I’ll say this much.
I just saw this tweet:
Clicking through the images, I could tell in an instant that they’re taken in places I stood just a few weeks ago. The market in Delhi is the Main Bazaar, where I stayed while I was there (you can see Vivek Hotel clearly in the picture). I’ve been to that train station, I’ve felt the eyes on me, my foreignness and femaleness as obvious as the sun in the sky. I’ve been ushered into a rickshaw and over to a nearby “travel agency” in Connaught Place where the agent tried to tell me – twice in two days! – that my train to Agra was canceled, that they’d be happy to cancel my ticket and book a private car and driver for me. No, I’m good. Thanks.
Though a few of you have asked, and more than a few people have remarked how brave (read: crazy) I was to be traveling on my own, I haven’t talked much about the state of women in India mainly because I am easily the furthest thing from an expert on the subject. But after seeing so much coverage and now this article that is so disarmingly familiar, after realizing I could’ve been any of the women in the images, I’ve got to at least share my observations.
Traveling to India as a foreigner is not for the faint of heart whether you’re male or female, with a group or alone, young or old. I met a retired British couple in Varanasi who commended me on my travels – you must be a very adventurous person, they said, the gentleman nodding knowingly.
Did I ever feel unsafe in India? Sure. Just like I felt unsafe in Paris or London or Rome at times, and never went out at night alone, always carried my purse close to the vest, left valuables in the safe in the hotel and knew my route before I made my way out anywhere. It’s called common sense, and it’s the first step to staying safe in any city.
Every time I got in a rickshaw or taxi on my own, I repeated to myself one reassuring thought: This guy doesn’t want to be the one who brings international shame and contempt on his family and his nation by hurting me. I’ll be fine. I also took a picture of the cab’s license plate.
Indians are not unaware of the tension in their country. They’re not unaware of the impression it’s leaving with foreigners. More importantly than that, they’re not sitting idly by, expecting it to just get better on its own.
One morning at breakfast, I read in the paper about a mobile app just introduced in the country, one that contacts friends, family and services in case of an emergency. (Not the exact article, but here’s a point of reference.)
Every time I turned on the TV, I saw this PSA at least once.
The shot of the woman on the bus is particularly haunting, I think. The whole thing is poignant. Granted, it won’t reach the Indians too far down the poverty spectrum to have a TV to see it on, but it’s a respectable effort nonetheless.
There were billboards calling for better behavior, community meetings listed in the paper – and probably more that I just didn’t catch, seeing how I don’t speak Hindi.
My heart breaks that the country I so fell in love with is suffering a tarnished reputation, that the actions of a scary segment of the population is impacting the bottom line of the honest tour guides, the artisans selling their wares, the restaurants and hotels with open doors and wide smiles.
I don’t know what the solution is. It’s likely complicated and expensive and divisive. It’s a cultural shift, the kind of thing that takes a discouragingly long time. In a way, it reminds me of the gun crisis in this country. While we’re trying to figure out how to regulate without suppressing rights, children continue to die from gunshots. While India encourages communities to speak out and women to be diligent and authorities to do the right thing, men continue to attack women.
But that doesn’t mean we as visitors, as women, shouldn’t go. The Gateway to India and the Main Bazaar and the Ganges and the Taj Mahal and Mani Bhavan are still magnificent. The people are still charmingly insistent, happy and proud, helpful and inviting. Could something bad happen while you’re traveling? Sure. You could get bitten by a dog, for example. But I wouldn’t trade these memories for anything.