6 Ways to Stay Safe When Traveling in India

Dispatches from the Road, Health & Safety, India — By on February 24, 2011 at 6:00 am

Traveling in India is an exciting adventure, but it comes with a host of safety concerns – like being crowded by beggars, followed by salespeople, and scammed by cab drivers. You’ll be easily identified as a foreigner, which makes you all the more vulnerable to scams, thieves, and dishonest people. Here are some considerations to make your trip safer and enjoyable:

Disclaimer: Because India is so diverse it’s difficult to make generalizations. This advice specifically applies to Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), but it’s good to keep in mind as you travel through India.

1. Traffic. There seems to be only one rule for traffic in India: there are no rules, or at least not the kind of rules at home. Cars will drive on the wrong side of the road, the wrong direction on the highway, on sidewalks, and anywhere else that gets them where they’re going, no matter how many traffic laws are broken. Don’t expect to find seat belts. Most vehicles don’t have them, and if they do there may not be a buckle. Be alert when crossing the street, since it’s like a real-life game of Frogger (without the extra lives). There are relatively few accidents. I’m fortunate to have experienced only one so far. Also, be aware that after an accident mobs can form. Especially if you are in a rural area, they may point the blame on the non-local vehicle, no matter whose fault it was. Usually, it’s just a group of concerned people trying to help the injured, but mob mentality can settle in and things can become hectic.

2. Public transportation. The metro can be extremely crowded and uncomfortable. By crowded, I mean canned sardines have more room – people are shoved into every possible space until there is literally no room for another person to get on. Luckily, most people on the metro are kind and move aside as needed. Keep a tight grip on your bag, and keep your hand on the zipper to ward off pickpockets. Move to the ladies’ section if you can find it. It’s not uncommon for women to be groped on the metro, especially foreign women. Though fortunately I have not been groped, some women in my group have. Have your elbows at the ready to give the offender a worthy jab, and don’t be afraid to make a scene. Be confident and assertive.

3. Cab drivers. In my experience, you should be very cautious with cab drivers since they seem to be the most at-ready to take advantage of your foreignness. Kolkata can be very difficult to navigate. The streets have two names, a newer Indian name as well as an older British name, and one-way streets change direction at certain times of the day. Most dishonest drivers will either: 1) offer to take you to your destination for triple the price of what it should be, while refusing to turn on the meter, hoping you have no idea how much it should cost; or 2) they will take you on an extended detour instead of the most direct route. Know how much it should cost to reach your destination. It’s also best to have at least 2 routes in mind.

4. Don’t be out late at night. Though this is common travel advice, 9 p.m. and later is considered very late. It’s especially unsafe to go out drinking and then be out on the streets. Know when the last bus or metro is (here, it’s around 9:30 p.m.) and the routes you need to take to get home. Never travel alone at night.

5. Street vendors. Prepare to be hassled by street vendors and any other salespeople. They will constantly call out to you, offer to help you buy something, and may even follow you. Know how much things should cost. Street vendors usually bargain rather than have fixed prices and will offer a much higher price than what the item is actually worth. If you really aren’t interested, ignore them and keep walking. If they follow you and it becomes especially obnoxious, don’t be afraid to loudly tell them to go away.

6. Beggars. Though it’s not necessarily a safety concern, beggars (especially children) will target you and approach you. While no one wants to be cold-hearted, whether you give them something or not is a personal choice. It’s not always the best idea to give money, because you have no idea where that money is going and it continues the begging cycle. If you feel you must give something, it’s better to give food. However, be prepared to be mobbed by a small group of beggars – once they see one person giving something away, they all come. I’ve seen children fight over the snacks I’ve given away, and others have sworn at me for not giving them something. Consider donating your money or time to a reputable charity or organization where you can be confident that your contribution will be put to good use.

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    4 Comments

  • Shalu Sharma says:

    Very good tips on how to be safe in India. Although the vendors may hassle you, they are relatively safe.

  • Paridhi Malhotra says:

    the contents of this article are completely flawless, but as an Indian id like to add a few more points.
    1. Consider having a pepper spray or a Swiss Knife in your bag when out on the streets.
    2. While in taxis, always pretend to talk on the phone and updating the other end with the places you’ve crossed. Travelling in groups strictly advised.
    3. Before visiting a place, thoroughly search that place on Google maps and take note of every possible public convenience booth (police stations/taxi stops).
    4. For nagging salesman troubling you– Don’t, I repeat Don’t ever let them corner you, keep on walking and be in a well crowded area. Say “NO” or “POLICE”.
    I and anyone who thinks he is an Indian would always like my country to be safe and enjoyable place for any outsider.