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India – what comes to mind when you think about this gorgeous and mysterious country? Is it the colorful outfits that the beautiful Indian women wear? Is it the devastating poverty? Is it the ancient and the wise religion, the colorful art, the new growing and expanding economy (hello IT and outsourcing!), or is it something else for you?
One thing for sure, India is a very unique country – if you are ever lucky enough to visit it in person it will definitely leave a lasting impression on you – either love it or hate it, you will definitely feel and learn something new.
Personally, I have always been fascinated with India since I was a little girl. Some of my Indian interests included studying and practicing yoga and its underlying philosophy; reading Bhagavad Gita – the sacred Hindu text, and learning more about Hindu religion and its many deities, Kings and Queens, and other mythological characters; as well as believing in the concept of karma and reincarnation, which is similar to Buddhism in concept, but is uniquely Indian.
So when I finally decided to go to India, the first thing I did was to ask my best friend, who happened to be Indian (from Mumbai, aka Bombay) if I could go there alone.
“Alone?”, she asked in disbelief. “No way! No, you should NOT go there alone as a woman. Just don’t! It’s too dangerous!”
So after a few more discussions about why I should not go to India alone, she finally agreed that I could go… but only to the South of India, which is completely different from the North, she told me. “Hmm, then how am I going to see Taj Mahal? (which is located in the North, about 3 hours drive from New Delhi, in the small city of Agra).
Being very stubborn, but with a lot of “solo travel” experience, I decided to plan and go to the North anyway, to visit the grand Taj Mahal, how could I not, really. To be on the “safe side” I decided to pre-book some tours for almost every day that I was going to be in India, just to have a local by my side all the time.
The first thing that I packed in my suitcase – was of course… a pepper spray, followed by some scarfs, and long, body-covering clothes. And finally I was ready for my big Indian adventure.
I landed in New Delhi on the night of January 28th, 2016 and the first thing I noticed was the thick, yellow smog that surrounded the city and was clearly visible even in the night time, as well as a large number of men randomly hanging out on various roads leading to the airport. I took an airport taxi (booked it through an airport kiosk) and made it safely to my hotel about 20 minutes later. Since I was very worried about my safety in India, I read numerous blog posts, and even a travel guide dedicated to the solo female safety in India, but if anything it only made me more paranoid and I was constantly on edge thinking the worst thoughts every second.
The next day I woke up, had some breakfast, and went on a private tour to see the main sites in Delhi, booked through www.viator.com which was quite inexpensive for a private tour (around $100 for the whole day, including the driver and the tour guide). We drove around and saw a number of gorgeous temples and gardens, and some other main sites.
The tour guide was a middle-aged man who kept grabbing my SLR camera, continuously trying to adjust the manual settings, and take some pictures of me, and… for me, which was quite annoying but I tried hard to keep my smile on.
I kept asking him to kindly return the camera to me, so I could take my own pictures of the main attractions, and that’s how I mainly remember that day. That, and the 2-inch dust on every tree, wall, fence, and everything else that grows, or stands in the city, which is quite sad actually. And the thick smog which was still everywhere, making the general visibility of the surrounding area extremely low. However, I did notice one thing – there were almost no tourists around, and those few which were there, where either in a group tour, or at the very least with a local tour guide like me.
So if you do decide to come to Delhi one day, know that you must go on tours, you cannot just wander by yourself on the streets, especially if you are a light-skinned woman. If you do not know it yet, India is called the “rape capital of the World” (I’m sorry but I cannot leave this important information out) and the most dangerous city in India, where most of the cases (at least the famous ones) take place is… New Delhi (also called Delhi for short).
The next day I took a private tour to the city of Agra, to see the famous Taj Mahal. And Taj was beautiful and massive, however, just like Paris, it is a little bit… overrated, in my opinion. It is very gorgeous – don’t get me wrong, however India has SO much more to offer, that to speak about and see only Taj Mahal as the sole jewel of India is just wrong. P.S. Every local Indian, that I had a chance to speak to about this – completely agreed with me. This does surprise you, doesn’t it? I confess – it surprised me too.
On my third day in Delhi, I went on another tour of the city, which is quite large and frankly has a lot of beautiful sights to offer. This time however I got much luckier as the new tour guide was a very intelligent, professional, and a generally nice man, that was also very knowledgable about the city.
To get a more local experience he got us to take a cycle rickshaw ride across the narrow streets in the heart of the old city. I think it is definitely one of the coolest activities you can do in Delhi. Another fun thing that we did was to go eat lunch in a very local and popular restaurant that served food in a buffet kind of style.
The only difference from the traditional buffet was that food was served on each table by a rotating waiter that had different servings of food that you could pick from. And the best part was that food was delicious. (Here’s the name and the address of the restaurant: Rajdhani – Shop No. 9A, Atmaram Mansion, Scindia House, Connaught Place, New Delhi.)
In the evening, as the tour finished, I was dropped off at the airport to catch the next flight to Mumbai (Bombay). As it turned out being a woman in any airport in India can be quite aggravating. The first negative experience was right at this airport in Delhi. A short middle-aged man with large suitcases deposited on a rolling cart was standing behind me in the check-in line.
Slowly, as the line was moving ahead, he got closer and closer, and at one point was standing parallel to me, on my right-hand side. Then, as my turn came to go to the register, the next thing I realized – the man stepped out and went ahead in front of me. The same total disregard happened on several other occasions in different places and different airports. At one point you will realize what does it mean to be a woman in India – and it doesn’t mean much if you ask me.
The next day, I woke up in Mumbai, which I heard is a safer city than Delhi. I was picked up by another private tour guide and we went on exploring the city. Mumbai is a much sunnier, prettier and a nicer city than Delhi for sure. It reminded me of Miami (USA) a lot.
It is situated right next to the gorgeous Arabian sea, and offers incredible views of the shoreline (and also, as a result has a very hot and humid climate). Mumbai has one of the largest slums in the heart of the city (one of them even surrounds the main airport), as well as one of the most famous ones where Dhobi Ghat (an open-air laundromat) is located. It is also the city where Beyonce and Coldplay shot this beautiful music video:
The tour guide in Mumbai was a young 30-something guy who told me right when he picked me up in the morning, that he was actually a Bollywood actor originally from Jaipur. It actually turned out that he did not know much about Mumbai, and the attractions it has to offer, and I figured that the “real” tour guide was probably out sick, so the tour company sent him instead.
But he did seem like a rather nice and pleasant guy, who also wanted to take some pictures with me on his cellphone. I mentioned to him that I was engaged, soon to be married, and I thought that he was acting properly at first. Until later that afternoon I received an email from him thanking me for the day and sending me the pictures, which I thought was a nice gesture.
An hour later he sent me another email demanding that I reply to his first email immediately after I open it. He did sound very weird and so I replied to him and thanked him for the day and the tour. To which he replied almost instantly telling me that he “had an unforgettable time”, and that he “needs to come see me right now in my hotel”. I was rather speechless (and disgusted) when I read it, however I didn’t bother to reply anything at all. He continued to send me an email or two almost every week, and I kept deleting them, until one day I finally replied and told him that if he won’t stop bothering me I will report him. Which he did, thankfully.
After a day and a half in Mumbai, I caught a flight to the city of Chennai, which is in the South of India. You would think that India is a one large country – but what a difference there is between the South and the North! The South of India is definitely the “best” part of India (or at the very least – the safest!).
People there seem to be much more friendly to foreigners, open, they look you in the face AND they smile at you – both men and women; there are many more tourists walking by themselves on the streets of the city, and in general there is a much more relaxed and fun atmosphere.
I spent three more days in Chennai, and went on two more sightseeing tours. The tour guide in Chennai turned out to be one of the nicest and most professional tour guides that I’ve ever met, and I felt completely at ease with him.
We did a tour of the city and saw all of the major sites in Chennai, which is actually one of the top five largest cities in India. So it does seem to be true what they say – if you want to go to India alone and feel somewhat safe – go to the South. I would warn you though about the weather – make sure that you are coming here in the right season, as it can get rather overwhelmingly hot and humid, especially in the Summer.
So what else can I tell you about my general impressions of India? One thing for sure – as a woman (alone or in a company) you will get stares. In the North – they will be intimidating, and even feel threatening, in the South they will be more friendly (or at the very least – curious or “passive”).
Unfortunately, men in India have very little basic manners, especially in comparison to that of their compatriots in Europe. Not a single one of them held a door in a building for me even once. They can also cut you in line, step on you, fart and burp next to you, can look at you inappropriately and make inappropriate comments.
The fact that women get very little respect, if any at all is extremely sad, because Indian women are just as beautiful, intelligent, and deserving of opportunities and respect as any women in the rest of the World. However to say that men are guilty and the women are just innocent victims is to say nothing much. Indian is a very complex and multilayered society, and it is a woman who raises her son after all.
Would I return to India again as a solo female traveler? Most definitely not. Would I return there in a company? Sure I would – as there is so much to India that you just cannot cover in one visit even if you stay there for a couple of months. India is beautiful, it is rich in its culture, traditions, clothing, cuisine, and its art; it is full of amazing, hospitable, kind and warm people. It’s a very special place that will mean different things for every single one of us who visits.
I heard that you have to go to India with “an open heart” to fully appreciate what it has to offer, I would add to that – go there prepared with the right kind of information, take some proper precautions, and just know what is awaiting you, so you don’t get totally shocked and confused.
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