Thursday, January 10, 2013

Solo woman traveller: Indian dangers, Canadian goggles

Crowd gathers to watch my friends at Chowpatty Beach (photo by Kane Ryan)

I met my husband in a Mumbai slum at a Diwali charity event. People always ask if it was love at first sight. For me it was. I looked at him and saw a dark-skinned Gregory Peck in a crisp blue dress shirt and pressed jeans with old-fashioned movie manners and a wide, dimpled smile that could glamour a wailing baby into a shy giggle – I’ve actually seen it happen.
His story of what he thought of me on first glance is usually along the lines of: “Who is this crazy girl travelling India by herself? What is she up to?”
In fact, our relationship developed more out of his concern for my safety than romantic attraction – in the beginning anyway. He gave me the numbers of his relatives in Goa. He made sure I made trains. He messaged me daily. He encouraged me to get a local cell phone. He discouraged me from taking rickshaws at night. He dragged his laptop and work to Bangalore, Calcutta, Varanasi. He made me choose between him and a solo trip to Rishikesh (it was the turning point in our relationship).
Did this raise my thick feminist brows? Yes. Did this ruffle my independent, female feathers? Yes. Did this flatter my archaic romantic sensibilities? Yes – but in a somewhat ashamed and conflicted way.
After a few months in India, I started to clue in. It wasn’t just him who was worried it was every Indian I met. I seemed to be living two travel tales; the thrilling, adventurous exchange between fellow backpackers (many of whom were single women from developed countries) and the aggressive, flamboyant warnings of locals to stay in after dark (“you’ll get groped”), stay away from Delhi (“you’ll get fleeced”), find a friend (“male and a relative, preferably”), or go to a five-star (“where there are many foreigners”). I started to notice things – news articles, friends’ stories, my own experiences – that told me I’d been gravely naïve in my travelling mindset. Eat, Pray, Love-like fantasies were tinged with unexpected fear and anger for myself and other women.

In light of the recent attention being paid to rape and the harassment of women in India, I thought I’d share a few of my personal thoughts and experiences for the consideration of any friends worried about travelling there – especially the ladies.

While India can be a safe and wonderful place for women travelling alone it is not without serious risks. Being a woman is a different game there. Period. I spent the majority of my time with Indian women, from slum dwellers and villagers to young professionals and middle-class housewives. For a 33-year-old single traveler like me, acknowledging the dangers we all faced (of varying degrees) and adjusting to it was both painful and humbling.

Every morning, along with nearly a billion other people, I read the Times of India newspaper. As a news reporter, I was at first (yes, grotesquely) enthralled by the amount of bizarre crime stories: Acid assaults, ritual killings, and the proliferation of openly criminal politicians.

But I generally glazed over an abundance of vague and brief stories about eve-teasing. Sounds kind of fun right? Not quite. Eve-teasing is a jargony way of downplaying sexual harassment and assault, often very serious cases like rape and beatings.

One morning I read about a 19-year-old Swedish tourist taken into the bushes and raped by two rickshaw drivers on the same route I’d argued with my husband (then boyfriend) that I should take alone a few nights before.

A few days later the story of a woman in Calcutta, who was lured by a job offer, brutally raped and left for dead, garnered national attention. Not because it was horrific but mostly because West Bengal minister Mamta Banerjee – yes, a woman – claimed the story was fabricated to malign her government. Savvy detectives proved her wrong and nearly lost their jobs in doing so. The majority of the debate surrounding this story was, similar to the Delhi case, about what women should do to avoid rape.

In fact, here’s a long-story-short with a disturbing zinger. An afternoon outing with women and children from the slum a friend works in went awry when we lost a four-year-old girl. Kum kum wandered out of the amusement park, past a security guard and into the chaotic streets of Mumbai. Luckily, a kind man on a bike who looks for lost children turned her into the police station. As we walked out of the station, my friend was in shock over a t-shirt one of the detectives was wearing. It said: Help stop rape – Consent.

Men are everywhere in India. Everywhere. On more than one occasion, I was stopped by groups of them to take a picture. Not me kindly taking a picture for them – as I first assumed – but me taking a picture with them or being asked to pose for them. This got freaky real quick.

The first time I was groped was in Goa. I was walking home from dinner in Calangute with two Egyptian girls I met at my guesthouse. A young man rode by on a bicycle and grabbed my bottom. I was so shocked and embarrassed I just laughed politely like a good Canadian. The Egyptian women lost it, screaming and swearing bloody murder. They were used to this kind of thing and to fighting back.

The second time I was alone, in Bangalore. I was on my way back to the ashram after a beautiful bharatanatyam dance class. The scent of fresh jasmine and frangipani hung thick as the banyan canopies. I was so lost in love with my thoughts of India I paid no attention to the boy on the bicycle coming towards me. Emboldened by the sight of my arms full with bags he went for a full breast grope. No words. I walked on, blushing, smaller than a nutmeg on the side of the road.

I met some incredible female travelers on yoga retreats, cultural adventures, personal emancipation journeys and plain getaways. Their boldness was admirable, inspiring and sometimes plain dumb-lucky.

Take the Italian woman I met in Bangalore, Michaela. She was THE cliché: Dreadlocks, hammer pants, prayer beads, mehndi and even a bindhi. On her first trip to India, she lived with a family in a northern village and drank the unfiltered water they did. Hospital. Six months. Nearly died.

On her second trip, she took a private charter bus through a washed out mountain road in monsoon season. It crashed. Nearly died.

On her third trip, all of her things were stolen in Mumbai. Rupee and passport-less, she accepted an offer to stay with legless beggar in the most-dangerous slum. She did. For two weeks.

I took her shopping to a locals mall for cheap kurtas and, facing a lack of dressing rooms, she ripped off her shirt to try one on. No bra. Dumb-lucky.

In Varanasi, the cleaner at our hotel ranted at me and my husband about the young hippie women wandering the ghats drunk and on drugs, looking for gurus and easily duped by perverts dressed as spiritual healers. He was really upset. He wanted us to talk to them.

The risks for good-paying travelers, female or otherwise, are nothing compared to those most Indian women face every day. But they are there. It’s important for us to take off our ‘western’ goggles and feel the discomfort of fear and danger sometimes. There’s no shame in understanding, it’s the root of compassion and the beginning of change.

My hope is that the tragic rape and brutal murder of the young woman in Delhi continues to fuel awareness and change for India, with the support of women and men all around the world.

My husband visited Canada for the first time this past Christmas. He said he was surprised and happy to see women in so many public places; working, enjoying, independent, safe. For the first time he felt OK with stints of us being separated, knowing I was in here. “This is beautiful,” he told me. “This is how it should be for every woman.”

Hampi pilgrims want a snap with the tourist

Not to be left out ladies

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

LOVERS LOOKOUT: A dad story from the Sunshine Coast

On the corner of Trail Avenue and Dolphin Street in Sechelt, B.C., across from Hackett Park at the newish four-way stop is an atrocious display of sidewalk architecture and a sign that makes the locals snicker but their hearts gleam.
The sidewalk, established in 1987, covered a gutter of delightful tadpoles for one smalltown block and culminates in a jarring two-foot slope of concrete so dangerous that poles and chains were erected to protect the unsuspecting pedestrians from the drop whilst breathing in the spectacular view of the town’s singular traffic light (we now have three) and a burgeoning mountainside gravel pit.
Flabbergasted by this show of civic planning, my father, a man of impeccable taste in design, went to task. In the basement shop of our rented home – one of the town’s oldest – across from the jilted sidewalk, he sawed, whittled, and painted “LOVERS LOOKOUT” SECHELT on a wood sign and, with a few screws, christened the sidewalk a local legend.

This past Father’s Day my brother and I set out to spruce up the sign, faded to a dull brown over its 25-year sojourn. Many will recognize Lovers Lookout but few know the story behind it. Such is life in a quirky smalltown, where highway bus stops are stocked with chairs left by mystery Good Samaritans because there are no bus shelters, where chainsaw-made stump gnomes can be found in the woods, where the free shed at the dump is a trove of treasures and burly men in big trucks scour switchbacks at Christmas for stranded skiers.
My father’s name was Dave Petrescu. He was a carpenter by trade, a photographer by hobby and a shop teacher at Pender Harbour Secondary School for 16 years. He was many other things as well; an incredible father, husband and friend included. Lovers Lookout was just one of his many design triumphs. He and his students built the Madeira Park information sign, he designed a yellow cedar hope chest just for me (though I later discovered most of the Harbour had made their own in shop class), he built our kitchen cabinets with a 500-year-old stump from the Sechelt waterfront, bronze cast his own thumb to replace a gearshift knob on his three-in-a-tree GMC truck and once sculpted a bronze bust of my mother.
My brother and I were just eight and five-years-old when my dad made that sign and it has reminded us of him with embarrassment, pride and sadness in the 25 years since. He died nearly nine years ago from skin cancer. He was at peace, in love with his family, his community and his life. May this story be one example of how we never really lose a loved one; they stay with us in the stories, humour and signs that come after they’re gone. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sharing the Professional Development luurrvvee...

Notes from Facebook for Reporting and Storytelling, May 16, 2012
Poynter NewsU Webinar with Facebook Journalism director Vadim Lavrisuk
Follow the Twitter convo at the #nuwebinar feed 

Recent Facebook Statistics

• The average Facebook user spends 26 minutes on the site per day.

• The amount of Shared Content on the site has doubled in the past two years. 450B pieces of content are shared daily. The average user shared 150 items/month.

• There are 900M active monthly users on Facebook. 500M use mobile apps.

Useful for Journalists and News Organizations

• Facebook search is a Rolodex of 850M, searchable by place and keywords

• Sources increasingly respond quicker to Facebook content as it humanizes Journalists.

• Journalists can now use one profile to distinctly share personal and professional information by using the Subscribe features. Subscribers are not Friends and can only see posts directed to them via the Public Only button when you status update.

• Facebook’s social discovery program will recommend those who Like the Times Colonist Page to also Subscribe to anyone on Facebook who lists the Times Colonist as an employer.

• Reporters who publicly post behind-the-scenes photos and videos of their work increase subscribers the most quickly as it lends a more credible and human edge to their professional work.

• Posts with a journalist’s  or news organization’s analysis receive 20 per cent more hits.

• Posts with 5 lines of text and a thumbnail receive 60 per cent more hits.

• There is an 85 per cent increase of clicks on links on Saturdays!

• The highest traffic times on Facebook are (EST) 7, 8, 10 a.m. and 4, 5, 12 p.m., Midnight and 2 a.m.

• Facebook drives a lot of traffic to news websites (and advertisers) with a 500 per cent increase in referrals in the past two years.

• $$$News organizations can monetize their Facebook presence by using a sponsored Social App, such as the Washington Post does. Billion-dollar software companies such as Zinga exist on this.$$$$

• News organizations can increase their Likes (ie. Targeted readership) by offering premier content and interactive polls, contests and posts if the reader Likes the page.

• Real-time news updates on Facebook (and Twitter) drive readers to news sites throughout the story development and encourage them to respond with response and valuable content.

• The Timeline feature can be used to document the news organization’s rich history by adding important dates and content, as well as to document an unfolding project.

Check out the Poynter Institutes NewsU Webinar Series here:

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

From Bombay, with love ...

 From Bombay, with love: My time with the Dirty Wall Project in Saki Naka slum community, Mumbai

We step out of the autorickshaw onto the side of a dust, traffic and waste-filled road. The people, dogs and cars move around each other like notes in a symphony that miraculously do not collide – at least not as often as you’d think. The brown veil of pollution hangs low, intensifying every shallow breath, sweet and sour scent to this newcomer’s senses. We follow a clearing through a garbage dump of sorts and come upon the entrance to the Saki Naka slum community in the Andheri East area of Mumbai.... Read the full post on the Dirty Wall Project website:

Saturday, October 15, 2011


I’m laying on a bed watching my newborn nephew squirm and stare like a little shrimp with wide inky eyes, not yet quite part of this world, a tiny fish plucked from the water. We’re in the home I grew up in and helped build, in the room where my father spent his last days just over eight years ago. Today would have been his 60th birthday, so we’re baking a cake – angel food, obviously.
Here I am again, listening intently for another’s breath and heartbeat. This one is so small yet strong. He is his grandfather’s namesake, David, born on his father’s 30th birthday – a breath of life and joy in a family that’s seen too much loss and sorrow in the past 10 years.
I am reminded, bitterly, of the days and weeks spent in this room, slipping in and out of sleep as I watched my father die from cancer. I remember the endless episodes of Law and Order, reading him the Lee Valley tools catalogue, massaging his swollen feet and the ever-present soundtrack of CBC radio.
I remember sitting vigil for days when he first slipped out of consciousness. I dozed off and awoke to find him gone – literally, not there. The bed was empty. Confusion and panic ensued. His slippers were also gone. Could someone barely 100-lbs, on intravenous morphine, who hadn’t spoken or woke for three days just get up and take off? Apparently, yes.
Dad had an abrupt second wind and seeing me asleep took advantage of his chance to escape. It was Saturday, you see, perhaps his last. This meant it might be his last chance ever to hit a garage sale. We found him trucking down our street, coming from the multi-family, cul-de-sac yard sale a block away, with a ‘90s Casio keyboard and various trinkets in tow. I have no idea where he got cash. He was eccentric, defiant and amusing to the end.
I am reminded of the labour of death. The waiting, the pain, the love, the unabashed humour about bodily functions and frailties. The fear and taking over of inevitable physical change. The departure. The arrival. Is the labour of death not so different from the labour of birth?
Change of any kind is laborious, especially when the focus is on the endings – of a life, a love, a career, a path.
Cultural mythologist Joseph Campbell said. “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
He also said, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
This is why change is so hard – it breaks us. When, and if, we’re able to put ourselves together do we become “stronger in our broken places,” as Hemingway suggests?
Leonard Cohen sings: “There is a crack in everything/That’s where the light gets in.”
And if it doesn’t get in do we remain broken, static in our shadowy traumas, surges of fear lashing in our bellies like live wires?
This is the journey, the individual adventure.
The decision to take a one-year sabbatical from my job as a newspaper reporter stemmed equally from opportunity and physical exhaustion. I’ve sometimes compared Island life to Calypso’s Isle in Ulysses, a sensual womb of comforts and support at its best and a stagnating time warp at its worst. As hard as it is to leave, even for a short while, it can only be best.
This year is as much for professional development as it is personal. Courses, conferences and fellowships are being considered. But a more experiential form of learning calls first. This stems from an interest in how people receive and share information that matters most and what new forms of storytelling emerge.
After only a week back in my hometown Sechelt, I’m reminded of the intriguing travel of news in small communities. Stories break with “Did you hear?” at the mall, the hardware store, in grocery parking lots. A few graphs in the local rag or even the big-city dailies can’t compare to the build and unraveling of personal connections, detail and emotional responses to tragedies or hot issues.
It’s good to immerse yourself in new communities every now and then – especially for a journalist. We spend our working lives gathering intimate details about others in short intense exchanges to invite interest, dialogue and change – yet we strive to maintain an emotional distance to be objective, to get the job done.
When the distancing seeps into your personal life is when it’s time to change, to challenge perspective.
Tomorrow, I’ll leave for Amsterdam to meet a dear friend from journalism school. One week later, I’ll leave for India – I’m not sure for how long or what exactly will unfold. I am fortunate to arrive in Mumbai and spend time with a Victoria friend, Kane Ryan, his parents, and the Dirty Wall Project – a charity supporting one of the many slum communities with the mantra “See a need and fill it.” For the past year I’ve followed Kane’s blog,, a frank, earnest and visually stunning portrayal of his work, colleagues and community.
I plan to connect with a certain newspaper night security guard, who works two jobs to support his family in Victoria and a rural school in Northern India, as well as a high school friend of my father’s who left Canada to become a Hari Krishna in the ‘70s and work with inner city kids in Bangalore.
One of the most-difficult items to leave will be my laptop, which I’m trading for a moleskine notebook – where poems and drawings will replace tweets and third-person status updates…. Until an internet café calls – which I’m sure it will often.



Thursday, February 10, 2011


This was a beautiful event to witness: A surprise wedding proposal planned by a stealth chorister and hundreds of fellow singers. Beautiful.

The Gettin’ Higher Choir did more than sing about love and happiness at an afternoon concert Sunday. The more-than-200-member group helped a fellow chorister in an elaborate surprise proposal to his girlfriend, also in the choir.
Choral director Shivon Robinsong invited Niilo Van Steinburg and Sara McLaughlin to introduce themselves to the audience before the choir was set to sing “Love and Happiness,” a song by Kimmie Rhodes and Emmylou Harris.
Robinsong told the crowd they like to invite choir members to tell their stories every now and then. Unbeknownst to McLaughlin, the invitation was a ploy to get the couple stage front — a ploy planned by her boyfriend, Robinson, co-director Denis Donnelly and hundreds of singers.
McLaughlin told the audience: “Just after we started dating, Niilo thought we could join the Gettin’ Higher Choir as something we could do together as a couple.”
Van Steinburg said he enjoyed the choir so much he wanted to try conducting it — right then. Robinsong obliged and Van Steinburg took the podium, lifting his hands to a wall of voices singing the name “Sara.”
He asked to Donnelly to help him the second time and as they sang his girlfriend’s name, he got down on one knee and offered her a crystal rose singing, “Will you marry ...” with the choir. The “me” was sung by Van Steinburg alone.
The audience, which included many of the couple’s family members who had travelled for the surprise, went wild. McLaughlin said yes and the couple sang “Love and Happiness” side-by-side with the choir and soloist Kim E. Willoughby, gazing into each other’s eyes.
Afterward, McLaughlin said she almost didn’t make the performance because of a cold. She had no idea what her partner was planning as he cleverly used the rose to propose instead of her grandmother’s heirloom ring and Yukon gold that they’d discussed in the past.
Robinsong said this is the first surprise proposal the choir has performed, but it is not the first romance to blossom in the group. Several couples have met in the Gettin’ Higher Choir and some have married.
“Too many to even count,” Robinsong said. “Something about singing together really opens up the heart. Plus, people look very beautiful when they sing.”
The Gettin’ Higher Choir was founded in 1996 by Robinsong. It is an non-auditioned community choir with a mission to raise funds for community projects in Africa and B.C.
Sunday’s concert was the second in a series to raise money for the Power of Hope, a non-profit arts program for youth. Texas singer Rhodes was scheduled to perform at the concerts but cancelled two weeks ago because of her husband’s illness.
Luckily, Willoughby and Cortes Island singer/singwriter Rick Bockner stepped in to save the day.
For more information on the Gettin’ Higher Choir, visit:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Newspapers and video...

In reporting some stories, words are not enough.  Or, they can only convey part of the story. This is what attracted me, a newspaper reporter, to using video as a medium online. It’s disheartening sometimes to hear veteran journalists in my field dismiss the web without considering its use in sharing comprehensive, heartening stories in the public interest. I wish creativity would replace cynicism, because we could all use their expertise and ideas.
This video was created to accompany a print feature about budget cuts to weight loss surgeries in B.C. I worked with fellow reporter, Katherine Dedyna, as she gathered facts and focus. Her story focused on the larger issue – wait times – and went into incredible detail. This is the benefit of print reporting.
I chose to focus my video on two people affected by obesity and show their lives and emotions. This is the benefit of video. It is one thing to describe the difficulties a 500-plus lb 26-year-old man faces. It is another to see him walk, breathe and hear the pain in his voice. Just as it is one thing to describe a weight-loss surgery success story, it is another to see a young mother who once weighed 328 lbs touch her toes and jump on a trampoline.
The video was shot on a Kodak Zi8 and edited in iMovie.