For Western visitors, India is still one of the world’s less expensive countries. A little foreign currency can go a long way, and you can be confident of getting good value for your money, whether you’re setting out to keep your budget to a minimum or to enjoy the opportunities that spending a bit more will make possible.
What you spend obviously depends on where you go, where you stay, how you get around, what you eat and what you buy. Outside the tourist resorts of Kerala and Goa, you could just about survive on a budget of as little as Rs800 (£9/US$15) per day, if you eat in local dhabas, stay in the cheapest hotels and don’t travel too much. In reality, most backpackers nowadays tend to spend at least double that. On Rs2000 (£23/US$36) per day you’ll be able to afford comfortable mid-range hotels, and meals in smarter restaurants, regular rickshaw or taxi rides and entrance fees to monuments. Spend around Rs5000 (£57/US$90) per day and you can stay in smart hotels, eat in the top restaurants, travel first class on trains and afford chauffeur-driven cars. Although it is possible to travel very comfortably in India, it’s also possible to spend a great deal of money, if you want to experience the very best the country has to offer, and there are plenty of hotels now charging US$500 per night, sometimes even more.
Budget accommodation is still very good value, however. Cheap double rooms start from around Rs400 (£4.50/US$7) per night, while a no-frills vegetarian meal in an ordinary restaurant will typically cost no more than Rs100. Long-distance transport can work out to be phenomenally good value if you stick to state buses and standard second-class non-a/c trains, but soon starts to add up if you opt for air-conditioned carriages on the superfast inter-city services. The 200km trip from Delhi to Agra, for example, can cost anywhere from Rs88 (£1/US$1.60) in second class unreserved up to Rs820 (£9/US$15) in first-class a/c.
Where you are also makes a difference: Mumbai is notoriously pricey, especially for accommodation, and Delhi is also substantially more expensive than most parts of the country. Upscale visitor accommodation in Kerala costs almost as much as it does in Europe, although fierce competition tends to keep prices at the lower end of the budget spectrum down in the tourist towns of Rajasthan. Out in the sticks, on the other hand, and particularly away from your fellow tourists, you will often find things incredibly cheap, though your choice will obviously be more limited.
Don’t make any rigid assumptions at the outset of a long trip that your money will last for a certain number of weeks or months. On any one day it may be possible to spend very little, but cumulatively you won’t be doing yourself any favours if you don’t make sure you keep yourself well rested and properly fed. As a foreigner in India, you will find yourself penalized by double-tier entry prices to museums and historic sites as well as in upmarket hotels and airfares, both of which are levied at a higher rate and in dollars.
Some independent travellers tend to indulge in wild and highly competitive penny-pinching, which Indian people find rather pathetic – they have a fair idea of what you can earn at home. Bargain where appropriate, but don’t begrudge a few rupees to someone who’s worked hard for them: consider what their services would cost in your own country, and how much more valuable the money is to them than it is to you. Even if you get a bad deal on every rickshaw journey you make, it will only add a minuscule fraction to the cost of your trip. Remember too, that every pound or dollar you spend in India goes that much further and luxuries you can’t afford at home become possible here: sometimes it’s worth spending more simply because you get more for it. At the same time, don’t pay well over the odds for something if you know what the going rate is. Thoughtless extravagance can, particularly in remote areas that see a disproportionate number of tourists, contribute to inflation, putting even basic goods and services beyond the reach of local people.
Crime and personal safety
In spite of the crushing poverty and the yawning gulf between rich and poor, India is, on the whole, a safe country in which to travel. As a tourist, however, you are an obvious target for the tiny number of thieves (who may include some of your fellow travellers), and stand to face serious problems if you do lose your passport and money or bank cards. Common sense, therefore, suggests a few precautions.
Beware of crowded locations, such as packed buses or trains, in which it is easy for pickpockets to operate – slashing pockets or bags with razor blades is not unheard of in certain locations, and itching powder is sometimes used to distract the unwary. Don’t leave valuables unattended on the beach when you go for a swim; backpacks in dormitory accommodation are also obvious targets, as is luggage on the roof of buses. Even monkeys rate a mention here, since it’s not unknown for them to steal things from hotel rooms with open windows, or even to snatch bags from unsuspecting shoulders.
Budget travellers would do well to carry a padlock, as these are usually used to secure the doors of cheap hotel rooms and it’s reassuring to know you have the only key. You can also use them to lock your bag to seats or racks in trains, for which a length of chain also comes in handy. Don’t put valuables in your luggage for bus or plane journeys: keep them with you at all times. If your baggage is on the roof of a bus, make sure it is well secured. On trains and buses, the prime time for theft is just before you leave, so keep a particular eye on your gear then, beware of deliberate diversions, and don’t put your belongings next to open windows. Remember that routes popular with tourists tend to be popular with thieves too. Druggings leading to theft and worse are rare but not unheard of, so you are best advised to politely refuse food and drink from fellow passengers or passing strangers, unless you are completely confident it’s the family picnic you are sharing or have seen the food purchased from a vendor.
However, don’t get paranoid; the best way of enjoying the country is to stay relaxed but with your wits about you. Crime levels in India are a long way below those of Western countries and violent crime against tourists is almost unheard of. Virtually none of the people who approach you on the street intend any harm: most want to sell you something (though this is not always made apparent immediately), some want to practise their English, others (if you’re a woman) to chat you up, while more than a few just want to add your address to their book or have a snap taken with you. Anyone offering wonderful-sounding moneymaking schemes, however, is almost certain to be a con artist.
If you do feel threatened, it’s worth looking for help. Tourism police are found sitting in clearly marked booths in the main railway stations, especially in big tourist centres, where they will also have a booth in the main bus station. In addition, they may have a marked booth outside major tourist sites.
Be wary of credit card fraud; a credit card can be used to make duplicate forms by which your account is then billed for fictitious transactions, so don’t let shops or restaurants take your card away to process – insist they do it in front of you or follow them to the point of transaction.
It’s not a bad idea to keep US$200 or so separately from the rest of your money, along with your travellers’ cheque receipts, insurance policy number and phone number for claims, and a photocopy of the pages in your passport containing personal data and your Indian visa. This will cover you in case you do lose all your valuables.
If the worst happens and you get robbed, the first thing to do is report the theft as soon as possible to the local police. They are very unlikely to recover your belongings but you need a report from them in order to claim on your travel insurance. Dress smartly and expect an uphill battle – city cops in particular tend to be jaded from too many insurance and travellers’ cheque scams.
Losing your passport is a real hassle, but does not necessarily mean the end of your trip. First, report the loss immediately to the police, who will issue you with the all-important “complaint form” that you need to be able to travel around and check into hotels, as well as claim back any expenses incurred in replacing your passport from your insurer. A complaint form, however, will not allow you to change money or travellers’ cheques. If you’ve run out of cash, your best bet is to ask your hotel manager to help you out (staff will have seen your passport when you checked in, and the number will be in the register). The next thing to do is telephone your nearest embassy or consulate in India. Normally, passports have to be applied for and collected in person, but if you are stranded, it is usually possible to arrange to receive the necessary forms in the post. However, you still have to go to the embassy or consulate to pick up your new passport. Emergency passports are the cheapest form of replacement, but are normally only valid for the few days of your return flight. If you’re not sure when you’re leaving India, you’ll have to obtain a more costly full passport; these can only be issued by high commissions, embassies and larger consulates in Delhi or Mumbai, although they can be arranged through consulates in Chennai, Kolkata or Panjim (Goa).
Duty free allowance
Anyone over 17 can bring in one US quart (0.95 litre – but nobody’s going to quibble about the other 5ml) of spirits, or a bottle of wine and 250ml spirits; plus 200 cigarettes, or 50 cigars, or 250g tobacco. You may be required to register anything valuable on a tourist baggage re-export form to make sure you can take it home with you, and to fill in a currency declaration form if carrying more than US$10,000 or the equivalent.
Generally 220V 50Hz AC, though direct current supplies also exist, so check before plugging in. Most sockets are triple round-pin (accepting European-size double round-pin plugs). British, Irish and Australasian plugs will need an adaptor, preferably universal; American and Canadian appliances will need a transformer too, unless multivoltage. Power cuts and voltage variations are very common; voltage stabilizers should be used to run sensitive appliances such as laptops.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Homosexuality is not generally open or accepted in India, but in a landmark decision in July 2009, the High Court declared unconstitutional the Victorian ban on gay sex between consenting adults, as a result of which it is now legal. Prejudice is still ingrained however, especially in conservative areas such as Rajasthan.
For lesbians, making contacts is difficult; even the Indian women’s movement does not readily promote lesbianism as an issue that needs confronting. The only public faces of a hidden scene are the organizations in Delhi. For gay men, homosexuality is no longer solely the preserve of the alternative scene of actors and artists, and is increasingly accepted by the upper classes, but Mumbai remains much more a centre for gay life than Delhi, let alone traditionalist Rajasthan. Following the High Court ruling however, there are now gay nights in several Delhi clubs, and Time Out Delhi has a section on gay and lesbian events.
One group of people you may come across are hijras, who look like transvestites and are accepted as a transitional “third sex” between male and female. Pukka hijras are born with genitals that are neither fully male nor female, but some are eunuchs, who undergo castration to become hijras because they are transsexuals (physically male but psychologically female). They live in their own “families” and have a niche in Indian society, but not an easy one. At weddings, their presence is supposed to bring good luck, and they are usually given baksheesh for putting in a brief appearance. Generally, however, they have a low social status, face widespread discrimination, and many make a living by begging or prostitution.
Gay and lesbian contacts and resources
Campaign for Lesbian Rights (CALERI)/Shakhi PO Box 3526, Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi 110065 e [email protected]. Collective working for lesbian rights.
Gay Delhi w gaydelhi.tripod.com. Weekly social meetings and other events for gay men in Delhi.
Humsafar Trust w humsafar.org. Set up to promote safe sex among gay men, the website also has lots of links and up-to-date information.
Indian Dost w indiandost.com/delhigay.php. The Delhi page of a website for gay men in India.
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission w glhrc.org. Latest news on the human rights situation for gay people worldwide, including regular bulletins on India.
Purple Dragon Lobby of the Tarntawan Place Hotel, 119/5-10 Suriwong Rd, Bangkok 10500, Thailand t +662 238 3227, w purpledrag.com. Thai-based tour operator offering various gay-friendly tours of India.
Sangini PO Box 7532, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi 110070, w sanginii.org. Lesbian information, support and contacts. Helpline (Tues noon–3pm & Fri 6–8pm) on t 011 5567 6450.
It’s imperative that you take out proper travel insurance before setting off for India. In addition to covering medical expenses and emergency flights, travel insurance also insures your money and belongings against loss or theft. Before paying for a new policy, however, it’s worth checking whether you are already covered: some all-risks home insurance policies may cover your possessions when overseas, and many private medical schemes include cover when abroad. In Canada, provincial health plans usually provide partial medical cover for mishaps overseas, while holders of official student/teacher/youth cards in Canada and the US are entitled to meagre accident coverage and hospital in-patient benefits. Students will often find that their student health coverage extends during the vacations and for one term beyond the date of last enrolment.
After exhausting the possibilities above, you might want to contact a specialist travel insurance company, or consider the travel insurance deal offered by Rough Guides. A typical travel insurance policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Most of them exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in India this can mean scuba diving, whitewater rafting, windsurfing and trekking with ropes, though probably not jeep safaris. Many policies can be chopped and changed to exclude coverage you don’t need – for example, sickness and accident benefits can often be excluded or included at will. If you do take medical coverage, ascertain whether benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after return home, and whether there is a 24-hour medical emergency number. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit – typically under £500 – will cover your most valuable possession. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police.
All large cities and tourist towns now have at least a few (usually dozens) of places where you can get online, either at cyber cafés or your hotel or guesthouse. Prices typically range from around Rs20/hr in big cities to Rs90/hr in more remote places. Broadband has now reached more or less everywhere though speeds can still be painfully slow and computers rather antiquated, making it difficult to load complex websites or to perform online transactions (like booking a train ticket). Recent years have seen a proliferation of wi-fi connections, so getting your own device online is far easier than in the past.
In India, no one goes to the laundry: if they don’t do their own, they send it out to a dhobi. Wherever you are staying, there will either be an in-house dhobi, or one very close by to call on. The dhobi will take your dirty washing to a dhobi ghat, a public clothes-washing area (the bank of a river for example), where it is shown some old-fashioned discipline: separated, soaped and given a damn good thrashing to beat the dirt out of it. Then it is hung out to dry in the sun and, once dried, taken to the ironing sheds where every garment is endowed with razor-sharp creases and then matched to its rightful owner by hidden cryptic markings. Your clothes will come back from the dhobi absolutely spotless, though this kind of violent treatment does take it out of them: buttons get lost and eventually the cloth starts to fray. If you’d rather not entrust your Savile Row made-to-measure to their tender mercies, head instead for the dry-cleaners in large towns.
Living in India
It is illegal for a foreign tourist to work in India, and there’s no shortage of English teachers, but you may consider doing some voluntary charitable work. Several charities welcome volunteers on a medium-term commitment, say over two months. People visiting India on business or with employment arranged in advance may apply for a business visa, and non-resident Indians are entitled to stay for up to five years.
If you want to spend your time working as a volunteer for an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization), you should make arrangements well before you arrive by contacting the body in question, rather than on spec. Special visas are generally not required unless you intend to work for longer than six months. For information about which NGOs are operating across the country, log on to w indianngos.com and select options from a drop-down list.
Most stations in India have “cloakrooms” (sometimes called parcel offices) for passengers to leave their baggage. These can be extremely handy if you want to go sightseeing in a town and move on the same day. In theory, you need a train ticket or Indrail pass to deposit luggage, but staff don’t always ask; they may, however, refuse to take your bag if you can’t lock it. Losing your reclaim ticket causes problems; the clerk will be assumed to have stolen the bag if he can’t produce it, so there’ll be untold running around to obtain clearance before you can get your bag without it. Make sure, when checking baggage in, that the cloakroom will be open when you need to pick it up. The standard charge is currently Rs10 for the first 24 hours, plus Rs15 per day afterwards.
Mail can take anything from six days to three weeks to get to or from India, depending on where you are and the country you are mailing to; ten days is about the norm. Most post offices are open Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm and Saturday from 10am to noon, but town GPOs keep longer hours (usually Mon–Sat 9.30am–1pm & 2–5.30pm). Stamps are not expensive, but you’ll have to stick them on yourself as they tend not to be self-adhesive (every post office keeps a pot of evil-smelling glue for this purpose). Aerogrammes and postcards cost the same to anywhere in the world. Ideally, you should also have mail franked in front of you
Sending a parcel from India can be a performance. First take it to a tailor to have it wrapped in cheap cotton cloth, stitched up and sealed with wax. Next, take it to the post office, fill in and attach the relevant customs forms, buy your stamps, see them franked and dispatch it. Surface mail is incredibly cheap, and takes an average of six months to arrive – it may take half, or four times that, however. It’s a good way to dump excess baggage and souvenirs, but don’t send anything fragile this way.
Getting good maps of India, in India, can be difficult. The government – in an archaic suspicion of cartography, and in spite of clear coverage of the country on Google – forbids the sale of detailed maps of border areas, which includes the entire coastline.
It therefore makes sense to bring a full country map of India with you. Freytag & Berndt produce the best country map, while Nelles covers parts of the country with 1:1,500,000 regional maps. These are generally excellent, but cost a fortune if you buy the complete set. Their double-sided map of the Himalayas is useful for roads and planning and has some detail but is not sufficient as a trekking map. Ttk, a Chennai-based company, publishes basic state maps which are widely available in India, and in some specialized travel and map shops in the UK such as Stanfords; these are poorly drawn but useful for road distances. The Indian Railways map at the back of the publication Trains at a Glance is useful for planning railway journeys.
You can sometimes get larger-scale city maps from tourist offices, though Google Maps are vastly superior (simply print them off at an internet café or before you leave home). Eicher has a series of glossy, A–Z-style books (Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru (Bangalore) only), produced in India and available at all good bookstores.
As for trekking maps, the US Army Map Service produced maps in the 1960s which, with a scale of 1:250,000, remain sufficiently accurate on topography, but are of course outdated on the latest road developments. Most other maps you can buy are based on these, and they’re still the best available for most of the Himalayan regions. Leomann Maps (1:200,000) also cover the northwest Himalayan regions. These are not contour maps and are therefore better for planning and basic reference than for trekking. The Survey of India publishes a rather poor 1:250,000 series for trekkers in the Uttarakhand Himalayas – simplified versions of their own infinitely more reliable maps, produced for the military, which are absolutely impossible for an outsider to get hold of.
India’s unit of currency is the rupee, usually abbreviated “Rs” and divided into a hundred paise. Almost all money is paper, with notes of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000 rupees. Coins in circulation are 1, 2, 5 and 10 rupees, the latter two gradually replacing the paper versions. Note that it’s technically illegal to take rupees in or out of India (although they are widely available at overseas forexes), so you might want to wait until you arrive before changing money.
Banknotes, especially lower denominations, can get into a terrible state. Don’t accept torn banknotes, since no one else will be prepared to take them and you’ll be left saddled with the things, though you can change them at the Reserve Bank of India and large branches of other big banks. Don’t pass them on to beggars; they can’t use them either, so it amounts to an insult.
Large denominations can also be a problem, as change is usually in short supply. Many Indian people cannot afford to keep much lying around, and you shouldn’t necessarily expect shopkeepers or rickshaw-wallahs to have it (and they may – as may you – try to hold onto it if they do). Larger notes – like the Rs500 note – are good for travelling with and can be changed for smaller denominations at hotels and other suitable establishments. A word of warning – the Rs500 note looks remarkably similar to the Rs100 note.
At the time of writing, the exchange rate was approximately Rs88 to £1, or Rs55 to US$1, and Rs72 to £1. You can check latest exchange rates online at w xe.com.
ATMs, cards and travellers’ cheques
The easiest way to access your money in India is with plastic, though it’s a good idea to also have some backup in the form of cash or travellers’ cheques. You will find ATMs at main banks in all major towns, cities and tourist areas, though your card issuer may well add a foreign transaction fee, and the Indian bank will also levy a small charge, generally around Rs25.
Your card issuer, and sometimes the ATM itself, imposes limits on the amount you may withdraw in a day – typically Rs10,000–20,000. Note, too, that the first time you try to take money out after arriving in India your request may be refused – a standard security procedure aimed at preventing fraud. Telephone your bank or credit card’s 24 hour line for the block to be removed – or better still telephone your bank before you leave home to warn them.
Credit cards are accepted for payment at major hotels, top restaurants, some shops and airline offices, but virtually nowhere else. American Express, MasterCard and Visa are the likeliest to be accepted. Beware of people making extra copies of the receipt, in order to fraudulently bill you later; always insist that the transaction is made before your eyes.
One big downside of relying on plastic as your main access to cash, of course, is that cards can easily get lost or stolen, so take along a couple of alternatives if you can, keep an emergency stash of cash just in case, and make a note of your home bank’s telephone number and website addresses for emergencies.
US dollars are the easiest currency to convert, with euros and pounds sterling not far behind. Major hard currencies can be changed easily in tourist areas and big cities, less so elsewhere. If you enter the country with more than US$10,000 or the equivalent, you are supposed to fill in a currency declaration form.
In addition to cash and plastic (or as a generally less convenient alternative to the latter), consider carrying some travellers’ cheques. You pay a small commission (usually one percent) to buy these with cash in the same currency, a little more to convert from a different currency, but they have the advantage over cash that, if lost or stolen, they can be replaced. Not all banks, however, accept them. Well-known brands such as Thomas Cook and American Express are your best bet, but in some places even American Express is only accepted in US dollars and not as pounds sterling. Visa and American Express offer pre-paid cards that you can load up with credit before you leave home and use in ATMs like a debit card – effectively travellers’ cheques in plastic form.
Changing money in regular banks, especially government-run banks such as the State Bank of India (SBI), can be a time-consuming business, involving lots of form-filling and queueing at different counters, so it’s best to change substantial amounts at any one time. You’ll have no such problems, however, with private companies such as Thomas Cook, American Express or forex agents. Major cities and main tourist centres usually have several licensed currency exchange bureaux; rates usually aren’t as good as at a bank but transactions are generally a lot quicker and there’s less paperwork to complete.
Outside banking hours (Mon–Fri 10am– 2/4pm, Sat 10am–noon), large hotels may change money, probably at a lower rate, and exchange bureaux have longer opening hours. Banks in the arrivals halls at Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai airports stay open 24 hours.
Wherever you change money, hold on to exchange receipts (“encashment certificates”); they will be required if you want to change back any excess rupees when you leave the country and to buy air tickets and reserve train berths with rupees at special counters for foreigners. The State Bank of India now charges for tax clearance forms.
Standard shop opening hours in India are Monday to Saturday 9.30am to 6pm. Most big stores, at any rate, keep those hours, while smaller shops vary from town to town, region to region, and one to another, but usually keep longer hours. Government tourist offices are open Monday to Friday 9.30am to 5pm, Saturday 9.30am to 1pm, closed on the second Saturday of the month; state-run tourist offices are likely to be open Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm.
Since the mobile (cellphone) revolution, privately run phone international direct-dialling facilities – STD/ISD (Standard Trunk Dialling/International Subscriber Dialling) places – have become far less common so you can’t always rely on finding one. In addition, calling from them will cost more than dialling from a mobile if you have an Indian SIM card. Visitors therefore nearly all bring their own phones these days, and buy an Indian SIM to cover their trip.
SIM cards are sold through most cellphone shops and network outlets. Unfortunately, in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, the process of obtaining one has become more complicated for foreigners. You have to provide a photocopy of your passport (photo and visa pages), fill in a form and be registered at an Indian address, though the hotel you are staying in usually suffices. There is an initial connection fee ranging from Rs50–250, depending on the dealer and network.
Coverage varies from state to state, but the largest national network providers are best – Vodaphone, Airtel and Tata DoCoMo. Once your retailer has unlocked your phone and you have paid for the initial card, it can be topped up (“re-charged” as it’s known) by amounts ranging from Rs10–1000, though only by paying certain figures (check with the retailer) will you get the full amount in credits. Call charges to the UK and US from most Indian networks cost Rs2–3 per minute. Also, get your card supplier to turn on the “do not disturb” option, or you’ll be plagued with spam calls and spam texts from the phone company.
Indian mobile numbers are ten-digit, starting with an 8 or (more common) a 9. However, if you are calling from outside the state where the mobile is based (but not from abroad), you need to add a zero in front of that.
Calling an Indian mobile or landline from a UK landline, you can save a lot of money by dialling via a company such as Ratebuster (w ratebuster.co.uk), which requires no sign-up but uses an 0845 number, or better still by signing up cost-free with a VoIP provider such as 18185 (w 18185.com). In the US you can make cheap calls via reasonable monthly deals on Phone.com (w phone.com).
Beware of pointing your camera at anything that might be considered “strategic”, including airports and anything military. Remember too that some people prefer not to be photographed, so it’s a good idea to ask before you take a snapshot of them. More likely, you’ll get people, especially kids, volunteering to pose and it’s quite common for Indians to ask you to be in their snaps.
Most photo shops can now transfer digital images onto a CD – useful in order to free up memory space. Camera film, sold at average Western prices, is still available in India (but check the date on the box, and note that false boxes containing outdated film are often sold). It’s becoming harder to get film developed, however, and dubious quality makes it better done back at home anyway. If you’re after slide film, buy it in the big cities and don’t expect to find specialist brands.
Sexism and women’s issues
India is not a country that provides huge obstacles to women travellers. In the days of the Raj. many upper-class women travelled through India alone, as did the female flower children of the hippie era. Plenty of women travel solo today, but few get through their trip without any hassle, so it’s good to prepare yourself to be a little bit thick-skinned.
Indian streets are almost without exception male-dominated – something that may take a bit of getting used to, particularly if you find yourself subjected to incessant staring, whistling and name calling. This can usually be stopped by ignoring the gaze and quickly moving on, or by firmly telling the offender to stop looking at you. Most of your fellow travellers on trains and buses will be men, who may start up most unwelcome conversations about sex, divorce and the freedom of relationships in the West. These cannot often be avoided, but demonstrating too much enthusiasm to discuss such topics can lure men into thinking that you are easy about sex, and the situation could become threatening. At its worst in larger cities, all this can become very tiring. You can get round it to a certain extent by joining women in public places, and you’ll notice an immense difference if you join up with a male travelling companion. In this case, expect Indian men to approach him (assumed, of course, to be your husband – an assumption it is sometimes advantageous to go along with) and talk to him about you quite happily as if you were not there. Beware, however, if you are (or look) of Indian origin with a non-Indian male companion: this may well cause you harassment, as you might be seen to have brought shame on your family by adopting the loose morals of the West.
In addition to staring and suggestive comments and looks, sexual harassment, or “Eve teasing” as it is bizarrely known, is likely to be a nuisance, but not generally a threat. Expect to get groped in crowds and to have men “accidentally” squeeze past you at any opportunity. It tends to be worse in cities than in small towns and villages but being followed can be a real problem wherever you are.
In time you’ll learn to gauge a situation – sometimes wandering around on your own may attract so much unwanted attention that you may prefer to stay in one place until you’ve recharged your batteries or your male fan club has moved on. It’s always best to dress modestly – a salwar kameez is perfect, as is any baggy clothing – and refrain from smoking or drinking in public, which only reinforces prejudices that Western women are “loose” and “easy”.
Returning an unwanted touch with a punch or slap is perfectly in order (Indian women often become aggressive when offended), and does serve to vent a little frustration. It should also attract attention and urge someone to help you, or at least deal with the offending man – a man transgressing social norms is always out of line and any passer-by will want to let him know it. If you feel someone getting too close in a crowd or on a bus, brandishing your left shoe in his face can be very effective.
Going to watch a Bollywood movie at the cinema is a fun and essential part of your trip to India but, at cheap cinemas especially, such an occasion is rarely without hassle. If you do go to the cinema, it’s best to go to an upmarket theatre, or at least to go with a group of people and sit in the balcony area, where it’s a bit more expensive but the crowd is much more sedate.
Violent sexual assaults on tourists are extremely rare but the number of reported cases of rape is slowly rising, and you should always take precautions: avoid quiet, dimly lit streets and alleys at night, as well as remote rural locations; if you find a trustworthy rickshaw/taxi driver in the day keep him for the night journey; and try to get someone to accompany you to your hotel whenever possible. While Indian women are still quite timid about reporting rape – it is considered as much a disgrace to the victim as to the perpetrator – Western victims should always report it to the police, and before leaving the area try to let other tourists, or locals, know, in the hope that pressure from the community may uncover the offender and see him brought to justice.
The practicalities of travel take on a new dimension for lone women travellers. Often you can turn your gender to your advantage. For example, on inter-city buses the driver and conductor will often take you under their wing, and there will be countless other instances of kindness wherever you travel. You’ll be more welcome in some private houses than a group of Western males, and may find yourself learning the finer points of Indian cooking around the family’s clay stove. Women frequently get preference at bus and railway stations where they can join a separate “ladies’ queue”, and use ladies’ waiting rooms. On overnight trains the enclosed ladies’ compartments are peaceful havens (unless filled with noisy children); you could also try to share a berth section with a family where you are usually drawn into the security of the group and are less exposed to lustful gazes. In hotels watch out for “peep-holes” in your door (and in the common bathrooms), and be sure to cover your window when changing and when sleeping.
Lastly, bring your own supply of tampons, which are not widely available outside main cities.
India is all in one time zone and remains the same year round: GMT+5hr 30min. This makes it 5hr 30min ahead of London, 10hr 30min ahead of New York, 13hr 30min ahead of LA, 4hr 30min behind Sydney and 6hr 30min behind NZ; however, summertime in those places will change the difference by an hour. Indian time is referred to as IST (Indian Standard Time, which cynics refer to as “Indian stretchable time”).
Tipping and baksheesh
As a well-off visitor you’ll be expected to be liberal with your tips. Low-paid workers in hotels and restaurants often accept lower pay than they should in the expectation of generous tips during the tourist season. Ten percent should be regarded as acceptable if you’ve received good service – more if the staff have really gone out of their way to be helpful. A tip of Rs10–20 suffices at most restaurants other than the really posh ones in top-end hotels. Taxi and auto-rickshaw wallahs will not expect tips unless you’ve made unplanned diversions or stops. What to tip your driver at the end of long tours, however, is a trickier issue, especially if you’ve been forking out Rs150–200 for their daily allowance, as well as paying for meals. The simple answer is to give what you think they deserve, and what you can afford. Drivers working for tour operators, even more than hotel staff and waiters, depend on tips to get through the off-season (many are paid only Rs200–300 per day because their bosses know that foreign customers tend to tip well).
Alms giving (baksheesh) is common throughout India; people with disabilities and mutilations often congregate in city centres and popular resorts, where they survive from begging. In such cases a few coins up to Rs5–10 should be sufficient. Kids demanding money, pens, sweets or the like are a different case: yielding to any request only encourages them to pester others.
Western-style toilets are becoming much more common in India now, especially in hotels and lodges in touristy areas, though you’ll probably still come across a few traditional “squat” toilets – basically a hole in the ground. Paper, if used, often goes in a bucket next to the loo rather than down it. Instead, Indians use a jug of water and their left hand, a method you may also come to prefer, but if you do use paper, keep some handy. Some guesthouses and hotels do supply it, but don’t count on; it’s a good idea to stock up before going too far off the beaten track as it’s not available everywhere. Travelling is especially difficult for women as facilities are limited or non-existent, especially when travelling by road rather than by rail. However, toilets in the a/c carriages of trains are usually kept clean, as are those in mid-range and air-conditioned restaurants. The latest development is tourist toilets at every major historical site. For Rs5 you get water, mirrors, toilet paper and a clean sit-down loo.
The main tourist website for India is w incredibleindia.org. The Indian government also maintains a number of tourist offices abroad, whose staff are usually helpful and knowledgeable. Other sources of information include the websites of Indian embassies and tourist offices, travel agents (who are in business for themselves, so their advice may not always be totally unbiased), and Indian Railways representatives abroad.
Inside India, both national and local governments run tourist information offices, providing general travel advice and handing out an array of printed material, from city maps to glossy leaflets on specific destinations. The Indian government’s tourist department, whose main offices are on Janpath in New Delhi and opposite Churchgate railway station in Mumbai, has branches in most regional capitals. These, however, operate independently of the state government information counters and their commercial bureaux run by the state tourism development corporations, usually referred to by their initials (e.g. MPTDC in Madhya Pradesh, RTDC in Rajasthan, and so on), which offer a wide range of travel facilities, including guided tours, car rental and their own hotels. A list of state tourist office websites is given in the Delhi chapter.
Just to confuse things further, the Indian government’s tourist office has a corporate wing, too. The Indian Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) is responsible for the Ashok chain of hotels and operates tour and travel services, frequently competing with its state counterparts.
There’s all sorts of information available about India online – one particularly good general site is w indiamike.com, which features lively chat rooms, bulletin boards, photo archives and banks of members’ travel articles.
India tourism offices overseas
Australia Glasshouse Shopping Complex, 135 King St, Sydney NSW 2000 t 02 9555, e [email protected].
Canada 60 Bloor St (West), Suite 1003, Toronto, ON M4W 3B8 t 1 416 962 3787 or t 1 416 962 3788, e [email protected].
South Africa PO Box 412542, Craighall 2024, Hyde Lane, Lancaster Gate, Johannesburg 2000 t 011 325 0880, e [email protected].
UK 7 Cork St, London W1S 3LH t 020 7437 3677, e [email protected].
US 1270 Ave of Americas, Suite 1808 (18th floor), New York, NY 10020 t 1 212 586 4901, e [email protected]; 3550 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 204, Los Angeles, CA 90010-2485 t 1 213 380 8855, e [email protected].
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs w smartraveller.gov.au.
British Foreign & Commonwealth Office w fco.gov.uk.
Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs w voyage.gc.ca.
Irish Department of Foreign Affairs w foreignaffairs.gov.ie.
New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs w safetravel.govt.nz.
South African Department of Foreign Affairs w dfa.gov.za.
US State Department w travel.state.gov.
Travellers with disabilities
Disability is common in India; many conditions that would be curable in the West, such as cataracts, are permanent disabilities here because people can’t afford the treatment. Those with disabilities are unlikely to receive the best treatment available, and the choice is usually between staying at home to be looked after by your family and going out on the street to beg for alms.
For travellers with a disability, this has its advantages and disadvantages: disability doesn’t get the same embarrassed reaction from Indian people that it does from some able-bodied Westerners. On the other hand, you’ll be lucky to see a state-of-the-art wheelchair or a disabled loo, and the streets are full of all sorts of obstacles that would be hard for a blind or wheelchair-bound tourist to negotiate independently. Kerbs are often high, pavements uneven and littered, and ramps non-existent. There are potholes all over the place and open sewers. Some of the more expensive hotels have ramps for the movement of luggage and equipment, but if that makes them accessible to wheelchairs, it is by accident rather than design. Nonetheless, the 1995 Persons with Disabilities Act specifies access for all to public buildings, and is sometimes enforced. A visit to Delhi by the wheelchair-bound astro-physicist Stephen Hawking resulted in the appearance of ramps at several Delhi tourist sights including the Red Fort, Qutub Minar and Jantar Mantar. Following a 1997 court case, most major Indian airports have also been made a lot more accessible for chair users.
If you walk with difficulty, you will find India’s many street obstacles and steep stairs hard going. Another factor that can be a problem is the constant barrage of people proffering things (hard to wave aside if you are, for instance, on crutches), and all that queueing, not to mention heat, will take it out of you if you have a condition that makes you tire quickly. A light, folding camp-stool is one thing that could be invaluable if you have limited walking or standing power.
Then again, Indian people are likely to be very helpful if, for example, you need their help getting on and off buses or up stairs. Taxis and rickshaws are easily affordable and very adaptable; if you rent one for a day, the driver is certain to help you on and off, and perhaps even around the sites you visit. If you employ a guide, they may also be prepared to help you with steps and obstacles.
If complete independence is out of the question, going with an able-bodied companion might be on the cards. Some package tour operators try to cater for travellers with disabilities – Bales and Somak among them – but you should always contact any operator and discuss your exact needs with them before making a booking. You should also make sure you are covered by any insurance policy you take out.
For more information about disability issues in India, check the Disability India Network website at w disabilityindia.org.