Traveling in India can be both fascinating and frustrating. Traveling alone? More so.
So, when I told my family I wanted to quit my job and take off for three weeks travelling Rajasthan, their faces fell.
You want to travel? OK. Why not France… or Italy?
According to them travelling across my own country (and a woman at that too) was something else entirely. All the internal alarm bells went off at once. It is a fact – that India is unsafe; for both local and foreign women alike. What with news of obscene rapes and murders flooding the front page every day, it makes sense to wonder if it’s really worth the trouble.
However, in my opinion, India is an incredible country to travel. The nay-sayers can quote morbid statistics, but with a little patience and some more common sense, it can be done. Although you will get stared at inappropriately and random strangers will try to invade into your personal space – it’s just all a reflection of what it means to simply be a woman in India. But we being Indian women have had a lifetime of experiences that prepare us to handle such tricky situations. So why not use that same instinct to travel solo and safe?
The real challenge here is to use your head and say no to bad experiences. It may sound trivial, but believe me, this is what’s going to enable you to have some of the most intensely personal and exhilarating experiences here. Contrary to facts, I met countless men who in no way treated me like a sexual object. Their whole-hearted kindness and compassion moved me in unexpected ways.
Have a chat with the old shopkeeper or the woman sitting in your train compartment whose wisdom is a far greater asset than your smartphone (though some kind of a phone is definitely advised). In fact, it was in Pushkar (a holy town in Rajasthan) when I conversationally asked my host, “when was the last time there was a murder or rape or anything in the city?” It took him a good five minutes to recall. In retrospect it was the instant incredulous expression on his face (saying whaaat? Murder?), not the answer that put my mind at rest. As a result, I let myself indulge in their famous special bhang lassis and the local hashish. The point is to trust yourself before anybody else.
Of course I did not leave Delhi in equal wisdom. I learnt it slowly as I travelled from the wilderness of Ranthambore to Jodhpur, followed by Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Chittorgarh to Pushkar. It took me a while to acclimatize myself to random kindness from chance encounters. But had I not travelled I would have never discovered a way to restore my faith on people despite all the facts that said otherwise.
So long Delhi
Sachets of washing powder, shampoo and conditioner, paper soap, together with miniature bottles of gin and whiskey, all crammed into a 60l taller-than-myself backpack and a camera slung to the side, I set out on the early morning super-fast Ranthambore Express from Delhi last New Year’s Eve.
The Ranthambore National Park is spread across 400 sq km at the intersection of the Aravalli and Vindhya mountain ranges. Previously an ancient hunting ground for the kings of Rajasthan, today it is a wildlife sanctuary famous for its diurnal tigers. Stories of their territorial battles, love triangles, and character trademarks have been passed down by generations. With more new ones added every year, the Sawai Madhopur district was buzzing with talk of new sightings and old nuances of the wildcats.
The local folks were naturally the conversational types. Within two hours of being there I had learnt about the tigers’ eating and mating habits, who had how many sons and daughters last year, who got preyed on and who saved who. It was like listening to them talk about their neighbours. Said with an air of nonchalance tinged with the pride of living amongst such royalty.
Despite all the fantastical tales my expectations were cut short by an unseasonal downpour the morning I reached. The wildlife was relatively relaxed on that overcast afternoon. We literally walked through a herd of sambars with the Natural Walk Tour guide. This ho-hum attitude to humans made for some amazing shots (at which point I was dying for a telephoto
What the day lacked in terms of excitement was made up for in the night of the New Year’s. The tiny guesthouse organised a small bonfire and music, and the manager ingratiated himself to the needs of its many foreign tourists and one lonely Indian woman. He personally rang me up to inform me that I was in fact the first one to be invited for the party and no way should I miss this opportunity to be specially entertained by him. As I put the phone down I couldn’t help but marvel at his ingenuous marketing skills.
But then God knows what happens to lone Indian women among hippie foreigners and wanderlust guides of the wilderness!
With much caution I stuffed three miniature whiskies down my jacket to partake in the celebration. There were Rajasthani music on the cranky stereo, the tandoor already cackling and the party high on laughter. It was easy to forget my inhibitions. Everybody had a laugh and a story to share. We didn’t care for names; we were simply travelers, riding on the high of the unknown. And so I spent my first New Year amongst strangers, never feeling more at home.
I was lucky to have my accommodation fixed free of cost at the Sardar Army Club, through a friend, who is in the army. I was received by his father at the station. An army man himself, he insisted on accompanying me to the club. When I persisted that it would be totally unnecessary and that I was quite capable of making my way through the city, he replied curtly, “you are touring the best parts of Rajasthan by yourself… I understand you are indeed capable. But I will still meet you on the platform.”
Hospitality is something that’s ingrained in the folks, genteel or otherwise, of Rajasthan. Sometimes, it’s best to simply accept this kindness rather than disrespect their wishes.
While in Jodhpur, a trip to the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort is definitely a must (refer the ominous hole/cave in the Dark Knight Rises). If you’re up for a short jaunt to the old blue city (the gate is through the fort itself), make sure you’ve had something to eat beforehand (I had skipped lunch, hoping to find something interesting in the old city, though to no avail). Despite guards who told me that the walk downhill and then back up was totally not worth the hassle, I’d advise that you do it anyways. It’ll give you a chance to marvel at the old architecture, very similar to the fort itself; a warren of narrow brick lined roads that turn at 90 degree at unsuspecting corners, minars that spring up out of nowhere – sometimes at the top
Of a building or at a crossing or the garbage dump as well.
Enroute the Bishnoi-Mogra Village.Bishnoi-Mogra village – A tiny hamlet, a dot on the map of India.
If Bishnoi-Mogra is a dot, then it is safe to say that Govinder Singhji’s home is a dot on that dot. A quaint little home, he was kind enough to perform the famous Bishnoi afeem (opium) ceremony (I was requested not to take pictures of the ceremony itself). Bishnois are stout vegetarians, teetotellers and yet consume afeem everyday. It apparently strengthens the mind and body. I’m sure science will prove them right but it’s worth a chuckle anyways .
I spent only two days in Jodhpur. While I wasn’t being entertained by my friend and his family I spent my spare time like any other tourist; ticking off suggested places from the Lonely Planet guide. I had little time to reminisce when I was spending all day simply getting comfortable with the idea that we, Indian women can easily travel alone and have fun at it too!
Hotel Mirage: Jaisalmer
An old trading town, marking the beginning of the ancient Silk Route in India, Jaisalmer is a riot of colours. The narrow roads lined with quaint curio shops give an old-world charm to the city; and with some of the best views of the Golden City, the fort is definitely THE place to stay. Unlike most other forts of Rajasthan, the king of Jaisalmer preferred to stay among his subjects. As a result, today you find the fort premises abounding with homes, guesthouses, coffee shops, etc.
The bastion looks like the sand castles you make on the beach, no?
The city of Jaisalmer presents some of the best opportunities to shop. The local craftsmanship flourish in handcrafted leather items (clothes, journal, bag and shoes) as well as beautifully hand-stitched cotton rugs. Warned of the overzealous shopkeepers; don’t let your reason be swayed by the relentless dark strappy Indian men talking to you in a very very fake American accent (even to a discerning Indian customer like myself). This is their livelihood and believe me they kick ass at it.
The desert of Rajasthan is unlike most other deserts. It is a living a desert. The Thar desert is littered with patches of green and brown; populated by sparse hamlets that support themselves on goat milk and meager farming of bajra and barley.
Open your heart to strangers of the land. Give them a lift and feel blessed. Literally.
The Kuldhara Village is among the 75 other villages that were abandoned overnight during the reign of Akbar.
The shrine-like atmosphere lends an aura of mystery to the broken, dilapidated landscape.
Though most travelers don’t find themselves all the way to the Khaba Fort, you’d be glad you made the effort anyways. The spectacular view of never-ending rocky flatlands was the perfect spot to build the farthest security outpost for Jaisalmer
And if you think owning a camera is a privilege, here you will meet people who simply love to get their pictures taken. It was shocking to realize that the significance of globalisation, media and the internet has reached these abandoned corners of India as well. Children to old folks, everybody knows that a tourist will upload pictures on the internet; and maybe someday fame will be theirs for the taking.
And finally the dunes. You definitely can’t miss that. Preferably hire your own jeep and take a day off at the dunes. Not only is it cheaper than a pre-planned safari tour, you also get the much needed calm and quiet to truly enjoy the fullness of the tranquil dunes.
Behold the sunset, it’s a once in a lifetime 20 mins that you will never forget and yet never associate with anything that you see, feel, or hear while living in the metropolis; unmarred, untouched.
Slumming it alone in India’s most romantic city: Udaipur
The 11 hr bus ride landed me in Udaipur at 5.00AM in the morning. Little did I expect that in the wee hours of the morning my host would be present bang in the front of the bus stop, waiting for me. As my phone had mysteriously conked out on me, this benevolent soul was worried about the single, sole woman making her way through the sleepy town to his guesthouse (not that I had any doubts otherwise). Slightly wary of his intensions, I climbed into his car ready to jump out any moment in case of any hanky-panky business. But my roving imaginations were quickly put to rest when he struck up an easy conversation on the various sights and sounds of the city.
We reached the modest guesthouse and found hot tea and toast waiting in my room (mind you I was paying only Rs. 300 a night – a backpacker’s average rate). With fresh towels and hot water in the pipes I was deeply moved by this man’s unconditional compassion towards a stranger – a woman – just another human being.
Udaipur is known as among the most romantic cities in India. It is where you find newly-wed couples frolicking around the numerous lakes that throng the city. The old quarters of the city present a unique charm of fluid translucent waters, cute little boats and lakefront cafes and eateries, making the whole experience indeed very romantic. It was for the first time in my whole trip that I yearned for a companion. And a companion I did find too (well not the typical romantic sorts, but rather someone who romanticized India in a then-now sort of way).
An almost-70-ish journalist who was travelling through India for the fifth time found this new women-empowered India very interesting. I was subjected to endless conversations on how in the era of my moms and grandmoms, travelling the way I was, was a simple no-no; neither had he met another one like myself in his past three months of travelling. And yet here I was so totally sorted and having fun travelling by myself.
Truth be told; I had no ready answer. Except that this is what I wanted to do and I believed that the only person who can make me do otherwise was just myself. And I refuse to believe that I am alone. I am not unique. It’s just that women travelling alone are so few and so far apart, that we rarely make each other’s acquaintance. However, I do believe that things are changing. Very quickly. And so I let him know.
Where panache meets providence: Pushkar
Pushkar, nestled in the Aravallis, is among the oldest known cities of the world. It is the only place where Lord Brahma is worshipped. Essentially ‘Pushkar’ means the Blue Lotus and the lake signifies the exact location where this momentous Blue Lotus landed from a universe far far away. Unfortunately for Lord Brahma, a monster (rakshas) threatened his plans for the Mahayagna. And so to secure the land from him and any such unforeseen creatures he performed some sort of complex holy ritual which required his wife to be present. And since Parvati, his wife was away on some random mission (independent god-woman that she was) he married a local girl to perform the ritual right away. And there descended the wrath of a woman scorned (seriously, somethings never do change). Doomed and deprived of followers; he was condemned by Parvati to be worshipped only in Pushkar. And hence Pushkar finds its reference in the tales of the old gods and goddesses, a holy town bound by religion and incredible folklores.
Unlike Pushkar’s celebrated history, the town mirrors less and less of its glorious past. Once a quiet dusty town is now chockablock with clothing and trinket shops. It took me a while to get my bearings. The narrow, winding streets were lined with shops selling all kinds of trinkets, leather bags, stationery; interspersed with periodical Juice Bhandars (shops), internet cafes, cash advances, train and bus tickets, cheap counterfeit books and other knickknacks. Pushkar is a riot of sounds and colours. For the first time since my initial misgivings of travelling alone, I was taken aback by the constant ‘good morning ma’am, hellos, hi, come for a massage (from a barber shop?), want to be friends’ from the endless shopkeepers along the roads. Pushkar is an old city that’s lost its old-world nostalgia in exchange for a better economy. But I was only visiting and I did my best not to judge and have a great time anyways.
Instead, I preferred to stay indoors. At the Pushkar Palace. A small quaint little guesthouse which on retrospect seem like a complete miracle find. Unlike most other cafes and restaurants, here the staff just let you be. With a killer view from the rooftop café I spent hours simply sitting with a notepad or charging my laptop, memo-ing in my experiences. I sipped on colas all day long with light snacks of vegetable pakoras (a spicy fried tea snack of sorts in India). Random travellers drifted in and out, leaving only traces of conversations. The evenings unfolded into long discussions about Indian politics, rampant beggary and often on the safety of women, like myself.
Somewhere between this great exchange of opinions and daydreaming, I realised how easy it is to blame the society, circumstances and politics for not following our heart’s wish. Of course, they all add up to create a pretty shitty economy where there’s no basic right to health or housing, where begging is considered just another shoddy profession, where millions starve every day. But here we are, not starving, not depraved; blessed with good families and a decent lifestyle. So what’s stopping us, the women of India, from doing what we want to do? Does being independent mean only having a successful, high paying job? Does it mean that we can only out-do men when it comes to the paycheque? Is that all our independence is worth?
Independence is not the sum of our bank accounts. It is what you wish to do with it. Freedom is not about being your own boss if you don’t know how to use the power to affect real positive change. Liberty for women is not about having more choices, but the ability to forget stereotypes and choose only that, that makes you happy. And in that instance when I decided to give in to my love for travelling; take a chunk out of my hard-earned savings just because I can; I had found my true freedom. I didn’t know it then, but somewhere in the old palaces of maharajas, the deserted city of Kuldhara, in the mirage of the dunes, in the hearts of the people I met, my answers came to me. In fact it took me the entire 21 days of travelling to figure this out. I’d never felt more free.
Madhusre Das is a writer and FLINT contributor, currently somewhere in India.