7 Ways to Survive India as a Solo Girl

Jaipur _DSC3545

India mimics the rhythms of the ocean. At times, it’s benign, lapping gentle waves at your feet, tickling your toes. Then there are the trying moments, a violent storm that slams your body, jarring nerves to the brink when you drop any social veneer and gulp heaps of utter shock.

Friends warned me. I prepared myself, reading Wanderlust and Lipstick’s Guide for Women Traveling to India, Beth Whitman’s excellent guide.

Still, there’s reality. Physical encounters are obvious, but what about the internal inputs?  As you absorb the logic or chaos of India, it can be daunting to a solo explorer, especially a lone female.

Reality is nothing to fear when armed with practical information.

1.  The Staring

I can confirm, you will be stared at. Walking down the street. In a restaurant. Standing in the ATM line. It won’t be a glance of mild interest, and then they look away. There’s a focused intensity as people rake their eyes up and down, examining every detail of your being. Sometimes I look down at myself to ensure everything that should be covered, is. Not every person you encounter will do this, but it will occur frequently. India is not like Europe, where travelers blend in, often ignored by the general public.

Tip: Many worry a man’s attention will be followed by an unseemly proposition. While some ladies might invite this, others don’t. Much of the staring is simply curiosity.  Some locals have never seen a foreigner before, so they are intrigued. Eventually you notice that women stare as often as men. This can be unnerving, but try to remember that while you are excited and fascinated by India, her people feel the same about you.

  • Continue your errands like you would back home, with a calm eye and soon enough you feel the same.
  • Make eye contact and smile, as suggested in Johnny Vagabond’s post on Real World Travel Tips. This can shatter that weird barrier, opening the door to conversation. Warning: be friendly, but restrained with males. It’s sad, but familiarity could be misconstrued. If it’s someone I’ll see more than once, my friendly meter goes up.

2.  The Heckling

During my volunteer work, I got the chance to visit Hyderbaad, the capital city in Andhra Pradesh. One day Roxanne (fellow intern) and I ventured into the city towards an area called Mehdi Patnam to use the Internet and do some shopping. As we walked, odd reactions began to emerge. I said ‘thank you’ to someone giving us directions and heard my voice fed back to me from a group close by – “Thank youuuuu!!!”  I didn’t turn to see who the culprit was.  After Internet, we went on search for a salwar.  In the course of swapping stories I laughed — you know– my laugh. We passed a cluster of guys and one of them imitated me.   I had no idea I sounded like a hyena. It was mockery, clearly. It felt like grade school all over again.

Tip: I began to wonder if I have an annoying voice or a stupid laugh. Bottomline: don’t visit India if you have shitty self-esteem.  Nah, scratch that. Don’t take it personally. I attribute this tip to Roxanne. She aptly said if some Indians haven’t encountered many foreigners, they often engage in strange ways. Ways that are not always conducive to an equal dialogue. I also chalked it up to the Indian sense of humor. Self-deprecating humor is widely broadcast in comedy serials and films. It certainly can be interesting when your mannerisms are echoed from an outsider.

  • If this happens, ignore it and walk on.
  • Resist the urge to be rude, telling someone off feels satisfactory at the time, but later you might regret it.
  • Attempt a conversation; it may be they want you to notice them.

3.  It’s Okay to be a Feminist

Long ques are notorious in India. While I’m growing at an astounding rate as a human being, holding more love in my heart than hate, one thing I can’t stand is long, pointless lines. The second thing I can’t stand is when you nearly reach a train ticket window, and a guy with 5 ticket requests tries to boldly cut in front when you clearly have 1 request to his 5. That’s the point when I stick my elbow in his ribs and loudly say, “Heyyyy, the line is back there!!” This is controversial when the bulk of the line is composed of men. He waved his requests at me, barking in Telugu, indicating his needs were far greater than mine. After standing 40 minutes in line, I was having none of this. I firmly said in English, “I. Don’t. Care. The line is there.” I wasn’t the only one agitated; a few locals had a word or two with the interloper. Amid the bedlam of jockeying to purchase their train tickets, I managed to break my fist through, request crumpled, but victory at my heels. The pushy man had to wait.

Tip: I’m not suggesting you rally Indian women to burn their saris and strike against domestic life, just keep in mind it’s acceptable to be assertive.

  • Don’t be afraid to speak up, sistah. Especially when it comes to fairness or safety.
  • Do know when to though, not every situation calls for female empowerment.
  • Be firm with touts or beggars. If you wish to help the mitigating poverty issue in India, visit a charity, there is a range of organizations that could use donations or extra hands.
  • Squabbling over a few pennies for an auto-rickshaw may be pushing it, but shaming a sexual harasser is more than okay.

4.  Am I Invisible?

Solo women do partner up for short periods of time, and sometimes with a male friend.  When you encounter locals, you will notice a bizarre occurrence.  A local of the male persuasion will only speak to your friend.  Not you.  Ever.  The local will even talk about you, never addressing a question to you directly.  It’s tempting to start river dancing or picking your nose to see if you really are immaterial.

Tip: An integral piece to India’s personality is propriety.  What seems misogynist is actually intended to protect your reputation.  Gender interaction rarely happens, except between schoolmates, co-workers, relatives, wives and husbands.  Typically, unmarried men do not mingle with unmarried women.  Even with a rising middle class and softening mores, gender roles are fairly rigid, have been for hundreds of years.

  • Instead of fuming, take these moments to be the observer.  It’s like overhearing a conversation. And how many times have we done that with mischievous glee?
  • Bear this with patience and show equal amounts of respect.

5.  The Incessant Questions

Some days I want to hurl a cow patty if another person asks if I’m married. I’m beginning to invent creative answers in my head. No, I like women. No, I am a man inside, not outside. You get the picture. I refrain from uttering my secret thoughts, but ooh, it’s tempting. Usually you’re asked at the most inopportune times; on the rumbling train when your nose is clearly buried in a book or when you’re marching through a village with a swelling group of excitable children on Republic Day.

Tip: Questions about family and marital status are not exclusive to travelers. Indians also ask each other the same questions. A hangover from the caste era, knowing your family origins and marital status paints a picture of your socio-economic background. Even something as innocuous as a name carries meaning.

  • It can feel hollow answering the same questions, but try to view it as an icebreaker to deeper interaction.
  • Have fun with the answers, though not the ones I provided above.
  • It’s not impolite to ask the same questions in return.
  • If you’re a private person, this may be difficult, but inch by inch attempt transparency rather than secrecy.

6.  Safety

Complete strangers have stopped their motorbike and offered me a ride into town. I politely declined. I’ve had invitations to visit temples or come by for dinner. Some I’ve eagerly agreed to; others were dismissed. My couchsurfing email account filled with males from Mumbai offering to show me the ‘sights’ or ‘hey, let’s grab a coffee’.

Tip: Intuition is your savior. Use it wisely; use it well. Then, have some serious fun. Not every invitation is a pre-curser to assault. Be open, but aware. In Mumbai, I repeatedly saw foreigners in mini-skirts. Let me reiterate propriety. Perceptions are everything in India. You have a right to wear what you want, but you’ve come to explore, learn and receive. Part of this process is allowing others to feel comfortable engaging with you. When you combine halter tops with sparse gender contact, that’s shaky ground.

  • Don’t leave a drink unattended, even water.
  • Don’t drink copious amounts of alcohol unless you’re superhuman and extremely sharp when inebriated.
  • Pack a rubber doorstop for your hotel door, a small can of pepper spray, and a whistle. I attached a whistle to my key chain, so I know where it is at all times.
  • Cover legs and shoulders. Bare arms are acceptable.
  • Refrain from plunging necklines or overly tight clothing.
  • Wear long skirts. You can buy some cute ones in markets and they offer air for your lady bits.
  • Use shawls or scarves for warmth and coverage. Sometimes I wrap a scarf around my head.
  • Go full bore and purchase a sari or a salwar kameez, two traditional outfits Indian women wear daily.

I’m not fearless and worry like anyone about my safety. Each state in India has a regional language, but most Indians speak at least 2 languages. Hindi is the national language and is mandatory in schools.

  • Scream the word ‘fire’ over and over again.  Hindi: “Aag!!”

Extreme case only, but I’ve often pondered what I might say if assault was imminent.

  • Hindi: “Mujhe AIDS hain, tumhara gand gir jayega!”  Translation: “I have AIDS, your penis will fall off!”

7.  Isolation

Harsh sun pierced the delicate membrane of my retinas. Trickles of sweat poured down my back, along the sides of my temple. Throngs of hawkers bellowed from their stalls, singing the praises of their products. “Brinjal! Fresh!” “Grapes!” Their eyes dart to me, eagerly seeking a potential sale with a firangi. Men in pressed shirts with laptop bags push by me. Delicately beautiful women bursting in jewel toned saris stare, sometimes smile at me. Cows trudge alongside, methodical with laziness and power.  They know their revered position and flaunt it. Stray dogs with matted fur and a permanent itch run towards me,  hankering for a pet or scrap of food. A child shyly touches my leg, awed by this alien woman in their sights. Instead of diving in, I want to shrink, be small and insignificant. With over a billion people and animals to engage with, why do I feel so alone sometimes?

Tip: What you’re feeling is not loneliness, but a craving for the familiar.

  • Find a respite from the staggering visual inputs. Whether it’s an hour in your hotel room, a nap, or a cool drink followed by a tasty meal. I often hiked to a nearby lake while volunteering, grabbing a few minutes of quiet. Little moments will add up to overall well-being.
  • Keep in contact with friends and family. I often like to hear the events in their lives, it keeps me connected to them.
  • Write your honest thoughts in a travel journal. Expelling negative feelings is the best way to gain a new perspective.

Solo Girl, India Isn’t All Bad

Hopefully you haven’t turned off your computer in disgust with India. For all the idiosyncratic instances that have happened to me, there were innumerable acts of kindness and generosity. I’ve been helped with directions, had my bag carried as I got on a rickshaw, and friendly strangers have welcomed me to their country.

What I hope this guide does is strengthen your understanding of this puzzling, beautiful country. Like the ocean, we are fearful of its tremendous power, yet we still break into a run to be enveloped by an arcing wave, reveling in the roar and exhilaration without resistance. Treat India the same.

Photo: DograExposures

When Sickness Makes You Weak Minded

I’ve been offline pretty much all week not because of good times and tequila shots.  That should be the case.  I’m in Baga Beach staying in a 3-bedroom villa and was psyched about hanging with Christine Gilbert.  Instead of playing with her son Cole, I’m battling my second bout of traveler’s diarrhea after narrowly recovering from a staph infection (Staphylococcus aureus).

I posted this nasty picture of my arm on Facebook:

The arm was steadily healing, but today it’s stinging again and looks like a tiny fissure is forming.

The mind whirs while in this precarious state.  I feel worn out, spent, and am probably riddling this post with typos and grammatical errors because antibiotics leave me dizzy.

  • I want to throw in the towel.  Go home.  Then I want to kick myself because I worked hard to be here and returning home means failure.
  • I want to curl up in a ball and cry.
  • I feel guilty for not enjoying Goa.  I should be out exploring the coastline on a scooter or snorkeling.  All I really want to do is lie down all the time.
  • I’m beginning to determine that the SteriPEN might not work, or I used it incorrectly.  I’ve experienced the same symptoms twice in the past 2 months.

Help me out people, I need some intense words of encouragement right now.

Am I overreacting or simply experiencing the banality of sickness in long-term travel?

By |February 25th, 2011 |Categories: Goa |31 Comments

A Love Affair Ends

Dear Volunteering,

Alas, all things have a natural end.  I’m sorry it had to come to this, but our time is over.

It’s a myth that love affairs are riddled with happiness.

Sometimes, you nearly made me cry.

On the good days, you had me grinning ear to ear.

Despite our rocky time together, I’ll always remember the endless sunny days, our walks to school together, dancing to Marathi disco and eating Cadbury chocolate until our fingers got sticky.

I’ll think fondly of our lively dinners and visits to all the neighboring villages.

Most of all, I’ll miss our children.  Make sure Sanghvi continues her studies.  She’s so bright.  And don’t let little Rohan get bullied anymore.  Watch Suresh mature, I’m excited to see what kind of man he grows into.

As I lounge in Goa sipping frothy cocktails and admiring a pool boy’s behind, your memory will fade, but not your impact.

You forced me to discover reserves of patience I once thought was a mirage.  You taught me to accept, even when I didn’t want to.  How holding a child’s hand means more than offering an extravagant gift.

Thanks for these 3 months, it lasted longer than any of my relationships, really.

I’ll leave you with some pictorial tokens of my affection.  Please don’t cry, you’ll only make it worse.

XO

Jeannie

What I Do All Day

When you’re volunteering overseas it’s the opposite of pleasure travel.  I eat the food given to me, sit on freezing concrete and pace my time according to a schedule.

Since I’m working at a home for children, everything centers around them.

Wake up call is 5:30 or 6:00 am

Yeah, fantastically early.  Even in my previous life I never woke at 5:30 except for a bathroom break or nightmare jolt.  Prakash makes the kids do calisthenics to get the blood going before school.  It’s actually fairly refreshing.

After we’ve been sweating to the oldies, they get their ration of toothpaste.

Prayer

7:30 am is morning prayer and follows the essential Gandhi philosophy:

Be compassionate to all living beings

Live a simple life

Treat all people equally

Be kind to each other

Respect others rights to be different

Be thoughtful

Help others

Do your best in everything that you do

Be happy

My favorite part is when they all sing:

“Live a life of true… and happiness you will find… Gandhi, Gandhi, Gandhiji, Gandhijiiiii!!!”

School Drop Off

After a breakie of chapatti and lentils, I usually take the Marathi primary kids to school at 10ish.  It’s a close 10 minute jaunt to the Savarsai village.

I’m constantly amazed how the kids can walk on sharp rocks and uneven paved roads with their tiny bare feet!

Kitchen Duty

Once in a while I’ll help out in the kitchen chopping vegetables or deep frying a flat bread called poori.

English and Homework

Sometimes you have to be proactive at volunteering, so I invented a spelling game for the kids.  I wrote out basic English words on bits of paper and scrambled the order in a hat.  Each child picks a word, has to pronounce the word outloud and spell it on a slate.  I’m a popular Auntie, well known for handing out prizes.  The ones that generate buzz are pencils and erasers. I’ll even give them paper to draw after a few games are played.

I’ve tutored some kids learning English, which is odd since I’m the wobbly one on the subject.  I’ve turned out to be a patient and decent teacher.  At least that’s what kids tell me.

Yoga

After the kids return from school, night prayer is at 6 pm and then we do yoga.  I contort along with them, but yoga on concrete is rough compared to the oak floors of Vancouver.

Songs and Story Time

I’ve been known to belt a tune without karaoke and the fanning fires of alcohol, so I put my tone deafness to good use.  I’ve taught them Ring Around the Rosie, Frère Jacques, among others.  The kids also love a good yarn.  Since my 3 months is nearly over, I’ve run out of fairy tales, resorting to making up my own.  I usually include animals, some conflict and resolution, and a moral lesson at the end like, don’t be greedy, be thankful for the food on your plate, or always be generous with your friends.

By 10 pm the kids are knackered, and so am I.  It’s off to bed until we wake to do it all over again!

If you included volunteering in your travels, what were some of your duties?

What Works, What Doesn’t: Feline Mishaps and Acne Explosions

In this edition, where should you hang your silky boxers?  And preventing blindness can be a pain in the retina.

What Works

1.  Fucidin Cream

My cute little cat scratched my face so severely once I had to visit the doctor.  He literally gasped upon seeing my disfigured face.  When I mentioned using Polysporin on the injury, he set me straight.  “Polysporin?  Does nothing.  Use this.”  Only available by prescription in Canada, Fucidin kicks Polysporin out of the stadium.  It’s nuclear antibiotic cream that I’ve used time and again.  Unlike Polysporin, I don’t need to apply much, so the tube lasts forever, healing cuts or scratches lightening fast.  Keep in mind – even a small scratch can get infected.  Beg your doctor for it before leaving or borrow my cat if you need.

Cat got your tongue?

2.  Sleeping Bag

I love, love my sleeping bag.  Some people think packing a sleeping bag is pointless, but it depends on the bag.  Mine is solely for tropical countries, good at +15/22 °C, fits into a tiny sack, and feels like a bag of air.  When you need some warmth and distance between you and that questionable hostel mattress, a lightweight bag is useful.  Stay toasty with layering and a decent sleeping bag liner.  Cost: $35 CDN.  www.mec.ca.

3.  Buying Clothes at Value Village

I admit my skepticism at this idea, but gave it a go.  Did I mention my skepticism meter is broken?  This worked way beyond my expectations.  My Kodak pants and Roots rain jacket are constant characters in my India wardrobe.  For items I’ll toss or re-gift to my favorite hostel buddy, I never worry about preserving overpriced North Face fabric.  In fact, I just spilled some bleach on the pants and could care less.  That’s called liberation, baby.  Pants: $7.95 CDN.  Jacket: $13.99 CDN.  One tip: you’ll have to sort through racks of clothes until you hit the jackpot, but once you do it’s worth it.  www.valuevillage.com.

Where my unmentionables go

4.  Clothesline

An essential piece of gear if you want to save on laundry costs.  Mine can be attached with suction cups or hooks and I don’t require clothes pins!  The cords twist and clothes can be slipped through to secure them.  Easily transportable and useful to dry wet clothes from a monsoon dunk, not just clean laundry. www.austinhouse.com.

What Doesn’t

1.  Malarone

Travelers tend to be worried about rapid-fire viruses or diseases that melt skin, for instance.  I was a tad concerned about malaria, so my doctor recommended Malarone (atovaquone and proguanil hydrochloride) for the 6 months of my India leg.  What I didn’t anticipate were the powerful side effects.  My body went from normal adult female to a pimple erupting, diarrhea exiting, exhausted shell. If I were you, research all potential options for malaria medication before getting on that plane.  Wikipedia guide on antimalarial medications.

2.  Clear Care

The golden handcuffs of contact lens care, Clear Care is a hydrogen peroxide based solution that coats lenses with protein and kills bacteria and germs that cause eye infections.  This all sounds terrific, until you get wind of the fussy case that leaks if tipped in any bloody direction.  Bloody impractical when your living space is a bunk bed with no bedside table. I’m bloody stuck with the case because the metal inside it neutralizes the peroxide.  Stick with saline solution if you can.  www.clearcaresolution.com.

The lens case that practicality forgot

3.  Long Hair

Washing my hair has become an event, not just a boring task.  Bucket baths are ample enough for dogs, but not long tresses.  I recommend a pixie cut or sleek bob before embarking on a lengthy trip.  Your hair is up in a ponytail ninety percent of the time anyway.

Hair Loserdom

4.  B12 and Garlic

This combo came by recommendation from a naturopath.  Supposedly B12 and garlic scramble your pheromones so mosquitoes think your blood tastes like sewer water instead of wine.  The only compound that seems to stop bites is 1000 proof DEET.  Always on the quest to annihilate those buggers, I have to throw this option in the “discard” bin.

Share your misfires and wins in the comments, I enjoy reading what others are experiencing.  Until next time!

By |February 9th, 2011 |Categories: Travel Tips |23 Comments

Coconut Chutney – Indian Holy Grail

It’s no secret that I am violently in love with coconut, so when my volunteer host, Kavita presented me with homemade chutney at dinner one evening, I nearly fainted with joy.  Is coconut better than sex?  A close second.

Chutneys are used as an accompaniment to the main meal.  They can be wet or dry, and are usually a grainy texture.

I managed to extract the recipe from Kavita.  You may not be physically present in India, but try this recipe to taste an authentic chutney.  It’s sooo damn good!

Hardcore Coconut Chutney

1 small red onion
1/4 cup of fresh coconut (dried coconut is an acceptable alternative)
1 tomato or tomato paste
Lots and lots of garlic (3 or 4)
1 green or red chilli (your preference)
2 tablespoons of peanut oil (or vegetable oil of your choice)

  • Dice the onion, tomato, garlic and chili.  Put aside.
  • If using fresh coconut, shred into small pieces.
  • Combine all the ingredients except the oil.  Blend together with a mortar and pestle or a food processor.
  • Pour oil into a pan, fry the chutney on medium high until heated through.

Combine it with a vegetable, basmati rice or Dal.  Dip your chapati in the chutney, it’s yummy!

* I highly recommend adding extra coconut, it’s a nice contrast to the chilli.

By |February 7th, 2011 |Categories: Savarsai |20 Comments