20/12/2015 8:24 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Travelling In India

People near the Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Hemera Technologies via Getty Images
People near the Taj Mahal, Agra, India

A woman, or maybe two women, travelling on their own in India have to face certain unique challenges, and some roads that are closed to them. An obvious example is hitchhiking, a method tried and tested for travel experiences that remain unforgotten. But in a country where the news is full of horror stories about crimes against women, it is a privilege only accessible to well-built men; we women must give up dreams of our very own Motorcycle Diaries. Or so common sense will tell you.

Worries intensify as night falls -- while big cities are notorious for their crime rates, small towns exude an eerie sense of abandonment post 9pm. You ask yourself: is the police readily available, are the people misconstruing your purpose for being out after dark, will connectivity fade? As women, we choose to spend extra cash rather than compromise on safety -- we try to stay in downtown areas, tend to peek in buses to check the male-female ratio before hopping on, and are wary of accepting any unsolicited help. We take extra care about where we stay, the neighbourhoods we visit.

For the cherry on top, there are always judgy uncles and aunties who are only too happy to show you your place.

And then of course, for the cherry on top, there are always judgy uncles and aunties who are only too happy to show you your place. In our train back to Delhi, a middle-aged couple were surprised to find that the two of us girls were out by ourselves. They asked us if we were "too fond" of adventure, their eyebrows almost vanishing into their hairlines.

Of course, there are many, many of us who do go out on our own, who do hitchhike, who do take trips while staying on a tight budget -- but a general middle-class consensus remains that it's just not safe for a woman to travel alone in India without an external support system. I do not suggest that these problems for women are exclusive to India -- but perhaps I may suggest that they exist more so in India?

A night in Jodhpur and all of us sat together, conversations taking us to places unexplored. A French girl travelling to other states of India after a three-month stint in Leh, a German out to experience the whole of South and Southeast Asia, another German with similar plans, an Indian guy backpacking across the entire subcontinent with a goal to know every corner of all our 29 states over a period of one-and-half years, and, of course, us two girls, our travel plans seeming increasingly tiny in front of their ambitious ones.

Yet, that's not all there is to the equation. The foreigners amidst us have their own set of problems. They don't know the language, they stand out for their differently coloured skin, and are obviously not so aware of the culture of a place -- additionally, in a country like India, where culture can vary so greatly every few hundred kilometres, it can get all the more confusing.

That night, our companions related their experiences, one of which happened right in front of us -- some locals, extremely keen to take pictures with these white-skinned people, simply walked up to these foreigners and stood next to them, asking their friend to click a picture. It was bizarre. The French girl exclaimed that having their pictures clicked unasked did not make them feel like celebrities that it made them feel like zoo animals. That is the gap- -- it wouldn't be the locals' intention to make them feel like zoo animals; perhaps they just act out of curiosity, and do not find any other way to express themselves since they cannot speak a language common with them.

The French girl exclaimed that having their pictures clicked unasked did not make them feel like celebrities, that it made them feel like zoo animals.

Then there are some instances which are not so funny, some which are just plain awful. Foreigners raped on the beaches of Goa, raped while they are on drugs, robbed as they try to ask around their way, fooled into things much more sinister. It is not just limited to foreigners; as the two of us girls walked around in Pushkar, a bunch of local guys began to follow us, asking us "which country?" When we did not answer, they tried to push each other on us, so they could accidently brush against us and every time that happened, the whole group cheered.

There are smaller problems as well. Imagine leaving a valuable bag at some place you visited, some table you sat at, in the excitement of the day, imagine accidently leaving it behind at a shop, a restaurant or in a taxi. I make this statement without referring to any stats, because there can be no reliable stats for such a thing -- you're just less likely to retrieve something you left behind or lost in India as opposed to in other touristy countries. It is easier to find something you left behind or dropped in a country like Singapore or Germany or Switzerland.

But why? Is it because people are more dishonest here, more deceitful? No, maybe not; maybe the problem is that we don't have the kind of systems in place that will facilitate the search of a lost item. We don't have effective lost-and-found management at tourist places, we have police who are overburdened and have better things to do than find your lost wallet (and they have no problem even telling you so) -- it is perhaps because the system doesn't support us that individual acts of such assistance are more rare. Of course, experiences are always subjective. You could have lost your bag in Singapore, never to be found again, and found a lost one in Punjab. But on an average, I would not pick up a wallet lying on the road and make an effort to report it to the police if I know that it's going to take away too much time from my day and earn me jeers from the authorities themselves.

These are among the many factors that make travelling in India not just dangerous, but consistently difficult, and that is a terrible shame, because India, with its endless history and multicultural demographic has monumental potential. Every state has so much to teach you that travelling in India can be one of the greatest experiences of your life.

[The foreigners] related experiences where the generosity of the people exceeded anything that they had ever witnessed...

But as the night went on and the Jodhpur air cooled down, we began talking about the other side of India, the side beyond the gruelling heat and inconvenient transport, the side beyond the dilapidated histories and the forgotten lives. The side which sheds light on the warmth, the brilliance and the beauty of cultures that believe in communities, in helping each other out, in looking out for others.

They related experiences where the generosity of the people exceeded anything that they had ever witnessed -- the simple gestures by which the locals welcome travellers in their homes, the way they ask them to sit and have a meal with them, to share their food and understand where they come from. I couldn't help but agree -- seeing a baraat passing by the main road from our balcony, all of us rushed down to witness it as the groom and his family pulled us in with them, made us dance, and asked us to come along to be a part of their festivities, to share their happiness. They asked us, as we stood in our dishevelled hair and random pyjamas, they asked us to come along.

When our German friend caught an auto in the middle of the night to buy cigarettes and upon reaching the shop, realised that he had no money on him, the auto guy generously offered to purchase them for him. When in the train, the judgy uncle-aunty who disapproved of our trip, also made an extra effort to visit us and check whether our unconfirmed seats got confirmed. A couple of years back, while on the train from Goa to Delhi, we befriended an old uncle who never fails to call and wish me on any festival, who never fails to wish me on my birthday, more than two years after we met him that one time.

There is something about this country that makes travelling here an absolutely maddening and an absolutely heart-warming experience. The range of people you will find here, there is little chance that you will find it anywhere else. Perhaps it's still not too clichéd to say that here you will find that something else too, maybe a method in madness, a beauty in disarray, but it is something that works. Something refreshing is coming up here; maybe the conversation is changing. Maybe the road is not as bad as we think it is.

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