how safe is a solo woman traveler in India?

kali2After not writing for four years, I’ve come back to this blog about my adventures in India.  I don’t know why I stopped writing about my India travels — maybe because of the increase in travel blogs (and many about India) and I thought “why bother?”

I certainly am not a professional blogger (i.e., one who earns money from writing or gets invited to places or who receives free hotel stays or airline upgrades by writing good things about a hotel or airline) so I’m a minnow in the very big pond of travel writing.  But I have four years’ worth of stories and my niche is unique as I write both about India travel and Yoga in India.

Like every traveler is unique, every traveler’s experience of India in unique.  After 8 trips I’m still learning and I hope to continue learning until my last trip (that I hope is many years into the future.)  I know more than a few people who consider me an expert on India travel — I’m planning my 9th trip that will be for three months in 2015 — but whether I’m an expert remains to be seen.  While some travel to the typical tourist places of North India (I’ve never seen the Taj Mahal but I did motorbike into the Thar Desert in Rajasthan this year — yes, on the back of bike, with an Indian man, and I wasn’t afraid), I consider myself a South India (Tamil Nadu) girl. North India compared to South India….it’s same same but different (one of my favorite Indian idioms.)

The first time I traveled north was four years ago when I went to Calcutta for the first time (my second favorite city after Chennai) and then went to the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar.  Up until that time I had always stayed south.  Before I went north the woman I shared some of my trip with (who had been to India 9 times) told me I would be shocked by the north (specifically Delhi) because it and the men are “rougher.”  I took what she said with a grain of salt and when we got there I found it no different from the places I’d been in the south.  OK, maybe more chaotic and noisier than the south but I took everything in stride.

The thing is, I’ve been listening to what I call “fear talk” about India ever since before my first trip in 2005. People were terrified for me that I would even consider going to India alone.  Last year I did a walking tour of the Dharavi slum in Mumbai and when I told my story when I got back people were incredulous.  Why the hell would I walk around an Indian slum?!?  Wasn’t I afraid?  Because of course their mental image of India is one of mass poverty and filth — it’s that but also so much more.

The issue of rape in India is a huge topic ever since the gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in December, 2012.  Since then my newsfeed of Indian newspapers has daily stories about rape and abuse of women.  The latest is about the woman who was raped in an Uber taxi in Delhi.

Since December 2012 India has been under intense media scrutiny for its rape culture and treatment of women but rape culture and misogyny are a global problem.  One only needs to do an internet search for “Steubenville Ohio rape” and the latest on frat party rapes on college campuses. India is certainly not alone regarding misogyny — google “right wing war on women” in the United States.  As a long time feminist and activist for women’s rights I can only think the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Back in the day John Lennon wrote a controversial song about the status of women in the world.

Some of the comments I read from India on Facebook pages regarding these incidents disgust me: “she should not have been out that late”; “she should not have fallen asleep in the cab”; she should not have been drinking”; she should not have been out alone”; “she should not have worn those clothes.”  But the same is said in the West when a woman is raped, it’s not any different, not one bit.  Same shit, different day.

I tell people who ask me how I can go to India because of the rapes or how women are treated that they should not be so smug about it because we have our own shit that needs to be cleaned up.  Bill Cosby, anyone?  The same things happen here to women and it happens even when you’re in the “good” part of town or during the day. You don’t have to be alone in a cab in the middle of the night in India — I’ve been there, done that, and had no fear.  Honestly, if something is going to happen it can happen anywhere.  Statistics show that the majority of rapes are committed by someone the woman knows and many occur in the “safe” setting of the home. 

The advice to women travelers to India about always staying in “nicer” hotels is, in my opinion, misguided and can give a false sense of security.  I’ve stayed in $10/night guesthouses in south India and felt safe.  In Haridwar I took a rickshaw back to my hotel at 3 AM on deserted streets.  I’ve backpacked through Tamil Nadu riding the dusty buses with mostly men.  I’ve been in overnight train compartments where the three other passengers were men.  But I am NOT saying things can’t happen — a friend was seriously injured when she jumped out of a cab to get away from a driver whom she thought was going to assault her.

So you are a woman thinking of going solo to India?  I say GO and don’t listen to any fear talk.   American culture has been very fear-based since 9/11 and I think many people live in fear.

Some of the things people have said to me about India is also said about Chicago, believe me, especially about the south side where I grew up.  As I tell people, the credo of the news media is “if it bleeds, it leads” meaning the worst news is always the first read on the news show.  My friends in India have bad opinions about America because of what they see in news reports so is it any wonder that people here believe the worst about India?

As a reminder to readers, I had never been overseas in my life until I went alone to India to study yoga at the age of 51.  No one showed me the ropes about how to handle things, in fact, I found that once I got to India the advice I was given was inaccurate especially about what to wear.  If I had taken that advice seriously I would have ended up wearing a burqa!

I grew up in Chicago in the ’60s so I have more street smarts than some.  Use the common sense in India that you would use at home.  Walk confidently even if you don’t feel confident.  Body language can be everything in certain situations.  Always trust your gut — if it feels dicey, it probably is.  I’ve seen too many Westerners in India, both men and women, put their common sense in their back pocket and be afraid to insult someone over something that seems suspicious.  I checked into a $20 room in Madurai and checked out 90 minutes later because the door was not secure enough for me (in fact, someone did try the doorknob) and also because someone could have easily come through my window from the terrace on the roof.

Here is some of my advice from my yoga retreat trip last year:

India is both modern and conservative —  tight or revealing clothing for women is usually not worn but I’ve worn my skinny jeans.  I wear sleeveless kurtis (similar to a western tunic top) all the time with my salwars (baggy Indian pants.)  I cover my shoulders with a dupatta (large scarf or shawl worn with salwar kameez) on the street.  Because it will be hot, women AND men will be more comfortable wearing baggy cotton (or another fabric that breathes) pants and tops. I always tell first timers to go to a Goodwill or other thrift shop and get some cotton drawstring pants, capris, cargo pants, tunics, T shirts, etc. because traveling through India is rough on clothes.

If you are staying at a hotel with a pool feel free to wear a swim suit but no thong bikinis. Many Western women wear two piece suits and a sarong or a tunic top, long-ish shorts or capris, and skirts above the knee, but still show respect — no short shorts or minis.  I had no problem wearing a bikini at my hotel pool in Goa but I thought twice about it at a hotel in Mumbai.  I used my common sense.

Use your best judgment but always respect the culture.  You WILL be stared at no matter what you wear. It is just the way it is in India wherever you go.  If you have tattoos, don’t be concerned.  I have many tattoos and my experience is that Indians are very curious about them and appreciate them, especially the women.  I am never worried about showing my tattoos in public, however, I always keep my shoulders respectfully covered in temples.

In 10 years I have never been hassled in a major way in spite of what is referred to as “eve- teasing.”  Have I been told by men on the street or in a store that I am beautiful or that I have beautiful hair?  Yes.  Has that made me itchy sometimes?  Yes.  In Haridwar a man chased me trying to take my picture at the Kumbh Mela and men have told me that they “want to make friend” with me, but I am fortunate to have never felt unsafe in India.  However, although I travel in India for months at a time, I will always be a visitor and as a visitor I can not imagine what it is like for an Indian woman to be groped or hassled on a daily basis.

I can not overemphasize about USING YOUR COMMON SENSE but never let fear shut you off from living life at the fullest, whatever that means to you. 

I am NOT saying that negative things will never happen to you in India because shit happens everywhere.   But how you react makes all the difference — sometimes we can not change our circumstances but we can always control how we react to them.

my surrealistic version of Eat Pray Love

I’ve always received messages in my meditations.  Some might call them visions although that is too strong a word for me because I certainly don’t consider myself any type of psychic.  I do get flashes of peoples’ lives when I do energy healing — I usually don’t tell them what I see but when I do it is always confirmed.  But for the longest time a picture came into my head of an older me, with long gray curly hair, wearing orange robes and sitting with my eyes closed on a ghat somewhere in India.  I don’t know if it is a picture of the future or from the past.  When I first started to receive these images I did not know what a ghat was and India was not even a thought in my mind.

After five years of going to India this was my first trip to north India, to the Ganges.  When I walked onto our hotel terrace overlooking the river in Haridwar it took my breath away.  I stood there amazed because I instantly knew I had been there before.  I have written before about how for the past two years I knew in my bones I had to be at THIS Kumbh Mela at THIS time in my life.  Nothing was going to stop me.

I stood there for a long time taking everything in and it was such a deep, visceral knowing that I could only compare it to when my feet first hit the ground in Chennai five years ago, the feeling that I had come home.  Everything that was in my view I had already seen and known.  There was no mistake about it, I had already been here, in this spot.  It was the week of Mahashivaratri and the orange robes of the sadhus across the river looked so familiar to me on a level that was very different from seeing them in photographs.

Before the Mela we had been in Kolkata where we went to Kalighat. When I walked into that temple I received such a blast of shakti that I had to sit down before I fell down.  When we were in the inner chamber itself my friend told me that my eyes were so dilated that I looked like I had dropped a hit of acid.  The cockroaches crawling all over the metal grill surrounding the murthi of Kali Ma sparkled so brightly that they looked like crawling jewels.  I mentioned them to my friend but she could not see what I saw.

After we made our offering and the priests thumped our foreheads we walked around and came to the area where the goats are sacrificed. The idea of an animal or a human dying for the Divine is abhorrent to me but I take many things in stride in India.  If the thought of legless and deformed beggars or slum children pulling on your sleeve for a rupee is too much, then India is not the place for you.

I watched a woman butchering the meat as stray dogs gathered waiting for a morsel of goat to drop.  Goat heads with blank staring eyes lined the edge of the sacrificial platform and I looked at the dogs.  In my shakti induced high their panting mouths seemed to be smiling. Kalighat is next door to where Mother Theresa tended to the dying whether they were Christian, Hindu, or Muslim, and instead of feelings of revulsion about the decapitated goats, I took in the entire scene and all I felt was pure love.  In the Bengali tradition, the goal of the Kali devotee is to become reconciled with death and to learn acceptance of the way that things are.  The love that I felt was raw and primal and my heart space filled with the fire of bhakti.  I felt as if I were on fire.  I felt extraordinarily alive.

All the people who had died next door, all the goats who had given their lives for the Mother, all those dogs who were going to eat.  It was my own surrealistic version of Eat Pray Love.  And I was filled with joy.

On Mahashivaratri we watched the procession of the naga babas to the Ganges and I knew that I had never been to such a joyful event in my life.

devotees of a swami

Our hotel in Haridwar had its own ghat and after the naga babas took their bath on Mahashivaratri I walked down the steps into the Ganges and dunked myself three times.   We had already been in Haridwar for five days but I wanted to wait until the day that Shiva married Parvati to really feel the river.   I had immediately felt the energy of the river just standing on the terrace on the first day so I knew it would be even more energized after the holy men bathed.

I was right. During my third dunk I stayed underwater a bit longer and I felt electric.  I came out and sat on the steps with my feet in the water.  Bathing in the river is thought to wash away one’s sins, a death, so to speak (“you will die in India” I had been told.)  The waters of the Ganges are called amrita, the “nectar of immortality”.  Hindus believe that there is nothing as cleansing as the living waters of Ganga Ma.  I wanted to sit there all day with the water on my skin.  Something was coursing through me and once again all I felt was joy.  Our true nature.

As it turned out it was an auspicious day for me because that night I met a swami of the highest order, a man who is the Acharya Mahamandaleshwar of the Juna Akhara.

That morning he had thrown a rose to me from the procession — he stopped his chariot, looked right at me, threw the flower and smiled, and then moved on.  At that time I did not know that in the afternoon I would be invited to a special puja that night at his ashram, the oldest one in Haridwar.   A mantra teacher friend from Mumbai sent me a text telling me he was staying at an ashram and would I like to come for a special Mahashivaratri puja.  He said he would be chanting during the ceremony and maybe I would be interested in attending.  I had no idea that he was staying in the ashram of the rose throwing swami, I did not even know the swami’s name.  Before I left my friend said, “what if it’s the swami from this morning?”   I told her that would be too much of a coincidence — but there are no coincidences, all things happen for a reason.

When the rickshaw arrived at the ashram and I saw the swami’s picture on a billboard outside the ashram, I froze in my seat.   I couldn’t believe it.  Once again that shakti blast pieced the coconut and all I could do was stare at the billboard with his picture.  I sat there for so long that some of the devotees asked me if I was alright.  I walked into the ashram grounds and eventually was taken back into the swami’s compound before the start of the puja.  Nothing was planned, everything just happened, merely the flow of the experience, the essence of allowing things to unfold.  I was told that night that it was my good karma to be there, that I was meant to be there from the moment I caught that rose. I returned every day to the ashram before we left Haridwar.

For whatever reason, maybe it was my jump into the Ganges, but my personal practice and my yoga teaching have changed.  I really can’t describe it, but the energetics have changed, even my students say so. I’ve read that when shifts of consciousness occur it changes your DNA.

The new message I received during my recent meditations was that the day I stop teaching here will be the beginning of my Indian life.  But not yet.  I still have some cooking to do, it will take a few more years.  I’m coming to end of my marinating and it’s nice to begin to see what the feast is going to look like.  Or not.  That’s OK, too.  Kali is said to not give what is expected.  It is said that perhaps it is her refusal to do so that enables her devotees to reflect on dimensions of themselves and of reality that go beyond the material world.

Everything with a grain of salt. All things happen when they are ready to happen. They always have.

the dichotomy that is India

“In some ways, India is like another home. There’s a familiarity of myself here. It’s the rawness of life that resonates with me, in its myriad forms – beautiful, grotesque, otherworldly. The systematic stripping away of distractions and compulsions; attachments that keep us from being fully present.”

This is what Barbara Raisbeck has to say about India in her blogs The Daughters of India and India in Stories. Go to her blogs to read the rest of the above post and her other powerful stories.  When I got her email with this post the above words resonated with me very much because I feel the same way.   I’ve said before that as soon as I put my foot on Indian soil in 2005 I felt like I had come home.

My trip this time was a very mixed bag.  One of my teachers told me that on your third trip you become a native, seeing India for what it is, warts and all.  Well, I saw plenty of warts, my own included.  India is always the country that attracts and repulses you all at the same time.  Just when India drop-kicked me in the head, another wonderful moment occurred just because I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

I read a story before I left about a baby elephant that was rescued.  A baby elephant had fallen into a pit in the forest and the mother and the rest of the herd tried to rescue him.  After awhile the herd left, but the mother stayed there trying to rescue her baby, with “tears streaming down her face” the article said.  The villagers saw this and called the Forestry Department who sent a working elephant and a vet.  The mother elephant would not let anyone near her baby, who by this time was not moving, so the working elephant with her mahout kept the mother away while the baby was pulled out of the pit.  When the vet treated the baby, it was discovered that the baby had also been stung by a scorpion, that’s why he was not moving.  The article said that after treatment the baby would be released back into the forest. Definitely a feel-good story.

Compare that story to the one I read about a Chennai hospital that was being investigated because they threw a patient, still connected to tubes and IV bags and a urine bag, out into the street.  Imagine walking along and seeing an old person in hospital clothes still connected to tubes and bags just lying in the street outside a hospital.  The article said that the patient was indigent, that no one claimed any responsibility for this person.   In other words, the hospital was not going to be paid for treating this person, so they threw the patient literally onto the street.  The article said the hospital was being investigated but I noticed there was no mention of what happened to the patient, whether he had been taken to another hospital or what.

Over breakfast one morning I read another story about 13, 14, and 15 year old girls being raped by their husbands.  In the Chennai area there are still tsunami camps, refugee camps where people still live despite the tsunami happening in December 2004.  Mothers fear for their daughters in these camps so they think if they marry off their daughters, the new husbands will protect them from the unwanted advances of men.  However, given that these young girls know almost nothing about sex, they refuse the advances of their new husbands, so their first experience with sex is rape.   I read how one young girl was drugged into unconsciousness so her husband could have sex with her.   These girls of course become pregnant and have babies at these ages, in a refugee camp.   And the cycle continues.   Lovely breakfast reading.

For every story like the first one, there are two or three of the other.

There are still people who think India is the land of yoga, incense, and spirituality, some romantic place where one only needs to travel to the Himalayas to find their guru and nirvana and all their problems will be solved.  If you read an Indian newspaper every day I can assure you that your rose-colored view of India will change.  I am reading a book right now called Children of Kali and the author says that India is very good at exporting spirituality and gurus, but doesn’t have the guts to look at its own problems.

Like anywhere else, India has its angels and its devils.  I’ve met the friendliest and kindest and most gracious people in India but I’ve also met the most arrogant and the most rigid.  I’ve met people who could not think outside the box to save their own lives.

But the thought of never returning to India kills me.  I came back this time sicker than an Indian street dog with the thought that I will take a break from India for a while.  But as soon as I started to get my strength back, I started having Tamil Nadu dreams again.

What keeps drawing me back?  I can honestly say that I don’t know.   Maybe it is the rawness and the grotesqueness that Barbara writes about that keeps bringing me back.  Maybe it is those 4 hour bus rides through the Tamil Nadu countryside that I said I would never do again, but that I achingly miss right now.  Maybe it’s those fleeting moments of human connection with a total stranger, no words spoken, but completely understood via a smile and hand gestures and the eyes and the head wobbles that have settled deep within my heart.

India has her hooks in me like an old lover — an old lover who you’ve told yourself that you never want to be with again but who keeps re-appearing like a hungry ghost tapping on your shoulder, and no matter how fast you run you can never escape him because he is a part of you forever.

You know this and you hate it but you love it all at the same time.  I have no answers, but Barbara comes close:

“The only way I can answer is, in suffering, in our own or being a witness to it, there is an opening that occurs.  That opening can consume or liberate us.  Or both.  Consume, then liberate.  And just at the moment that we think we’ve been liberated, the consumption starts again.  The suffering doesn’t just end, even when we beg it to.  But I have learned that to observe it, allow myself to feel it, hold it, accept it, I can then let go of it.  Not completely since our wounds leave scars, but enough to help me out of the fire and into the awareness of the lesson, that will, when I am ready, appear and show me a way through to the other side.”


(originally written January, 2008, after my third trip to India.)

so many things I love about India….

…and so many things I hate:  Sex selection in India.

“In a culture that predominantly views girls as an expense rather than an asset, women are put under intense pressure to produce sons.The trend for smaller families is also deepening the aversion to daughters, with the use of ultrasound technology now being used to plan families.   This is despite the existence of laws banning prenatal sex detection and sex selective abortion.

ActionAid has also found that girls are more likely to be born but less likely to survive in areas with more limited access to public health services and modern ultrasound technology.  In rural Morena and Dhaulpur, deliberate neglect of girls, including allowing the umbilical cord to become infected, is used as a way to dispose of unwanted daughters.”

Disappearing Daughters Report

Without knowledge, millions more women will go missing in India.  Thank you, Barbara.

how I spent my last day in India

(WRITTEN JANUARY 24, 2008)

This is how I spent my last day in India, flat on my back from food poisoning.  I am still sick and have had “loose motions” and stomach pain since last Friday evening — a long time.  I am sporting the fashionable emaciated heroin chic look right now.  I weighed myself this morning and have lost almost 10 pounds.  I wanted to lose weight in india, but not this way!

I won’t bore you with the gory details but I was stupid and ate a “jam cake” in Fort Cochin, Kerala late at night.  I realized at about 3 am Saturday morning when I woke up with projectile vomiting that the thing had been sitting out all day in the heat.  What an idiot.  I have survived indian street food and drinking chai from street vendors where the chai cups are washed out in who knows what type of germ-infested phlegmy water, and a pastry does me in.   I’m going to rethink drinking street chai for my future trips — chai cups washed in water that sits out all day doesn’t appeal to me.   While I’ll be contributing to India’s worsening garbage problem (like it could get any worse), think I will only drink chai from stalls that use plastic cups from now on.

My friends Nick and Sushi (my thankachi in Tamil, i.e., “younger sister”) picked me up Tuesday morning from the 5 star hotel I stayed in for my last two nights in India — where I spent most of my time in bed or on the toilet — and took me to their house.  Since I was facing two flights totaling 18 hours, Sushi thought it would be a good idea that I go to hospital for an IV, a “drip” as it is called in India.  I had thought that on the way home from the airport I was going to tell my husband to stop at an ER for the same thing.

When they took me, I was very sick.  I basically had not eaten anything substantial for 5 days and my brain felt like it was in a fog from lack of food.  I felt very disoriented.

They took me to the hospital that is admininstered by Sushi’s daughter-in-law’s father.  Sushi made the call and they were waiting for us.  I was treated by the head doctor and the head nurse — for free.  The head nurse is in the pink sari and Sushi is in the orange sari, but she is hiding on the left side.   I saw Nick taking the picture and said “oh no you don’t!” and put my arm over my ashen face.

They wanted to give me two bottles of glucose and salt but it was already after 6 pm when we left and I had to repack my bags, we had to get back to the house.   The hospital director did not ask for one rupee, but I would not have felt right if I did not give something so before we left I gave him 1000 rupees for my treatment and told him to donate it to a charity if he wants to — 1000 rupees is about $26.   By the way, the hospital is for leprosy, TB, and AIDS patients.  The room I was in was a private room.

This was my third trip and I never got sick before this.  My husband said since I got sick I should never go back to India.  I looked at him and said, “you know that’s not going to happen…”

________________________________________________________’

Today is October 6 and I leave for my 4th trip on January 6, 2010….keeping my fingers crossed I don’t get sick like this again!

the official transporation of this blog

At the end of some television shows there is an announcement that the “official transportation for the X show is……”   I decided that the official transportation of this blog is the always lovely AUTORICKSHAW…

Less than five months from today I will be back home in Ma India., first in Chennai, then Kolkata, then Bhubaneswar, then Delhi, then Haridwar, and back to Delhi.   One of the things I love about Chennai is the traffic (believe it or not!) because I’ve realized that it operates on Chaos Theory.   It took me about two days during my first trip to figure out how the chicken crosses an Indian road — basically you walk into it, because if you hesitate, you’ll really screw things up.  Or you sneak into a crowd of people on a street corner and walk with them in relative safety in one fast moving blob of humanity, the idea being that if you’re surrounded by people, chances are someone else will get hit by a bus.  If you are a really lucky, the bus will stop, but hopefully not on top of you.

The above video was shot in Hyderabad, but it’s close enough to show you what Chennai’s traffic is like.  Actually it has less traffic than on a typical Chennai street.  Watch it and you’ll see lots of autorickshaws, the Official Transporation of this Blog!

I’ve been in one minor accident while in a rickshaw, have run out of petrol once,  and have only seen a few roll overs, so don’t worry — we’ll get you where you want to go…eventually.  Just sit back and relax!


view from an autorickshaw, Chennai, 2005