India is the #1 place I was urged not to go when telling people my travel destinations before leaving on this trip. Even though Cambodia is notoriously dangerous. Even though Egypt is literally in an all out war. Even though Somalians are kidnapping westerners in Kenya and ransoming or murdering them. Even though South Africa’s public transportation and streets are notoriously still segregated and extremely dangerous. It was always India, every time, that warranted the most intense and negative responses.
“Why would you want to go there?!”
“That’s so dangerous!”
“Aren’t you afraid you’re going to be raped!?”
“I would NEVER go there. I have no desire to see anything in India so badly I’d risk my life.”
And I appreciate the concern, because it’s a real problem here. It was reported, while we were in Thailand, that a woman is raped every twenty minutes in Delhi. That’s crazy. I mean, that is a staggering and horrifying statistic. Rape of foreign women, and western women in particular, has all but quadrupled in the last few months here in India. Violent attacks on westerners are becoming more and more common. And at the end of the day it’s a third world country so the harassment factor, the groping factor, and the condescending men would, we knew, be in abundance. But to tell you the truth, it hasn’t been all that bad. Surprisingly so, I suppose.
Upon our arrival in Delhi my father had insisted we check ourselves into a hotel on his dime. So we found a deal on hotels.com and checked ourselves into a plush hotel room in a hotel equipped with metal detectors and baggage scanners much like an airport, security guards posted at the elevators, and an extremely cautious staff. After a glorious and free breakfast buffet, which has become the #1 reason I love nice hotels, we headed to concierge to inquire about seeing the Red Fort, the temples, and other landmarks in Delhi. Just a bit of innocent sightseeing.
The look on the concierge’s face was grave when we told him we couldn’t afford to hire a car for 8,000 rupees a day (about $130), we didn’t have a guide, or an armed guard, or a driver. “I implore you, please do not go out on your own. Do not get into any cabs, do not get into any rickshaws, and do not walk on the streets. It is far too dangerous.”
Uh…what? What can we do then?
Turns out, borrow their DVD of Troy and promise to return it in 24 hours, then go watch it in our room and drink tea until it was time to catch our train to Agra the next day.
Again- we were IMPLORED that as women traveling alone we not take the cheapest option. You need to be in the safest car, they told us. You are pretty girls, young girls, Western girls, American girls. You have no men with you. You are not on a tour. The danger is great for you.
Not one to put my safety at risk or be reckless, because there’s a huge difference between recklessness and adventurousness, we paid the extra bit of money for the nicer train car, and took the earliest one, since we were told that was the safest and had the most tourists.
Well, there were three other tourists in our car. The rest were locals, and despite a few longheld stares, mostly looks of curiousity, we made it to our destination of Agra. This happened almost everywhere we went. The vehement warnings, the promise that this was the safest or best, and the sheer and resounding fact that 99% of the time it wasn’t. It was just as dangerous, or dodgy, or dirty, or what have you as anything else.
Let me be clear, though. India is a very poor country. Overwhelmingly poor. Crazy poor. Unbelievably poor. People are just pooping on the sides of the train tracks, children are running around naked, people are living in slums that go on for miles, there are dead bodies floating in rivers and severed limbs in the street, and everyone wants your money. But I mean, can you blame them? The important difference to note is that while people will do pretty much anything to get at the rupees in your pocket, they never seem to want to take your life, or your dignity. They really just want your money.
When people in India see that Kate and I are traveling alone, just two women, without any men, without any guide, they immediately begin telling us what NOT to do. Don’t talk to this person, don’t believe this scam, don’t get into this car, don’t go out between these hours, etc. etc. etc. The warnings are endless and constant, but at the end of the day, most are scare tactics used so that you will use their person, believe their scam, get into their car or tuk tuk, eat at their restaurant, etc.
And being a Westerner, things can get pretty mental pretty quickly. People take your picture because you are white. Indian people at the monuments ask for pictures with you because you are white. If you oblige them, a line starts to form and the queue goes on and on with people who just want a photo with you. At the monuments I oblige because I think it’s hilarious and when the hell is a perfect stranger going to want my photo again, especially when I’ve got pit stains and no make up on, but on the streets, it’s always a firm no. The best part of the picture taking is that a lot of the time they want to shake your hand, like you’re the President of the United States, in the picture, and make it into a professional looking portrait. I love it, but as soon as we left the monuments, I would always put my scarf around my head and hold my bag close to my body. There’s a CIA saying that “paranoia is the perfect level of awareness”, and I when it comes down to it I’d just rather be safe than polite when out on the streets. But I did the same thing in Cambodia, in Thailand, and in Vietnam. In poor countries your property is always more at risk, it’s just a reality of traveling. I can safely say, though, in none of those countries did I ever feel truly in danger, like my life was threatened, ever.
And on top of that, traveling is amazing! It is glorious, freeing, and everyone should be so lucky as to get the chance to visit anywhere, but especially India. I truly mean that. And so it upset me, on the day we left Mumbai, to see the news headlines were of yet another gang rape in the very city we were staying in, just hours prior. And then, a Facebook post of a girl from the University of Chicago who had studied abroad in India and come home with PTSD due to constant harassment and multiple rape attempts. I was so, so very upset to read about her experience because mine had truly been so different. Kate and I discussed the story, the rape, these women, our fellow women, and much else in India and came to a few conclusions. First of all, men in India are men at their worst. It’s that simple. The culture of arranged marriages has made it so that men do not need to impress women. They spit, fart, burp, leer, pee anywhere and everywhere, make rude comments, and talk way, way too close to your face for anyone to be comfortable. They grope you when given the chance, so the important thing is to not let them.
I know that sounds insensitive. I know the general consensus when I say this will be, “Hey Erin, nobody ASKS to be groped. No one TRIES to be groped by strangers.” And I know that. Believe me, as someone who was groped in India, I know that. But every single time I got groped was the moment I let go of myself. The moment I felt comfortable next to a strange man was the moment he would grab my breast, or my butt, or brush too closely and smell my hair like a creepy, misogynist weirdo. As soon as you let your guard down, you get groped. That’s just the facts. That’s India. And that’s really really sad, but it’s true. Secondly, India is beautiful but it is cruel. Everything is brown, but there are these beautiful moments of vivid color. Men are dogs there, to be sure, but I also met some of the loveliest men during all of my travels in India. Thirdly, in third world countries, it seems like everyone has an agenda, and that really sucks, and they usually do, but if you can get past that there is so much incredible beauty you will never see anywhere else.
I loved my time in India. Did I love every minute? Of course not. But through the rough times Kate and I kept laughing, and kept making memories, as lame as that sounds, and it brought us through it. Some of my favorite memories are from India. Some of my best stories too. This journey would have felt incomplete without India. I miss India already- it’s food, culture, religion, and the people. And as a woman, I urge other women to travel to India. I urge you travel with a friend, and keep your wits about you, and make smart choices. But don’t be scared. Don’t fear a random act of violence that could and does happen all over the world. Go to India, and take pictures with babies on their parents’ camera phones, and eat 100 pieces of garlic naan and then question why you aren’t losing weight like everyone said you would, and visit the Taj Mahal and marvel at its marble, and explain to women on the train why you aren’t interested in an arranged marriage to shock, awe, and disapproval, and walk miles in the rain and across the Ganges to your hostel during the Durga festival in Rishikesh and have the time of your damn life.
Being a woman in India means bindis and henna and chai and saris and bangles. It’s beautiful if you make it beautiful, just like anything and everything else. India is poverty and misogyny and stray dogs and cows and camels. It’s a severed leg in the street and trash all over the roads and wondering if the shit you just stepped in was animal or human. It’s pimped out tuk tuks and longheld stares and being groped by an old man in a haveli. But it’s also the most beautiful temples you’ve ever seen and smiling children and amazing old forts and chai sixteen times a day. It’s colorful saris and bhang shops and camel safaris and spicy curries. It’s naan and chapati and roti. It’s the desert, the Himalayas and the beach. It’s lotus flowers and Hanuman and Ganesha and yoga. It’s one of the best and most memorable places I’ve ever been and I love it with all my heart. There are things about it I would change. But there are things I would not change for the world.