I have been to India numerous times, travelling mostly by myself. Recently a friend was planning to go but got worried by what she was reading in the news. ‘Do you think it’s still safe?’ she wanted to know.
Replying YES would have felt like belittling recent atrocities, brushing them aside like an annoying fly we won’t worry about once it’s out of sight.
Replying NO would have been a slap in the face for millions of well-meaning, friendly and helpful people who genuinely welcome tourists.
Until recently, women travellers could at least take comfort from the fact that it was more or less safe in the foreigner-bubble. Not anymore. A Swiss woman has been raped, a British woman jumped from her hotel balcony on the second floor, injuring both legs, frightened of the hotel owner who (she says / he denies) wanted to enter her room at 4 am. A yoga student on the way to her 4.30 am class in Mysore has been groped and almost raped.
No words can describe this.
But there are other details to some of these stories worth mentioning. The yoga student has been rescued at the last minute by worried neighbours who were brave enough to show civil courage, and the British woman has been picked up by a passing rickshaw driver who ‘took her to a police station and stayed with her for hours, helping to translate’. It’s also worth noting that other tourists staying at the hotel have done nothing in spite of hearing ‘shouts and banging noise for over one hour’.
Let me share something that happened to me in – exactly, Delhi.
Travelling by myself, I wanted to visit Delhi’s main mosque, Jama Masjid. It’s one of the city’s main attractions and, dressed modestly (by myself, I even cover my lower arms) and surrounded by tourist crowds, I didn’t anticipate any major problems. After visiting, I stepped onto the street, checking my map for directions. A man got into the only car parked alongside the pavement, with plenty of space at the front to drive off. I noticed him staring at me, which I ignored, looking at my map. He then got in the car, rapidly set it back, and run me over.
The contents of my bag were spilled onto the street, and my back hurt because of the violent push by the car’s rear. I was coated in dust and slowly tried to get up. He did not get out of the car. A small crowd had formed. My shock transformed into rage and, without thinking, I banged on the car’s trunk. I wanted him to at least get out and acknowledge what had happened. He did nothing of that sort. My outrage attracted an even bigger crowd. Interestingly, people looked at me in a hostile way, but I was too hot-headed to comprehend what was going on, to understand that I, a single female, had made a mistake by confronting the male driver.
‘Madam, you must leave now.’ A rickshaw driver looked at me, imploringly.
‘But have you seen what just happened? This is awful!’ I still did not grasp the situation.
‘Madam, you must leave now,’ he repeated, and then added ‘Where do you want to go? I drive you, you don’t pay.’
Now I became suspicious. He wanted to drive me, for free?
‘Madam, please. Not safe here now. You must leave.’
With the worst of the adrenalin rush over, I finally understood and got in the rickshaw. He drove me back to my hotel.
‘I’m so sorry. India could have much more tourists, you know,’ he said when I paid.
I didn’t have the strength to say more and barely managed to get back to my room where I collapsed, crying. I wish I had been able to thank him and even though he won’t ever read this, I still sometimes send silent thank you notes his way.
It is impossible to give advice to others. But asking myself the question ‘Would I go?‘ I can say this:
YES because India is a country too amazing to be missed, inhabited by wonderful people, most of whom would always go out of their way to help a traveller. If you are a single female traveller, local women will flock to you, cherishing the rare opportunity of making contact with a foreigner. They will bombard you with questions and humble you with their boundless warmth that is given expecting nothing in return. Travelling with a male companion will make contact impossible for them.
NO I would not travel the way I did in the past. We have all read about the ‘usual precautions’ one should take – and now I actually would. Part of this is also recognising that while India can be dirt cheap, sometimes paying more gives you more security. I think an ashram stay is actually a great chance to get in contact with Indians, without being worried about safety. Granted, there’s no sightseeing, but if I’m there for yoga, that’s just fine by me.
What do you think?
Photo credit featured image here.