My experience of travel in India as a solo woman: 5 reasons I love India
Many people have asked me to comment on the CNN story about Michaela Cross, a young woman visitor to India who wrote about the trauma of experiencing sexual harassment while there. The story has “gone viral” with over a million hits, thousands of comments and a subsequent flood of media stories and blog posts. I started a very spirited discussion on my Facebook page that lead to some very heated words being exchanged. This story has really triggered people — people who feel compassionately for Michaela Cross, people who are concerned about the treatment of women in India, people who are concerned this story stereotypes the country and distracts from the misogyny, sexual harassment and rape that is rampant all over the globe, and people who are using the story for sensationalizing purposes to boost traffic and to bash India.
It all reminds me of the Indian story of the five blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time. One feels the tusk and says the elephant is smooth and hard; another feels the hide and says the elephant is dry and wrinkled; and so on. We each have our own experiences based on many factors that could include our age, attitude, luck, karma, destiny, timing, perception, interpretation, etc. It is the nature of the mind to find patterns and want to make things black-and-white, and discern the inherent truth in each story. But I prefer a personal interpretation of truth. And my truth is that I have had overwhelmingly positive experiences of travel in India. So here’s another India story for your consideration: 5 reasons I love India.
1. Indian hospitality
From the first moment I arrived in India on December 6, 2005, I was welcomed with open arms. I met Jyoti, a young woman from Delhi, on the plane and she stayed with me until I connected with Ajay, the man picking me up at the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Ajay drove me back to his family’s apartment in South Delhi, where three generations of an extended family lived together, along with three servants. I have written many times about how my first morning in India I walked out onto the family’s white marble terrace and sat in the warm sun and drank tea, ate breakfast and shopped: a shawl-wallah arrived with a big bundle full of gloriously coloured suits and shawls and spread them out on the terrace. Instead of the traveller’s hell I was lead to expect, I felt I had landed in heaven. And from that moment to this, almost 8 years, that family has continued to welcome me and make me one of their own, and I have lived in their house for many weeks at a time. Not once have they ever made me feel unwelcome in all this time; not for one second.
Atithi Devo Bhava is a philosophy and tradition in India: it means “Guest is God.” While this ideal is not always met, of course, the tradition persists and I personally have been the happy recipient countless times. I have been made to feel welcome in India in a way I have never experienced before. Guest house owners have invited me to their homes, waiters have given me rides on their motorcycles, yoga teachers have generously shared their wisdom, friends have helped me in numerous ways, shop owners have invited me for tea, pilgrims have shown me how to enact rituals … and on and on. You don’t have to understand Hindi or even know who Aamir Khan is to get this heart-warming video, a true story:
2. Indian men
I have long felt that I had a special connection with Indian men. I meet them often on my travels of course, and some have become very important to me. Of course there are a lot of “badmashes” (hooligans) in India; there is no denying. But there are lots and lots of wonderful men who really do respect and honour women and I would like to mention just a couple. First and foremost is Ajay, who I often mention. He was my boyfriend for five years and has been one of my best friends since then, for the last three years. I think of Ajay as my guardian angel in India. I am also very fond of Ajay’s dad, Satish, who is warm and wise and a like a second father to me.
I have two yoga teachers in India, pictured here: Swami Bramhdev of Aurovalley Ashram and Yogirishi Vishvketu of Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram. I have known them both for years and benefited from their wisdom, kindness and the special places they have created in north India. This is the only time, to my knowledge, that these two gurus have met, one wonderful day in 2010 at Aurovalley Ashram.
My friend Vinayakan, who I call “V,” was a loyal and supportive Breathedreamgo reader who later became a friend. He has very generously taken me out for dinner in Delhi and Bangalore too many times to count and I owe him some great dinners as well as gratitude for believing in me at some low points in my journey. I have lots of other male friends in India, too, for example Sunil Vaidyanathan, an excellent photographer in Mumbai.
Within the travel & tourism industry in India I have met many hard-working, committed men who are good at their jobs and also very supportive of me personally and professionally. I will just name two, Venkat and Vibhava (though there are others). These men seem to me to embody the ideal in every way for they are also loving and committed family men. Venkat has hosted me, and Vibhava has arranged trips and meetings for me. I really, really appreciate them both — both personally and professionally.
And finally, I want to mention Ramu Chezhian, who started an organization and homes for street kids in Tiruvannamali. You can read about this amazing man in Holding hands with children in need.
3. The adventure of travel
India is not for everyone. That is true. If you simply want a vacation, go to an all-inclusive in the Caribbean. But if you want adventure, if you are a seeker, if you want to really see the world and experience it in all it’s raw and colourful glory, go to India. There is simply no other country like it. Every moment is immersion in culture shock, an assault on the senses, an opportunity to look at the world, and yourself in it, in a totally new and unexpected way. India is not two countries, as the title of this post suggests, of course, but a million, billion. India bursts with life in every conceivable — and many non-conceivable — variations.
India has always been the destination of most serious seekers, from Jesus Christ (apparently) to Mark Twain; and The Beatles to Ram Dass. I once asked Swami Brahmdev why India is considered the most spiritual country on earth and he said it was because the extremes could be found in such abundance: extremes of darkness and degradation to extremes of lightness and beauty. “India is the soul of the world,” he told me.
To travel well in India, I think you need to adopt a certain attitude. I think you need to see yourself as an explorer and a student; and to see everything that happens as an adventure and a teacher. If you are ready, willing and able to open up to what I call “the magic of India,” you might find yourself falling hopelessly in love with the country as I did. I wrote about this love affair in The Dust Of India.
And many others have written about their Indian love affairs too, like Candace Rose Rardon in Woman Traveler in India — who makes an excellent point about the power of smiling — or Catherine Taylor in this Facebook note: “But I do often wonder why I’m here, especially when I’m tired, teary and homesick, my phone has been disconnected for the 19th time despite promises it would never happen again, when it’s raining and no taxis will take me home. But then a willing ride always comes along, and we’ll turn a corner and be suddenly in the midst of some banging, crashing mad festival full of colour, where everyone is dancing behind a slow-moving truck, and I won’t have a clue what’s going on but a mum holding a child will dance up to my window and point and smile and laugh, and I breathe out and think, really, my God, this is fantastic. This is India! I live in India! She hugs me, she punches me, and she hugs me again.'”
And with this attitude of explorer firmly in mind, make sure you use common sense and follow safe travel strategies — read and follow My top safety tips for women travelling in India.
As a westerner who grew up in Toronto, I was struck by the open and overt spirituality in India from the outset; and as a long-time yoga student, I was ready to open up to it. Over time, what I discovered is that the Indian spirituality I encountered taught me a very different way of looking at the world — a way that I think the western world could really use. It pains me to see that India is intent on adopting western materialism when I don’t think that’s the answer to the world’s dilemmas. Yes, everyone should have enough to eat and shelter. But how much stuff so we really need? A few years ago I wrote a blog called Sharing India’s wisdom with the world, in which I quote an article Dr. Deepak Chopra wrote in the Times of India.
Dr. Chopra believes that in spite of India’s infatuation with the west, India “possess the seeds of a viable answer to the human dilemma. A single concept plucked from the the teaching of yoga, ahimsa, fuelled massive political change in the Gandhian era.”
He says that “for 20 years, I have sustained myself on the belief that that the ancient rishis were the Einsteins of consciousness. This shift in perception implies a revolution in how we live our lives.”
“Whoever shapes reality shapes the future. What India offers is the breakthrough idea that reality is shaped in the mind… Aham Brahmo Asmi means I am a cell in the body of the universe… The universe thinks, acts and perceives itself through me… It responds to my intentions. Could any concept be more radical, more Indian?”
In the article, Dr. Chopra explained that any form of constraint can be overcome through inner transformation. “To be transformed, you must extricate yourself from the idea that externals define you. You are defined by who you are inside, by your level of awareness.”
Chopra believes that the world could be transformed if people followed the ancient wisdom of India, the teachings on inner transformation. “India reigns supreme in the area of consciousness. It holds out the best hope for reinventing the world by reinventing our inner aspirations.”
I completely agree with him. This is the premise of yoga, the reason I go to India and what I want to dedicate my life to understanding and sharing. Each of us is much more powerful than we realize. We can change the world by looking inside and changing ourselves.
The Indian masters have long known that we, each of us, manifest our life and our destiny largely through our thoughts, words and deeds. It is indeed worthwhile to bring more awareness and consciousness to what we think, say and do.
5. India Chooses You
Learning to look inside for answers is one of the gifts of Indian philosophy and spirituality, and it’s a tough one for many westerners. And perhaps one of the most difficult lessons of all for a westerner is the idea of karma , or destiny; the idea that we are not in control. For to try and control India, when you travel there, is an exercise in extreme frustration. In fact, I have often said that you can learn more about the philosophy of yoga by travelling in the country than you can at any ashram. In the end, perhaps the difference between those who have a hard time in India and those like me, who love it, is that India chooses you. Below I am quoting from one of the best pieces i have ever read about India on the Internet:
India leaves little room for in-betweens. No middle class. No maybe. And just like that, you either loathe it or love it. To hate it is easy. You choose it. Like anything else. You choose absolute repulsion. But even choices are difficult, if only consequentially. To love it is far easier. All that’s required is the slight dumbing down of the senses, (in some cases, you may have to dumb these down to a very large degree), an exaggerated sense of objectivity, (fake it till you make it), and an opening up of the self to such an extent that you seek less to understand and more to just accept (in a very Mahatma Gandhi sense, naturally). India Chooses You
I went to India at a time in my life when I was at my lowest ebb, and my travels there healed and revived me in just about every way possible. I have written about this many times in articles like My Story. Obviously, not everyone has the experience I had. I am very well aware that India is not an easy place for women, foreigners and Indians alike; and I hope and pray that attitudes will change within my lifetime. Om Namah Shivaya.
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