10 Things I Learned Travelling as a Woman in India
A couple of years ago I found myself on a trip to India. A trip that involved driving 3,000 miles around the southern states of the sub continent, jail-time and many an exasperated expression. It’s a story for another time, but there are some things that travelling around India as a trio of Western women in an old Ambassador car can teach you. Here’s what I learnt from one month on the road in glorious, glorious India.
Us women in the west have got it good
We’ve got it pretty easy here in the UK – relative equality to men, similar opportunities, the freedom to wear what we want and ability to stand up to the patriarchy if we so wish. And while India is progressive on one hand, there is still deep inequality in every town, village and city in the country. Education is not deemed important for girls of a certain class. There are festivals upon festivals to celebrate men, but not women. Clothing is restricted and attitudes towards women are out of this world. I couldn’t help but thank my lucky stars.
Money does not mean happiness
Some of the poorest people I met in India were also some of the happiest. Mass consumerism has not yet reached this huge country, and family, natural beauty, mindfulness and friends are true riches for most people. Who needs a fancy phone when you have love? Amen to that!
Smiling and eating are universal languages
Towards the end of our trip we spent a week on Varkala Beach in Kerala and found a hole-in-the-wall food spot away from the cliff that served the best thali and biryani ever to cross my lips. Although the smiling lady inside spoke not a word of English, and us not a word of Hindi, every day we smiled and hugged and laughed together. A beautiful connection built on good vibes and good food.
Be grateful, always
India showed me poverty at its most brutal and heartbreaking. People sleep under cardboard boxes and on railway lines, children don’t go to school but live a life filled with begging and starvation. It brought a whole host of things into perspective and hammered home with a bang that problems here in the UK are of minor importance. Being in India made me feel a deep, aching thankfulness for the opportunities I have been able to take throughout my life.
Food is the greatest pleasure on this earth
I’m rarely quiet about how much I love food, but being in India made me totally stop caring about my waistline and fully appreciate taste. Not only because I felt lucky to be able to afford to eat like I do (and have the luxury of even caring about my waistline) but because everything tasted so darn good! I’ll have four servings of idly and a masala dhosa side for breakfast every single day, please.
Nothing in India is simple and everything happens on India’s time, not yours. Whether getting a tyre changed at a garage, looking for Wi-Fi or attempting to quench your beer thirst, it will happen when and if India allows it to happen. Take a deep breath and relax in the knowledge that it's all out of your control, and it probably doesn’t matter anyway.
The ability to function through the madness
India is an unrelenting, filthy, stench-filled place that will chew you up and spit you back out without a second thought. It is noisy and chaotic and everyone is grabbing for your attention and money. As a woman, the need to be strong and calm is even greater. India is a shock at first, but little by little I learned to not only survive, but thrive in total anarchy. Truck driving towards us on the wrong side of the road, full beam on? Bring it. Lost in Goa with no map, sat-nav or phone? No worries. Traffic jam in Hyderabad meaning we need to cut up 13 lanes of traffic? Okay!
People are good
Ignore what you see on the news, on the whole, people are kind, generous and filled with love. Men who had nothing invited us into their homes to drink tea and meet their wives, women in cafés gave us discounts because we looked exhausted and beaten down and children shared bags of sweets with us on long train rides.
It is possible to feel every emotion possible within 10 minutes
Joy, love, heartbreak, happiness, sorry, frustration, disgust, overwhelming hatred, amusement, surprise. India throws up curveballs every three seconds, and everyone will cause a new emotion to rise to the surface. You will be forgiven if you crash into your bed an emotional wreck at the end of every day.
I can’t wait to go back
Despite the jail time and the emotions and the roads and the mayhem, I’m heading back to India in February this year to taste its flavours once more. It is addictive, vibrant, stunning and filled with beautiful people. Who’s coming with me?