This post is a little different from what I normally write, but I’ve had several women who are traveling to India in the near future, some friends and some strangers, ask for my input on what to pack, how to pack, and generally what to expect as a woman traveling in this amazing country. (And yes, I will even explain the proper technique for using a squat toilet – an important skill for any traveler in a third-world country.)
Several heinous crimes against women in India have been in the news lately, and it saddens me that media hype takes over and jades the rest of the world, dimming the lines between extreme situations and reality. I thoroughly detailed my experiences in India in previous posts, and I must admit, I had a most amazing time. However, I was not traveling alone; my husband was always by my side . . . ALWAYS . . . and we had a native guide with us almost 100% of the time we stepped outside of our hotels. I’m sure my experience would have been different had I been traveling solo.
So, here are my suggestions to all you adventurous traveling kindred spirits.
•Sleeveless tops and bottoms that show any leg above the knee should be avoided. Wear long skirts, dresses, or pants that fall below the knee, preferably to the ankle.
•Bottoms: Invest in some light-weight, durable, easy to wash, and quick-dry travel pants. I highly recommend The North Face Horizon Tempest pants ($60 at REI.)
•Tops: Make sure they have sleeves and do not show cleavage. Moisture wicking tops–think tech Ts you get at races or running shirts–work well.
•Undergarments: I recommend moisture wicking garments. Champion sport bras are great as are Patagonia undies ($20 at REI.) They wash easily and dry quickly for repeated use.
•Footwear: Everyone in India wears sandals, unless they are going barefoot. Invest in a comfortable, breathable, durable pair that will dry quickly when wet and that have some type of odor control. No matter what you do, plan on your feet reeking by the end of the day. Avoid sandals that have a lot of cloth components as they will take longer to dry. (Tevas and Keens are both great brands.) It is customary to remove your shoes before entering someone’s home, a church, store, school, etc. However, most people are not too offended if guests/foreigners do not participate in this tradition.
•If you are warm blooded and don’t like being cold, bring a light-weight jacket, hoodie, or sweater for indoors. Air conditioning, when available, can be really chilly.
•Bring a bandana or scarf that can be used as a head covering in case you visit a mosque, Sikh temple, or other religious site. Having your own is far better than fishing a nasty, possibly never laundered head covering out of a community bin. Lice, anyone?
Bathing and Hygiene
•Indian women mostly wear their hair pulled back or braided, but not in ponytails. If you are in more primitive hotels, don’t plan on having a Western style shower. More than likely, the bathroom will contain a spigot about thigh-high with a big bucket underneath from which you can wash. Be ready to forgo washing and conditioning your hair every day, and just pull it back instead.
•Bring your own soap, hand sanitizer, and a roll of toilet paper for each person in your group. A travel-sized pack of wipes is a good idea, too, for wiping off toilet seats or other things.
•Use bottled water when brushing your teeth. Don’t ever drink tap or well water. Always use bottled water; you can get a 1-liter bottle for less than $1. We even used bottle water in the 5-star hotels.
•Use hand sanitizer before every meal and after using the bathroom.
•If you will be off the beaten path, be sure to pack you own bed sheet and pillow case.
•Burping out loud in public is socially acceptable.
•If you eat with your fingers, as many natives do, try to use only your right hand. Traditionally, the left hand is reserved for other sanitary purposes.
•If you are a guest for dinner, you will be served many dishes, one after another. Try to at least sample a little bit of each dish so as not to insult the host.
•If you have Celiac disease, India is probably not a place you want to travel to. Their diet seems to consist of 80% grains/rice and 20% everything else.
•When riding in a car, if seat belts are available, use them! Though traffic accidents are much less frequent than in the US, the sudden starts and stops can toss you around inside.
Using a Squat Toilet
•Strong quads and a good sense of balance as well as proper foot placement are vital.
•Skirts and dresses are easier than when wearing pants.
•Get your toilet paper ready first. Practice holding it under your chin so that both hands are free.
•Place your feet a little farther than shoulder width apart over the hole. A stance that is too narrow is going to strain your leg muscles and is much harder to balance on.
•Hike up your skirt/dress or scrunch your pants down to your ankles, taking care not to let any of the fabric touch the ground. This is not as easy as it seems. Keep in mind, if you are using a squat toilet, the ground around it is probably just little germ and disease infested. You don’t want your clothing touching it.
•Squat as low as you can. Your bottom should be just a few inches off the ground. This will offer the most stability and be easiest on your leg muscles. Doing a “chair sit” kind of squat–not squatting low enough–is going to leave your legs shaking. A low squat also ensures that no urine will find its way down your leg or onto your clothing.
•Do the deed, wipe (with your left hand–remember, the right is for eating), and “flush.” To flush, there is usually a bucket of water near a spigot with a smaller hand-held bucket nearby. Fill the hand-held bucket with water and pour, as forcefully as you can, into the drain. You may have to do this a few times to make sure everything flushed all the way down.
•Because flushing can be a challenge, try to use as little toilet paper as possible. If at all possible, feminine hygiene products should be placed in the trash, if there is a trash can.
Traveling in Varanasi
•First of all, if you don’t have to visit the city, don’t. Seriously. Don’t.
•If you do visit, wear capris and sandals that can easily be washed. Long bottoms will get in the way and could end up dragging on the ground which is littered with not just garbage but also cow dung and piles of human feces. You never know if you’re stepping in a puddle of rainwater, water from the Ganges or cow urine. Whatever it is, it’s gross.
•It’s not worth the risk of some nasty foot/skin infection to visit a temple if you have to take your shoes off to go inside.
•Use lots of hand sanitizer after you touch anything. ANYTHING!
•At your hotel room, take your shoes off immediately at the door and wear socks or slippers in your room. We actually did this in all our hotel rooms.
•Finally, save your money and time and visit somewhere else.
I hope this is helpful.