A Girl’s Guide to India

If it is possible to be passionately in love with a country, yet hate it at the same time, then I have that relationship with India.

From the grimy streets and incessant calls in Paharganj, Delhi’s backpacker central, to memorable nights under the stars in the desert near Jaisalmer, I couldn’t garner my thoughts into a collective emotion from one minute to the next during my trip around India. Spending ten hot hours cramped in a train carriage, three people to a single seat, sipping on unspeakably delicious chai tea I found India both tough and rewarding in the same breath.

And from time to time the experience can seem even more perplexing for girls (we are talking about a country where the metro offers a separate carriage for women), but India also has the potential to offer its female visitors even richer rewards (imprinted with henna and swathed in sari silks it’s impossible not to feel like a princess).

Whether India offers you challenges or amazement on any given day, one thing holds true: India is a country that must be experienced first-hand. If you’re a female traveler looking to add this destination to your itinerary, here´s a girl´s guide to India.

Keeping covered

Perhaps one of the most vital concepts to grasp about India is the importance of dressing respectfully.  Regardless of your personal opinion on a woman’s right to wear what she wants, the reality is that clothing is much more conservative in India than it is in the likes of Europe, America, Australia, and other countries that are more liberal in the amount of material required to constitute decency. When we travel, it is our responsibility to adapt to a country’s local customs, yet time and again in India I witnessed tiny denim short clad girls cooling down in stringy vest tops as they sauntered through the streets, scowling and frowning at the men (and women) who met them with long, inquisitive stares. The reality is that Indian women cover most of their bodies, and if you reveal more than is locally customary, you will receive attention that is likely going to be unwanted.

Whether India offers you challenges or amazement on any given day, one thing holds true: India is a country that must be experienced first-hand.

That’s not to say you have to go completely native, packing only saris (though the colours and materials are beautiful enough to make you want to at least consider it), but covering your knees, shoulders, and chest is recommended whenever you’re out in public.

Yes, the idea of wearing long trousers or a skirt and a long sleeved top in the sweat soaking heat sounds unbearable, but there are some benefits, including not having to continually reapply SPF 50 and keeping the mosquitos at bay. If even your lightest clothes at home feel too heavy, consider buying some items in India. I picked up a super thin pair of trousers for a mere $2. They are light, dry quick, and a firm travel favorite.

Taking the trains

The train system is definitely one of those things on my love and hate list in India.  The network is extensive, the views impressive, the prices cheap, and the ability to sleep your way to most destinations is literally a dream. However, it’s not always straightforward, especially when it comes to buying tickets.

Train is one of the main forms of transport in India, and tickets sell out weeks and even months in advance on popular routes. For the unprepared backpacker with loose travel plans and an instinct for impulse, this can present a problem as last minute jaunts can be near impossible to put into effect. The best advice is to book train tickets as soon as you can, and even if you don’t know your exact itinerary, book anyway as unused tickets are usually refundable if you follow the process properly.

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Before you hand over cash or buy online, it is worth spending time getting to know the booking system, as it is possible to buy a seat or bed when space on the train doesn’t actually exist. Such tickets are known as waitlist or WL tickets, which mean that the number of people in front of you on the waitlist would need to cancel before your seat or bed is confirmed. Given that waitlists can run to several hundred people on the list, this can be an exercise in impossibility, and even with a low number WL ticket e.g. WL3, it is clearly no guarantee that you will be given a confirmed ticket.

In short, if you don’t want to get stuck, get booking.

When you do book, try and secure a sleeper ticket with the top bunk. Another traveler gave me this tip before I got to India, and I was eternally grateful as the bottom bed becomes communal sitting space during the day and the middle bed is folded away to let that happen. By taking the top bed you can keep your own space while still having the chance to socialise with your fellow travelers.

The other cheap option is taking a seat instead of a bunk, and this can pay off for shorter journeys, but again it is best to book a spot. After missing my train (take note there are two train stations in Delhi), I was left with no choice but to take an unreserved class ticket on the next train. At first, I was elated at the miniscule cost, but I quickly realized that I hadn’t made such a great deal when I tried to board the train, complete with backpack, only to realize I was in a scrum so ferocious I wondered if we were scrabbling for the last place in paradise. Once on board, I shared a six hour journey with forty or more men, legs dangling from luggage racks staring at the curious non-local girl while I shared a single seat with three other boys.

“You shouldn’t have to travel like this.” It was advice imparted by one of my fellow seat shares (who had his brother on his lap). While I became firm friends with the brother during those hot and unbearable, bottom numbing, back breaking hours, I couldn’t agree more with his advice.

As for the metro in Delhi, there are mixed as well as women only carriages. I used both without problem, but enjoyed the latter if only to observe the chatter, laughter, and camaraderie that these female only spaces seemed to encourage.

For more information on the Indian train system, I found this site excellent: http://www.seat61.com/India.htm

Being beautiful

After spending a night on a sleeper train or working your way through the city streets, you’ll quickly come to notice that there’s a lot of dirt in India, where even the cows can be brutal (one pushed past me in a narrow alley and brushed its diarrhoea cursed backside across my bag – an all-time low point on my trip that prompted an urgent need to buy a new bag). All of that said, it is paradoxically easy to beautify yourself in India.

As the birthplace of Ayurvedic treatments, it is possible to indulge in the benefits that this form of traditional medicine promotes. From a head massage with oils to a relaxing hour or two of pampering, you can float into a body balancing state of bliss for a smidgen of the cost you’d pay for the same service elsewhere, and that is not the only beauty enhancing service on offer.

And then there are the saris. I spent hours fondling the fine materials, adorned with sparkly, glittery, shimmery detail in the silk and sari stores.

The dark haired ladies of India have gained considerable expertise in removing unwanted hair. Their methods may be unconventional – I specifically recall having a leg wax in the back room of a second hand book store where the wax was removed with strips of denim – but highly effective. Threading is another tradition that gives an impressive shape to eyebrows that no waxing or plucking can begin to compete with.  I’m personally too much of a wimp to undergo the treatment again, comparing the pain to getting attacked by a blunt hacksaw, but many girls swear by it, and the outcome is incomparable.

And then there are the saris. I spent hours fondling the fine materials, adorned with sparkly, glittery, shimmery detail in the silk and sari stores. Meter after meter of material draped over, tucked and twisted to dress you in the style that makes you feel like a princess. I’d recommend trying a sari at least once…and it would be a shame not to get some henna art to complement your new look!

Bathrooms business

Before I traveled, bathroom business was never discussed in my social circle, but the more I move around the world, the more I realize that this subject is firmly on the backpacker acceptable conversation list, and although toilet stories come up perhaps a little more often than I would like, the fact is that the bathrooms in India need to be talked about if for no reason other than to prepare those uninitiated in the country’s toilet situation.

The facilities you are likely to use the most will be those at your hotel, and if budget is your most important factor when picking a room, be prepared for the fact that the toilet will be a squat, a hole in the floor, rather than the western kind you’re familiar with at home.

If you’re prepared to spend a little more, budget hotels with western toilets are fairly easy to come by, but that still doesn’t make the experience quite the same. Not only do cheaper hotels rarely supply toilet paper, meaning that you will have to buy it from the many street stalls (or take a few extra napkins at every mealtime), the Indian sewer system can’t handle toilet paper. Usually that is a simple matter to overcome as you simply deposit the used paper in the bin, but you will rarely find a bin in your bathroom as Indian custom doesn’t involve using toilet paper. The best advice is to keep a stash of plastic bags for disposal purposes.

If all of this seems like too much effort, you can do as the locals and ditch the tissue paper in favour of a bar of soap, you’re left hand and the small tap next to the toilet in the bathroom. Personal choice will prevail.

Toilets aren’t the only bathroom issues, as budget rooms rarely come with a shower. Instead, you’ll find a tap, a bucket, and a jug supplied. A bucket bath can be a fun alternative to a shower (even if that first throw of cold water on yourself can make you scream first thing in the morning).  Simply fill the larger bucket with water and use the smaller jug to douse yourself with the clean water. If you have long, thick hair that requires a bit more attention, you may want to invest in the occasional room upgrade to be able to wash and rinse your hair in a shower, but a bucket bath can usually manage the job.

Stomach stamina

I recall in unpleasant detail being sick for around three weeks during my trip in India, which came as a surpris, as I’d been traveling for over a year and thought my stomach had become so strong I could have licked a rupee note and still been unaffected. I was wrong.

In a country where humans and animals (cow’s, dogs, goats, and flies) vie for space, it’s not difficult to understand the roots of Delhi belly. I walked out of the hotel restaurant in one town because of the carpet of flies at the entrance only to find the same problem on the table in another place, and swarming out of the kitchen in another. Unless you are going to dine in restaurants hermetically sealed off from real India, even assuming you can find them in every town you visit, you should anticipate getting sick at least once.

Of course, there are some precautions you can take to reduce the risk. I won’t suggest avoiding the street food, that was one of the true delights of India for me, but keeping your own hands clean with sanitizer gel might keep some bacteria at bay.  It is best used after you handle money and before you eat, especially given most meals will be eaten with your hands rather than cutlery.

In the likely event that your stomach does get angry with you, the best thing you can do is to seek treatment. Many people endure diarrhoea in the hope it will pass (figuratively and literally), but this puts you at risk of dehydration, which can be even more dangerous, particularly in the heat of India. You’re unlikely to be far from a pharmacy in most places, and if your problems persist for more than a day or two, consult with the pharmacist, who will be able to help – remember, you won’t be the first or last person to suffer stomach issues at the hands of this country.

If you do get sick, give your stomach a break for a few days and try packaged foods (crackers and Coke worked for me), where you can be confident of the conditions they were made in. With quick and effective treatment you’ll be back to samosa eating health in no time.

Cleaning your clothes

If you’ve traveled to other parts of the world, you’ll be accustomed to handing over your clothes, paying a very reasonable price by the kilo, and getting them back smelling fresh and clean within 24 hours. The system is somewhat different in India, starting with the fact that clothes are generally washed by hand. This means that laundry is charged per item (wouldn’t you apply that principle for such manually intense work?) and can get costly quite quickly. It also means that your clothes rarely come back with that fresh laundered feel. On the contrary, the soap in India seems to have a special way of clinging to your clothes making them feel more slick than squeaky clean.

After a few less than satisfactory attempts, I did what most travelers do – bought a scrubbing brush (the grime from the streets loves applying itself to your clothes) and set to work on my own washing. It didn’t come back any cleaner than when I gave it to my hotel, and it was my labor, but it certainly saved me money.

Seeking spirituality

It would be fair to say that India is the epicentre of spirituality, and each year many people travel to this part of Asia in search of themselves, the meaning of life, a higher being, or some other form of spiritual experience. Whether they manage to find what they are looking for is an individual matter, and the level of spiritual immersion you seek during your visit will also differ from person to person, but one fact remains – there is an abundance of opportunities to indulge in spiritual activities in India.

I spent 10 long days fulfilling a personal goal of a meditation retreat…It turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I did during my entire trip.

I spent 10 long days fulfilling a personal goal of a meditation retreat, which was more challenging than most other things in my life, and my family and friends still barely believe that I managed to remain silent for that length of time. It turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I did during my entire trip. Whether you undertake a yoga courses, master meditation, enjoy a stay in an Ashram, learn the ways of Buddha, take a pilgrimage, or simply stare at your navel on a beach in Goa, there is something about simply being in India that brings out the spiritual side in even the most hardened scientific mind.

Beauty, adventure, relaxation, and spiritual awakening are all on India’s itinerary. Whether you come to love or hate the country or both, the key to India’s enjoyment is to relax and simply go with the flow.

To learn more about India, check out the following articles and resources:

Photo credits:  mckaysavage, mckaysavage, Marian, irumge, Sistakvolitarian, lisadragon

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