For many travellers India is often seen as a difficult place to travel through, and heading there on a gap year often comes with a strict set of rules to keep you safe and away from harm, but sometimes those expectations can become a self fulfilling prophecy and keep a traveller away from experiencing the real India, and often to get to the heart of the country and the culture you have to break away from those rules.
India is often seen as a true test of the travellers mettle, a cultural baseball bat to the face for the unwary and a baptism of fire for so many inexperienced backpackers. It is probably fair to say that India is a country that is often loved and hated in equal measure.
But how much of that shared experience is down to India herself and the reality of how difficult it actually is to travel through the country on a practical level, and how much is down to stereotypes of what India is like and the mindset of the individual traveller and the self fulfilling prophecy that travellers impose on themselves when visiting?
It is important to remember that it is almost impossible to stereotype a country of 1.3 billion people!
But those stereotypes do exist.
To be fair it isn’t just the individual traveller’s fault, the media, endless stories from worried parents, other inexperienced backpackers or even local Indians themselves all help shape a negative stereotype of India. But how much do the expectations of what travellers think may happen colour their experience in a negative way?
I recently spoke to a young backpacker who had visited India on a relatively short snap year. She had heard all the stories about solo female travel in India; she had heard about how dangerous it is for a woman to travel there and had been lauded and berated alike for being ‘brave’ enough to dare to do it solo. She had heard all about the leering gazes of the men, about the obvious fact that all men are potential rapists because, you know, they are men, and how you should ignore any and every vendor who wants to sell you something because everyone is out to con you.
She proudly told me of the time she very publicly and loudly yelled at and berated a man for daring to try and block her way when walking through a market, only realising after the fact he was trying to stop her from walking directly into the path of one of those impossibly stacked carts that was hurtling through the crowded streets. She walked away of course and considered it a funny story of how she was so brave and ’empowered’ for being solo and what a silly mistake she made, but you know, you have to be careful ‘as a woman’ right? So that extreme response toward that poor guy was totally justified.
It’s probably a good thing you can’t see my eyes rolling so far back up into my head right now.
It was safe to say she didn’t enjoy her experience of India all that much, aside from the posed Instagram photo’s of the typical hotspots of course, and I just felt like that was a huge shame.
She missed out on so much because of preconceived notions of what she thought India is like and other people’s ‘rules’ of what she should and shouldn’t do.
She went in with a fixed set of preconceived ideas that instantly set her on high alert and stopped her from truly opening up to what an amazing country India is.
When travelling to India backpackers are always inundated with a very long list of do’s and don’ts from loved ones and sometimes even other travellers too. A set of rules that already puts them in a negative mindset about the places they are visiting. And although there is some merit to taking a reasonable level of precaution and keeping your wits about you, you have to remember that the key word there is reasonable. You have to use your common sense too.
The safety issue.
The safety issue is perhaps the biggest ‘rule’ out there. Women in particular here are warned endlessly about how they will be viewed as nothing but a target for sexual harassment or worse, and that puts a level of fear onto any trip that is largely unfounded. So they are told don’t engage in conversation with strangers, don’t follow a man into his shop, be careful when getting public transport because you will be trapped with a bunch of men who will obviously rape you, the list of don’ts is endless.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am a huge advocate for personal security and safety, I have taught it to civilians and professionals for long enough and believe that in most cases and with few exceptions – the obvious exceptions of conflict or disaster zones aside – there is no such thing as a dangerous place provided that the individual has the right knowledge, instincts, awareness, training and attitude to keep themselves safe.
I also know that no matter where you go there are some risks out there, to pretend otherwise would be foolish. In India just like anywhere else in the world there are risks to your own safety and security and that goes for men just as much as it does for women.
But these risks are not risks just because you are in India. Risk factors or danger is never solely attributed to one place or even the act of travel itself. Someone who has never travelled and stays in their own home town their entire lives can till have terrible things happen to them. Bad things can and do happen to anyone, anywhere at any time, and you should take the right precautions to reduce that risk as much as humanly possible.
But that doesn’t mean that you should be so paranoid it stops you from opening yourself up to having some truly amazing experiences in the world you are exploring.
Yes there are people in India who will want to do you harm or at best don’t have your best interests at heart, just like there is anywhere, but there are also millions of people who don’t want to harm or hurt you. Millions of people who are open, friendly and willing to help you if you need it.
Bad things may happen to you, but you cannot ever take this as a given or as the norm.
There is a truly delicate line between being wary of scams and potential threats and not being so closed off and afraid that you miss out, or even worse put yourself in a constant defensive mode which causes you to act like that backpacker who berated a man for simply trying to help.
I mean sometimes, just sometimes, that vendor may actually just be trying to sell you something. And what happens if you miss out on a truly awesome souvenir because you were too busy saying no? What happens if instead of a warm and fun experience of Indian hospitality and a bit of friendly haggling over a cup of chai you run away screaming and miss out, not to mention leaving the man insulted and offended.
If at any point your gut is genuinely telling you something isn’t right you still have the right and opportunity to say no and walk away, but you have to develop those instincts which will allow you to be on your guard if and when necessary, but stay open and friendly too.
Sometimes people really are just saying hello.
Sometimes it really is simply a shopkeeper trying to sell his wares.
Sometimes people are just being friendly.
And sometimes they aren’t.
It is essential that you learn to be aware of your surroundings and your situation, learn to spot the signs of a scam or listen to your gut when something just isn’t right. It is important that you learn to spot , reduce or avoid potential risk factors. Personal safety and security is important. But it is just important that you don’t let fear and paranoia dictate your actions.
What happens if instead of enjoying your time exploring a market or walking through a village, you listen to those rules that tell you to react angrily if a man gets too close to you, or feel threatened if a lot of people are looking at you?
Yes there is a lot of staring in India and almost no consideration for personal space. That is strange for Westerners visiting that culture but that isn’t necessarily a risk factor for you either. It may make you feel uncomfortable if you aren’t used to it but more often than not it is simply what happens when there is such a large population and a cultural paradigm of shared community.
Westerners may find that concept a little alien, but isn’t that what you are travelling for? To experience new cultures and ways of thinking?
The rules around food.
Food is another area that seems to constantly crop up in the lists of unsolicited advice about India. So many backpackers are told that they shouldn’t eat street food or accept food from strangers when in India too, and this again makes so many travellers miss out on some great experiences.
First of all street food is awesome, and the majority of the time it is absolutely safe too. You do of course have to use your common sense, and you really should avoid that roadside ‘stall’ with the cardboard sign and the three day old meat rotting in the midday sun, but most street food stalls are as clean and hygienic as any restaurant (and you can see exactly what the facilities are like unlike when the kitchen is hidden in the back), the food is safe and fully cooked, and is absolutely delicious to boot.
The one exception here is the tap water, I genuinely wouldn’t recommend it to travellers and always advise drinking bottled water instead (making sure the cap is properly sealed of course, or even better, using a refillable water filter bottle.
Now if you get any of the lower class, long distance or overnight trains in India, chances are you will get very close to a large number of people very quickly, and this means that you will very likely be invited to experience Indian hospitality when it comes to sharing their meals. Women especially I think, as I have noted female travellers, especially when solo, are often more likely to be invited over to other large groups of women and taken under their wing or given hospitality.
Given that one of the major rules about personal safety we are all taught from childhood is never accept food from strangers, this can lead to a lot of travellers refusing and closing themselves off out of fear, but they really shouldn’t. Not all of the time anyway.
One of my most memorable experiences of public transport in India involves sharing a meal and watching a bootleg copy of Spiderman (the first one with Toby Maguire) on a family laptop whilst on a crowded train down to Goa.
Again of course use your common sense and judge the situation, but forget those rules about not accepting food from strangers, about turning down invitations and remaining apart. India is a culture where hospitality and community is everything, and it is almost offensive to turn it down.
Break the rules and don’t miss out.
There are genuinely so many expectations, some true, many not so much, about travelling through India that many backpackers have a negative mindset about the country and what to expect in it before they even step off the plane.
By all means use your common sense, but don’t fall into the trap of listening too much to those pre expectations and following the self imposed rules that are based on them.
Sometimes you have to break the ‘rules’ to see the real heart of India, and if you do, if you open yourself up to the country and her people, you will have a much more fulfilling experience.
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