Controversial

Incredibly uncomfortable India?

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’.

Working at the India Tourist Office surely has its challenges – at times.

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 know.’

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?

~ Andrea

Exactly.

Photo credit featured image here. 

 

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Categories: Controversial, Eye Candy, Inspiration

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33 replies »

  1. I can relate to this on so many instances, its one of the most interesting things about India. One minute you can be in a foul mood from numerous people trying to rip you off, then all of a sudden someone will do something so generous and kind it will make you forget everything that put you in a bad mood in the first place. Great post.

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  2. Just saw this article, new blogger and new follower to your blog! Wow to your story!! So sorry that you had to experience that. But I do agree that paying more is worth it for single female travelers. I was in New Delhi in the summer of 2013 and I paid for a personal driver…he took me everywhere and I felt MUCH safer. I was there alone and it was worth the extra money to feel at ease. :)

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  3. I can only imagine what you have been through and how you felt. Your post left me feeling shocked, that violence and intolerance seem to happen on a daily basis. I am going to spend four weeks in India this year, most of the time I will stay in an ashram. For two or three nights I will have to search another accommodation and I am already slightly worried how to make that a safe experience.
    Do you have any tips for me how to behave or what to do to stay out of trouble? Or would you rather say that it’s not possible to willingly influence that?

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    • Which city do you need accommodation for? I definitely think going to India is an amazing experience and I’ve met so many wonderful people there – I guess what’s needed is a lot of common sense, conservative dress code and some humour to deal with stares and unwanted comments :) email me if you’d like more info: andrea@andrealeber.com!

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  4. I lived and traveled in India for a year by myself. I never had any problems but I heard plenty of stories from other women travelers. I made sure to look, dress, talk and act in a way that was respected as much as possible. I planned ahead for travel, hotels, meeting friends of friends. You are not free as a woman so you have to take every precaution and plan how to stay safe. It’s not island hopping around Greece sleeping on the beach, wearing tank tops and shorts. You have to go in knowing you aren’t free and accepting the way things are done and following the rules. Within that structure you fit into society in a certain way and it can be wonderful.
    I loved India. I met wonderful people and had beautiful experiences. I met amazing women and was taken care of as a daughter by many “aunties” and “uncles.” I traveled with women swamis and taught yoga to women school teachers.
    If you are traveling in India as a woman – you are a woman – and you have to learn what that means.
    I miss India to this day and it’s been 7 years. It’s like nowhere else. I always say go, just prepare first.

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    • I totally agree with you and I guess the same can be said for many other countries. I found travelling by myself gave me ample opportunity to connect with local Indian women, something that of course could never happen travelling as a couple.
      Thanks for reading!

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  5. Thats a great post to describe India in some good ways :) I do understand the scary experience which is rising day by day but still there are a good amount of steps taken by the government to oppress it. Its good to read a tourist view about a nation, which makes me aware that tourists not only like India but have some memorable experiences.

    As you said I would defintely recommend some trusted local people to around and be very very precautious. Well its a nation with a billion population and the concentration of different characters of people are high. I hope you understand what I mena.

    Anyway, Love your blog and this post :) Cheers! Have a great day!

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  6. Andrea, this is a well-balanced write-up and approach to India and travel within the country. It is really unfortunate that so many untoward incidents have happened and are happening. Hope things get better soon. Thanks for stopping by my blog. Do visit again.

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  7. Thank you for sharing, and sorry about the scary experience you had. Like you, I used to travel to India by myself. But I would not travel in the way I used to anymore, either. Something has changed recently. So, whereas I still go, it’s with more caution than before.

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    • In thinking on `what has changed’ it is the innocence of people, and to this we have to thank the media, bollywood, advertisements, etc. which put images and ideas into people’s minds. The deep attention to dharma in social relations, in the social fabric, is getting torn apart by an unbridled media.

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  8. I admire your ability to see all sides of India, not to let your judgment be colored by a bad experience. This episode says a lot about you, as well as the country you visited. Keep travelling!!

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  9. As a Delhiite, I apologise for the ugliness at the Jama Masjid. Sadly, that kind of male aggression is far too common in certain cities. Having moved to Calcutta since mid-2011, I would say it is less likely for one to encounter such levels of aggression here in comparison with Delhi. However, it takes so very little to change that, and Calcutta too is slowly losing its reputation as a city that allows its citizens, particularly women, to move around joyfully without fear.

    India is a difficult country for tourists, particularly Western tourists who have grown up in completely different conditions. I must admit I find it hard to understand how so many of them nonetheless visit. It’s very humbling for me. I’m not sure I’m capable of taking-paying for!- such a culture shock. :D

    But, like everywhere, one comes across such lovely people every now and then, that one’s faith is periodically renewed in humanity. :) That’s what I live for. And I think from now on, I will proactively keep an eye out for ways to make visits more welcoming for visitors to the country. Sometimes I think even a smile acknowledging a person helps (we don’t smile at strangers much here :D).

    Thanks for visiting my blog and liking a post! I’ve found myself a new blog to read :)

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  10. Kudos to you for a post that is personal but not preachy. No one can say what is right for another. You present your thoughts in a humble, honest manner.

    Thank you.

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  11. Kudos to you for presenting a view that is personal but not preachy. No one can decide what is right for another. We can simply offer our experience and views in a humble, honest manner.

    Thank you.

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  12. Well seems it all depends on your consent but as a matter of fact, I’ll be really ecstatic if your answer would be yes for future in the concerning matter.

    And yes, i won’t forget to apologize for what you had been encountered with at our place.
    let me tell you one thing dear sister, in any corner of the world there are some kinds of ppl do exist and we can’t have control over them. all we can do is to move away( if you don’t hv any local friend with you on that kind of situation, otherwise you saw the result what happend ). i salute the spirits of both of you, peculiarly the ” rickshaw wala ” for his undying effort.

    btw, nice blog !! love to see more ! :)

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  13. Lovely article, well balanced! Sorry to hear about her experience with the incredibly rude and arrogant driver.
    Having spent close to 20 years in India in different phases of life, teen-age, young adult, married and middle age, I have to say, that getting older, is a real relief for me, wherever I am in the world, but in the regards mentioned, especially in India.

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  14. Hi Andrea, as always, it’s great to read your thoughts. That’s terrible what happened to you at the mosque. I’ve had a few altercations with rickshaw and taxi drivers in India and I find it frustrating that if you feel that they’ve ripped you off or similar, as soon as you make your thoughts known, a crowd of men gathers around and the mood turns hostile. However, that’s India and I feel the country’s plusses totally outweigh its minuses.

    If you’re careful, keep your head down and try not to get irritated/angry with situations that are undoubtedly irritating and angry, you’ll be ok. I’d never tell anyone not to visit. India gets into your heart and leaves you desperate for more. x

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  15. So sorry to read about your difficult experience. I’ve been to India before, and I also had some not so pleasant things happen, but I won’t let that be a deterrent. I’m going back to India next month, this time traveling differently (I’m usually a lone female traveller), I learned from that first trip. Paying a little extra really does make a difference in the level of security, and as a woman I appreciate that. Namaste

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  16. I’m sorry to hear about your bad experience. I’ve lived and worked there for three months, and travelled back a few times since. I agree there are good and bad parts to it, and especially notorious in Delhi. But I think the further away you go, the better and less worried you would actually be. Udaipur is stunning, and nobody bothered me there, to the point that I had to chase down rickshaw drivers for a ride.

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  17. Thank you for a well-written, balanced look at a very sensitive issue. I agree with you Andrea that traveling in India is an amazing experience that shouldn’t be missed. It is unfortunate that unpleasant things happen, but they happen everywhere in the world. I’ve only been once to India, but I travelled alone through Rajastan and to Agra using a car and driver. In each of the places I visited I was met by a guide. It was for me a way to travel and experience India, while feeling safe all the time. Maybe not the cheapest way to travel, but still very reasonable compared to other destinations in the world. In Rishikesh I often wandered around on my own, never feeling uncomfortable or unsafe. Indians in general are kind and generous, and I would not hesitate to go back.

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  18. What is it abt certain cultures n misogyny …

    I think yoga is amazing – I think ashrams are just gimmicks … Resorts … Bnbs

    I think accepting india n all its flaws might teach one patience but it really is a sacrifice to learn it that way – and the sacrifice is not u or yours but that of the millions of indian women who have to put up with this injustice Because someone just thinks ‘ ah but this is india – things r different here so …just breathe through it …’ its sad really –

    the country has to lose something really big for it to take notice of its own people / I suggest it’s tourism industry .

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    • Thanks for commenting. Would you say that by going to India, tourists indirectly (and unintentionally) endorse what is happening? Do you think Indian women can benefit from being in contact with female travellers?

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  19. I also had an awakening moment at that mosque. The intensity of the old city can be unkind to women tourists. I was tailed and mauled as I walked up the market street in what seemed like a mosh pit of men and goats. This is, WITH a male companion. When we actually reached the mosque, I was not allowed into the turrets without a man. I felt intense humiliation paired with incredible rising anger. I found that traveling in India provided me with many opportunities to look deep within myself as I came across each challenge. Every day, no matter where we are in the world, we face risks. In India, it is essential to be especially aware of ones surroundings and make travel savvy choices. I travelled to India days after the Mumbai bombings. I’m certainly glad I didn’t cancel my trip as it became a pivotal time in my life.

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    • Hi Emily, I totally agree. India is an opportunity to get to know ourselves and every single one of my trips left me changed in some ways. I have tremendous respect for Indian women. It sounds obvious, but one of my most powerful realisations was that feminism is not a thing of the past. Intellectual knowledge about women’s rights is one thing, to experience what it means to be considered ‘less worthy’ another one.

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  20. I am a new follower of your blog. I can’t imagine being purposely run over for no apparent reason. The emotions…anger, confusion, and why me? would be running through my mind, and my body would be terrified. Thank you for sharing all that you did. I have never been to India, and for now I enjoy experiencing it through your eyes.

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  21. I am so sorry to hear about your frightful experience Andrea. Trust in humanity is pretty essential when travelling, but it makes sense to take precautions and to be on guard to ensure our safety. I salute your adventurous spirit, and wish you safe travels and many more wonderful encounters.

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