Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tourist Dowry and Fatal Attractions - Solo woman travel safety for India

You thought you would somehow be okay, that you would make sense of the city, the noise, the pollution, the constant demands on your attention, the "hello, hello" as if they knew you. The "Excoose me Madam, where from", the sly insidious grasp of a beggar childs hand, the more confrontational approach by it's mother. Then there is the staring, o god! have they never seen a white woman before? Do I have spinach on my teeth, is my underwear showing? The slightly rebellious stomach, the strangeness of it all and the heat!

No surprise to find yourself unburdening all this on the first charming English speaking person to sense your pain. He is the first person you met who hasn't tried to sell you anything, he is just like people everywhere else in the civilised world. You can have a conversation with him, ask him things about the country, the people, the habits and why they stare so.

"Ahh Fucking Indian men," he will exclaim and apologise on behalf of the country for the stares and inappropriate touches. Totally charmed and relieved, you relax into the AC of the coffee shop/the cool breeze of the fan in his shop or emporium/the seat in an eatery where you met by chance or perhaps he gave you directions when you ran out of circle in Connaught Place. Such lucky encounters is what travel is all about, chance meetings that are the begining of a lifetime friendship.

Suddenly you don't feel so alone, so strange.
How much lighter you feel now that you have unburdened yourself. You offer him a coffee if you met in a coffee shop, he offers you chai if you met on his territory. Later he will offer you a meal at his house as if you were by now long lost relations or even perhaps as he may have already mentioned, some strong Karmic Connection from a previous life.

Except it is by no chance that you met. He was always looking for you, darling girl. He knows how to read the signs and what signs will ring the cash bell over the door to his shop. There you were, flushed with the heat, lost maybe confused definately and fresh of the boat literally. 

Ah but what the hell, he is good looking, charming and mannerful. He is a barrier between you and the great churning mass of people of every description clawing at the hems of you skirt. His life story will be as you have read in most Booker Prize Winning Novels, one of hardship, turmoil, war and terrible bad luck. Your heart will be won over by his loyalty to family, his execution of his duty to provide and probably do a few flip flops in sympathy for his difficult life.
ike any handsome prince in a story he can whisk you away from it all and take you to another land so close to heaven that you will begin to live out the myth of your life in such a story book setting. Or he will graciously accompany you on your travels, greatly smoothing the way for you.
Now your confidence returns. Now you have a good looking man and a grip on the situation. He may give you promises of love, of a fairy tale that continues, nothing is too much trouble for him if it means that you will be comfortable and happy.
To be a lone woman in India is lonely and confronting and confusing and often people are mean to you but to be with a man who speaks the language and who knows the ropes actually deepens your travel experience, so what if this totally blows your budget? Do it, plan it, draw more money out of the bank and now begin your real holiday in India with a local.

"Say we are married" when you travel. Then he can use your Visa card while you sleep to drain you of all the cash in your account or worse.  Better still, 'marry' him and suffer the indignity of accepting a second wife when all your money is gone. Or go home to Australia and sell your suburban house to exchange it for a dream in paradise only to wake up to the reality of years of legal action that will result in nothing. Or go to a hotel room with a man who you only recently met in the seediest streets of the city.

Two months ago in Paharganj, Delhi a young French woman was found dead in a seedy hotel room.

Her story began in one of the ways described above. Her story is not unusual or unique in India, women who make 'friends' with random strangers who prowl the tourist areas are routinely ripped off, blackmailed or cheated by men who make it their business to make some business out of you.

The women, their victims will invariably shell out large amounts of cash either knowingly or unknowingly. There will be a scheme that you are invited to invest in or a kind of tourist dowry anticipated in exchange for goods and services. It usually ends in tears. The victims rarely make a complaint, she will take on the blame of making a bad choice, cuts her losses and goes back to work to pay off her credit card while the man simply goes back on the prowl for another woman just like you.

When New Zealander Diana Clare Roultley was murdered in Varanasi, her father spent years of his life and over half a million dollars in an attempt to find his daughter and then to bring her murderers to justice. She was murdered by a rickshaw driver who had befriended her.

In Delhi if someone suddenly gives you flowers, you are not in a 30 second deodorant commercial but in the first stages of a sting.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Untravelled India

One thing about solo women travelers that I love is that they are more open to new experiences and curious about the cultures of places, most especially they are interested in the lives of the women they meet in their travels. There are a lot of exciting new travel companies in India that offer a point of difference to the usual organised tours, one of them that I love is Untravelled India, a social enterprise that aims to bridge the digital marketing gap between socially responsible tourism offerings in rural parts of India, and urban travellers looking for authentic travel experiences.
Here is a beautiful example of the kind of India they introduce you to, the Spring Festival in Punjab, Baisakhi.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Holi Cow! Holi in India

March 8th is Holi time in India. You will know it for the explosion of colour, something like paintball on a countrywide scale. There are a few stories connected with the celebration of Holi, the most common one is that it's a celebration of spring, an enactment of Krishna's love play. Apparently, Krishna worried that his skin was so much darker than that of his love Radha and complained to his mum about it. Krishna's mum was no doubt the prototype of every Indian mother in law to come for eons afterwards, obviously the girl needed to be taken down a peg or two! How dare she be fairer than her own precious son. "Throw some toxic colour on her face and disfigure her for days" she suggested.
Now I don't know about you but if my lover came a courting with toxic powder that would stain my skin and ruin my clothes then I wouldn't be very impressed. Even less so if I discovered that my lover had been following his mother's instructions! I would probably kick him to the kurb!
The original story concerns a wicked demon King who suffered from the delusion that he was a god. In the modern day he would be one of the illuminati or in therapy or locked up in a loony bin. As is the way with despots, he demanded that all worship him as God and mostly people did except for his son who refused to worship his father as a god, loving only Vishnu the preserver God whose dream is the Universe. Naturally the King decided to kill his son. However, every time he tried to kill his son, Lord Vishnu would rescue him.
Now the King had a sister who was just as wicked if not more so (I mean she was a woman, right?) Holika had been granted a boon that she would be left unscathed by fire. Holika tricked Prahlad into sitting on her lap and she then herself sat on a bed of fire. She assumed that, because of the boon, she would leave the fire, unharmed. Unfortunately for her, she died in that fire. Prahlad, the demon King's son kept chanting Lord Vishnu’s name and survived.
Despite the slightly misogynistic overtones of the Holi story (there is another one, I wrote about it a few years back), like most festivals in India the theme is always the victory of good over evil and that's enough reason to get out an boogie!
For solo women travelers out in the thick of a Holi crowd be aware that your physical safety could be compromised!
Related Post: Holi Moon

Catching a bus in India Local Style

The trip back to India from Sri Lanka involved all the usual horrors of budget booked on the fly can’t wait to get the hell out of there mood. Fleeing from Colombo at 3am, head lolling and rolling, drooling and half sleeping through immigrations double checks and transfers along the way.
With no plan to join the rush hour into the city of Delhi, I decided to go to a local bus stand to hop on a bus to Rajasthan.
It’s easy, said an Aussie mate, Just get a taxi to the bus stand and there are buses every ten minutes.
Except its not a bus stop any more with all the towering overpasses and new highways being built around that area, its a bus SLOW DOWN. Which means that the buses swerve towards people huddled by an insanely busy roadside. The conductor will shout the destination and then the race begins. You throw you bags through the bus window as you run, and then catch hold of something that is going to hold your weight and inch by inch grope your way to the door of the moving bus.
The first bus I managed to run down was only going to Jaipur which was only half the distance I hoped to cover and it was a local bus which meant the journey was long and bum breaking.
In Jaipur I hunted briefly for a taxi to take me to Pushkar but the rates were rapidly spiraling out of control as soon as those cunning Rajasthani saw the desperate tiredness in my face, In any case it’s full wedding season in India now and taxis are fully booked. So another local bus to Ajmer, drooling, head rolling, insanely tired and possibly delerious because I was seeing it with a great sense of fondness.
Then in Ajmer, a rickshaw to cover the remaining 12 kilometers to Pushkar. By now the battery on my phone is flat and unable to phone my friendly driver in Pushkar to collect me, I had to take my chances with the bhaindchord rickshaw wallah lurking in the dark.
Before we have gone one hundred meters we have crashed into two men on a motorcycle. There is a heated conversation, some slapping and I think this is going to take too long to sort out. I hail another rickshaw and climb out of the crashed one. But then the fight is over and they wave me back in.
Another five kilometers and they stop the rickshaw and pull out the seat. It is scorched and burning, something has set it alight from the motor underneath. They put out the fire and put the seat back in. The rickshaw refuses to start.
We let it cool down and try again. It coughs and splutters up the hill and looses its lights on the way down.
But in all that crazy exhaustion and madness I remained amazingly calm, because this is why I came to India in the very first place. She, like me, is still crazy after all these years!

Originally published on Heart of India, Wanderlust and Lipstick

Friday, March 2, 2012

Manali Magic

One of the best things about being a solo woman traveler in India is the contact you can make with the women. Even without a common language, women will make an effort to communicate. Language deepens the connection, and laughter seals it!
I spent a season or two living in a village house with a family in Manali area. The three women of the house are my dearest friends and the community women ended up accepting me when they saw I was willing to work alongside them in the fields, picking apples and doing farm stuff.
All women in Himachal Pradesh can weave, and every house has a loom. They are the most accomplished women I have ever met. They love to work in the fields, take pride in their work and are paid for it. They also knit and weave and spin their own wool, dance like birds and are incredibly gracious and shy all at once.
So Manali women hold a special place in my heart. The resident goddess of this place is Hidemba, a powerful protector of the women there, they claim.  Here are a few pictures of one of the families in a nearby village I also hung out with for a while.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Being Single, White and Female in India

An A to B guide to being a single white female in India 
Touching Feet is a sign of respect

Blondes in India definitely have more fun.
Please refer to cleavage below. Scarves draw the male eyeball away from the chest area, which should in any case be covered. Scarves also are good for wiping faces, hiding faces and carrying shopping.

Indian motorbikes are built for the entire family so there is easily enough room for three adults on a motorbike. For your first menage a trios on a motorbike, try not to sit in the middle.
Remember that every sudden move on the road in India is a move towards life.
If you are a woman and find yourself in a pillion situation with a male, please remember there is room for three on the bike.
There are many reasons why Indian women sit sidesaddle on a motorbike. One might immediately assume that the reason lies with the sari, which is partially true, but the real reason lies with breasts, babies and cell phones.
Sitting sidesaddle on a motorbike, the average Indian women can hold baby on her lap, a cell phone in the other hand. In between tending to the baby and talking to her mother on the phone, she is also able to step neatly from the bike should it loose its precarious balance. While her husband is skidding along the highway, the woman and baby can step to safety without creating so much as a pause in her conversation.
Do not wrap your arms or your thighs around the driver.
Place your hands around the rear of the seat where you will find a handy little grip. Keep a hold on this in preparation for the Sudden Braking Technique. The SBT is the real reason Indian women ride sidesaddle. The SBT (please also refer to Camels) has an added benefit of sliding the female pillion passenger towards the driver with the point of contact being breasts and back.
Beauty is big in India and the beauty brings its own rewards. Women are rewarded for looking dewdrop beautiful; beauty parlors are where women go instead of the barbers.
Cleavage is a No. Please refer to Staring, Eve Teasing and Breast Bumping.
A term to refer to sexual abuse or attack, detailed below.
This is a ritual beginning to take hold in cities and crowded foot paths all over India whereby men will suddenly veer out of the crowd and turn his body into a heat seeking missile aimed straight at a breast located in the teeming crowd. In a seeming random and accidental movement the Eve Teaser will bring his upper body into contact with the breast he has selected. Please refer to Cleavage and breasts and how to manage them. When walking in a city street, keep one arm across your breasts and the other slightly bent to cover your groin. You are permitted to push the man to help him back on his correct path.
As in Breast Bumping but from a lower type of man and aimed lower on the body.
You may hold hands with other women. You may not hold hands with your husband or boyfriend or any male over the age of eight.
The centre of the family is the male child. The male child is the Kohinoor Diamond of the Indian family. The Indians did not take kindly to the British stealing their jewels and they will not be dancing in the street if you try the same.
Then consider how many centuries the caste system has existed in India. Unaccompanied Foreign women do not rate in the caste system.  Everything that makes you special in your world makes you terribly unsuitable in his.
Finally, marriage is not an individual act of love in India but something your family arranges for you after all they are the ones that have to live with your wife.
Boundaries like rules are not meant to be broken. If you walk in the street wearing a gypsy skirt and your hair flowing free, do not stop a man and ask him if he has a light for your cigarette. He will think you are a prostitute.

Indians like to see foreign women wearing their clothes. For beginners, there is the salwaar kameez. This is the Indian tracksuit that can go from bedroom to boardroom. All salwaar Kameez follow a standard pattern, variations exist in cloth and cut as well as color. The pants (salwaar) are roomy enough for two. Worn as a three piece with pants, dress top (kameez) and dupatta or scarf.

                                                                                     Glamour Salwaar

                                                                                        Practical Traveler Salwaar

SARIIf you want to meet women in India then ask the guy at your guest house to help you put a sari on or do it yourself and then go out into the market.
Indian women will cross the street to tell you that your pleats are a mess and swiftly retie the sari for you. In the process you can make a little conversation. Remember to thank her nicely and ask if you can come around in the morning so she can dress you properly.

Some people see Western women only on television and so will approach you in the same vein. They do not expect a response and will happily discuss you as if you were appearing on an untranslated episode of Sex in the City. If you are a single female, check that you are wearing a bra. Sunglasses and ladies waiting rooms exist for a reason.

Is not encouraged except in the case of feet. Men and women do not touch in public, men touch men in public and women touch children. Hugging and kissing in public is considered scandalous and slightly titillating. If you hug a man then you have broken a boundary and further incursions will inevitably follow.
Indian women are generally found inside the house.  Men make decisions about who will win the local elections and what to do about terrorism. Women make decisions about what to eat, what to spend, when to do a ritual, what school to send the children to and who to marry them to. Men usually "take advice" from their wives when they arrive home in the evening.
It is considered inauspicious to outlive one's husband.

A little teaser from my ebook India for Idiots now available on the Smashwords website.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Conscious Tourism

I came across the term Conscious Tourism on the internet the other day as I was fishing in the great sea of communication that flows across continents and consciousness.
With the corporate office where I came to share my talents with a company who promotes themselves as one which offers cultural insights as it’s unique selling point in the background, I skim read the blog and wondered at the vagaries of life. 
My recent experience of this kind of Five Star “Stick Your Telescopic Lens in the Face of a Villager”, who has been paid to entertain you with the charming aspect of their desperately simple lifestyles” approach to tourism was perhaps the best example of Unconscious Tourism, a kind of tourism that smacked of voyuerism is something that I despise. I have had moments of sheer disappointment that the bridge between worlds and cultures had been corrupted into tourism of this superficial nature. While I understand that for most tourists, even these brief glimpses of a sanitized reality will give them a lifetime of memories, what happens back on ground zero once the water bottles of have been recycled and their footprints swept over in the usual village traffic? What do they think of that, what memories live in their minds of this contact with another culture? 

As a long time solo traveler, I have been blessed to find myself in the homes and at the hearth and heart of many a home in small villages, temples across the land. As a solo traveler one is somewhat more aware of one’s impact on the environment and on the culture but most of all within the hearts and minds of the people they interact with. I have witnessed the paparazzi pornography of tour groups and been embarrassed by their behavior by which all foreigners will be judged and shied away from group travel as a result.

Maori woman culture teaches that as a traveler one must adhere to the correct practice of the people of the land where you visit, and that to make demands or to consider oneself as superior to the respected host was an insult that could be passed down for generations,. So my mode of travel has always been marked by the idea that my impact could reverberate down generations. My behavior was being recording by the moving hand of time and having writ, the story had better be a good one lest if reflect on the next Maori or member of my family to stumble along the same path in the future.

This was borne out by the absolute delight of my Indian friends when I bought my grandson along to visit India. For all of us, it was a continuation of the story, a new chapter in the tale of how our lives had intersected an added depth to our relationships. They remembered when the boy was born, so to meet him in the flesh was for them a story come true and for me the first time a member of my family had visited my life in India.
The boy was spoiled and adored, he gained a unique insight into India, but I was surprised and delighted to see that he never saw a point of difference between himself and the locals, except for one day remarking how well the local kids spoke Hindi! Otherwise he saw them at the level of his heart which is as open and intelligent as the sky.

But I digress, and in my digression I have come to understand that there can be no conscious tourism since tourism implies a lack of time and it takes time to earn the love and trust and respect of people. What there is is Conscious Travel, which is the slower route through life. Travel that brings the wanderer to mountain villages, to fires in the desert and the and within the circle of the festival. 

So were do the two meet?
Conscious tourism is where the conscious traveler meets time restricted tourists, takes them by the hand and says “Come and meet my friends," and together you walk that rickety bamboo bridge of connection across oceans.