Stay safe in India
As a rule, India is quite safe for foreigners, apart from cases of petty crime and theft, which occur in any developing country, as long as certain basic precautions are observed (e.g. female travellers should avoid travelling alone at night). You can check with your embassy or seek local advice before travelling to Jammu and Kashmir in the far north of India and to north-east India (Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh). There have been serious law and order problems in these areas for a long time, although the situation has improved greatly recently. The same applies when travelling to the formerly densely forested area in east-central India, which includes the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, the eastern edge of Maharashtra and the northern tip of Andhra Pradesh. However, the problem exists only in the remote areas of these states and normal visiting areas in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra or Andhra Pradesh are completely safe.
Unfortunately, thefts are quite common in places frequented by tourists, but violent thefts hardly ever occur. It is more likely that a thief will steal your bag or break into your room. Therefore, it is better to take precautions and lock the door tightly when you are inside and be on your guard when you are outside.
Some people handling your cash will try to rip you off or rip you off. Especially in Delhi, this is a universal rule followed by everyone handling Western cash. This does not apply to official ticket sellers at tourist spots, clerks at prepaid taxi stands or hawkers in all but the most upmarket shops. Count your cash before handing it over and insist on getting the correct change.
It is advisable or better to agree on the fare before you get into a car or taxi. This avoids further unpleasant arguments about the fare. If you can ask the advice of a local friend or a staff member at the reception of your hotel to find out how much a ride between two destinations should cost, you are a smart traveller.
Visitors from overseas, especially women, attract the attention of beggars, scammers and touts. Beggars often go so far as to touch you and follow you, tugging at your sleeve. It is of little use to get angry or say “no” loudly. The best reaction is to look unconcerned and ignore the behaviour. The more attention you pay to a beggar or touts – positive or negative – the longer they will follow you in the hope of a donation. Female travellers are advised not to stay out too long wandering around on their own, and also to be a little sensitive about how they dress in public. There have been some recent rapes of foreign women as well as very publicised rapes of Indian women, some of whom have been murdered.
Travellers should not trust strangers offering help or services. Be especially careful at tourist attractions such as the temples of Kanchipuram, where they take advantage of those who are unfamiliar with local and religious customs. If a priest or guide offers to invite you to a religious ceremony, find out beforehand what it will cost you, and don’t be pressured into “donating” thousands of rupees – just walk away if you feel uncomfortable. Don’t get too paranoid, though: fellow travellers on the train or Indian families who want to photograph you with their own cameras, for example, are often just genuinely curious.
When travelling on public transport (trains, buses), do not accept food or drinks from local fellow passengers, even if they are very friendly or polite. There have been cases where very friendly fellow passengers offered food or drinks, including tea or coffee, containing substances that put the victim to sleep, while all their possessions, including their clothes, were stolen.
Homosexual sex is illegal in India, with a theoretical maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. However, the law is hardly enforced and past prosecutions are no longer in the public memory. There is a vibrant gay nightlife in the big cities and some (but very few) openly gay celebrities. On the other hand, the law has been used as a tool by the police to harass gays cruising the streets. By the way, you will often see Indian men walking hand in hand through the streets. But that is a sign of friendship, not to be confused with a sign of homosexuality.
While Indian men can be really eager to talk to travellers, women in India often avoid contact with men. It is an unfortunate fact that if you as a man approach a woman in India even for an innocuous purpose like asking for directions, you usually put her on the defensive, especially the traditionally dressed ones. It is better to ask a man if one is available (this is usually the case), or to be extra respectful when asking a woman.
Black people can face prejudice from the police and the public if they are found to be drug dealers. This is not always necessary, but the reactions stem from the fact that in India, foreign-born drug dealers are more often than not found to be of Nigerian nationality. Since Indians find it difficult to distinguish between Nigerians and other Africans or African-Americans, this behaviour relates to the whole race and not just to a particular country. Apart from this, this behaviour is still considered publicly unacceptable when Indians are confronted with Indians themselves. It is therefore advisable to keep passports handy at all times, avoid going to areas notorious for illegal activities, and keep in touch with the respective embassies and, if possible, other self-help groups that can vouch for them.
Driving in India
Driving in India is generally considered a dangerous endeavour. Irresponsible driving habits, inadequate development of highway infrastructure, errant cattle and other hazards make travelling on the country’s roads a sometimes nerve-wracking endeavour.
More than 118,000 people died on Indian roads in 2008, the highest number in the world, despite the fact that there are only 12 cars per 1,000 inhabitants (compared to 765 in a more developed country like the United States). A first encounter with a typical Indian highway will undoubtedly feature a traffic mix of lumbering trucks, speeding maniacs, gleefully wandering cows and suicidal pedestrians, all meandering along a narrow strip of asphalt littered with potholes. To minimise the risk of becoming a victim of the statistics, use trains instead of buses, government buses instead of private ones (which tend to force their drivers to work inhumane shifts), taxis instead of auto-rickshaws, avoid travelling at night and don’t hesitate to change taxis or cars if you feel your driver is unsafe.
Of particular concern is that much of the road network is significantly underdeveloped. Most roads are very poorly constructed and they are full of debris, large cracks and potholes. Most road signs in the country are not very reliable and in most cases give drivers very confusing or inaccurate information. If you have any doubts, ask the locals, they are usually very helpful and willing to give information on how to get to a particular place. Of course, the quality of information and willingness to provide it varies, especially in the bigger cities.
Female travelers in India
India is rather a conservative country and some western habits can be perceived as dishonourable for a woman. But India is coming out of its conservative image quite quickly, especially in the big cities.
- Outside the larger cities, it is unusual for people of the opposite sex to touch each other in public. Even couples (married or not) refrain from public displays of affection. Therefore, it is advisable not to shake hands with a person of the opposite sex unless the other person extends their hand first. A Hindu greeting consists of bringing the palms together in front of the chest, or simply saying Namaste or Namaskar. Both forms are equally polite and correct, if a little formal. Almost all people (even if they don’t know English) understand a “Hi” or a “Hello”. In most parts of northern India and in cities, it is perfectly acceptable to offer a “hello” or “good day” followed by a handshake, regardless of gender.
- Outside of trendy venues or high society, women generally do not smoke. In some rural or tribal areas, women do smoke, but discreetly.
- Places like discos/dance clubs are less conservative areas. It is good to leave your things at a hotel and go there to have a drink and a chat. Only take as much change as you think you will need, because if you lose your wallet or passport you will lose a lot of time trying to get any kind of help.
- People are usually modestly dressed at the beaches as well. So be sure to find out the appropriate attire for the beach you are visiting. In rare places like Goa, where beachgoers are mostly foreigners, it is allowed to wear bikinis on the beach, but it is still offensive to walk around in a bikini on the street. There are a few beaches where women (mostly foreigners) sunbathe topless, but make sure it is safe and accepted before doing so.
- It is not so safe to move around in remote places if you are a female solo traveller. Sexual offences against tourists occur in some tourist places. Never go out on the streets at night wearing clothes such as tight shorts, miniskirts, sports bras, tank tops or other clothes that show a lot of skin, or take a taxi or a car rickshaw. If possible, stay in areas that other tourists avoid.
- On local trains, there are usually carriages reserved for women only and marked as such at the front. On Delhi Metro trains, it is the first compartment.
- In most buses (private and public), a few seats are reserved for women at the front or one side of the bus. Usually these seats are occupied by men, and very often they vacate the seat if a woman is standing nearby and expresses her intention to sit there. In many parts of the country, women will not share a seat with a man other than their spouse. If you sit near a man, he may get up and give you his seat; this is a sign of respect, NOT rudeness.
- Street parties on holidays are usually filled with crowds of drunk men. At celebrations like Holi, New Year’s Eve and even Christmas Eve, women can be groped and sexually aggressively approached by these crowds. At such times, just shout or make a scene by pointing your finger at the person. People will come to your rescue. It is less advisable for women to attend these festivities alone.
- Friendly conversations with men you meet on the train are sometimes mistaken by them for flirting. In some scenarios, this can lead to unexpected sexual advances; this happens with Indian women as well as Westerners. However, making friends with Indian women can be a wonderful experience for female travellers, even though you may have to initiate the conversation first. A simple topic to get things going is to talk about clothes and food.
- It is not disrespectful for a woman to tell a man who wants to talk to her that she does not want to talk – so if a man’s behaviour makes you uncomfortable, say so emphatically. If he doesn’t seem to take the hint, a calm apology is a better response than a confrontation.
- Wearing traditional Indian clothing, such as salwaar kameez (comfortable) or saree (more formal and difficult to wear), often gives Western women more respect in the eyes of the locals – the idea is to present themselves as a normal person rather than a distant tourist. Simple clothing is to wear a kurta paired with regular jeans or a salwar. They are very comfortable and most women do the same.
- “Eve Teasing” is the most common term in Indian English and refers to everything from unwanted verbal advances to physical sexual assault. The easiest way to avoid this remains the same as in your home country. Anything that is overt should be dealt with firmly, and if necessary you should ask local people (especially women) to try to get the message across. Avoid confrontation if at all possible. It is not advisable to be in such an area.
- Although hospitality is important in India, it is not common for people to offer to share food or biscuits at meals. Some such offers are genuine and some are not. If you are travelling on a train and are offered food by a large and rich family-like group, you may take a bite. But if you are offered something by men or even a couple eating part of it, try to avoid it as the other part might contain sedatives (this could be so that they loot your stuff when you pass out). You can respond with politeness and say no with a smile; they won’t mind or take it personally.
- Be careful when you perform a body massage.
- Body checks (e.g. at the airport) by police/security officers of the opposite sex are not allowed in India.
- In view of the increasing sexual assaults, the Minister of Tourism has advised female tourists not to walk alone at night and not to wear miniskirts or even knee-length dresses.
Police and other emergency services in India
- Unfortunately, corruption and inefficiency are present in all Indian police forces, and the quality of the police varies depending on the officer. For emergencies, you can dial 100 for police assistance in most parts of India. Try to speak the words slowly so that the policeman/ woman on the phone has no problem understanding your foreign English accent. For non-emergency crimes, go to the police station to report them and insist on getting a receipt for your complaint.
- The emergency numbers for most of India are: Police (dial 100), Fire Brigade (dial 101) and Ambulance (102 or dial the nearest good hospital). In Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Kochi and some other cities across India, you can dial 108 for all emergencies.
Terrorism in India
The India-Pakistan conflict, which has been simmering for decades, has manifested itself in terrorist attacks on India’s major cities in recent years: Since 2007, there have been bombings in New Delhi/Delhi, Mumbai and other major cities. The targets have varied widely, but the attacks have mostly targeted locals rather than visitors. The exception was in 2008 when a rampage killed many foreigners besides Indians in posh hotels and Mumbai railway station, etc. All the terrorists involved were from Pakistan and were killed in the act except one who was captured alive and later hanged. Realistically, there is little you can do to avoid such random attacks, but keep an eye on the national news and your embassy’s travel advice.
Stay healthy in India
|Avoiding Delhi Belly|
|Four quick tips to keep your stomach happy:|
– Become a vegetarian, at least for the first week or two. Meat spoils quickly.
– Avoid raw leafy vegetables. They are difficult to clean properly.
– Avoid ice and water that has not been bottled. Both the water they contain and the way they are transported are suspect. Try to use only commercially available, sealed bottled water.
Wash your hands before eating, with soap or hand sanitizer. Otherwise, the dirt from the Indian streets will find its way onto your chapatis and into your mouth. Also, keep your nails short and clean.
When you travel to India, you have to get used to a new climate and new foods. However, taking precautions can minimise the likelihood and severity of illness. Do not overexert yourself at the beginning of your trip so that your body can acclimatise to the country. For example, take a rest day on arrival, at least on your first visit. Many travellers get sick because they want to do too much in too short a time. Be careful with spicy food if it is not part of your daily diet.
Tap water is usually not safe to drink. However, some establishments have installed water filters/ purifiers, in which case the water from them should be safe to drink. Packaged drinking water (popularly called ‘mineral water’ in India) is a better choice. Bisleri, Kinley, Aquafina, Health Plus are popular and safe brands. But if the seal has been tampered with or the bottle looks crushed, it could be tap water being sold illegally. So always make sure the seal is intact before buying. At Indian railway stations, a low-priced brand of mineral water from the Indian Railways known as “Rail Neer” is usually available.
Fruits that can be peeled, such as apples and bananas, and packaged snacks are always a safe option. Wash all fruit with non-contaminated water before eating.
No vaccinations are required to enter India, except for yellow fever if you are coming from an infected area such as Africa. However, vaccinations against hepatitis (both A and B, depending on your individual circumstances), meningitis and typhoid are recommended, as well as a booster vaccination against tetanus.
Diarrhoea is common and can have many different causes. Bring a standard first aid kit as well as additional over-the-counter medicines for diarrhoea and upset stomach. A rehydration kit can also be helpful. In case you run out of rehydration solution available in pharmacies, remember the ratio of salt, sugar and water for oral rehydration: 1 teaspoon salt, 8 teaspoons sugar, to 1 litre water. Indians have resistances to indigenous bacteria and parasites that visitors do not. If you suffer from severe diarrhoea for more than a day or two, it is best to go to a private hospital. Parasites like Giardia are a common cause of diarrhoea and may not get better without treatment.
Malaria is endemic throughout India. According to the CDC, the risk is present in all areas, including the cities of Delhi and Mumbai, and at altitudes of less than 2000 metres in Himachal Pradesh, Jammu, Kashmir and Sikkim; however, in Delhi and northern India, the risk of infection is considered low. Seek expert advice on malaria prophylaxis and take adequate precautions to avoid mosquito bites. Use a mosquito repellent when you go outdoors (especially in the evening) and also when you sleep in trains and hotels without air conditioning. A local mosquito repellent used by Indians is called Odomos and is available over the counter at most medical stores.
If you suffer from asthma, you should take enough supplies with you, as dust, pollen or pollution can cause breathing difficulties.
If you have to visit a hospital in India, avoid small government hospitals. The quality of treatment may not meet your expectation. Private hospitals offer better service. There are reports that vaccinations and blood transfusions in low-quality hospitals increase your risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, e.g. in some government hospitals, but this is not confirmed. To be on the safe side, you can go to private hospitals or clinics. Many rich Indians travel to Singapore for more serious problems, such as those requiring major surgery, and you may want to consider that as an option too.
It is very important to stay away from the many stray dogs and cats in India, as India has the highest rabies rate in the world. If you are bitten, it is extremely urgent to go to a hospital in a major urban area that is able to handle rabies. You can get treatment at any major hospital. It is very important to get a rabies vaccination after any contact with animals that involves contact with saliva or blood. The rabies vaccination is only effective if it is given completely before symptoms appear. Otherwise, the disease is almost invariably fatal.
If you venture into the forests of India, you may encounter poisonous snakes. If you are bitten, try to note the snake’s markings so that the snake can be identified and the correct antidote administered. In any case, seek medical attention immediately.
Finally, there are some travel clinics in India that you can locate through the ISTM website in major cities. Most of the vaccinations recommended by the CDC are available at many of these travel clinics in major cities. Large corporate hospital chains such as Fortis, Max, Apollo and similar facilities are the best choice for emergency medical care in larger cities, and they have better hygiene and generally well-trained doctors, many even from US and UK facilities.