A Woman Travels Solo to South India
On her first trip to India—to visit a friend in Chennai—a North Carolina woman is looking for guidance on safe solo travel, how to haggle, and what to wear at the beach.
Interested in getting coached? E-mail us your questions—seriously, the more the better—to Letters@BudgetTravel.com.
DEAR TRIP COACH...
After years of saving my miles, I've finally booked a trip to visit a friend in Chennai [formerly Madras], South India. Although I'll stay with my friend, I'll be traveling alone most of the time. And, of course, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai are on my mind. Any advice? Laura McFarland, Rocky Mount, N.C.
What should I know about staying safe in India? November's events notwithstanding, India is generally very safe. Many Western women travel alone and encounter few problems. Occasionally you hear stories of an opportunist attempting a grope on a crowded bus, but that's rare. Follow the same precautions you would in any tourist destination, but be at ease and open to people. Indians tend to be extroverts and very inquisitive, so travelers of both sexes should expect lots of friendly conversation.
How should I dress to avoid bringing unwanted attention to myself? Leave the short, tight getups at home and you'll be fine. You'll see local women in everything from embroidered saris to T-shirts and knee-length skirts or shorts.
Chennai is right on the coast. What do women wear at the beach? Indian women splash around fully dressed in whatever they happen to be wearing. However, it's completely acceptable for foreign women to wear swimsuits, even bikinis, especially at beaches that are popular with tourists. Chennai's main stretch of sand, Marina Beach, is pretty, but it gets crowded. For miles of uninterrupted white sand, take a two-hour bus ride down the coast to the town of Mamallapuram (buses leave throughout the day from Chennai's Koyambedu bus stop and Guindy railway station, round trip from 50¢). While you're there, check out the famous Shore Temple, built in the 7th and 8th centuries right on the beach ($5). The ocean currents in south India are dangerously strong, so it's illegal to swim. Instead, people go to the beach to sunbathe and wade.
One of my biggest concerns is what to do about money in India. Should I take traveler's checks, cash, or credit cards—or should I use an ATM? ATMs are now commonplace in all but India's most rural locations, so just take a stash of cash to get yourself started, and use your ATM card for the rest of the trip. Credit cards aren't accepted in most places; unless you plan to buy some high-end items or stay at a plush hotel, chances are you won't have much occasion to rack up a bill.
I plan to do some shopping and my guidebooks say to haggle, but I've never done that. How do I go about it? First and foremost, act confident—even if you're not. If you look green, shopkeepers will hit you with exorbitant prices. Let the vendor quote you a number, and then come back with a counteroffer between a quarter and a half of that. If you're nearing an agreement but the seller is asking a bit more than you want to pay, state your final offer and start walking away. More often than not, that'll clinch the deal.
I've been to several countries with extremely scary bathrooms. What should I expect to find in India? While not up to our sparkling standards, most bathrooms you'll come across will be sufficiently maintained and have the Western-style toilets, toilet paper, and sinks you're used to. In some lower-end hotels and restaurants, you may encounter one of the infamous Asian thrones (no seat, just a hole and two platforms for your feet), but these are blessedly on the way out.
What is there to see in Chennai? There are three major sites that should be at the top of your list. Kapaleeswarar Temple, in Chennai's Mylapore neighborhood, is a stunning complex of intricately carved gateways, vast courtyards, and shrines (Kutchery Rd., mylaikapaleeswarar.com, free). There are four official poojas, or worship times, in the main temple each day, and priests at the smaller shrines lead services on request. You don't have to be Hindu to take part; poojas are open to everyone. Nearby, you have to behold the towering, bright-white Santhome Cathedral Basilica, a Gothic structure built in the 19th century over the tomb of St. Thomas—walk around to the back of the courtyard and go through the underground passage to see the crypt (Santhome High Rd., santhomebasilica.com, free). The Vivekananda Museum, behind Marina Beach, gives a gripping account of the life of the Hindu sage Swami Vivekananda, a 19th-century spiritual leader known for introducing Hindu philosophy and yoga to the West (Kamarajar Salai, S. Beach Rd., free).