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

1 comment:

Trysh Ashby-Rolls said...

Sadly, it doesn't seem to matter whether you're a 20-something woman wearing dreadlocks or a 70-something woman wearing salwar kameez. India has become a dangerous place for solo travel. The difference between my solo travel there in 2008 and 2013 is white and black.