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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine August 2008 Issue
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Mother India for Women Travelers

The Good, the Bad, and How to Make the Most of It

A Mural in Kerala, India.

I first traveled to India nearly 20 years ago with a boyfriend who had an unyielding desire to visit the subcontinent. Though he had never been out of the U.S., and I had only visited England and Wales, we undertook a 3-month journey to Thailand, India, and Nepal.

In India, our senses were assaulted, our assumptions about the way the world functioned were completely dismantled, and our relationship became strained. After many years together, we broke up shortly after returning home. I can’t completely blame our breakup on India, but I do believe that she sped up the process of my karmic path.

Though most people who travel to India either love it or hate it, I left feeling neutral after that first visit. When I was invited back two decades later to visit friends, I knew the experience would be different, but never expected to tilt so far as to love it. Yet, that’s exactly what happened.

With three trips now under my sari, I’ve traveled from north to south, east to west, with friends and solo. Though it would take lifetimes to completely know India, I have learned enough to humbly impart a few words of wisdom to other women considering a trip to experience the subcontinent.

The Good

Flower market in Kolkata, India.

While India can be an intimidating country for any traveler due to its size, lack of infrastructure and overpopulation, it is still a very accessible country for women.

The British occupation left India with one of the most extensive railway system in the world. They also encouraged the use of English and now most Indians with any level of formal education speak at least some English. For English-speaking travelers, these influences make traversing the country relatively easy.

Though India is a burgeoning as a technology hub and is producing some of the most brilliant minds in the world, it remains a developing nation with slums the size of some medium-sized cities in the U.S. India’s economic disparities mean that it can be an extremely cheap place in which to travel given the quality and diversity of the food along with the wide range of services available.

Whether rich or poor, Indians are friendly hosts to all travelers--whom they treat like royalty. The people of India have coined the phrase that “guests are gods,” and take this custom to heart when encountering or hosting visitors. You are sure to make friends quickly, whether it’s with passengers sharing your berth on an overnight train or a spending time near a family on vacation at the beach.

Eager to interact with a woman from another country, Indian women generally won’t be shy about introducing themselves. They will ask lots of questions and share their stories, family life, and a meal.

As a female traveler, you may have access to areas of a home or public spaces where men are prohibited. If you have an opportunity to stay with a host family, request to spend some time in the kitchen with the cook (who might be either the mother of the family or a servant). You are sure to be taught a recipe or two and will be shown an array of stashed spices. Larger railway stations may have a waiting room designated specifically for women. You can find entire cars of a train marked as ladies-only.

Children in India.

The Bad

Most fist-time travelers find the immense poverty of India to be overwhelming. In cities of every size, people sleep on sidewalks, in the roadway and on traffic medians. Makeshift tents made of plastic tarps and shacks with tin roofs line railways, making up the shantytowns for which India is famous.

Such immense poverty drives the opportunistic thief to look for a pocket to quickly pick or a bag to snatch. And because of their relative wealth, foreigners are often the first to lose their belongings to such thievery. Simply keeping a close watch on your personal belongings, locking your zippers together, and cable locking your luggage to something stationary is often enough to deter a thief from finding a way to separate you from your valuables.

Though this unscrupulousness is bothersome, some find the overall treatment of women to be even more disturbing. India is a country where child infanticide or abortion of girl babies is not uncommon. Unsuitable brides are “accidentally” killed in kitchen fires. Widows are often banned from their families and left to fend for themselves in the streets.

While these horrific events and customs do occur, tourists rarely will have insight into the specifics. However, male domination over women does filter down into everyday life in a manner that may affect the woman traveler. In some situations, you may find that you are completely ignored (particularly if you’re traveling with a male companion) or simply treated with disrespect by men.

And, there’s nothing as disrespectful as the sexual harassment (called eve-teasing in India), which is such a significant part of social behavior. Whether it’s the leering stares of a shopkeeper, the suggestive wink from a taxi driver hoping to get lucky, or the rubbing of a woman’s bare shoulder by a fellow train passenger, it is often difficult to avoid this annoying behavior. Fortunately, it is usually nothing more than an annoyance.

Denise Buchanan is a Canadian citizen who traveled through India for a couple of months with a friend. “I never felt like I was in a dangerous situation but the men were very immature in terms of sex and women, so I didn’t trust them. I’m a brunette but my friend who is six feet tall and blond would get grabbed by the men. I wouldn’t want to be alone with them in general.”

In public places, you might find the attention you receive to be overwhelming. Your foreign looks may attract groups of women simply wanting to touch your skin or to request your autograph. You’ll become an instant celebrity, starring in family photos of locals eager to show off their new “friend”. These are generally innocent requests easily accommodated.

The Karmic Balance

A Guru in Varanasi.

Much of what determines whether you’ll enjoy your adventure in India will be how open minded you are to the culture and country. Though you should be cautious when interacting with men, be open to meeting and making friends with the locals–this will expand your understanding of their world.

Even if it is obvious that you are a foreigner, blending in will help avert some of the difficulties encountered when traveling in India. Dress conservatively, wearing Indian-style clothes made of locals fabrics such as a salwar kameez (long blouse and pants outfit) or dupatta (scarf).

To avoid giving off any sexual miscues, don’t initiate conversations with Indian men, avoid making eye contact, and do not allow yourself to be alone with an Indian man, whether it’s a taxi driver, hotel bellboy, or a new friend. Confident Western woman have gained the stereotype of being sexually promiscuous (most likely a result of American television), and appearing forward can easily be misinterpreted.

When the attention, the crowds and the “eve-teasing” all get to be too much, simply take a break. With massages priced at about $10 an hour and a wide range of beauty parlors (offering pedicures, manicures and haircuts) located in every city and village, it is very easy to find a place where you can retreat and be pampered by the local women (never schedule a massage with a male masseuse). Such a timeout will allow you to recoup energy and perspective.

Finally, as travelers, it is perhaps not our place to pass judgment upon the customs and behavior of natives in India. While many things may seem unjust, you are far better off searching for a solution than questioning the unfairness. Giving your time or money to help change what you deem to be a broken system will help channel money into the appropriate hands. There is no shortage of volunteer programs or non-profit organizations to which you can contribute in order to help Indians out with their most pressing needs.

No matter where on the subcontinent you travel, you’ll certainly discover that India is a land of extremes. And, in doing so, you’ll probably discover a love/hate relationship that will speed up your own karmic destiny.

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