Travel safety during the holi festival in India

Photo: Thomas Hawk

For a solo woman in India, travel safety may be a concern. Are the fears real or manufactured? I explored the question with JD Viharini, an American who has traveled through India for decades and calls it home. With education and some cultural understanding she feels that safe travels for women, solo or not, can be enjoyed across India.
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JD’s extensive travels throughout the country have been mostly solo, by first class or, as she says, sardine class plus everything in between. She earned her masters degree in Vedic Studies and now, to encourage travelers, has released a new book, ”Travel fearlessly in India, what every woman should know about personal safety.” We connected via the internet to talk about her tips for safe travels and how to enjoy India.
Did you grow up traveling to exotic lands? What inspired you to travel?
I grew up in California and never went farther than Canada and Mexico until I took off to hitchhike around Europe at the age of 18. When I was growing up, I read National Geographic cover to cover every month, longing to visit all those exotic lands. Later, when I was in my 20s, I lived in Europe for several years.
Pushkar rider enjoying safe travels in India

Pushkar rider – Photo: Achilles Mind, Trover

How did you become enamored with Indian culture?

I learned Transcendental Meditation when I was in college, and since Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the TM movement, was from India and there were other Indians around, I got exposed to the culture and was charmed by it. I had long wanted to visit the Himalayas, though it was many years before I was able to do so.

From the first time I came to India, I felt at home with the culture. In some ways, I feel more at home in India than I do in the US. I love the people here. And India is one of the most fascinating places in the world.

What do you mean by ‘fearless travel’?

Good question. Being fearless in this context means freedom from that useless kind of fear of something that hasn’t happened and probably won’t happen; the kind of fear that holds us back for no reason, that keeps us from traveling and doing the things we’d like to do. Knowledge is the best weapon against this kind of fear and that’s what this book is about.

What are some of the differences between Indian and Western men in relation to women?

That’s a pretty complex question. Generally, there is a lot more separation between the sexes in India than in the West. Indian men are taught to keep their distance from women they aren’t related to or married to. Western women, however, are often considered to be different, especially since we are much more open to being friendly to men we don’t know or have just met. It’s also because many Indians are seriously misinformed about Western women because of the media. For the majority of men, all they know about us is what they see in the movies, too many of which portray us as ready and eager sex objects.

How important is dress when you travel in India?

It’s really important because it has everything to do with respect for the culture as well as respect you receive from those you meet. Respect is one of the most important factors of Indian culture. If you are respectful of others and you look like a person deserving respect, you are less likely to be harassed.

Indians attach considerable importance to dress, but having clothes that are neat and clean and sufficiently modest are the most important things. I usually wear a fairly long kurta over straight pants.

To my surprise, I’ve had two or three Indian men come up to me at one time or another and thank me for dressing so modestly! Someone else recently told me she had a similar experience.

JD in front of the Taj Mahal

JD in front of the Taj Mahal

So what’s the best way to dress for safe travels?

Although I recommend trying some Indian clothes if for no other reason than they are usually far more comfortable than Western ones, it’s by no means a requirement. It’s fine to wear Western clothes, but it’s important to wear them in a way that honours the local standards of modesty. While that varies in different places, there are some general guidelines that I’ve described in my book so you don’t have to rethink it all the time. Otherwise, you would need to pay attention to what the majority of the locals wear in any given place, not what the tourists wear. There can be a huge, huge difference, especially in places like Goa, where you may see foreigners in bikinis side by side with Indian women swimming fully dressed.

Like travel experts everywhere, I advise people not to dress like a tourist.

Avoid the souvenir t-shirts and hats and bags, as well as those cheap clothes that are designed solely for the tourist market that Indians almost never wear. Keep your eyes open and you will soon see what I mean.

We all know that men should behave themselves and control their wayward impulses, but it’s obvious that many men everywhere in the world simply don’t—and they come up with all sorts of specious excuses for their bad behavior. That’s why we have to be proactive about protecting ourselves.

My book is all about safety. It’s not a handbook for activists who want to change the culture. And it’s not for outsiders to impose change, anyway. But I have to mention that although some women undoubtedly feel oppressed by having to cover up completely, it’s important to understand that not all women are desirous of wearing Western clothes, especially revealing ones like shorts and bikinis and miniskirts. Many women feel empowered by covering up rather than by uncovering. It’s important to honor and accept the cultural differences. There is no one ‘right’ culture, and the idea that every woman should be able to wear anything she wants anywhere is not a universal.

JD's home in Ladakh, India

JD’s home in Ladakh

Is it different to travel in one area or Indian city over another?

It’s not like there is a single, homogeneous culture in India. In fact, India has the most diversified culture of any country in the world. There are around 125 different languages, and each one has cultural differences associated with it, some of which are pretty extreme. One of the biggest challenges about writing my books has been finding the commonalities that apply to most of those cultures.

It is said that whatever you can say about India, the opposite is also. But still, it’s possible to generalize to a certain extent. Most of India is quite conservative, though more so in rural areas than cities. Delhi and Mumbai are cities that encompass the whole range of values and behaviours because people come there from all over. The South is generally much more relaxed than the North. And there are parts of India that are under Indian rule but much different than the rest of the country, like Ladakh, whose culture is more Tibetan than Indian. Although the culture is different, there are similarities; while the style of dress is different, it’s no less modest than other parts of India.

What do western women need to know about eye contact with men in India?

In general, it’s best to avoid eye contact with Indian men. It’s usually regarded as flirting, which is seen as an open invitation to intimacy. In other words, unless you want to end up in bed with a guy, it’s best to refrain from flirting with him.

You have a chapter on Crowdsourcing but you mean something far different than raising funds for travel.

I discuss crowdsourcing as reaching out to people around you for help if you are being harassed. Of course, since there is so much variability in the culture and in any given situation, there’s no one right answer. For instance, in a situation where some guy gropes you on a crowded bus, one way to handle it is to loudly call him out to make sure everyone knows what he’s up to, like: “Hey, you in the red shirt, get your hands off me!” While you might be tempted to respond physically, it’s often not the best way to handle it. And if you specifically need help, single someone out for it, don’t just ask in a general way.

Would you recommend a solo woman traveler go to India now? 

Absolutely! There are plenty of fear mongers in the world who would advise women not to go, but they have a strong tendency to be overcautious. I have been in places with US State Department warnings in effect and found nothing to justify them. You need to talk to locals to find out what the situation really is in any given place. Maybe there was some isolated incident that triggered the warnings.

Being careful and avoiding known trouble spots is important to insure safe travels, but that’s true anywhere.

By known trouble spots, I don’t mean, say, Delhi or Mumbai, which are huge cities where you can certainly find trouble if you decide to throw caution to the winds. I’m referring to areas where there is a lot of unrest and conflict. For instance, Srinagar and certain other parts of Kashmir are not at the moment the most peaceful places to visit, and the general state of unrest could put one at risk.

Occasionally, you will read some report about a tourist who was raped in India. The odds of getting assaulted back home (in the US) are actually far, far higher.

There are several every year, and they all make the headlines in a big way. They are terrible incidents, yes, but what no one thinks about is the fact that considering the number of women wandering around India at any given time, there are relatively very few. The odds of getting assaulted back home (in the US) are actually far, far higher. In any case, I make a point of keeping up with the news, I’ve found that the majority of those attacks could have been avoided with a little more knowledge, forethought and alertness. I’m certainly not blaming the victims. But every female needs to know how to avoid risky situations for safe travels. We all need to understand what constitutes a risky situation, and we also need to know what to do if we find ourselves in a tough spot despite our best efforts.

There are places in India that are amazingly safe. I’m currently living in a remote village in the Himalayas that is so safe that I can walk home alone at night on a deserted road with no fear. At least, there is no need to worry about being bothered by people, as the men here tend to be very well behaved, although leopards and packs of dogs could be a concern.

It’s really no more difficult to have safe travels in India than anywhere else. It requires knowledge and alertness.

Knowledge is empowering, which is why I’d like to see every woman traveling to India reading my book. Share this pin and help your fellow travelers!

Travel Fearlessly in India, What Every Woman Should Know About Personal Safety” is a remarkably comprehensive, sensible, and astute book that’s packed full of perceptive information, tips and strategies. It covers everything from the mindsets of Indian men and how they conduct themselves to what you need to do if you have to go to the police. It’s a book every female should read, and reread, before traveling to India. — Sharell Cook, India Travel Expert.

Follow JD’s travels (and her insights about the currency crisis in India this November) on her blog, Enjoying India. 

I hope you found this interview helpful and will share your thoughts in the comments below. Also, share this pin and help your sister travelers! 

Safe travels in India with this book

weekend wanderlust April 2016