12 Things You’ll Find Difficult in Northern India

So you want to go to India? It’s been calling you for years and you’re feeling ready to explore this fascinating, thrilling yet frustrating country. I’m writing this article while on my first trip to Northern India. For someone travelling from North America, the culture shock you feel will be intense and you’ll need time to acclimatize yourself.

I know you’ll find what I have to say harsh, but don’t be put off by it. It’s meant to prepare you so that the ‘shock’ in your culture shock will not be as intense as mine was. That said, this is an experience you’ll savour for the rest of your life. I would not have missed the markets in Delhi, the splendour of the Taj Mahal, Agra’s Red Fort, the holy city of Varanasi, Rajasthan’s camel market, and the beautiful people who live here for anything in the world.

Safety…

Safety is an issue in any country and India is no exception. Most of the time you won’t have any problems, however, there will be occasions when you will face some annoyances. In India, many local women don’t travel alone period, especially in more rural areas. Many men don’t respect a woman travelling solo and will feel that this gives them license to harass you. That doesn’t mean that a western woman can’t travel solo, just be smart and follow your judgment.

Solutions that have worked for me:

(1) Don’t travel alone at night if you can help it. Hire a taxi or rickshaw to take you to your destination safely. Try to hook up with other travellers if you feel uncomfortable.

(2) Ignore the men that harass you. Don’t even look at them or if you do, give a very quick shake of the head with a stern look on your face and keep walking. Don’t smile or give them any reason to pursue talking to you. If you look like you have been travelling in India for a while, you will get less hassle.

(3) Don’t accept a hotel room that doesn’t lock from the inside. It should have some sort of deadbolt from the inside. Also, bring your own combination lock as many places don’t offer locks. You can lock your door from the outside while you are away sightseeing and have peace of mind about your belongings.

Lack of Privacy…

Accept it. You will be an attraction to many local people. It can be a little unnerving having people stare at you. Men especially will stare at you for long periods of time without smiling, saying anything, or even caring that they are making you uncomfortable. It seems rude, but it is what they do. Others may ask you for photographs, want to touch you and constantly want to converse with you. With the invention of cell phones, the tables have now turned and you will have just as many locals wanting to take your photo as you wanting to take theirs.

Solutions that have worked for me:

(1) Ignore the stares. There is nothing you can do about it and although it may seem rude to you, it’s just what they do. It’s harmless.

(2) Have fun and accept that you are going to be a minor celebrity. Most people just want to know where you are from, shake your hands, stand beside you and take home a memory of your meeting through photographs. The majority of the time it is innocent.

(3) Use your better judgment though. If a group of male kids or men are too aggressive, just give them a strong look and move on.

(4) Don’t lash out, they will just laugh at you and enjoy the reaction that they got out of you.

Toilets…

It is the age-old struggle for travellers of the world. Especially women. You won’t be finding too many shining porcelain thrones in India. Most times you won’t even want to enter the stall due to the filth and stench in the public restrooms. But sometimes it can’t be helped when you stop for a quick break in the middle of the night on a long haul sleeper bus. Here, you may be faced with a squat toilet that won’t flush and hasn’t seen a scrub brush for decades.

Solutions that have worked for me:

(1) Carry a wad of toilet paper with you. It has two uses, one is obvious since you will never be supplied with toilet paper, but the other reason is to cover your nose while doing your business to keep you from gagging.

(2) Loose clothing is a must; even a long skirt can make things go more smoothly. Bunch everything up in one hand to keep it from dragging on the floor and never bring anything with you into the toilet. A scarf can easily fall on the floor or worse into the toilet and you don’t want your spare change or wallet falling out of your pocket and into that mess. Keep it all in a bag, zipped up and securely slung over your shoulder.

(3) Work on those quad muscles before leaving your country because squat toilets mean just that — you squat.

Hygiene…

India is dirty, that is a fact. You can count on just about everything having some nasty bacteria on it. Light switches in your hotel room could be dirty — doorknobs, walls, anything that you touch is questionable. Remember, you eat with your hands in India and you don’t want to be transferring all of that to your stomach. Delhi Belly didn’t get its name by accident.

Solutions that have worked for me:

(1) Carry handy wipes at all times. While they supply soap at most restaurants, many don’t and often you only wash with cold water. A good antibacterial wipe or hand sanitizer can come to your rescue.

(2) Bring along nail clippers to keep your nails short so that bacteria won’t grow under them. Don’t be afraid to wash your hands as often as possible.

Clothing…

India is hot. You may have the urge to wear tank tops and shorts, but it is not acceptable in this society. You are asking for unwanted attention and men will see it as an invitation to come on to you.

Solutions that have worked for me:

(1) Dress as the locals dress. That doesn’t mean that you have to go out and buy a sari but go to the local market and buy some lightweight long-sleeved shirts, trousers and skirts. The material that they use in India is far lighter than anything you will find at home and you will actually feel more comfortable in their loose fabric than your shorts and t-shirt. While blending in better with the local people, you will feel beautiful wearing India’s vibrant colours and flowing fabrics.

(2) Check Journeywoman’s Clothing Guide to India to see what other women travellers have worn on their visits.

Dealing with Touts…

India has made selling tours, jewelry, guides, and trinkets an art form. These men can sell anything and many times will not take no for an answer. Wannabe tour guides will walk with you on the street asking your name, where you are from and then go in for the kill by selling you a tour. They will have an answer to every reason you have for not needing a guide.

Solutions that have worked for me:

(1) Ignore them. You will start to know what a tout looks like from a mile away. Don’t answer their questions, don’t smile at them, and don’t even look at them. It sounds harsh, but the quicker you let them know you are not interested, the quicker they will be harassing another tourist instead.

(2) I have found that a stern look, quick nod and brisk walk work most effectively. This tells everyone, “I know what I am doing, and I am not interested.”

(3) If you are interested, don’t accept their first offer. Bargain for everything. Bargaining doesn’t have to be a chore, have fun with it and settle on a fair price. Cut their first offer in half and eventually find a middle ground that will be beneficial to both of you.

Poverty…

Women are a compassionate breed and the poverty in India can be overwhelming and upsetting to us all. Starving children beg for money, blind and legless men ask for change and mothers sing with their children in their arms. India has over a billion people and this sheer volume amplifies the amount of poverty that you see every day.

Solutions that have worked for me:

(1) Understand you can’t save the world. Your instinct will tell you to give your spare change and food to everyone. This does not help the situation. Many people take advantage of young children forcing them to beg while they collect the spoils. If you give to a child, you can’t be sure that he/she is actually getting the money. In essence, you might be supporting a criminal organization.

(2) Many people self mutilate or were mutilated by these criminals to gain your sympathy. It is hard to believe, but true. Although some people are legitimately handicapped and can’t get a job and have to resort to begging, you are much better off to give to a reputable charity that you have researched.

(3) Or volunteer while you are in India, there are many organizations that are doing great work and looking for help.

(4) All this advice is easier said than done. Sometimes your entire body is telling you to give, but understand it only perpetuates the problem.

Filth…

We have talked about toilets and hygiene, but the filth and dirt in India is not only found in bathrooms and on buses. It’s not uncommon to see garbage, feces, urine, cow dung and open sewage in the street. Sacred cows roam the streets relieving themselves on sidewalks and roads. Men urinate openly on walls and in ditches and people throw their plastic bags and water bottles on the ground.

Solutions that have worked for me:

(1) Unfortunately, India is highly populated, overcrowded and they don’t yet have the infrastructure for their waste. You are going to have to get your mind around it. Accept the fact that you will have to deal with degrees of garbage and cow dung no matter where you are in India. Yes, there are places that aren’t as dirty as others, but even some of the cleanest towns are not up to western standards. The sooner you accept that this is India, the better your trip will be.

(2) Set an example and hold on to your garbage until you find a garbage can, don’t contribute to the problem. And maybe, just maybe someone will follow your lead.

Crowds…

Crowds can be found everywhere. Local buses are jam-packed, streets are overflowing with people and traffic and queues are long for everything. India is crazy and nowhere more so than standing on a train platform in Delhi. The mass of people squeezes you as you try to keep hold of your belongings. You will feel hands from everywhere touching you in unwanted places and you can feel very vulnerable at times.

Solutions that have worked for me:

(1) Keep your pack close by at all times and have your valuables in another pack on the front of you at crowded train stations. With your body covered with packs, there isn’t a lot of room for men’s wandering hands to find contact. If they do, I have no problem giving them a smack. There is no need to let them think that it is acceptable!

(2) Go with the flow. Don’t fight the crowds, take a deep breath when the train comes or when crossing the street and make your way with the crowd. If you don’t join in, you will be left behind.

(3) When joining a queue, don’t think that it is going to be a polite line that serves people one at a time. It is a dog eat dog world and you will have to fight to be seen. Men will jump in front of you and hey, at times; you may have to put out your elbow to stop that nice little old lady that has aggressively tried to sneak in front of you.

Animals…

The treatment of animals in India can be hard to take. Starving dogs roam the streets and sacred cows don’t seem so sacred when you see their bones protruding from their ribs as they munch on plastic. I’ve seen broken oxen dragging heavy carts through traffic and camels being whipped to the point of bleeding. Temple elephants are chained and used for tourist’s amusements and even pets are tied to short leashes and left to bake in the intense sun.

Solutions that have worked for me:

(1) There are organizations in India that are trying to help animals. Give to them and help support them. Some places take donations of medication and first aid supplies. You can visit many animal hospitals in India and even volunteer.

Noise…

India is noisy. It is a growing fast-paced society that is demanding a lot of attention. You may be on a sleeper train and cell phones will be going off at 3:00 am. You will hear beeping all night long as everyone drives through the streets with one hand on the horn. The call to Prayer will awake you in the wee hours of the morning and trains make their presence known even in the most remote areas of the country.

Solutions that have worked for me:

(1) Earplugs. Bring a supply of these and have them handy at all times. Unless you are a sound sleeper, you won’t make it through the night without hearing barking dogs, cawing crows or temple drums.

(2) Headphones may be another solution. Soft music on your iPod may be just the ticket to calming the mind and filtering out the noise of India. Have a supply of your favorite music loaded to help keep you sane and relaxed.

Respect…

As a woman in India, you will have a more difficult time getting your complaints dealt with than a man. Negotiating can often be a chore. Some men feel that they can grab you, stare at you and make fun of you. Other men will see you as the weaker sex. They will ignore you when you talk to them and laugh at you when you are trying to raise a legitimate concern.

Solutions that have worked for me:

(1) Not all Indian men treat women this way. This is just a difficulty that you may face from time to time. Have patience and keep a level head and you will eventually get your point across. Don’t raise your voice or get angry, raising your voice will only make men respect you even less.

WRITER’S NOTE: My final point is to urge you to respect this incredible, mind-blowing destination. Respect the culture, respect their beliefs and remember that you are a privileged guest. I promise you will meet incredibly giving people, make new friends, see glorious sights, learn a new way of being and come away with memories that will last a lifetime.

Deb Corbeil is one half of Canada’s Adventure Couple. She has just finished traveling with her husband, Dave through Nepal, Sri Lanka, and India where she climbed to Mount Everest Base Camp joined a pilgrimage to Adams Peak and participated in Holi, India’s most colourful festival. Deb is quick to tell you that travelling in south India is not as extreme as the northern part of the country and it definitely was far easier there. You can read more about this couple’s adventures at http://theplanetd.com/

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