We lived for 2 years in India. To begin with I felt very safe. I didn’t mind traveling alone for work, I went up to the local mall in the evening, and I caught a taxi by myself on arrival in another city. But I got a lot of reactions from locals when I did that. My boss wanted me to SMS him on arrival at the airport and hotel when I traveled. Another colleague insisted on driving me to the airport himself. Women recounted their stories of “eve teasing” (sexual harassment) on buses throughout their teenage years, but still I felt safe.
I was under the illusion that because people were friendly and hospitable, because there was normally other people around, that I was safe. And try as they might, my colleagues couldn’t really convince me otherwise.
The first year went off incident free (well apart from that guy who liked staring at me rather than the road in Chennai, and the bunch of guys at the local mall who wouldn’t leave me alone, and the rickshaw drivers who looked like they were going to eat me with their eyes…)
But, ever since Nirbhaya (Jyoti Singh) was raped in a moving bus and dumped from it in Delhi (not far from our house) India has gotten its fair share of bad press for the safety of women. I have to admit, that Nirbhaya also altered my feeling of safety, and the way I conducted myself. Up until then I felt very safe, and was even a bit lax on my personal safety. After Nirbhaya I was very vigilant. After Nirbhaya I started listening to some of the advice I was given.
The succession of tourists who were raped while traveling, not just in Delhi but also in other parts of the country did not help. As a result the safety of women in particular has become a cause of concern for many people when considering a trip to India.
But it doesn’t need to be. Like traveling in any big city, it pays to take some precautions. Here are some tips, including ones we were given by locals, for traveling safely in India as a woman.
Get a local SIM card
Pre-paid local SIM cards are readily available at major airports. This not only means that you can more cost effectively call people in India, but you have an Indian number with which to book taxis. You can’t book with local cab companies without an Indian phone number, and this leaves you with less reputable cab companies and flagging down cars and rickshaws. If you get the attention I did in a cab, you can also pull out your phone and pretend to call someone waiting for you.
Take a reputable cab company
In major cities, Easy Cabs (+91-11-43434343) and Meru Cabs (+91-11-44224422) are a good choice, although the drivers will rarely speak very good English. You will need to get someone at your hotel (the doorman can normally do this for you) to tell them where you need to go, and give them directions on how to get there. Do expect that they will turn up a bit late (getting stuck in Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai traffic is a fact of life) so make sure you order them for half an hour earlier than you actually need them.
Or take a daily car rental
For daily car rentals, Swift has reliable drivers, and you can ask them for a driver who speaks English. (+91-11-48055555). Swift is not only available in 17 cities of India. I used them in Delhi and Chennai, but I can’t guarantee English speaking drivers in all the other cities.
While the English of the drivers won’t be perfect, it was always good enough to be able to explain to them (in simple language) where we wanted to go, and when they should be back to pick us up. If you do take this option, then make sure you have a local SIM card, and take the number of the driver. They will go away while you have your lunch, and you will need to be able to call them to come back and get you.
Take a photo of the number plate
This is something I had never considered before moving to India, but it was advice that many people were very insistent on. In fact my boss insisted that I SMS him the number plate each time I was collected from the airport when I traveled. Taking the photograph means that he is aware that you are vigilant, and probably also that you know someone else to send it to. There is even an app for Indian Women’s safety that collects this up and tracks them. You are unlikely to use this as a tourist, but they will think you are using it.
Listen to your instincts, but don’t go overboard
If you feel uncomfortable in the car, then pull out your cellphone and make a call – even if it is only to the hotel you are traveling to – so that it appears that you know people and are being looked after. I was once in a car in Chennai and the driver had his rear view mirror trained on me. He spent more time looking at me than at the road. I started giving him instructions on how to drive, and called one of the guys where I was going to inform him that we were not far away so that the driver knew I was being expected. It was enough to get his eyes back on the road.
Don’t take a cab on your own at night
Unless you hire a multi-day driver from Swift and are confident in your driver, it is best to avoid traveling at night on your own. Get someone to drop you off at your hotel, accompany you to your hotel before traveling on to their own, or take dinner in your hotel. I created a lot of concern by driving myself in India, but I preferred to drive myself or use my own driver at night rather than take a cab. (I don’t recommend you drive yourself on a visit, the traffic is a real experience…)
If you are traveling from city to city, book a car to collect you
The craziest part of travel in India is often the rugby scrum for a rickshaw or taxi as you step out of the train station or the airport. You can save a lot of hassle by booking a car in advance to collect you – they will hold up a name board – and having a destination hotel for your city of arrival. This saves you getting caught by touts (who earn a commission on the hotel they take you to) and ending up with a driver you don’t feel comfortable with. Often the hotel will send a driver for you (for a fee) if you ask them to.
Take the ladies section
The Delhi Metro is rightly the pride of Delhi, but “eve teasing” (sexual harassment) as it is known in India is a little too prevalent. Avoid this by taking the ladies only carriage. Avoid the buses. The safety record of the green buses is appalling (they run over too many pedestrians) and you are unlikely to be helped if “eve teasing” starts on the buses. In Delhi, stick to the metro and taxis. In other cities, stick to taxis. They are anyway very cheap.
Take a sense of humour with you
Travel in India is an adventure, in so many senses of the word. So many things are not as you expect, and approaching it with a healthy sense of humour will get you through so many situations. Don’t mention that you are just visiting, fake being an expat, say “challo” if you want someone to go away, and enjoy the ride of wonderful, crazy, magical India!
I loved living there. I love visiting there still. I became more cautious about traveling on my own as a result of living in India and Jyoti Singh, but I wouldn’t avoid going out of concern. A lot of people will genuinely offer you help and hospitality too. India is a wonderful place with wonderfully warm people. Enjoy!