Editor’s note: Allison Reiber is a New York City-based writer who spent a month travelling solo throughout India soon after several highly publicized sex attacks on women. She wrote about her experience for Business Insider.
Just off the plane in India, while my auto-rickshaw driver navigated the labyrinthine streets of Kolkata, I found myself thinking “where are all the women?”
The fruit sellers, stoop sitters, pedestrians and passengers were nearly all men. But I didn’t only see this in Kolkata. Through the next four weeks travelling in northern India, the population would seem to me similarly off-balance.
My solo backpacking trip through Southeast Asia was nearing its end when I booked my flight to India in February. I had become a confident and capable solo traveller and was lucky to be leaving Southeast Asia completely unscathed.
I knew India would be crazy and overwhelming, and I felt ready for it. But the backpacker scene was buzzing with the news of the multiple rape cases in India — one involving a tourist — and I began to worry that going alone might not be a smart choice.
My new icebreaker was “have you been to India yet?” and I milked fellow travellers for their tips and experiences. Reviews were mixed, but I heard a handful of horror stories. Several women told me that due to their negative experiences in India, they would never go back to the country.
This left me particularly crestfallen because, from my cliche-ridden standpoint, women
should love India. The Taj Mahal, the country’s most famous and visited tourist attraction, is a stunningly beautiful monument to love. With the bright colours bursting from sari shops, the bangles, nose rings and bindis, the spice markets, the sugary chai and spicy vegetarian food that you get to eat with your hands, India is an adventurous woman’s Paris.But I had been dreaming about visiting India since I first saw “A Little Princess” when I was a young, and I decided not to change my plans. I’m happy I didn’t. My time in India turned out to be the most valuable experience of my trip, and I came away with a greater understanding of what it is to be a woman in this world.
The most common complaint from female travellers was the constant feeling of being watched. I can’t stress how true this is and yes, it is exhausting. I always wore long pants or floor-length skirts with conservative shirts, and I began wrapping my hair in a scarf to look less conspicuous, but the staring never stopped.
It was most uncomfortable on the overnight trains. Every time I opened my eyes, I would find someone — or the entire compartment — staring at me. I once woke up to a young man with his arm through the window holding his mobile phone camera over my face. These moments were stressful and frustrating for me, but I soon came to understand that they weren’t threatening.
When a crowd of onlookers started to form that made
me feel uncomfortable, I found the best response was to raise my voice, make a scene and the group would dissipate. If I laughed or smiled, they thought I was teasing and almost always stuck around. The fact is that Indian people — men and women — just stare a lot. American children are taught that staring is rude from the time we are pushed around in the shopping cart at the grocery store. When caught, Indians will look you right in the eye and keep on staring. It’s a cultural difference that feels rude to us, as much as their incessant honking of car horns, but they don’t mean any harm.
The more serious problem women travellers face is the groping. Sadly, almost every woman I met who traveled in India — whether alone or with a group — experienced this at some point, myself included.
I visited Khajuraho, a little town in Madhaya Pradesh that is home to a temple complex known as the “Kamasutra temples” because of the erotic art decorates the exteriors and interiors of the temples. A guard, a man in his 50s, offered to give me a quick tour of one of the temples and I agreed. Though it was daytime, it was dark inside the windowless temple so he used a flashlight to illuminate the sculptures.
It was awkward that he only pointed out the erotic sculptures, but I thought it was fair enough — that’s what the tourists come to see. Then his hand brushed my chest and I thought it was a mistake until it happened a second time, with a bit more force. I stepped back, said I had to leave, and walked towards the door.
He put out his arms to hug me but as I brushed past, he asked if I was married. I said I
was, thanked him, and walked out. (That’s another thing — pick a husband’s name and stick with it.) This behaviour is insulting and inexcusable, and shockingly common. Luckily my experience was a mild one.As an American woman in India, you will feel like a spectacle much of the time. But it’s because you stand out that people come up and introduce themselves. Some of the best experiences in my travels started that way. Even the less enjoyable moments were a learning opportunity.
travelling through India does not always feel like a vacation, and it requires patience and precaution. But it is incredibly worthwhile, especially after one accepts that, like anywhere, there is a certain amount of risk to assume, and looks past the annoyances to seek out the beauty in a rich and fascinating culture.
So ladies, go to India. Buy some linen pants, don’t walk alone at night, and get ready for the trip of a lifetime.
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