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.

smooth operator

He was a smooth operator the way he showed up just at the time I was leaving to walk to the great temple.

Kannan told me that he speaks 5 or 6 languages and he has a sister in Germany, so he is smoother and savvier than most of the men of his type that I met. He is also married and has children, and acting as Rameswaram’s unofficial official tour guide is all he does.  He has carved out a niche for himself, a good enough niche to be mentioned in the popular India travel guide, The Rough Guide.

I was exhausted by the time we got back from watching the children dance. Kannan and I had been out for about four hours, and this was after a day of traveling seven hours from Kodaikanal up in the Palani Hills to a place that was only five miles from Sri Lanka. We walked to the hotel’s restaurant and Kannen started to tell me about where we were going the next day, how much the bucket ceremony would cost me on the morning of the third day, how much I should pay the rickshaw driver he used, and all I heard yet again was how much money another Indian wanted from me.

So I did what I rarely do in front of anyone — I started to cry. If I was a child I would have been told that I was over-tired and cranky. I was almost shaking and I yelled at Kannan that I was not made of money, that despite the fact that I could afford to go to India, yoga teachers don’t make much money, that I was tired of Indians looking at me and seeing only dollar bills and I hated that.

He looked shocked and hurt and his eyes got very wide.  He put his hands to his ears, then to his forehead as if he had a headache, and started to shake his head and say “no no no no no no….”, a low murmur at first, then gradually louder. He looked like he was going to cry.  Suddenly he put his hands on my cheeks, pulled me close, and kissed me. Not a passionate kiss, not even on the lips, but close enough. Remembering what I had been told about South Indian culture and especially about Indian men, I stood there amazed.  “Tomorrow,” was all he said.

He smiled and said I should get some sleep because we had a long day tomorrow, walking the beach to Danushkodi. Still dazed and speechless I walked into the restaurant to relax and ordered black tea, not chai. I wanted comfort from something familiar from home. I closed my eyes, started to take long, deep, calming breaths, and felt someone behind me. I did not turn around because I knew it was Kannan.  I opened my eyes and his hand was in front of my face, holding some flowers.  I slowly turned around, looked at him out of the corner of my eye, and half-smiled.

“From the bush outside,” he said, “I could not leave you sad.”

Smooth.kannen