Are you nervous about encountering culture shock in India? Before flying into New Delhi on my round-the-world trip, I had never been outside of Europe and the United States. Clearly, some part of me wanted to just rip that band-aid right off! I spent hours reading everything I could about India. It’s not a country that always gets recommended to solo female travelers, but let’s break down why that is. Is India safe for solo female travelers? And how can you deal with culture shock in India?
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My Experience as a Solo Female Traveler in India
I was surprised when I landed in New Delhi and actually felt LESS culture shock than I was anticipating. The first glimpses I got of the city looked as I had imagined it, with ruddy dust-filled streets, tangled webs of traffic, and oranges and bananas piled high at road-side stalls. Because I was traveling as a digital nomad and getting ahead of some deadlines before traveling to areas with worse internet access, I had to spend a lot of time focused on work. That meant most of my travel experience was limited to simply taking a walk around the city and going out for lunch.
As I wandered and saw first-hand the challenges of travel in India as a solo female traveler, I realized why I wasn’t reacting so much to the common triggers for culture shock. The things that will give most people culture shock in India aren’t actually unique to New Delhi. I had seen them before in other countries.
What Triggers Culture Shock in India?
The first step in handling culture shock in any destination is learning what to expect. There are eight main things I’ve identified as common triggers for culture shock in India. Study up for your trip to New Delhi by reading through these and considering where else in your travels you may have experienced them. You might be more prepared than you think!
One of the biggest eye-openers for travelers in developing countries is seeing poverty first-hand. Being confronted with poverty may even be something you expect out of your travel experience. But I need you to recognize something: Even though the number of people you see on the street on a daily basis might be greater in India, this is far from the only country in the world with poverty.
In my small Southern hometown in the U.S., I see people who are unhoused and driven to begging every single day. Charlottesville is known as an affluent city and yet over 23% of our residents are living below the poverty line.
Seeing extreme poverty in such close quarters may be a new perspective for you and it should awaken your compassion. But there’s no need to lock yourself in a hotel room weeping crocodile tears over how you never knew people could live with so little.
Poverty is not unique to India, and — as many travelers seem to forget — not everyone in India is impoverished! Delhi has just as many bright, educated, travel-loving people as anywhere else you’ve visited.
That all might sound harsh, but I promise you getting a bigger perspective on how poverty affects all parts of our world and how it is not the central or sole lifestyle of India will help you see this as a small facet of your travel experience and not a culture shock that eclipses your entire trip.
Litter and Pollution
One of the moments I had a strong reaction of culture shock in India was the moment I saw a girl walking in front of me casually toss a food wrapper onto a pile of garbage by the side of the path. I realized though that I had not had the same reaction to the simple presence of huge amounts of litter. Ever been to Athens? The Greek capital is covered in garbage and graffiti… and nobody’s telling travelers they shouldn’t go to the Acropolis because of it.
If you’re an environmentalist and you’re worried about New Delhi’s litter giving you culture shock that overshadows your trip, take heart that there are a lot of local activists who have been making amazing progress in their community. You’ll probably see them with pamphlets, signs, or petitions at metro exits! Take the opportunity to connect and learn about how travelers can help improve the pollution in Delhi.
Air pollution is also a problem and I’ve never encountered anything like it elsewhere. I could walk outside for 10 minutes, go inside, blow my nose and the tissue would come back black! Pack a mask to filter out some of the smog.
Litter isn’t the only similarity between Athens and Delhi. Both cities also have a number of stray dogs in the street. It can be very hard for animal lovers to see dogs relegated to the streets, especially when they’re visibly unhealthy with sores or missing legs. Generally, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.
A very common moment of culture shock in India is seeing the sidewalk treated as a bathroom. Oh, the melodramatic diaries and blogs I’ve seen dedicated to this! But I’ve gotta say… guys, have we never been out late at night in any European capital? From London to Rome, every Western city has at least one guy who’s had too much to drink and decides to treat the nearest wall as his personal urinal. Public urination may be more frowned upon in the West, but it does happen. You can avert your eyes in India just as you would anywhere else. It’s not going to ruin your trip unless you let it.
Crossing the Street
Delhi’s traffic is quite chaotic to the untrained eye, and figuring out how to cross the street is a popular “rite of passage” anecdote. For many Westerners, stepping into a stream of moving traffic is counter-intuitive to say the least. Fortunately, I was prepared for this from the first place I experienced any culture shock: Rome.
Cars in Rome don’t stop for pedestrians any more than cars in Delhi. All you can do is suck it up, walk, and pray.
Crossing the street in India is certainly intimidating, and I typically only attempted it when I could tag along with a group. As a solo female traveler in India, I found local women were always willing to help look out for me, and for that I am immensely grateful.
Speaking of being a solo female traveler in India, this might be what you’re the most concerned about: street harassment. Is India safe for solo female travelers? I’m not going to mince words here. New Delhi is where I experienced the worst harassment of my life and that is saying something.
Beyond being catcalled or stared at, New Delhi is one of only a few places in the world where I have been followed down the street by a predatory man or where somebody has put their hands on me.
As with crossing the street, however, when it comes to the attitudes of certain men, women look out for each other. Here are 6 ways to deal with street harassment as a solo female traveler in India.
Be Vigilant and Walk in Well-Lit Areas
This is not the time to pop in your earbuds for a solo Spotify jam sesh. Stay aware of your surroundings. Limit how much you have to walk on the street by staying near a Metro stop. I was not a fan of my hostel but it was right across the street from the Saket station, which meant I didn’t have to walk much nor did I have to take taxis. Look up directions in advance and stay focused on where you’re going. I always had dinner either at my hostel or from one of the street stalls nearby, so I wasn’t out walking at night.
If you’re worried about pickpocketing, go check out my day bag recommendations. I have links direct to two great bags with built-in anti-theft measures. They’re also cross body bags, which means you can (and should!) keep a hand over the zipper as you walk. It’s so much more discreet than carrying a backpack on your front or reaching under your clothes for a money belt.
Practice Your Poker Face
Some men harass women just to get a reaction. If anyone approaches you on the street, try not to react or engage. Just keep walking and try to stick to a neutral expression.
Don’t Be Afraid to Say No
Even if it’s not sexual harassment, you are likely to encounter very persistent taxi drivers, beggars, and sales people. Keep a hand on your bag for safety and just say no. You don’t have to be rude or aggressive. A simple, clear no will suffice. Just don’t break your stride and be prepared to repeat yourself. I found I usually had to say no three times before someone would leave me alone.
Always Use the Women’s Car
The metro in New Delhi gets crowded and there is a risk of getting groped. Happily, most trains have special women-only cars. The platform will be clearly marked with the spot where the women’s car will stop, typically at the back of the train. The vibe is SO different in these! Both local and visiting women are so happy to have their own space free of harassment and everyone is just really nice and considerate of each other.
Pretend to See a Friend
If a man is bothering you on the street and won’t leave you alone, it’s time to fake it. Walk up to the next woman you see with a big smile like she’s your best friend. There’s a very good chance she’ll understand you’re approaching to get away from the guy tailing you.
Flash a Fake Ring
Fake wedding rings aren’t effective everywhere but they are like magic against street harassment in India. Anytime someone followed me down the street and wouldn’t take no for an answer, I just flashed my ring and said I was meeting my husband for lunch. I’ve used the same trick to great success in Athens.
Delhi is often described as an assault on the senses. I didn’t fully appreciate this until after I left.
My then-boyfriend (now fiance) met me in Kathmandu. On his first day, he kept asking questions like “What’s that noise?” or “What’s that smell?” and I couldn’t answer him as I genuinely never heard or smelled whatever caught his attention. I realized being in India had effectively numbed my senses.
In the moment, though Delhi didn’t seem that much louder than any other major city. Isn’t New York beloved for being the city that never sleeps?
If you’re worried that the immense noise of New Delhi will give you culture shock, pack a good pair of earplugs to sleep in.
If you’ve never traveled outside the Western world, India may be the first place you visit where you can’t drink the tap water. Make sure you use my round-the-world trip packing list so you have the perfect reusable water bottle and UV water purifier. That combo will keep you from having to spend money on bottled water. And remember you need to use your purified water for everything, even brushing your teeth!
So are you ready for culture shock in India?
The trials travelers face in India are not one-of-a-kind. Chances are you’ve encountered many of these challenges in other destinations or even back home. Culture shock in India is so pronounced because you’re putting all those challenges together at once.
I don’t think India will ever make a list of the easiest places to travel, particularly for solo female travelers. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you have the motivation, you don’t need to worry as much about your skill level. Read everything you can and think about what you’ve faced in other countries. India is not the big bad wolf and if I can make it through a week unscathed, you can too.