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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 35 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 dismantled entirely, and our relationship became strained. After many years together, we broke up shortly after returning home. I can't wholly blame our breakup on India, but 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. Still, I never expected to tilt so far as to love it. Yet, that's what happened.

With three trips under my sari, I've traveled solo with friends from north to south and east to west. 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 intimidating 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 systems in the world. They also encouraged the use of English; now, most Indians with any formal education speak at least some English. For English-speaking travelers, these influences make traversing the country relatively easy.

Though India is a burgeoning technology hub and is producing some of the world's most brilliant minds, 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 to travel, given the quality and diversity of the food and 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 "guests are gods" and take this custom to heart when encountering or hosting visitors. You are sure to make friends quickly, whether with passengers sharing your berth on an overnight train or 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 many 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 can stay with a host family, request to spend some time in the kitchen with the cook (who might be the family's mother 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 all the trains' cars marked as ladies-only.

Children in India.

The Bad

Most first-time travelers find India's immense poverty overwhelming. In cities of every size, people sleep on sidewalks, roadways, and 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 up 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 occur, tourists rarely know 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 be ignored entirely (particularly if you're traveling with a male companion) or treated with disrespect by men.

And, there's nothing as disrespectful as 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 few 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 the men would grab my friend who is six feet tall and blond. I wouldn't want to be alone with them in general."

In public places, the attention you receive is overwhelming. Your foreign looks may attract groups of women simply wanting to touch your skin or 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 difficulties encountered when traveling in India. Dress conservatively, wearing Indian-style clothes made of local fabrics, such as a salwar kameez (a long blouse and pants outfit) or dupatta (a 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 women 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, 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 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 to help Indians with their most pressing needs.

Wherever you venture on the subcontinent, you'll encounter the unique dichotomy of India — a land of extremes. This journey will test your emotions, leading you to develop a love/hate relationship that will accelerate your karmic destiny.

More by Beth Whitman
For Women Traveling in India: Preparing for Safe and Culturallly Respectful Immersion
Safety Tips for Solo Women Travelers
Finding Inner Strength While Traveling as a Solo Woman
Women Group Travel: Wandering Women Traveling Together
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