I am an American woman traveling alone in India. I am not, however, a typical tourist. Before my current stay, I lived for 3 years in Mumbai. During that time, I visited 12 states, primarily in North India, although I made it as far south as Kerala. Since my husband and I left India 2 years ago, I’ve returned to India twice. Both times alone.
I have a deep love and respect for the complexity and diversity of Indian culture (really cultures). I understand how greatly it differs from my own. Even how one part of India differs from another. One reason I decided to stay in Bangalore was to gain a better appreciation for South India as I have spent so much time in the north. Bangalore is as different from Mumbai as LA is from New York.
Today, reports indicated that Mahesh Sharma, the Indian Minister for Tourism and Culture had advised foreign female visitors, “don’t wear skirts.” Subsequently, Twitterati had a meltdown. He later clarified it was within the context of religious locations. His initial statement was made in Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. Most people forget that the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum and sits opposite a mosque. So yes we should dress with that in mind. With that “don’t,” I completely agree and understand. We are visitors here. We should respect the culture.
Before I go any farther, I want to make one thing clear:
India is safe for tourists.
But as with any place, there are risks. Tourists should not take those risks lightly. I applaud the culture ministry’s attempt to boil the risks down into a “dos and don’ts” list provided on arrival. One important item Minister Sharma listed in his press conference was to take a photo of your vehicle’s license plate. That’s great advice. Not just from a safety standpoint, but because it’s damn difficult to tell one white Etios from another.
Clarifications aside, however, even Sharma’s statement that Indian culture is different from western culture fails to understand that skirts (of all lengths) are popular even among Indian women themselves. The skirt I am currently wearing is from FabIndia, a popular Indian fashion brand. American women visit FabIndia and fall in love with the selection. And, then we buy clothes. Lots of clothes: saris we will never wear again; kurtas we will wear everyday while we travel; and, yes, even skirts. These skirts are a great way to give an Indian feel to our look without looking out of place. Much like Duchess Catherine did during her stay with her fusion Anita Dongre dress that broke the Internet.
Saying “don’t wear skirts” translates into American English as “don’t buy skirts.” That’s the last thing the government should be telling tourists. You want us to spend money in India. Lots of it. This advice about culture, however, seems at odds with the government’s push to encourage tourism. The e-visa system, which I have used myself, is efficient and simple. This year, that system has resulted in 266 percent growth over the same time last year. Impressive. The goal, of course, is that these increased numbers translate to increased revenue.
Do foreign tourists sometimes come to India with unrealistic expectations? Yes. Evidently, some think Indians still ride elephants everywhere. (They don’t).
Do tourists often shove their own culture down Indians’ throats? Sure. McDonalds is ample proof of that. Americans can sometimes be oblivious to our cultural faux pas. Unfortunately, that “ugly American” stereotype has a basis in truth. But most of us do try to understand. That’s why we travel.
Do tourists dress inappropriately? Absolutely. We could use pointers about what to wear to different locations. Rules vary from one location to another.
But, it’s the focus on skirts themselves that seems misplaced. Instead of “don’t wear skirts,” what should the government be telling tourists?
Here’s my top 5 tips:
The following tips are modified from ones I published a few years back during my stay in Himachal Pradesh.
1. Travel with a friend.
Yes, that’s right. In general, I don’t advise inexperienced travelers to travel alone in India. If this is your first trip, I advise traveling with someone else, especially if you are visiting more remote areas. It is one thing for me to walk around Bangalore by myself. It is quite another to go off into a wooded area by myself in search of outdoor amenities. Eat, Pray, Love is fiction, not reality.
Bring a friend. The more remote the area, the more critical this advice is. In those locations, it is essential to have a local speaker as a guide. A driver can double as a translator. This advice might be hardest for liberated American females to accept, but, really, it is safer to use the buddy system. That includes going to the restroom and shopping.
If you think that bringing a friend or hiring a guide will make the trip less authentic or that being alone will make the experience more exciting, think again. More than 1 billion people live in India. You are never alone, even when you think you are. You might as well be alone with someone you know, like, and trust.
Having said this, I recognize that travel alone is often required or desired. More experienced travelers shouldn’t have issues.
For those who do travel alone, I suggest the following.
2. Use a travel agency.
Don’t try to plan an excursion overseas by yourself. Travel agencies know the intricacies of Indian bureaucracy. They know that if your are going into certain parts of Himachal Pradesh that you will need an inner line permit. They know how to handle that. Let them. You might think you will save money, but trust me, you won’t. Trusted ones I’ve personally used include Kinner Camps (HP), Natural Mystic (India and Asia), Cox and Kings (India and beyond), and Palace on Wheels (Rajasthan most famously). Use a guide offered by the agency. Again, this is not the time to skimp on costs.
On this trip, I’m traveling to Sri Lanka on my own. I have used Cox and Kings so that they can help not only with my itinerary, but so that I have someone I can call if the need arises.
3. Hire a driver.
Many American friends thought we were spoiled with a driver, but we weren’t. In Mumbai, our driver helped us negotiate the culture and served as security, especially for me.
A driver also means that you can focus on the scenery rather than the road.
Rickshaws are fun, but be smart about using them. Short distances during the day are recommended for novices.
Around Bangalore, I book taxis in four- and eight-hour blocks through my residence. This service costs more than Uber or Ola, but it works for me.
Local guides are advisable, and I’m not talking about a random rickshaw driver who promises the sights for Rs. 100. Get a professional guide. These guides can’t guarantee your safety, but if something does happen, they can help you get help and negotiate the procedures. In one case, a Swiss tourist was raped in Madhya Pradesh while biking. She was not even able to explain what had happened because the police spoke only the local dialect. She had to wait hours for a translator.
4. Carry a mobile phone that works in India.
For most people, that means adding an international plan before you leave on your trip. Prepaid SIM cards are not difficult to get in India, but you do need to make sure you have the proper paperwork, which includes a letter from your hotel, a copy of your passport, and at least one passport photo.
Be sure you have the phone number of someone who can help you if you get into trouble. There is no national 911 system like the US. Different regions use different numbers, but it is usually a three-digit code.
We found out the hard way that the restricted area of Himachal Pradesh where we traveled had only BSNL (state-run telecom) as a carrier. Airtel and Vodaphone did not work past about Reckong Peo. While it was awesome to unplug from the Internet for some time, the lack of cell service in such a remote area was a concern. Naturally, our driver had BSNL, so in an emergency, he would have been able to call for help, which is why a local guide is so important.
5. Dress appropriately.
You don’t need to dress in a sari or salwar kameez. Jeans are fine and popular. My typical outfit is jeans and a polo shirt or kurta. Sandals are common and advisable, especially during monsoon.
Buy a couple of kurtas when you arrive. In more conservative areas, they will help you blend in.
Tank tops will stand out. I’m not saying don’t wear them. I’m saying be prepared to be stared at if you do.
For religious locations, dress conservatively. If you are visiting a mosque, you will need a head covering like a large scarf. Be prepared to take your shoes off.
If you are in India to hike, then dress like you would in the US. Shorts are OK for guys, but will attract unwanted attention for women.
Some tourists might argue that they see plenty of young Indian women in Bandra in shorts and tank tops, so why pander to the conservative Indian culture? Because Himachal Pradesh is not Bandra, and you are not Indian. Those young women are part of the culture; they can challenge India’s mores and gender roles. You can’t. As a visitor, it is your job to show that you respect and appreciate the culture. Accept it, respect it, and move on. Remember that you are an ambassador for American culture when you travel outside it. You may be the only impression of an American these people ever see, especially in a remote village like Nako or Rogi. Be a positive one.