India is a vast and beautiful subcontinent. This magical country is home to over 200 national languages, all major world religions, and a variety of subcultures. India cannot be pinned down to one cultural group with one set of customs. Because of this, it can be difficult to know exactly what you can expect upon your first visit. What will their toilets look like? Is it safe to be alone on a train? Are there even many women’s restrooms available in public markets? While this list does not cover all of the things a female traveler should consider, it covers the basics and helps keep you culturally prepared for some of the encounters you may experience along the way.
Plan for humidity and conservative clothing standards.
Just like every country you will visit, India has its own cultural norms around what parts of the body that women can expose in public. In India, women generally do not show their shoulders or knees. However, showing off your belly is fine. Now, this standard tends to shift a little depending what area of the country you visit. If you are staying in a major city like Mumbai, you will find slightly more progressive and worldly clothing standards. But if you are traveling to a more rural destination, err on the side of caution. Instead of shorts and tank tops, this may mean packing long skirts or breathable Capri pants with some short sleeve t-shirts or crop tops. In cities, dresses and tops without sleeves are alright if you have a light scarf or a wrap to wear around your shoulders. If you are visiting during the monsoon season when the heat isn’t as intense, you should still be prepared for the humidity and wear breathable cotton fabrics. Anything easy to wash and dry in your hotel room is a plus.
Pro tip: Shower and wash your t-shirts at the same time to conserve time and water, then hang them up to dry over night. Also, wring out wet clothes as much as possible to help them dry in the humid climate.
Bring your own toilet paper.
Indian toilets are something that every first time traveler will need to adjust to. For Americans, this adjustment includes the lack of toilet paper. To counter this problem, find camping toilet paper at your local sporting goods store, or bring travel packs of tissues. Collecting napkins from restaurants will also work in a pinch. Or you can embrace the local methods of cleaning your bum, which may include a spray hose or a bucket of water and a small bowl to splash water on yourself. Locals consider this a better alternative to toilet paper and say it gets your bum much cleaner. However, carrying toilet paper or tissues in your backpack or fanny pack is not a major inconvenience if you aren’t ready to experience that aspect of the culture.
Pro tip: when using an Indian toilet while wearing pants, squat low and keep a firm grip on the crotch area of your pants, holding the fabric up above your knees. Aim as best as you can and just accept whatever happens. This will take some practice but will soon feel quite natural.
Bonus tip: India doesn’t seem to believe that women have bladders, so women’s bathrooms in public places—especially in more rural towns—are far and few between. Always use a women’s bathroom when you see one. If you are sticking to tourist attractions and cities, this will be less of a problem.
Expect to feel like a celebrity.
It is not considered rude to openly stare at someone in India. Neither, apparently, is it rude to take photos of people at random. Expect both to occur, especially if you are traveling with a group of non-Indians. People will turn their whole bodies to stare at you in the street. They will come up to you and ask to take pictures with you; they may even hand you their children. Sometimes this will get tedious and annoying, especially when strange men take your photo without asking. If you are uncomfortably by this behavior, simply say no when asked to have your photo taken, or cover your face if they do not ask. Don’t be afraid of being rude or offending them. If you have a guide who speaks the language, ask them to speak with anyone who takes your photo against your will. Your guide can tell them to go away or ask them to delete the photo, if it comes to that. That being said, most people will be politely inquisitive and curious about you. You will have some amazing conversations with strangers and maybe get to hold some cute babies!
Pro tip: This premise works in reverse, as well. You can get some amazing photos by asking to take pictures of and with Indian citizens. They are generally very willing to be your models. The children seem particularly fond of taking selfies with you.
Do not give money to beggars, especially those with small children.
The level of poverty you will see in India may be shocking and unsettling for some visitors. Beggars will often use this to their advantage and target tourists or foreigners—especially women. These are often professional beggars who come from rings of criminals who simply steal your money. Those carrying babies or small children often are not parents to those children. The criminal rings rent out/pass around babies to help increase the amount of money that the beggars can bring in. These babies are often drugged to look ill, as well. If you give them money, then you are just fueling their operation. However, if you do see someone on the street who you think needs some help, bring them food or clothing items. This way they can actually benefit from your aid.
Pro tip: Child beggars can be especially heartbreaking and they are often trained to be as relentless as possible. They will grab your clothes and put a hand up to your face. Buying these children food is still the best option if you are so inclined. Ignoring them will be the fastest way to get them to go away.
As a female traveler, this is something that you may have considered already. But if you haven’t, be sure to consider it now. Pads are widely available across India, but tampons and panty liners are not something that most Indian women use. So if you prefer tampons and you might get your cycle while abroad, plan accordingly.
Pro tip: If you are on a birth control pill, take some aspirin right before you get on the plane. Birth control pills put you at a greater risk for blood clots, especially on long flights. Aspirin will help counter this. Standing up and walking around the plane is also recommended.
India has a very bad reputation of sexual assault and harassment. If you stay with a group and you stay vigilant, then you will be okay. If you must travel alone, take a taxi or travel in the women’s only car of the train. If you are traveling in a group and a man puts his hands on you, speak up. It is best to yell and draw attention to the situation so that it can be dealt with. Don’t worry about being polite or breaking cultural norms in a situation like that; also don’t give the man the benefit of the doubt. Even if you think it may have been an accident, you should still say something to the group that you are traveling with, especially if you have an Indian guide with you. While this may seen scary and hard to imagine, don’t let it make you paranoid of strangers. You will have a safe and enjoyable trip if you understand the potential risks and keep yourself out of dangerous situations.
Pro tip: When walking through a crowded market place with a group, walk single file, preferably with your guide leading the way and any men in the party bringing up the rear of the line.
India, with its rich cultural history, is an amazing vacation destination for any world traveler. You don’t have to be a seasoned traveler to enjoy everything that India has to offer, you just have to be informed and enthusiastic. Armed with this list of basic tips, you will be ready to make the most of your time there and soak up every bit of culture and beauty.