if you’re married. If you’re not, you might consider lying to save yourself the inevitable pity, the incredulous “But why?!? you’re such a nice girl,” or offers at matchmaking. One sassy Indian woman friend of mine suggested I say, “Yes, and my husband is not with me now because he’s on duty for the CBI (the Indian FBI.)”
You’ll also be asked about your job, and how much money you make. Again, like staring, it’s not rude to ask someone’s salary (some people even want to brag about their income). If you don’t want to answer (and I wouldn’t, if I were you), you can say gently that where you come from it’s rude to ask. Or give some vague answer, like, “just enough to live on, where I come from.”
Their inclination will be to place you in one of their boxes, and if you’re a woman traveling India alone, you probably don’t come close to fitting any of them. If you do engage in friendly conversation with the “safe list” people, you’ll learn a lot about the culture, make some friends, get useful information about your destination, and will probably be invited to come home with them for dinner or attend their cousin’s wedding! If it’s a nice family and you’re feeling the vibe, go for it. (And do your homework about where you’re going, etc. so you aren’t totally dependent.) It might be one of your favorite experiences.
Boys and Girls:
Don’t talk to single Indian men. Unless you want to be followed around, invited on “tours” or home visits, and then propositioned for money or marriage, or both. I’ve made the mistake of even responding with eye contact to a hello too many times, and then can’t shake them off. Now, I pretend I don’t understand English and completely ignore them. If you’re introduced to someone at a family function, it’s probably OK to talk, but be sure you mention your CBI husband several times in the conversation.
Traditionally, girls and boys are not friends. It all leads somewhere. See a Bollywood film, and note that a romance starts with a glance and a hint of a smile, and sometimes less than that! What might be simple human friendliness to you could be a definite come-on sign to him. You’ll also note that in the film world, often the boy stalks and harasses the girl as she “plays hard to get,” until he finally grabs her and kisses her violently. Then, magically, she’s in love and it’s for keeps. Watch “Dil Se” or “Rockstar” and you’ll see what I mean.
The papers are increasingly full of stories of sexual violence especially in the big cities. In a country with the 2nd most searches for pornographic related terms on the internet per capita (Pakistan is #1), yet most men don’t marry until they’re 25-35, what would you expect? That energy has to go somewhere, and the traditional teachings of celibacy related to spirituality and yoga are virtually lost from the modern culture. It’s a huge gap.
If you feel a hand on your butt, don’t assume it’s a stray hand in a crowded street or bus. Indian men of low character often “accidentally” brush hands across ladies’ behinds or breasts, or even bump their pelvises in time with bumps in the road. This happens especially to foreign women, but also to Indian girls. If you suspect this, moving away and giving him a dirty look will probably stop it, or you can slap his hand. Hopefully others will come to your aid and join you in shaming the man. I had to beg my Indian friends to tell me a few swear words for such occasions, and hopefully I won’t have too many more chances to use them.
If you do want to hook up with an Indian man and fulfill their hopeful fantasy of the sexually empowered foreign girl, best of luck to you. From a few foreign ladies I know who have dabbled, reports are that it was an entirely unfulfilling experience for them, followed by passive/aggressive, possessive, jealous madness. Keep in mind the sexy fact that Indian men usually live with their parents their entire lives (the wife moves in with he and his parents after marriage). It’s also highly unlikely that they’ll possess tiger-handling skills. You’ve been warned. There are certainly exceptions, but I’d advise you to wait until you’re seriously impressed with the guy on all levels before engaging in even holding hands. (If you were to meet an Indian guy and he’s “the one,” he’d be unlikely to respect you long-term otherwise.)