March 27, 2012
India mimics the rhythms of the ocean. At times, it’s benign, lapping gentle waves at your feet, tickling your toes. Then there are the trying moments, a violent storm that slams your body, jarring nerves to the brink when you drop any social veneer and gulp heaps of utter shock.
Friends warned me. I prepared myself, reading Wanderlust and Lipstick’s Guide for Women Traveling to India, Beth Whitman’s excellent guide.
Still, there’s reality. Physical encounters are obvious, but what about the internal inputs? As you absorb the logic or chaos of India, it can be daunting to a solo explorer, especially a lone female.
Reality is nothing to fear when armed with practical information.
1. The Staring
I can confirm, you will be stared at. Walking down the street. In a restaurant. Standing in the ATM line. It won’t be a glance of mild interest, and then they look away. There’s a focused intensity as people rake their eyes up and down, examining every detail of your being. Sometimes I look down at myself to ensure everything that should be covered, is. Not every person you encounter will do this, but it will occur frequently. India is not like Europe, where travelers blend in, often ignored by the general public.
Tip: Many worry a man’s attention will be followed by an unseemly proposition. While some ladies might invite this, others don’t. Much of the staring is simply curiosity. Some locals have never seen a foreigner before, so they are intrigued. Eventually you notice that women stare as often as men. This can be unnerving, but try to remember that while you are excited and fascinated by India, her people feel the same about you.
2. The Heckling
During my volunteer work, I got the chance to visit Hyderbaad, the capital city in Andhra Pradesh. One day Roxanne (fellow intern) and I ventured into the city towards an area called Mehdi Patnam to use the Internet and do some shopping. As we walked, odd reactions began to emerge. I said ‘thank you’ to someone giving us directions and heard my voice fed back to me from a group close by – “Thank youuuuu!!!” I didn’t turn to see who the culprit was. After Internet, we went on search for a salwar. In the course of swapping stories I laughed — you know– my laugh. We passed a cluster of guys and one of them imitated me. I had no idea I sounded like a hyena. It was mockery, clearly. It felt like grade school all over again.
Tip: I began to wonder if I have an annoying voice or a stupid laugh. Bottomline: don’t visit India if you have shitty self-esteem. Nah, scratch that. Don’t take it personally. I attribute this tip to Roxanne. She aptly said if some Indians haven’t encountered many foreigners, they often engage in strange ways. Ways that are not always conducive to an equal dialogue. I also chalked it up to the Indian sense of humor. Self-deprecating humor is widely broadcast in comedy serials and films. It certainly can be interesting when your mannerisms are echoed from an outsider.
3. It’s Okay to be a Feminist
Long ques are notorious in India. While I’m growing at an astounding rate as a human being, holding more love in my heart than hate, one thing I can’t stand is long, pointless lines. The second thing I can’t stand is when you nearly reach a train ticket window, and a guy with 5 ticket requests tries to boldly cut in front when you clearly have 1 request to his 5. That’s the point when I stick my elbow in his ribs and loudly say, “Heyyyy, the line is back there!!” This is controversial when the bulk of the line is composed of men. He waved his requests at me, barking in Telugu, indicating his needs were far greater than mine. After standing 40 minutes in line, I was having none of this. I firmly said in English, “I. Don’t. Care. The line is there.” I wasn’t the only one agitated; a few locals had a word or two with the interloper. Amid the bedlam of jockeying to purchase their train tickets, I managed to break my fist through, request crumpled, but victory at my heels. The pushy man had to wait.
Tip: I’m not suggesting you rally Indian women to burn their saris and strike against domestic life, just keep in mind it’s acceptable to be assertive.
4. Am I Invisible?
Solo women do partner up for short periods of time, and sometimes with a male friend. When you encounter locals, you will notice a bizarre occurrence. A local of the male persuasion will only speak to your friend. Not you. Ever. The local will even talk about you, never addressing a question to you directly. It’s tempting to start river dancing or picking your nose to see if you really are immaterial.
Tip: An integral piece to India’s personality is propriety. What seems misogynist is actually intended to protect your reputation. Gender interaction rarely happens, except between schoolmates, co-workers, relatives, wives and husbands. Typically, unmarried men do not mingle with unmarried women. Even with a rising middle class and softening mores, gender roles are fairly rigid, have been for hundreds of years.
5. The Incessant Questions
Some days I want to hurl a cow patty if another person asks if I’m married. I’m beginning to invent creative answers in my head. No, I like women. No, I man inside, not outside. You get the picture. I refrain from uttering my secret thoughts, but ooh, it’s tempting. Usually you’re asked at the most inopportune times; on the rumbling train when your nose is clearly buried in a book or when you’re marching through a village with a swelling group of excitable children on Republic Day.
Tip: Questions about family and marital status are not exclusive to travelers. Indians also ask each other the same questions. A hangover from the caste era, knowing your family origins and marital status paints a picture of your socio-economic background. Even something as innocuous as a name carries meaning.
Complete strangers have stopped their motorbike and offered me a ride into town. I politely declined. I’ve had invitations to visit temples or come by for dinner. Some I’ve eagerly agreed to; others were dismissed. My couchsurfing email account filled with males from Mumbai offering to show me the ‘sights’ or hey, let’s grab a coffee.
Tip: Intuition is your savior. Use it wisely; use it well. Then, have some serious fun. Not every invitation is a pre-curser to assault. Be open, but aware. In Mumbai, I repeatedly saw foreigners in mini-skirts. Let me reiterate propriety. Perceptions are everything in India. You have a right to wear what you want, but you’ve come to explore, learn and receive. Part of this process is allowing others to feel comfortable engaging with you. When you combine halter tops with sparse gender contact that’s shaky ground.
I’m not fearless and worry like anyone about my safety. Each state in India has a regional language, but most Indians speak at least 2 languages. Hindi is the national language and is mandatory in schools.
Extreme case only, but I’ve often pondered what I might say if assault was imminent.
Harsh sun pierced the delicate membrane of my retinas. Trickles of sweat poured down my back, along the sides of my temple. Throngs of hawkers bellowed from their stalls, singing the praises of their products. ”Brinjal! Fresh!” ”Grapes!” Their eyes dart to me, eagerly seeking a potential sale with a firangi. Men in pressed shirts with laptop bags push by me. Delicately beautiful women bursting in jewel toned saris stare, sometimes smile at me. Cows trudge alongside, methodical with laziness and power. They know their revered position and flaunt it. Stray dogs with matted fur and a permanent itch run towards me, hankering for a pet or scrap of food. A child shyly touches my leg, awed by this alien woman in their sights. Instead of diving in, I want to shrink, be small and insignificant. With over a billion people and animals to engage with, why do I feel so alone sometimes?
Tip: What you’re feeling is not loneliness, but a craving for the familiar.
Solo Girl, India Isn’t All Bad
Hopefully you haven’t turned off your computer in disgust with India. For all the idiosyncratic instances that have happened to me, there were innumerable acts of kindness and generosity. I’ve been helped with directions, had my bag carried as I got on a rickshaw, and friendly strangers have welcomed me to their country.
What I hope this guide does is strengthen your understanding of this puzzling, beautiful country. Like the ocean, we are fearful of its tremendous power, yet we still break into a run to be enveloped by an arcing wave, reveling in the roar and exhilaration without resistance. Treat India the same.