One of my fellow female backpackers was traveling to India for the second time and she was describing all the ‘weird’ things. Like that one time an Indian man was touching and rubbing her toe on a train. And many other obscure little incidents. ‘So why are you going back? After telling me all this’ – I asked. ‘India is a love-hate thing‘ – she said. – It’s sometimes disgusting and hard to understand, but there’s something about it and you want to come back‘. I couldn’t say it better.
I definitely can’t claim that I know it all about India. It’s huge and diverse, and I spent there only few weeks and was in Northern India only (Delhi, Agra and Rishikesh). But here’s my experience.
IT’S TOO EASY TO FIND THE ‘HATE’
Yes, it’s dirty! Filthy cows walk even on big streets in the capital. Lot’s of beggars. Lots of slums and street crime. So traveling solo you have to be on guard ALL the time, and it’s ugh exhausting!
I guess, the biggest concern for a girl to go solo to India is safety. And yes, the statistics are bad and incidents are horrific. Yes, you always feel sticky pervert-y glances (stares!) of men. And they take pictures of you. And they try to touch you. This harassment is a big issue in the society and they try to tackle it, always dividing men and women when possible. All metro trains in Delhi are equipped with women-only carts, and it’s strictly enforced. Crazily, you have to pass thru a metal detector/ pat down EVERY time you enter subway or a even a supermarket (imagine that in peak hours in a 18-million people Delhi!). So there’re separate lines for men and women.
You will MOST likely get a food poisoning in India. You can get it even eating at good restaurants. I got it from home-cooked food (must be the water). Being sick on the road sucks, especially when you’re traveling solo and have to take care of yourself…yourself.
And in general, many things seem backward and uncomfortable.
BUT THERE’S AN IMMENSE BEAUTY AND ‘LOVE’ HIDDEN AMONG THIS ‘HATE’
India has rich history and culture, and it’s very very interesting to plunge into that. I’m not going to describe Indian beauty (okay, maybe just one picture with Taj Mahal:). I’ll just speculate, how to try bringing the ‘love’ to the foreground.
I travel for people. Through them I learn about the real culture, the real essence of a country. Particularly in case with India I advise to have someone local you ‘know’ (or better staying with) before your arrival. Couchsurfing has always been my favorite way to go – gives you some ‘local base’, community, sense of attachment. I was looking particularly to be hosted by girls, and there’re actively hosting female couchsurfers in India. Go for it!
My first girl couchsurfer was very young and progressive-thinking lady. Especially when it came down to ‘your vagina is your property’ statements! :) It was very interesting to get to know such a ‘girl power!’ Indian woman.
Then I was hosted by a married couple of really awesome, super chill and adventure-loving people. The moment I walked in their beautiful house (in a gated community! it’s a big thing in India), I learnt it was a birthday party of my host’s sister. Drinks and cake, yay! And lots of really chill friends! I needed it to ‘relax into’ India, trust it and let it be.
Once your stomach goes through its first shock, the food is actually amazing! I am always curious about the local cuisines, so my ‘girl power!’ couchsurfer gave me a workshop on Indian cooking and introduction to basic Indian spices. Girl time!:)
Of course you go out by yourself as well. Just like everywhere, you need common sense. My couchsurfer’s husband also suggested, that perhaps traveling as a solo girl in India you should do a little more planning ahead. I hardy ever know my plan for the next day, I like to see how it goes. So because of this ‘let’s see’ and also chasing the cheapest transportation ways, I ended up feeling unsafe twice: being dropped off the bus at night in the middle of nowhere and in the dark morning on a train station trying to find the cheapest local 3rd-class train to Agra. I assume this advise isn’t a bad one. At least DEFINITELY have a plan B and C, and be aware of your surroundings.
I also realized, that subconsciously I was always trying to get closer to women, get under their ‘wing’ in uncertain situations. Sit next to them during a bus ride. Address the wife rather than a husband. Ask women for directions and walk with them. I felt some sort of camaraderie, no joking! They KNOW about unsafety and harassment, and they stick together!
And when I got tired of people taking pictures of me, I started coming up to them myself, asking if I may please take a picture with THEM:)
I still ended up doing pretty much everything, what I always do when I backpack. Travel with cheap local transport. Mingle with the locals. Haggled. Ate de-li-cious street food. Talked to strangers. Didn’t buy any souvenirs. Walked around after dark. Hiked. Went on life-threatening rickshaw rides:)
I didn’t want to shut down and miss the ‘love’, while focusing in the ‘hate’. Yes, the dirt and buttery looks are there, and they are on the surface. However, India has many facets and depths. You have to learn to embrace certain things, surround yourself with a safe community when possible and have a plan B. The rest are the pleasures and responsibilities of backpacking.
The Indian Ying-Yang of love-hate is something that keeps people wondering and coming back to this country! I did not travel across the world to miss moments like this:)