A single or a couple of women taking a trip in India comes with its own volley of problems, as every step of the way throws up a new challenge. First of all, you cannot do the most travel-esque thing: hitchhike. A method tried and tested for travel experiences that remain unforgotten, in a country where the news is full of horror stories about crimes against women, it is a privilege only accessible to well-built, thrifty men, as we give up dreams of our very own Motorcycle Diaries. Or so common sense will tell you.
Worries begin as night falls- while big cities are notorious for their crime rates, small cities have that eerie sense of abandonment post nine pm, of perhaps police being not so readily available, of people misconstruing your purpose, of stumbling across barren land and little connectivity. As women, we choose to spend the extra cash, but not compromise on safety- we try to stay in downtown areas, tend to peek in buses to check the male-female ratio before hopping on, and generally beware of accepting any unsolicited help. We take extra care about where we stay, about the homestays we pick, about the hotels we decide on, as often enough one hears horror stories about hotel staff mixing with local goons to harass you.
And then of course, for the cherry on top, there are always judgy uncles and aunties who are only too happy to show you your place. In our train back to Delhi, a middle aged couple was surprised to find that the two of us girls were out by ourselves, asking us whether we were too fond of adventure, their eyebrows raised so high up that they threatened to get lost in the hair on their head. Of course, there are many, many of us who do go out on our own, who do hitchhike, who do take trips while staying on a tight budget- but a general middle-class consensus remains, that for a woman to travel alone in India, without an external support system, is just not safe. I do not suggest that these problems for women are exclusive to India- but perhaps I may suggest that they exist more so in India?
A night in Jodhpur and all of us sat together, conversations taking us to places unexplored. A French girl traveling to other states of India after a three-month long stint in Leh, a German out to experience the whole of south and south-east Asia, another German with similar travel plans, an Indian guy bagpacking across the entire subcontinent with a goal to know every corner of all our twenty-nine states over a period of one-and-half years- and of course, us two girls, our travel plans seeming increasingly tiny in front of their ambitious ones.
Suddenly though, the equation changes- there are foreigners amidst us who have their own set of problems. They don’t know the language, they stand out for their differently coloured skin, and are obviously not so aware of the culture of a place- additionally, in a country like India, where culture can vary so greatly every few hundred kilometres, it can get all the more confusing.
They begin to relate their experiences, one of which happened right in front of us- some of the locals extremely keen to take pictures with these whiter skinned people, simply walk up to these foreigners and stand next to them, asking their friend to click a picture. It is bizarre; the French girl exclaims that it does not make them feel like celebrities, that it makes them feel like zoo animals. That is the gap- it wouldn’t be the locals’ intention to make them feel like zoo animals; perhaps they just act out of curiosity, and do not find any other way to express themselves since they cannot speak a language common with them.
Then there are some instances which are not so funny, some which are just plain awful. Foreigners raped on the beaches of Goa, raped while they are on drugs, robbed as they try to ask around their way, fooled into things much more sinister. It is not just limited to foreigners; as the two of us girls walked around in Pushkar, a bunch of local guys begin to follow us, asking us which country, which country. When we do not answer, they try and push each other on us, so they may accidently brush against us and every time that happened, the whole group would cheer.
There are smaller problems as well- imagine leaving a valuable bag at some place you visited, some table you sat at, in the excitement of the day, imagine accidently leaving it behind at a shop, a restaurant or in a taxi. I make this statement without referring to any stats, because there can be no reliable stats for such a thing- you’re just less likely to retrieve something you left behind or lost in India as opposed to in other touristy countries. It is easier to find something you left behind, or dropped on the way, in a country like Singapore, or Germany or Switzerland.
But why? Is it because people are more dishonest here, more deceitful? No, maybe not; maybe the problem is that we don’t have the kind of systems in place that will facilitate the search of a lost item. We don’t have effective Lost-and-Found management at tourist places, we have police who are overburdened and have better things to do than find your lost wallet and they have no problem even telling you so- it is perhaps because the system doesn’t support us that individual acts of such assistance are more rare. Of course, experiences are always subjective- you could have lost your bag in Singapore, never to be found again, and found a lost one in Punjab. But on an average, I would not pick up a wallet lying on the road and make an effort to report it to the police if I know that it’s going to take away too much time from my day and earn me additional jeers from the authorities themselves.
These are among the many factors that make traveling in India not just dangerous, but consistently difficult, and that is a terrible shame, because India, with its endless history and multicultural demographic has monumental potential. Every state has so much to teach you, with effects of an increasingly globalizing world palpable on the local population, that traveling in India can be one of the many great experiences of your life.
But as the night went on and the Jodhpur air cooled down, we began talking about the other side of India, the side beyond the gruelling heat and inconvenient transport, the side beyond the dilapidated histories and the forgotten lives. The side which sheds light on the warmth, the brilliance and the beauty of cultures which believe in communities, in helping each other out, in looking out for more than just yourself.
They relate experiences and instances where the generosity of the people has exceeded anything that they have ever witnessed- the simple gestures by which the locals welcome travellers in their homes, the way they ask them to sit and have a meal with them, to share their food and understand where they come from. I hear that and I can’t help but agree- seeing a baraat passing by the main road from our balcony, all of us rushed down to witness it as the groom and his family pulled us in with them, made us dance, and asked us to come along, to be a part of their festivities, to share their happiness. They asked us, as we stood in our dishevelled hair and random pyjamas, they asked us to come along.
When our German friend caught an auto in the middle of the night to buy cigarettes and upon reaching the shop, realized that he had no money on him, the auto guy generously offered to purchase them for him. When in the train, the judgy uncle-aunty who disapproved of our trip, also made an extra effort to visit us and check whether our unconfirmed seats got confirmed. A couple of years back, while on the train from Goa to Delhi, we befriended an old, sardaar uncle who never fails to call and wish me on any festival, who never fails to wish me on my birthday, more than two years after we met him that one time.
There is something about this country that makes traveling here an absolutely maddening and an absolutely heart-warming experience. The range of people you will find here, there is little chance that you will find it anywhere else. Perhaps its still not too clichéd to say that here you will find that something else too, maybe a method in madness, a beauty in disarray, but it is something that works.