India can be upsetting for unwary females

By Emilia Terzon

India certainly shouldn't be top of the list for a first-time solo female traveller, says Emilia Terzon.

It can be dangerous in India for solo female travellers. Photo / Thinkstock
It can be dangerous in India for solo female travellers. Photo / Thinkstock

It's sunset in India's pink city, Jaipur, and we're finished taking pictures of goats wearing pastel knitted jumpers.

As we start for the Old City, the goats' owner points a wrinkled finger at me and my travel buddy, Nicole.

"Don't go in there, girls. It's too dangerous for you," he says.

We shrug and smile goodbye. There's a major holy festival happening in Rajasthan's capital city today, and we're determined to see it.

Entering the festival is instantly overwhelming. The male-dominated crowd is cheering, and the air smells of gunpowder as firecrackers go off.

We laugh and take photos of everything new and sensational, including the group of teenage boys who've gathered to gawk at our pale skin.

Suddenly, Nicole shrieks loudly. The youngest boy is pulling at her blonde hair, and another's pinching her breasts. We yell at them, but their fingers only head for me.

They're like hungry seagulls fighting over a hot potato chip.

Struggling to get out of the crowd, we're thankfully spotted by a policewoman. She shouts at the boys in Hindi and leads us away.

It's just another day as a young, female traveller in India.

Now on my second holiday to this diverse nation, I'm well aware of the attention foreigners receive from intrigued Indian men, women, and children.

From remote Utter Pradesh through to hectic Delhi, I experience the good and the bad: occasionally confronting, often hilarious, but never unmanageable.

But in recent times some female travellers haven't been so lucky.

Several reports of gang rape by Indian men, including of a Swiss woman in central India last March, have put safety in the spotlight for the 2.7 million international women likely to head there this year.

However, those armed with intuition, a sense of adventure, and a few choice Hindi swear words, will find little to be frightened about.

After learning the dangers of festivals in foreign cities, Nicole and I head for a 10 hour journey to Rajasthan's western fort city, Jaisalmer.

It's her first time on one of India's famous overnight trains. She quickly learns that NZ$14) doesn't buy you The Darjeeling Limited, but that six person sleeping quarters come with friendly neighbours.

As we layer up for the freezing night ahead, four Indian men in their early 20s shyly say hello in English. "Where you from?" asks one. We say Australia, and the questions slowly start rolling in.

We end up spending the next hour showing them photos of home. They share their train snacks - a local Rajasthani chickpea crisp called bikaneri bhujia - and tell us about their University courses.

They say a warm goodbye at their 2am stop, leaving us to attempt a few hours bumpy sleep before our arrival near the Pakistan border.

As in every foreign country, tourists should be careful on public transport. But the worst we experience on these trains is the sheer horror of an open, moving toilet. The best is a beautiful insight into Indian culture.

We accumulate more insights during our time in Jaisalmer. We learn to be wary of male touts, and that it's better to be at the front of the pack on a camel safari. (These animals can fart.)

We also buy many long, wafty skirts in line with cultural dress restrictions. It can be confronting to be told to cover up your body, but this is a golden rule for any woman visiting India.

Of course, in some places, like the popular beach states of Goa and Kerala, it's not realistic for a woman to always be clothed.

After Nicole flies home, I travel alone to the Keralan version of bliss, Varkala. Here, at the budget friendly Eden Garden, there's beaming hosts notably protective of solo female travellers.

"Please, Miss, only sunbake on the main beach," says the resort's manager, as he show me my bungalow.

I become quickly acquainted with this black sand beach. It's bikini friendly, and comes with singing women who bring backpackers whole pineapples for $A1($NZ1.20).

The beach also has several stern lifesavers, whose unofficial job is to usher away local 'inquisitive' men.

On my fifth day of gorging on fruit and sunbaking, I notice four young Indian men sitting two metres away from me. They appear to be building a giant, naked sandwoman.

As they start pointing back and forth at me and the pyramid-breasted totem, I realise I've become an unwitting muse.

Instantly feeling uncomfortable, I fumble for my sarong. Moments later, however, the lifesavers run over; arms madly waving and whistles blaring.

I can't help but giggle.

Travelling India can be overwhelming for a female traveller, but it's undoubtedly a journey filled with stories to tell the grandchildren about.

SAFETY TIPS FOR FEMALE TOURISTS IN INDIA

DO

• Dress conservatively. Wear a long skirt and t-shirt, and avoid tight pants or singlet tops. This includes coastal towns, except for on tourist beaches.

• Be aware of the dangers of travelling to isolated or rural areas. Use your intuition and don't accept tours from any wandering touts.

• Act confident and hold your head high. Be respectfully friendly but on guard when entering into conversation with strangers.

• Learn a few light swear words, such as "sala" meaning "brother in law". A brisk public shaming is the best way to deal with wandering hands.

• Check if your hotel has any local tips. If solo and in doubt, stick to the tourist haunt, or organise a reputable guide.

DON'T

• Don't do anything you wouldn't do back home. Be wary of invitations to visit somebody's home or shop. Avoid private taxis or walking home from bars at night.

• Don't let your guard down on public transport. Buddy up with locals on overnight trains, and don't accept food or drinks from wandering touts.

• Don't ignore the warnings of locals. It's better to be forewarned even if you don't take their advice.

• Never underestimate the moral pressures of Hindu society. Men intent on harassing you will likely retreat sheepishly if there are others around to scorn.

• Don't let the attention overwhelm you. All Indians, not just men, will be interested in your foreign face. A friendly smile will usually get your further than a scowl.

GETTING THERE

Air India and other domestic airlines fly between Mumbai and Kerala several times daily. Overnight trains across Rajasthan can be booked via most local travel agents in India.

STAYING THERE

Kerala's Eden Gardens, located one minute walk from Varkala Beach, has bamboo cottages from about AU$20 per night. Hotel Pearl Palace is a clean, friendly budget hotel in Jaipur, and has amusingly themed rooms from NZ$14) a night.

PLAYING THERE

Most Varkala beach hotels, including Eden Gardens, have numerous classes for women, including hatha yoga and ayurvedic health services. Trotters is a reputable company for desert safari in Jaisalmer, and routinely takes solo female travellers.

- AAP

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