Mei-Yin Teo is a Canadian
freelancer whose greatest loves are travelling and recording
her adventures. Just recently back from India, she offers
woman-friendly tips designed to make solo travel to this part
of the world easier for you.
The moment I stepped
off the plane in New Delhi, I was overwhelmed by a rush of
conflicting emotions. The thought of exploring this enchanting
land was thrilling but I was also so wary of being in a country
where women still practice "sati"--the custom of a widow throwing
herself on her husband's funeral pyre.
The hordes of people,
the pollution and the show of poverty alarmed me. I grappled
with this culture shock and real fear set in. The thought
of jumping on the first plane back to North America was very
tempting. But, I'm glad I calmed down and stayed because this
journey turned out to be one of the greatest adventures of
To be fair, I must
report that I did experience some problems travelling in India.
Most of them boiled down to the fact that I was a foreign
woman and that I was travelling alone. Or, perhaps it was
the merger of the two, which did become quite a challenge.
I guess that, in some
cases, Indian men have developed a distorted view of western
females. Maybe they've watched too many North American action
videos highlighting promiscuous and independent women. However,
I discovered that the best way to avert problems is not ,
in the slightest way, to feed into these stereotypes.
I encountered unwanted advances by the local male population.
Though the stares and touching were irritating, generally
they were quite harmless. On a few occasions, usually in a
busy market or a crowded street, I had men brush up against
me--and it was no accident! These incidents left me more offended
than anything else and I learned from them.
Foreign women who dress in a sari seem to experience less
harassment. Tempting as it is to defy custom and to dress
in sleeveless shirts and shorts, it's not worth the hassle.
I found a T-shirt (with sleeves) and light, cotton pants kept
me cool and respected Indian custom.
Avoid eye contact,
because in their culture, contact signals to Indian men that
you are both available and approachable. I also began to allude
to a husband who was close by or who I was meeting shortly.
(One woman I met even wore a fake wedding ring to keep men
at bay). In India, the fact that you are connected to a man
commands respect for a woman.
Life sure is funny!
When I finally joined up with male travellers, the situation
became entirely different. Because Indian men assumed that
my companion was my husband, they virtually ignored me. I
was invisible! Any conversation was directed solely to him
since it was a waste of time to deal with me, a mere woman.
This "all or nothing" approach really frustrated me.
To me, travel is about
meeting other people along the way. The first thing I did
when I arrived in a new city was to book a day tour. This
gave some order to my day (desperately needed when you're
alone) and I felt safe in the company of other travellers,
most of whom could speak English. In fact, it was on a tour
of Jaipur that I met Anberin who gave me many interesting
contacts. In Bangalore, for four days, I stayed with her mother,
Dilshad. It was so good to meet this independent business
woman--she even had her driver take me sightseeing.
Because I hated sitting
down to eat alone, I usually ate my biggest meal at lunch
in the company of other daytrippers. Then I grabbed something
small like a samosa (a meat or vegetable dumpling) from a
street stall to have in my room for dinner.
Then I met Ingelise
Larsen, a journalist from Copenhagen who was covering the
political problems in Kashmir. We agreed to go our separate
ways during the day and meet for dinner. This was a perfect
arrangement! We had something to look forward to, we ate out
and it was nice to share the day's experiences.
For 20 rupees each
(less than $1.00), we ate thalis which means "tray." This
popular meal consists of rice served on a round metal platter
with side dishes of vegetable curries and chutney placed in
metal bowls. We also bought wonderful biscuits which were
handy for our late-night hunger pangs.
As a single traveller,
I saved activities like bathing, reading, catching up in my
journal and writing postcards to pass the evening hours. I
went to bed early and rose early.
With time, I learned
a novel way to avoid line-ups. I tried India's "women only"
ticket lines at the bus and train station and also at the
movie theatre. In Jaipur, when Michael, a Swiss traveller
and I came across a long queue to buy tickets to the cinema,
I was dispatched to the women's line which was very much shorter.
I found that when
I wanted to escape the chaos and confusion of train stations,
I could take refuge in the women-only waiting rooms. It felt
safe and relaxed in this pseudo paradise. The only catch was
that women were usually accompanied by their noisy children,
so if you wanted to sleep, forget it!
Finally, above all
else, from my solo stay in India, I learned that this seductive
country's beauty lies in its unpredictability. Being alone
here requires a sense of humor and will test your patience
more than once. But, get past these petty annoyances and you
will discover the mystic that has lured travellers to this
magnificent land for ages.