INDIA AS FEMALE, FOREIGN & FAIR-HEADED
I went to India warned, scared and totally out of my comfort zone. Find out how I found the third world country, firsthand, here.
Scroll down to see India through our eyes [photos] + tips ↓
I went to India with the odds already stacked high against me.
I’m female. Heading into a testosterone-dominated country.
I’m European. I.e. a “foreigner” as made extremely obvious by my appearance and a dress code to boot.
I’m blonde. Not exactly the most common hair colour in India.
It was fair to say that I was the minority in every respect, which, in a country of 1.3 billion people, meant that I was either going to stand out like a sore thumb or quickly be overlooked.
Now that makes India (or me?) sound awfully sexist, racist, and discriminatory - but that’s exactly what I was warned to expect by those who had gone before me. So I touched down in Mumbai on high alert, my hand wrapped tightly around my handbag strap and making sure I didn't let Tom too far out of arm's reach.
However, I quickly learnt two things:
1. People always tell you the best and the worst of their travel stories; the two extremes that you will either be lucky or very unlucky to experience for yourself.
2. Times, things and places change. While India remains steeped in tradition, history and many antiquated customs, it has also been subjected to so much change, unrest, and tourism that it's a very different India now to the one that so many had experienced and told me about.
Was I stared at? You bet. I had hundreds of eyes on me at any one moment. Was I ignored? Countless times. Did I feel uncomfortable? Occasionally.
Was India the most incredible country that I've been lucky enough to explore? Without a doubt.
Summing up India in a blog post is an impossible task. It's a country that cannot be captured in words, nor can it truly be explained or understood (so best you keep scrolling so our pictures paint those words for you). I can tell you, however, that thirty days exploring India’s 3.287 million km² convinced me that the country’s tagline, “Incredible India”, is far more than just some marketer’s cliché use of alliteration. No other country pulls on as many emotions, can tug on each and every heartstring, makes you discover as much about yourself as you do about the place, or is as full of contradictions as India.
✧ India is an assault on every sense but it's a hit you'll be willing to take
India shakes all of your senses. No one can quite prepare you for the stunning and shocking things you'll see, the chaos that your eyes will struggle to keep up with, the colours that you didn't know existed or could ever be so bright. The pungent aromas that fill your lungs; from overdosing on sweet incense to the ever-present cowpats on the streets (and hopefully not your shoes). The new flavours and spices that set fire to your tastebuds, and the prayer music blasting through your window at sunrise that makes for a rude yet somehow relaxing awakening. Everything about India awakens every part of your body. It's overwhelming, close to unbearable but absolutely incredible.
✧ India is the most beautiful country but beauty is in the eye of the beholder
You can't escape the reality that India is a third world country. The streets are lined with rubbish and poverty and you're forever dodging cars, cows, beggars and stray dogs. Focus on these things and India could be a very depressing destination; look beyond it and you will find beauty in the most unexpected places. India could break your heart into a million pieces or, as long as you let it, it will make you fall head over heels.
✧ You feel like everything and nothing all at the same time
In one moment you are made to feel like royalty. People stare, children wave and chase after you in the streets, and countless strangers now have selfies with me saved in their camera rolls. Yet in the next moment, you are ignored, refused to be served and lied to that there are no seats left for you on the ferry.
✧ The cities are utter madness but there’s a method to it that you’re yet to understand
In the big cities where so many millions are trying to get on with their lives, it's bedlam. The concept of personal space doesn't exist, pushing isn't considered rude but necessary, road rules are only suggestions and pedestrian crossings are merely decorative. However, while it's mayhem on the surface, there are unwritten rules that mean there is an unseen control to the chaos. But you probably won't figure those rules out in a short trip so just roll with it and learn from the locals.
✧ Plan in advance but be prepared to completely undo those plans
You may have planned the trip but India is the one in control. Try and fight it and things will quickly turn to sh*t. My advice? As hard as it may be, go with the flow and take India as it comes. Be prepared to travel on different days and/or via different means than you expected - just try travelling on a day when there's a country-wide taxi and rickshaw strike!!! - be prepared to extend or shorten your time somewhere, to completely re-route, and to lose a few days and dollars along the way. Some of the best places we discovered, the best hotels we stayed at, and the best people we met were never part of our original plans.
India, you were a rollercoaster. Confusing, chaotic, stressful, heartbreaking, eyeopening, enriching and absolutely magical. After a month exploring such a beautiful mess of a country, I couldn't wait to get out of there. But I also can't wait to go back.
We'll be seeing ya, India.
↓ travels + tips below ↓
click for photos & recommendations in each destination
from one traveller to another
- Put getting a sim card at the top of your to-do list. It always helps to to be able to call the hotel when you've missed your flight (I speak from experience), to put up that 'gram (and trust me, you will have many Instagram-worthy snaps) and most WiFi zones will require an Indian mobile number for you to connect up. Also save yourself the time and hassle and go straight to an official Vodafone store. There are hundreds of street vendors but it's a gamble whether they work (our one and only experience of a 'scam').
- Carry with you: A few passport photos in your wallet (You'll need these to get a sim card) and some rupees at all times (using the bathroom in public places often comes at a small cost).
- Until you get used to the roads in big cities, stay hot on the heels of a local. Crossing roads in India can be terrifying so follow the people who already know how to navigate the chaos.
- Ask taxis to turn on the meter. It's obvious that you're not from around those ways or know how much the journey really should cost.
- Go to popular tourist attractions first thing in the morning or as late as possible, and if you can, avoid weekends. It will let you beat the crowds and the heat of the day.
- Avoid going at peak season. I don't think we could have chosen a better time of year - March was still warm but there were very few tourists so it was easy to negotiate great deals on hotel rooms. Although perhaps tick off the South first before the temperatures get too high.
- Lighten your suitcase by losing the high heels and those more skin-showing garments. You'll feel most comfortable wearing flats and clothes that cover (but make sure they're light and flowy; you don't want to be head to toe in heavy fabrics in 38 degrees).
- Listen to recommendations from other travellers you meet along the way and be prepared to follow them instead of your original itinerary. Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor will take you along the beaten track but won't lead you to those hidden gems.
- Don’t be afraid to say no – and that’s coming from a “yes” girl. Too many people will ask for your custom, spare change, food etc.
- Smile. In a country where different languages, customs and currencies can get in the way, a smile can go a long way.
- Make peace with India, don't try and fight it.