On a beautiful summer day, I was having lunch with Kuldeep, who was my couch-surfing host for a few days. He asked, “What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done in your life?” I paused and laughed while I had an epiphany. I replied, “according to the majority of Europeans, this is the craziest thing I could do. Couch-surfing at a house of Indian stranger while backpacking the country all by myself.” He was mind-blown, and to be fair, he had every right to be.
Why do we see countries like India as dangerous destinations or as some sort of dark tourism locations? It’s funny that there are two kinds of responses that I tend to get from people when I talk about my solo trips. There are those hopeless romantics who compare my travels to the plot of Eat Pray Love, why not that of Wild, I wonder. And there are the “informed” people who seem to know everything about the atrocities of the “other” countries. Their only answer is to stay safe on their couches and in front of their screens. These are the ones who quickly mutilate my travel desires into some gory Hostel short in order to make me doubt myself.
When I was preparing for my backpacking trip to India, I could not believe that even my closest, most helter-skelter friends looked at me like I was about to jump into the abyss. I did not plan much besides a torturous 10-day silent meditation course. Instead of over-planning, my goal was to take things as they came. I wanted to go with the flow and enjoy the freedom of riding overcrowded trains across cities, hitchhiking and doing everything that people in the West, label as “stupid.” I kept these “stupid” plans to myself and yet received a lot of disapproving comments. “Will you bring pepper spray?” “What about a Swiss knife?” It felt like I was being prepared for the war.
“Did you hear the recent news?”, my slightly dramatic co-worker asked me a week before my trip. “Somewhere in India, a woman was raped and beheaded in public! She was an Irish tourist!” Yes, I heard the news. But in the same publications, I would also read about the dangers of the “dark alleyways” of London, where I was living at the time. He did not seem to share nearly the same level of concern about this. It turns out that twitchy people find satisfaction in projecting their fears onto you and feel compelled to lecture you while they cling to their self-perceived safety. While it never swayed my decision, someone else would have followed this so-called rational advice and canceled their trip, which would be a shame.
India is not some sort of primitive land in the middle of nowhere. Indians are not “savages,” who obsessively prey on Caucasian women. I am not denying that India is, in some ways, a conservative country, where you sometimes have to pay special attention to the way you dress or act. However, it’s a big country and norms differ from place to place. In the state of Goa, it is perfectly acceptable to wear bikini day and night. In some other states, I wouldn’t risk that. The chaotic traffic and overpopulation, very visible and overwhelming, but even so, India is culturally rich and one of the most hospitable countries in the world. We need to stop portraying India as barbaric. If you travel alone as a woman, and this applies in virtually any country, you have to stay alert but do not need to become paranoid. Cultural awareness is key. Westerners tend to protect their personal space even in most public spaces. However, in some parts of India, it is perfectly normal for someone to place their child on your lap in an overcrowded train without even asking. Don’t freak out if a random guy comes up to you and asks for a selfie with you, be polite and decline. Dress accordingly and be ready to experience all sorts of adventures. India throws you into a beautiful chaos. Approaching it with fear and panic will ruin the experience.
Traveling alone as a woman is not fatal. If anything, it is healthy, rewarding and strongly advisable. Besides getting to know the most intimate and most frustrating parts of yourself, you will learn a thing or two about a different culture, make friends for life, and find inspiration for how you might want to live the rest of your life. Traveling by yourself might not always be Eat Pray Love but it will certainly teach you more than any book you will read or any university lecture you will attend.
- Columnist (Fall 2018)