A webinar and Q&A on travel safety for female solo travellers and first time visitors to India
IF YOU ARE PLANNING a trip to India, or even just thinking about it, you need to watch this webinar. Together with Caroline Makepeace of Y Travel Blog and Reena Tory of Mantra Wild, I participated in a webinar about travel safety in India for women. We covered a lot of ground and provided lots of tips on what to wear, what to eat, where to go, how to book trains and travel, and much much more. You can also read other posts on this site about travel safety in India, listed below.
Tips for travel in India
- My top tips for women travelling in India
- Female solo travel tips
- What’s the story: Is travel in India safe?
- Is India safe for women travellers?
Webinar with Caroline and Reena on travel safety in India
Questions and answers on travel safety in India
Prior to the webinar, Caroline of Y Travel Blog sent me a list of questions. She has never been to India, and is aware of some of the concerns people have — so she was the perfect person to ask about travel safety in India. Here are her questions and my answers.
1. Let’s start with you telling us a little bit about yourself and what makes you such a devout fan and advocates of travel in India?
I traveled to India initially in 2005, for six months, because I was trying to re-start my life. I was recovering from a long depression following my Mother’s death. I needed to do something bold, something adventurous. I needed to start manifesting my dreams for the FIRST time in my life!
Though I had a LOT of anxiety before departure, that first trip to India was like a magic carpet ride. There were some bumps along the way, but mostly it was a wonderful experience. I fell in love with the country and the culture, and the trip was very successful in that it restarted my life — in more ways than I could have imagined. Among other things, it made me a travel writer and blogger.
When I look back, it seems so obvious to me that I always wanted to go to India. Nevertheless, the biggest surprise and mystery of my life was how strongly and quickly I felt an affinity for India, I had no idea that would happen. Literally within 24 hours of setting foot in Delhi the first time, I felt at home in a strange and uncanny way, a way I had never experienced before.
So, it was many things, the life-saving trip, the affinity, the wonderful experiences and perhaps mostly because as an artist (writer), India is my muse.
Since then I’ve been back six more times, and I’ve spent a total of two years in India. And I can’t wait to go back for my eighth trip this fall. India is now home to me.
2) India is the only country I can think of that when I hear people talk about it, they either love it or hate. There never seems to be an in-between. Can either of you speak to this notion and what might lead a person to go one way or another and what you can do to prepare yourself so that if you travel to India you lean more towards the love it side?
India is not for everyone. I have to walk a fine line here between offering some encouragement and tips for people who want to go … and not promoting India to people who don’t. It is not Disneyworld, it is not a Caribbean vacation. Someone once said, You don’t visit India, you experience it.
I think it’s for people who are really open-minded, people who are seekers, people who value adventure over comfort — those are the people who love India.
The thing we need to keep in mind is that the ease of modern travel means that people who are not necessarily prepared for adventure travel are out there anyway. Anyone with the money can hop on a plane and be in Borneo, Timbuktu, Africa, the Arctic or India … it doesn’t mean they SHOULD be there.
I was brought up by a woman who loved the idea of exploration and our house was filled with National Geographic, atlases and books on explorers. I travel with the spirit of an explorer; I never expected India to be like Canada. But sometimes I think a lot of the problems travellers face are due to misplaced expectations. If you walk around India in shorts and a tank top and flirt with auto-drivers, you are going to have more problems than someone more modest and prudent. I’m sorry if this sounds like “blame the victim.” There is no excuse for harassment or abuse or worse … but reality is reality. I’m a big believer in the “when in Rome …” school of travel. I think it’s very important to show cultural respect.
I am also a big supporter of women’s rights. I don’t think it’s my place to try and change India … but … If I can lead by example, I am happy to do it.
The upshot: your attitude will largely determine whether you have a good experience of India or not. That’s my belief.
3. What are the biggest things to love about India.
This is a personal question, it’s going to be different for everyone. For me, it’s the feeling of being in India. The warm people, golden sunshine, scents of incense and jasmine, historical sites, yoga ashrams. There’s a famous quote from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel about how “all life is there.” India is VERY alive. It swirls with life.
I asked my guru, at the ashram I go to in India, why India is considered THE destination for seekers, and he said it’s because India has both extremes, the best and the worst, the light and the dark. India is the soul of the world, he said, and I feel that when I’m there.
On one hand, it is the most overtly spiritual place I have ever been, and I love that about India. I love spending time in the spiritual communities in India. On the other hand, it is also extremely materialistic, and I love that too. Mumbai and Delhi are the hippest places on earth right now, the most happening cities. It’s so exciting to be there, in the middle of a youth quake.
And there’s so much more: wildlife safaris (India has the most tigers in the wild), outdoor adventure (I love trekking in the Himalayas), tropical beaches, incredible history and architecture, a diverse and very rich culture that includes some of the most sophisticated music and dance on the planet, the most wild and colourful festivals on earth … on and on and on … You can read what 30 travellers said they loved about travel in India in this post: 30 reasons to Love India Travel.
4. So India gets a bad wrap, especially in the media and especially around women. Can you share with us why you believe women should not be afraid to travel to India.
I don’t think fear is a positive emotion. It isn’t likely to effect positive outcome. I think it’s far better to be cautious than afraid. But if someone is afraid to travel somewhere, they probably shouldn’t go. If you can’t overcome your fear, it’s probably best not to even try.
However, if you’re sitting on the fence, and you feel DRAWN to India, than I would start to make plans. I think honesty is the best policy — be honest with yourself about your comfort zone. Take a group tour, go somewhere “touristy” like Goa or Rishikesh, get a travel agent to create a customized tour for you complete with driver and even guide — do what you need to do to assuage your fears and concerns.
Attitude is very important in life and in travel. The attitude you take while you travel in India will be reflected back at you through your experiences. I have often said that India is like the cave that Yoda sends Luke into: “What will I find there?” Luke asks. “Whatever you bring with you,” Yoda answers.
5. So the foreign affair’s department of many countries re no advising women not to travel to India. What do you say to a woman about solo travel in India who are hearing these messages? It’s one thing to hear it via the media but when a government body says it, it can be concerning.
The government advisories aren’t saying don’t go to India. They are saying exercise caution. In this map of the world’s most dangerous countries for tourists, India is listed as “avoid some areas” and I agree with this. In a couple of cases, the attacks against female tourists happened in very remote places, where my Indian friends told me they wouldn’t even go.
I agree that you should stick to the tourist areas in India, and stay on the well-travelled path. It’s still going to be one of the biggest travel adventures you’ve ever had. No need to venture into the remote, off-the-beaten-track places at all.
Popular posts about travel in India
- Top 5 myths of India
- Top 10 Incredible India moments
- Top 5 things I’ve learned after a year of travel in India
- 30 reasons to love India travel
6. What sort of questions are you likely to be asked in India? I’ve heard they can be very personal and make people uncomfortable? What tips do you have on what to share and what not to share?
It is cultural to ask a lot of personal questions, nothing personal. It’s up to you what you share. They’re not asking because they’re compiling a dossier on you! Nothing bad will happen. The only thing I’m careful about is where I’m staying. I will not tell strangers where I’m staying.
7. Have either of you had any experiences with “unwanted” attention. How do you handle it? What precautions can a women take?
Like all women, I get unwanted attention everywhere, including in Toronto where I live. In India, it is more culturally acceptable to stare, so yes, lots of staring! I have learned to ignore it. I have had a couple of incidents happen in the two years I’ve spent in India. I had my breast grabbed in Old Delhi, I was followed by a creepy man in Mumbai, and a group of women stole my phone out of my purse in Mumbai. That’s it, the sum total of bad experiences. I’ve had all of these things happen to me here in Toronto.
Travel safety is NOT about where you travel, but HOW you travel. Practise safe travel strategies wherever you got, to mitigate against problems, that’s my advice.
8. Are all Indian men sex addicts waiting to pounce and should you avoid all contact with them?
The sensationalist media would certainly have you believe this! Of course it’s ridiculous. There are many gentle and refined men at every station of life in India. The problem in India is that there are 1.2 billion people, many are uneducated, the culture is male dominated and attitudes towards sex verge on the puritanical — in spite of Bollywood! So you put these factors together, along with a large population of migrant workers who stream into the big cities, and you get a tinder box. There are some bad seeds, no doubt about it. But I don’t think it’s the majority of men. Among the middle and upper classes, everyone gets a university education, and many have traveled outside of India — these people are sophisticated and modern, the same as middle and upper class people everywhere. India is not just a poor country, there are many wealthy, well-educated people.
9. For me personally, I don’t pay attention to much news, so I haven’t heard much about the “attacks against women.” So I don’t have any kind of negative fear or worry around that. But, the hesitation I’ve always had is around the poverty and crowds. So let’s talk about that as I’m sure many other people worry about that.
India is a unique travel destination, it’s not a holiday resort. It’s for people with an adventurous spirit, I would say. Personally, I didn’t want to live my entire life in a bubble, I wanted to get out and see the world. The poverty is going to be there whether you see it or not. Keeping your head in the sand won’t make it go away.
In fact, coming face to face with the poverty in India is an eye-opening experience for many people. It humanizes it, and you find out that many of these people are a lot happier and more content than you ever imagined. This is their LIFE. To them, it is normal — who are we to judge? I CRINGED so badly when I saw that show about Oprah going to India and meeting a family who live in one small room. She was so judgemental towards them, and said such negative things to them, it was embarrassing. She never stopped to notice that they were SMILING and seemed very happy to be together.
10. What have been your experiences with the slums and poverty in India? What can travellers expect and do you have any tips on how they can best approach it and process it?
I don’t really support slum tourism. I’m personally uncomfortable with it. So, I don’t have any real experience with actual slums. In terms of seeing signs of poverty and beggars on the street, the best advice is to not give them money. They are usually part of a syndicate and the money goes to the rich guys on top. Giving them money only encourages this type of criminal behaviour. Much better to give to credible, authorized charities. The one thing I do is hand out food on the street, if I have leftovers; or if I am eating peanuts and a child asks for them, things like that.
11. What about the crowds? How do you manage it and not feel so overwhelmed and claustrophobic?
The crowds in India can be overwhelming. Well, much of India can be overwhelming. India is not for everyone. My best advice is to take breaks. Find sanctuaries. Get out of the cities, go to ashrams or countryside resorts, villages, the beach in Goa or Kerala. Splash out on a five-star hotel. I have two go-to sanctuaries in India: the home of my Indian friends in Delhi, where I’ve been living on-and-off for the past 10 years, and a yoga ashram near Rishikesh.
Read about ashrams in India
- Aurovalley Ashram: A haven of peace and conscious living
- One day at a yoga ashram in India
- What life is like at a yoga ashram in India
12. What about the celebritydom? How do you manage being bombarded with photo requests etc?
Yes, this can be tiring. I was at the Gandhi ashram in Ahmedabad — a place I have wanted to visit since the movie Gandhi was released many years ago! — and I couldn’t get a respite from the young people wanting to take a photo with me. Some local boys were calling me like I was a dog, and I actually lost my temper, which is ironic given that I was at the Gandhi ashram! But most of the time, it’s not that bad. At places like the Taj Mahal, it’s part of the experience and very endearing. Everyone is dressed up, in a good mood, it’s a special occasion. I have MANY photos of me with my arms around groups of young women at tourist spots in India.
13. Should visitors be concerned about being “ripped off.”
There’s a wonderful video making the rounds right now about a rich guy who gets out of his car and bargains hard with a coconut seller on the side of the street. Then he goes and buys an expensive soft drink from a store — and of course doesn’t bargain. It was made by an actor to show that these people are very poor, and we shouldn’t be bargaining them down. I don’t worry about getting “ripped off” by poor people on the street. I just consider it tourism tax to help the needy.
Shopping for expensive items like rugs and jewellry is another matter. You DO need to do your research, and shop around.
14. From my experiences travelling, the reality is so much kinder than the media would have you believe. Can you share what the people of India are truly like? What kind of personal interactions have you had that have left you with beautiful exchanges and memories? Have you had the same experiences with Indian men?
Well, this is it. The reason I love to travel in India is largely because of the people. And the reason I don’t hesitate to travel there is because I know how truly friendly and helpful they are. The same salesperson in the market, who’s trying to get as many rupees out of your wallet as possible, will be the first person to come to your aid should anything happen. India is a community oriented culture, while ours is individualistic. This means that they put the good of the community first.
Also, there is a saying in India: Atithi Devo Bhava. It means guest is god. For the most part, I find many India people live up to this motto and treat foreigners with extreme deference, sometimes bordering on the embarrassing. There are exceptions of course. Always remember that social shaming works REALLY well in India, much better than in the west. If someone is bothering you, speak up, you will be surrounded by aunties and uncles in a heartbeat. They will beat on whoever’s bothering you until you almost wish you hadn’t said anything, ha.
15. Where would be the first place you’d start as a solo female traveller to India?
If you’ve never been there before, I would recommend a group tour or going with someone who knows India. There is a big learning curve to travel in India. It’s hard to learn HOW to travel in India at the same time that you’re dealing with the culture shock, plus the heat, chaos, crowds, etc. Most people do the Golden Triangle — Delhi, Agra, Jaipur — but I think starting in Kerala or Goa is probably a good idea. Much softer landing.
Check out my India Travel Planning Guide for recommendations.
16. Where do you think are the best and safest places for women to visit? Any places you think they should avoid, just to be err on the side of caution?
My advice is to stay ON the beaten path in India. Keep to the tourist circuit, especially if you’re new to the country. So, I would recommend Rajasthan, Kerala, Rishikesh, Ladakh, a guided tour, volunteering, staying in an ashram.
17. I quite like the idea of travelling to India for the first time as part of an organised tour. I think it’s great way for nervous people to ease in and feel safer and more comfortable. Can you share your thoughts on this and any tips you might have?
I always recommend this. I’m actually looking to partner with a small group tour company, so I can experience their product and recommend them. I know there are some good companies out there.
18. India can seem to have a heavy air about it. What are the fun things to do in India? Can you expect to have a holiday that incorporates a lot of this or is it a lot of soul-searching and contemplation?
So funny you should say this: I feel much lighter in India. I find the people very fluid and easy going. Lots of gentle people, too, especially outside of the cities. Personally, I don’t find soul searching and contemplation a heavy activity. I find the stress of making money, obligations, keeping up with the media and the latest fashions, etc, to be much heavier!
In fact, I go to India for fun, and I come home to Canada for work. I have so much fun with all the young people I hang out with in Mumbai and Delhi. Indians know how to live, they know how to lead a more balanced life. Plus, in India, there is absolutely no shame in relaxing or taking time out for spiritual contemplation. When do we have a chance to be just with ourselves in our society? This is exactly what ashrams are for — time to be with your thoughts, feelings, yourself alone.
19. What are some of your favourite things to do in India. Fave places and experiences.
- Taking long train rides
- Going on tiger safari
- Spending time in a yoga ashram and/or Ayurvedic resort
- Shopping and eating in Delhi and Mumbai
- Camel safari in Rajasthan
- Hiking in the Himalayas, especially Kumaon
- Chilling out on the beach in Goa or Kerala
- Celebrating the big festivals like Diwali and Holi with friends and family
- Taking photos, anywhere and everywhere
20. Any special hidden secrets or places people must see and do?
India is not really about “hidden gems.” Someone said, you don’t visit India, you experience it. It really is different than other tourist destinations in many ways. In a way, it doesn’t matter what you do there, or what you see. Not sure why this is true, but I think India is like a mirror, it mirrors yourself back to you. So the experience of being in India is as much about YOU being in India as it is about India. Maybe more so.
Thanks so much to Caroline of Y Travel blog for asking these questions and putting the webinar together! One final thought about women’s travel safety in India below.
Adding balance and perspective to an over-hyped media story
Intense media attention on several disturbing rape cases and the attitude towards women in India, plus a couple of viral blog posts, has distorted reality. It has made it seem that India is more unsafe for women then other places — but statistics do not bear this out, especially for travellers. Here are three media stories that bring some balance to the narrative and show another side to the story.
1. Time Magazine
Yes, the gang rapes have been shocking — but India’s reputation as rape capital is undeserved
Source: Rape In India: Why It Seems Worse | TIME.com
2. Indian journalist Barkha Dutt
Statistically, the incidence of sexual violence against women in higher in the United States and the United Kingdom than it is in India.
3. Indian woman responds to Barkha Dutt video
4. Maria Wirth
The exclusive focus by the world media on “rapes in India’ is not justified and raises suspicion of an agenda behind it.
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