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.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Boobs without Borders, a solo woman on the road in Rajasthan

I was reminded of the joys of  solo travel recently when I busted a move on some friends I had been exploring rural Rajasthan with.
A water crisis in the early morning after a sleepless night necessitated me to move from the crummy noisy guesthouse to a more salubrious location in the noisy polluted town of Bikaner. There I luxuriated in my first hot shower and soft bed for months and slept like a flower.
The next day I caught a local bus (we had been traveling by car until then) and got myself back in the Groove so to speak.
It was early morning and the bus heading for the six-hour journey to Ajmer was full. I move to make room for a woman who sits beside me and we smile at each other. As the day warms and the journey begins, we warm to each other and begin to talk. She tells me about her life and I am struck by her resemblance to my grand daughters other nanny who, like Madhu, is also a teacher. An hour and a half between women and all information about our lives and hopes and dreams are shared in rickety local bus rattling along the desert plains.
A thousand days of rough travel dissolves instantly with someone like Madhu who sweetens the morning air with her first shy hesitant hello.
We will never see each other again but I will think of her again and every time I do, there will be only good wishes for that woman. I think the same also will happen in reverse and this is the reason why I love solo travel.
After Madhu came these Gujurati women on their way to the Ajmer Dagarh. By this stage I am pretending not to know Hindi to save myself being questioned for the next four hours of the journey. They talk amongst themselves about me and I understand enough to know they are being lovely and generous and curious. I love the face of one of the women, it is so open and clear and her eyes are kind.
Eventually we begin to share smiles and food and a circular conversation of the type I was avoiding begins.
The people in the bus start wanting information about me my country and family, they shout the question to the person in front who then relays the question to me. In broken English and fractured Hindi, I manage to establish a few facts.
Then they want to look at photos of my family, then they want me to take their photos, I promise to send them to their home address, the bus passengers scurry for a pen and paper, we try to write in Hindi then English, the woman crowd around me and start asking me for something. I can’t understand why she is pointing to my breasts.
She leans closer and whispers in my ear
“You want to see my bra?”
“No, I want you to send me a bra From Foreign.”
It’s the first time anyone but my daughter has asked me to buy them a bra and I am a little astounded.
“Well, why not?” I say. I wish someone would send me some bras from foreign too. Indian bras are designed for nuns and there is nothing very sexy about them. Plain serviceable and unimaginative is the nicest thing I can say about Indian Bras.
I hate it when people make me promise to do something when the likelihood of me honoring that promise is slim, but the whole weight of Gujurati sisterhood is bearing down on me.
I imagine for one minute what it would be like to be a village woman receiving a parcel "From Foreign". I imagine the excitement it would cause and the hilarity of sending her a sexy black bra all lace and froth and bedecked with red ribbons. For some reason I think of the red petticoat of Mammy in the movie Gone With The Wind.
"O god, alright I promise!”
This is not enough. Now she tells me I may as well send something From Foreign for the baby in her daughter in laws womb in the same parcel.
Luckily my stop appears and I leap to freedom, the women wave to me from the bus and I stand by the roadside choking on dust and promises and pollution.
But if there is anyone out there who wants to send a sexy lacy red-ribboned size 36C bra to this woman in Gujurat, contact me for her address. Consider it as a random act of sisterhood.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Malabar Coast, Kerala in the Theyyam season

Click on the image to open slideshow

That night as Olivier headed off to the airport I took a rickshaw in the opposite direction to a village square where there was to be a performance of a Theyyam.
Seems that the origin of the Theyyam has been lost in the mists of time, so ancient is the practice. In more recent times, Theyyam have evolved into the form it is now because of the lower caste people being barred from entry to Hindu temples. Nothing daunted, they created their own individual forms of worship and celebration the most spectacular of which is the Theyyam.
Every village will tell their story in a different way but the event is staged around a story of the Hindu gods or a local god, as the story is enacted the dancers take on the paint and the part of the god in an elaborate ritual which happens back stage while the crowds mill about and picnic and pass babies around, all waiting patiently for the moment to come.
When the dancer who has been ritually prepared observes his face in the mirror he is said to become at that moment a vessel of the god, then he is lead out in a costume of flames and towering headdresses.
Impervious to the fact that half of his costume is on fire, he runs and leaps and his eyes roll wildly, he has two bodyguards on either side to protect his physical body.
Eventually things calm down and the god is bought to again, People line up to make offerings and ask for blessings or advice.
By five in the morning, the excitement is over and people start dwindling back to their homes, I find the rickshaw wallah and go home with my head full of sparks. Imagine that kind of ceremony in the days before electricity, before television, before we all got so sophisticated! It would have scared the living daylights out of most kids!

Theyyam season is happening now in the Kannur region of North Kerala! 
This post is part of a longer story on North Kerala, published on womentravelblog

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Solo Travel Survival Secrets in India

It has to be said that India has some of the most beautiful women on planet earth. Think of Aishwarya Rai the most bewitching beauty to never make it on the silver screen. While her films may have bombed, her beauty is legendary and exquisitely rewarded. Indian women take beauty quite seriously, beauty parlors are dotted all over the landscape like so many temples to the fabulousness of women and readily accessible to even the budget traveler. They are for me a small sanctuary away from the intensity of life outside the doors or a small slice of life that visitors to India rarely see. Suburban and most especially village salons are casual affairs where the beauticians lounge and gossip and watch the soap operas on TV. There is usually very little space in these places so you can be having a pedicure and balancing a bowl of hot water in your lap while a young woman sits to one side having her eyebrows threaded and her mother gathers courage to ask about her own eyebrows. In the background a tribal woman will be bargaining down the price of a bridal facial while the television hums along merrily in the corner. I once had a one handed facial massage while the beautician dealt with some family drama by SMS simultaneously. Her right hand encouraged my sagging facial muscles into shape while her left hand smoothed the family drama into something that could be dealt with while my face pack dried.The secret to an Indian Facial is the massage, which is included in every step of the facial. The massage will focus on the various marma points in the face, which will stimulate the organs of the body as well as gently encourage the elimination of toxins. So what you get is a long-term glow, something that is more than skin deep as well as all the gorgeous smelling products slapped on your skin!As a long-term random beauty parlor creeper in India, I offer the following advice to women travelers in India.When life on the road in India gets too much and you think you might blow a fuse or have a total meltdown, remember this motto:  "Don't get mad, get a Facial!" Don't be put off by the language barrier, beauty is an international language and a beauty parlor is the only place you might get to interact with local women.   Threading is an instant facelift and an amazing hair removal art. Get your eyebrows shaped for less than a dollar.Most salons give you a choice of facial and most products are Ayurvedic, totally natural. Go on, you deserve it!

What to wear in India.. lets start with the shoes

There is a lot of advice out there about dressing properly in India. Mostly you are told to wear a salwar kameez, try a sari or generally to cover yourself up. While villagers appreciate the effort of you covering yourself in suitable attire, things have changed over the years and even Indian women are pushing the envelope of what is suitable dress or not.
Over time I have come to learn that while dressing respectfully is important where ever you go, in India you are judged by the cut of your cloth and that sometimes a pair of shoes can change your life. Quite apart from the fact that I love my boots, this little adventure in Jodhpur reminded me that in India people judge you very quickly based on how you are dressed.
Beginning with the shoes, the Indian eye will travel up to your face registering all kinds of things on the way. I like to trick them with good quality fake gold bracelets while a friend of mine makes friends and gains respect with a fake Rolex watch!
This was originally posted on my blog Meditations on a Paper Bag.

Last year in Amsterdam I bought a pair of boots in the way that I usually buy shoes. See something I like and ask for my size already resigning myself to the blisters that I would have called wearing the shoes in.
My friend suggested I try the next size up.
The result was instant! They fit like a glove, hugged me in all the right places and I knew I could walk a mile in these babies.
They also make a nice assertive clicking sound as you walk which I like, It's not a prissy high heeled kind of click but a authoritative one, one that says don't mess with these boots.
Of course I paid a fortune for them but every Euro has turned out to be a subversive investment in my other life as a solo woman in India.
Waiting for a friend one day in the Rajasthan city of Jodhpur, I took the time to have my boots polished.
The guy who polished the boots was well impressed by their quality and asked me where I bought them, how much they cost, a crowd gathered around to estimate the worth of my boots.
I am terrible at numbers and plucked an amount out of the sky that mean 'An Awful Lot', they nodded their heads approvingly. If you have the money the good shoes is an investment the Indians understand. 
Within nano seconds of meeting someone, the average Indian will have summed up your nett worth by looking from your shoes to your face. If you wear good shoes then you start well ahead of the average flip flop wearer, or (GOD FORBID) those Crocs. Good shoes earn respect and a little bit of fear in India and as a solo woman on the road thats always good to know.
As he gave my boots back, the guy said to me
"You were here three weeks ago but you weren't wearing these boots."
He was right, I had been there but I was off duty and had been wearing sneakers.
That's when I realised that even the most humble person in India is watching and assessing you. I remembered being flattered by a dobhi walla (Laundry guy) one day when he returned my laundry to me with the comment that my clothes were "very good quality" in a way that showed he respected that.

It's a shame that the climate in India doesn't allow me to let my boots do the talking for me, but I have learned from this experience that it's not so much what you wear in India (assuming you have already realised that cleavages, bare arms and bare legs are NOT appreciated) but how you wear it.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Solo Travel Safety

From the distance and experience of 18 years On the Road, most of it spent in a lot of "Off the Beaten Track" kind of places, I ask myself what kind of tips and tricks I can share with others who set off to explore the world in a rapidly changing world environment.
So for the purposes of this little sermon from the foothills, I will stick to what I know best which is India and Nepal, places I have intimate knowledge of. Let's just call it Grandma's little rule of SOS.
SOLO is not a word that is likely to bring up images of wild exhilarating freedom in this part of the world as it is in ours. In fact to be alone in India and Nepal is to be vulnerable, a fact often borne out by the kind of sympathy people give you when they discover you are travelling alone. While most people will befriend you in order to save you from what is seen as the loneliest experience of all - the individual- others will just as likely try to exploit it.

OBSERVATION is a two way street. Take a read of Paul Thoreaux's book The Elephanta Suite to see what I mean. His point in a lot of the stories rang very true for me, the fact that no matter how well we think we are blending in with the local surrounds we actually stick out like veritable dogs balls. Looking, as they say in India, is free, and looking at foreigners is a favourite sport here. I know because after some time here I also gape and gawk at foreigners! Crime in India is less often confrontational and more often subversive. People are watched outside of banks and followed home where they are robbed, poison can be offered in food shared with fellow 'passengers' on a bus or train and sneak thefts are more common than muggings.
It's up to you to keep a very sharp eye out for potential trouble makers, without being neurotic about it. After all you must do it every day at home when you walk a city street or are out after dark. You have these skills already because you use them at home, so just remember to put them at the very top of your list.

SPEAKING Be aware of who you are speaking to. If you need advice or directions look for a well dressed person rather than addressing people randomly on the street. Do not get into inane conversations with men you meet randomly in any situation, especially do not tell them your travel plans or mode of transport. Always invent friends who are waiting for you at your destination, imply that they are well connected local people. Carry a cell phone at all times and never let it run too low on credit, pretend to be in contact with people at the other end of you're the trip.
Then relax and trust your instincts.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Solo travel in India, tips and tricks for staying sane

Its not for no reason that there is a lot of advice out there for women traveling alone to India. It's tough and its challenging and it can wear you down in the end if you don't take all the advice given all over the internet about women and travel and culture in India. The fact is that Indian women do not travel solo so wherever you go you are going to be noticed and remarked upon and in some cases seen as vulnerable. Months of 'adjusting' to a culture and the cultural norms of India can make wear even the most irrepressible individual down. So here are a few of my tips, earned from 18 years on the road of life that pours across the northern plains of Mother India on how to stay sane, sharp and sexy on the Road.
  • Develop a confident walk. Even if you aren't feeling it, stride purposefully. Even if you are lost, stride purposefully until you find someone who looks either educated or connected or suitably impressed with your assertive body language to give your directions or assistance.
  • Don't travel alone at night. Pay the extra money and take your travel to another level. Take first class trains if you must travel at night; two bus seats if there really is no other option. Use a porter at the train stations. If you must use public transport then a cell phone is a great asset.
  • DSCN0295.JPGText the tuk tuk or taxi number to someone and let the driver see. You can also make a call to someone, anyone and talk as if you are on your way to them. Say things like "I have arrived now, I am in a tuktuk, taxi etc and heading to the destination."
  • Watch how and travel with Middle Class Indians and observe their style. Copy it. Use porters, be firm and assertive with staff and have strong boundaries. Sit with women and children rather than alone in waiting rooms or train stations.
  • Get in contact with Indian women. If you take your travel to another level then you are going to meet well educated Indian women who are not shy to talk to you and are interesting conversationalists as well. A group I belong to has led me to some fascinating Indian women who have given me a unique insight into the Life and Times of an Indian Woman.
  • Be aware that once you stop traveling you stop being so vulnerable. So you can relax a bit. Village people stare a bit but they don't mean any harm. So make an effort to learn some Hindi and take the lead. Ask them where they come from, what their name is.
  • Have Room Days. Somedays you just can't stand to hear another "Come Look My Shop, Hello Pen" or be bothered negotiating the teeming city streets, so don't. Stay in y our room and treat yourself. Read, give yourself a pedicure, eat chocolates and comfort food. Put your ipod on and dance and sing alone in your room.(I have to do this at least once a week with apologies to anyone who may have taken a room next to me!)
  • Don't get mad, get a facial! Indian beauty parlours are little woman's only spaces, quite apart from the fact that I think Indian beauty treatments are the best in the world! At local beauty parlours, you gain a unique insight into women's lives and at the more upscale (mixed sex) beauty salons popping up all over the cities, the men are there to serve you and make you look even more beautiful than you think you are!
  • Yes and toughen up. Learn a few self defense techniques, a few swearwords but think carefully before you use them. I use them to scare people away who have already crossed a boundary such as touching me, invading my personal space more than is polite or necessary in INDIAN society. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Hello World

This blog will feature posts from a few of my other blogs, articles and published works of fiction and non fiction on the life of a solo woman traveler in India.
If you have landed here and wonder why the shop looks shut, its because I am busy tarting up the place and getting it ready for you!!
In the meantime, please keep yourself occupied by visiting my other blogs at
If you are thinking of travel to India then you may like to receive a free copy of my book,

India for Idiots  is a guide to the cultural norms of India. Please leave a comment here with your contact details and I will send you a code to unlock the secrets of mystical India!
Thanks for dropping by, come back soon ya hear!!!