Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Koi baat nahi: Travel Advice for India

کوئی بات نہیں  (Koi baat nahi) is a common phrase among both Hindi and Urdu speakers with a variety of meanings depending on the context. In this post, its meaning as "no problem" or "it's fine" will be used to calm the fears of all my loved ones who are worried about me going to India. It's meaning as "you're welcome", generally used in response to a "thank you", will be relevant in that I am sharing the advice I have gained through experience and found on other blogs - and I am thankful for the lessons I have learned and hope that this post can be of help to other travelers. Because after all, travel is the best education of all, and the world the best classroom, and experience the best teacher. Prophet Mohammed would have agreed with me.

Some of the reactions I have been dealing with most frequently from my loved ones in anticipation of my trip to India are worry and fear for my safety (mainly because after the program I want to travel around a bit for two weeks, potentially on my own). Yes, I am not going to lie, India can be extremely dangerous for a young woman (especially one with an adventurous and trusting spirit like me) - but I also recognize that every place has its dangers and the key is to use common sense. In short, I WILL BE FINE. Lots of travelers have visited India before me, in a less structured and secure context (the State Department makes sure you stay safe!) and made it home with amazing memories and no horror stories.

I have learned some tough lessons during my 21 years of international travel, and when I am on a trip, I am especially conscious of what I'm wearing/drinking/eating/doing and how that might impact my safety. (And I've learned to be just as careful in my home countries as well!) Nonetheless, there are certain lessons I have learned, both from experience and from scrounging through countless blogs of women traveling solo in India and elsewhere in the world, that I would like to put together in one convenient blog post. 

1.  Beware of darkness and loneliness

If local women don’t go out at night, it’s usually because they know it’s much smarter to stay at home - and even if they do, think how you're actions may be interpreted differently because of who you are (aka an exotic foreigner). I learned in Jordan that Western women are often assumed to be more loose and to not have the same morals as local women – so creepy guys will be quicker to assume that “you’re asking for it” and will have an easier time to get away with things at night. So I am going to take the opportunity to bond with my host family most evenings, and only hang out in the evenings with people I truly trust, in places I feel I can trust.

When I'm in an unfamiliar place I've also learned the value of an escort, especially at night, even if it's just a group of other tourists. Ideally you will mostly be surrounded by a group of good friends. Make sure you can always be heard, by people who you know would rush to your aid. So in India, I will be aware of who is around me, and the first thing I will do is to forge the friendships I need to feel safe and to make my host family and family back home feel less worried. Also, these close friendships will make my experience in India so much richer, as it did in Ecuador and Jordan!

On another point, use your host family to help determine whom you can trust. They are personally invested in keeping you safe since you are their temporary daughter and they know a lot more about the local culture and community than you do.

2.  Respect the local culture

Wear short shorts and tank tops at home? I plan to leave those items at home (or in my suitcase, since I will technically be without a home this summer - more on that in my forthcoming packing for India post) and take the opportunity to go SHOPPING and buy some beautiful local clothes. Also don’t just imitate local dress, but also local body language. I have learned to be aware that personal space is approached differently in different cultures and to always be conscious of the space between you and those of the culture you are unfamiliar with, especially those of opposite gender. I’ve heard that women in India look slightly above eye level and past the shoulder to avoid eye contact, so that creepy men won’t think they are “interested”. And they are really good at frowning and saying no, based on my watching of bollywood movies. I plan to channel those feisty bollywood heroines if any man in India tries something with me.

But I’ve also learned that sometimes the best (and sometimes hardest) thing to do is just to ignore stares and catcalls. The guys who do that do so to get your attention – don’t give them what they want!  Once it gets to groping then bring out that feisty bollywood bride, but for the purely verbal sexual harassment, be an ice queen (cue Let it go). Usually the staring and catcalls are a part of the culture, and not something you alone can easily change – and it’s not up to you as an outsider to try and change it either.

3. Think before you eat (or drink for that matter)

Thank god for modern medicine! My culinary ventures into the street food of Ecuador would have quickly turned unpleasant if it wasn’t for my handy Imodium pills. Pepto-Bismol and antacids will also help an upset stomach, and acidophilus supplements will help toughen up your stomach. But the best medicine? Common sense! Think about how each ingredient in each food you are handed has been handled (and by whom) before it came to you. In a place like India, from which we have the term Delhi Belly (you do not want to know what that is first-hand, but you can probably imagine), you have to be careful as a North American or European as there are types of bacteria your body is not used to. Everyone has told me it is inevitable that I will get sick in India in the beginning, while my body adjusts to a new sanitary reality, but I’ve read accounts of people who have avoided the dreaded Delhi Belly. I plan to fight it as best as I can, but I still want to enjoy the amazing Nawabi cuisine that Lucknow is famous for. A combination of modern medicine and common sense will allow me to do that. 

Also, in regards to what you drink, I've felt more at risk in any situation when I've had alcohol. This is partly why I chose to completely quit alcohol a year and a half ago. I will have a sip of champagne on New Years, at graduation, or on my birthday, but otherwise I prefer to abstain - my head is clearer and my body healthier so I can better take use of common sense and fight foreign bacteria. While you're abroad, think twice before you imbibe some intoxicating substance.

However, the most likely thing that will get you into an Indian hospital is DEHYDRATION. I plan to constantly be glued to a bottle of water (never tap water - I've heard the TATA brand of bottled water can be trusted) and wear 50 SPF sunscreen every day. A friend of mine also suggested carrying a round a wet handcloth to wipe off the sweat and cool your face and forehead from time to time.

This is has been Lucknow's weather forecast for the past few weeks, and it willprobably be like this or hotter for the next few weeks (for those who go by Celsius that is way above 40 degrees!):

Two vaccinations you should get for India because of food and water dangers:
·      Hepatitis A (given in 2 doses, 6 months apart)
·      Typhoid (get it at least two weeks before you travel)

List of products I plan to bring to India for my health and sanitation:
Basic first aid kit
Anti-malaria pills (get a prescription from your local doctor)
Antacid tablets
Acidophilus supplement
Tissue packets
Moist towlettes
Hand sanitizers (I like to get the small scented ones from Bath & Bodyworks)
Mosquito repellent with DEET

Here is a little blog roll of good advice I’ve read about staying safe in India:

Let me stress, that despite all these dangers, I COULDN’T BE MORE EXCITED TO BE GOING TO INDIA! IT IS A DREAM COME TRUE! This post is more to assuage fears of my family and friends and remind myself of all the things I need to be aware of when traveling – but I’m so excited for the new lessons I’ll learn in India, both tough and fun, that I will be sharing with you on this blog.


1 comment:

  1. Have an amazing trip! You are going to have to an incredible time. Also, thank you very much for posting a link to my blog post. I'm so glad my advice has helped you along the way. You must share your journey with us all as soon as you can. :)