Single White Female Traveling Through India Seeks Adventure, Risk, and Reward

SWF experiencing India

One of my favorite movies is Paris Je T’aime. It is a series of vignettes set in various quarters of the city, each with its own distinct story and personality. This movie is regularly in my ‘top ten’ for a variety of reasons – I love Paris, the movie has some hilarious and thoughtful stories, and stars some of my favorite actors. In the final vignette, an American woman, played by Margo Martindale, in her 40s has set out on her own Parisian adventure. She comes to Paris without anyone, because she had always wanted to go and realized she was never going to find someone to go with her. She made her own adventure regardless of her singlehood. She prepared for her trip by taking French classes for a year, and definitely did her research of the cities well known and not so well known attractions. The movie shows her independently moving about the city, interacting with locals and using French to great effect.

The first time I saw this movie. I felt sorry for this woman. She looked lonely wandering around Paris, and she isn’t very glamorous. She looks like any one of the soccer moms I see walking through my hometown mall in comfortable ‘tennies’ and a fannypack attached securely to her untoned stomach. I became so caught up in feeling pity for her, I completely ignored her monologue. It wasn’t until watching the movie several times, and my own maturing and increasing amount of experiences, that I began to view her differently. She was relatable, and she wasn’t lonely at all. In fact, her facial expressions, although subdued, revealed content and comfort as she walked through a foreign city. She was completely at home in this new city, and upon my last viewing of the film, I also saw a look of satisfaction. “I did it.”

In the final scenes of the movie, she sits by herself on a bench in the park that just so happens to be across the street of my former dormitory at Cite Universitaire in the 14th arrondissement. She watches the scenery around her – the people and their activities, and she explains how we find love in all places; with others, with our families, with ourselves, and for her, in those moments alone in a new city. It is a moving scene for me, as I have sat on those very benches myself often reflecting on what a crazy experience I had when I backpacked Europe. The difference was I was never alone. I either traveled with friends, or met up with those studying abroad, and during my pit stops I was always at a university surrounded by other students. Fast forward to my experience in India – I have been alone for the majority of my time here. Due to my geographical seclusion and the fact that I have been placed by myself, I have a lot of ‘ME’ time.

During my interview for this fellowship, AIF asked me if I was willing to be by myself in a rural placement, and without reflecting on it, I knew the answer – yes. I knew I could handle it, and I am still grateful for my placement. I have loved being independent here. Through traveling alone, I have learned about myself and more about Indian culture than I think I would have if I was always with someone. I have been forced to rely on locals around me and my own skills to navigate cultural and language barriers.

At the beginning of April, I did a huge trip by myself up to one of the most northern parts of the country, Darjeeling. Famous for its tea and politics, this region is located on the Nepali border and is high in the Himalayas. On clear days, you can see Mt. Everest (unfortunately for me, the weather while I was there was too hazy for me to have a view). The trip to Darjeeling was, with no better words coming to mind, a lot. My travel went as follows: 45 minute jeep ride from Rishi Valley to Madanapalle, 4 hour bus from Madanapalle to Bangalore, 2.5 hour flight from Bangalore to Calcutta, 22 hour bus from Calcutta to Siliguri, 3 hour jeep ride up the mountain from Siliguri to Darjeeling. The return journey was slightly easier as I decided not to do a bus from Siliguri to Calcutta, but an overnight train which is only about 11 hours. The trip was at times extremely stressful because I was traveling alone, and to be perfectly frank, because I was a woman. I got sick on the bus, the driver wouldn’t pull over because he was male and did not have to go, and when he did… well it was the side of the road. Thankfully, I have lost a lot of modesty at this point in my time at India, and just ‘took care’ of my issues in the back of the bus. The overnight train, while logistically easier, was nerve wracking, as a group of men just stared at me as we rode in the sleeper car. Although I was finally able to fall asleep, I am pretty sure they continued watching me while I slept because when I woke up at 5am the next morning they were still in their positions. I wondered what they expected me to do… a trick? Pull a parrot out of nowhere? Or something more inappropriate?

I will not say it has been the easiest, being alone, especially as a woman in India. You have seen the recent news of the country’s episodes of sexual violence, and unfortunately I have dealt with two incidents of indecency from forward men. Both episodes occurred on the public bus between Bangalore and Madanapalle. In both episodes, the man zoned in on me, and purposefully sat next to me. The first situation was far more subdued than the first. The man ‘accidentally’ fell into me and on his way back up decided that my upper thigh and chest were the best places to push himself back up. I yelled at him along with another male passenger who saw the incident and the man promptly got off at the next stop. It was a well planned ‘accident,’ timed perfectly. And one that has happened to me on the NYC subway as well. The next incident, which just occurred this past weekend as I returned from a quick trip to Bangalore, was more aggressive. While I am ok, I am much more shaken up this time. I was lucky, and I also realized that many women might not feel empowered enough to say no or yell. I was surprised at my reaction however. In my head I have played out what would happen if I was ever attacked, whether here or in the US. I know myself, I have a temper and I know that a man touching me inappropriately would set that temper off. Although I did defend myself and yell, as soon as he was gone, I just sat in my seat and sobbed while an auntie rubbed my shoulder. My incident was very minor, but it frightened me terribly, and my only reaction to it was the exact opposite of what I expected my reaction to be – I cried.

I share these experiences not to shock people or upset those who read my blog. I also don’t want readers to interpret these experiences as a shadow on my time here in India. These incidents are part of a larger issue that is affecting India – sexual violence and women’s rights. In December, a woman younger than me was brutalized and gang raped on a bus and later died of her injuries. Just last month, a European backpacker was also gang raped and her husband was severely beat, and just this morning, news broke of another brutal rape in Delhi, this time involving a 5 year old girl left for dead in an abandoned building. I was very lucky. This epidemic is rooted in the long standing issue of women equality and their perceptions in society. Women are viewed as property in many parts of India, and even in my protected area in Rishi Valley, spousal abuse and underage marriage are rampant. In addition to their general views of women, I have faced largely inappropriate questions from men directed towards my sexual behavior because of their perception of western women. Most men, when they approach me on the bus or on the street, assume I am one wild freak because I carry an American passport. And because of their assumption, they also presume they are entitled to me. Usually though the conversations stay mild enough – “What is your name?” “Can I have your phone number?” “Can I email you?” “Where do you live?” “Are you married?” “Do you like Indian men?” “You come to my house now.”

It does sadden me to report that when I shared my experience with some people, the automatic blame was placed on me because I went on the empty bus alone. I have a few issues with that. First, the driver told me we were leaving in a few minutes so I thought it was best to get on the bus and grab a clean seat next to a window so I could get some air during the four hour journey. Second, it shouldn’t matter if I got on the bus alone. I broke no law. I was sitting in my seat, reading a book and wearing a long sleeved kurta and pants when the man sat down next to me. Not that what I was wearing should make a difference either, but as that is generally the first question people bring up in sexual assault cases even in the US, I thought I would address it. My biggest issue with this line of thinking is that it reflects the culture in which this behavior is tolerated. By asking me why I went on the empty bus, instead of asking why would this man commit such an act, helps to perpetuate the behavior. I understand I need to be careful when traveling alone, but I was and have been through all of my solo journeys. I had checked in with the driver so he was aware I was there, I was wearing culturally appropriate clothes, I was sitting alone and I did not initiate conversation with him. Instead I was reading my book, with headphones on, with a “Do Not Disturb” look on my face. It was also 1:30 in the afternoon; I try my best to only travel during the day when it is supposedly safer.

I have loved my time here in India. It has been an opportunity that I am grateful for, and although I had two unfortunate experiences, I do not regret coming here. I wanted to share my experiences because the purpose of this blog is to highlight life in India – the good and the bad. The sexual violence in India must stop. My situation could have been much worse, but I was raised to stand up for myself and to know that no one has the right to touch me. Self confidence, the strength to say no or even to physically protect oneself – none of these are promoted for young girls here. Several organizations work tirelessly to make this happen, and demonstrations and protests educate the general public about rape and the violence against women. In fact, as we continue with creating our curriculum, I have made the decision to revisit and write some more socially charged stories. I have already included female empowerment stories centered on education and business, but we will be including a story about a girl learning to speak up for herself. And while some people told me I shouldn’t have been on the bus alone, many more addressed the issue with the man’s behavior. I have faith that this is the sign of a shift in behavior and mindset.

An author and fellow SWF, Alison Reiber, just completed a month long journey through Northern India, and shares her experiences traveling alone in this country. She writes of similar experiences she had with men, and why she would come back and travel the country again. She describes her feelings much more eloquently than I can, and she articulates my exact sentiments. If you are interested, click here to read her article.

While this recent incident was a negative example of traveling alone, I have so many more positive experiences of traveling by myself. Unlike my return trip, the bus ride going to Bangalore was a blast. It was a holiday, and the driver was very friendly. His conductor even put me upfront so that I had a comfortable and safe journey. We stopped at several roadside temples and all filed off the bus to enjoy the Pankadum or jaggery water, a ritual conducive to that specific holiday. A group of aunties made me delicious food on the bus, and an uncle explained in broken English the importance of family. I felt like I was on a crazy family reunion with members I hadn’t seen in years.

My trips to Pondicherry and Darjeeling were great as I explored new cities on my own.  One of my favorite experiences during my entire time in India, was the bus ride I had Christmas night through rural Tamil Nadu. I was on the top level of a sleeper bus, and rode for hours, hanging out of the windows, driving through remote villages as they celebrated Christmas and a concurrent Hindu holiday. I was just silent and soaked in the lights, the music and the humid night air. These moments are mine. I treasure these little solo adventures, because no one can take them away from me or interpret them in their own way casting their own judgment.

Darjeeling

Darjeeling was another amazing trip. I visited two other fellows, JC and Arunima. While my friend was supposed to accompany me, her travel did not work out, and I set off solo up to the Himalaya paradise. As I previously stated, the travel there was very strenuous, between health, terrible road conditions, and the heat, I was exhausted by the time I finally reached Darjeeling. I also underestimated my ability to climb the steep mountains in high altitude. Regardless of my running and hiking here in the Eastern Ghats, the Himalayas are an entirely different beast. My first walk up to my friends’ apartment with my pack on left me breathless on more than one occasion. Even the next day as I set off to sight see I would become dizzy and exhausted.

 

Malak Temple

Darjeeling is like no other place I have been to in India. The culture and language are closer to East Asia than Indian traditions. I wandered through the town stopping to eat roadside momos (Nepali dumplings… DELICIOUS). I visited the Buddhist Peace Pagoda where I joined in a drumming and chanting session, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which has documentation of every Everest climb in history, and the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center to learn about the Tibetan struggle and Chinese occupation. My favorite moments of the trip however happened when I would stop at a tea shop, get a pot of freshly brewed famous Darjeeling tea and just watch the mountains out of the window.

I spent two days sightseeing on my own and one day doing field work with JC. Their organization, CHHIP, is running a school based health education program for several rural Darjeeling schools that are in tea estates. We needed to visit five schools to monitor their health education curriculum and secure paperwork from their principals. This meant literally hiking through the mountains, through tea estates to remote schools. It was breathtaking – both from the high altitude and the beautiful scenery. JC has done an amazing job integrating into the community, learning Nepali, and actively advocating for her schools on their behalf to the local Gorkhaland government.

Tea pickers

One thing this fellowship is teaching me about education is that you don’t need much to create a quality school. You don’t need a smartboard, a planning period, or electricity to ensure your students are learning in a safe conducive environment. Obviously these things can help, but are not essential to the learning process. The schools CHHIP supports are wooden structures placed in seemingly precarious positions on the sides of mountains. Most have dirt floors, no windows and thin wooden walls that do not reach the ceiling. While there were issues with the quality of education being conducted in these schools, I did see caring teachers and principals genuinely invested in their students’ well-being. If you would like to check out more photos of my Darjeeling trip click here.

Don’t mind the exhaustion on my face…. hiking the Himalayas is tiring…

During my trip in Darjeeling, there were several moments where I felt a tinge of loneliness. It wasn’t overpowering and it didn’t deflate the trip, but I wondered what it would have been like to share the trip with someone. I had a similar feeling in Pondicherry, on that Christmas bus ride, and any other time I have

experienced something on my own here in this country. Whether it is a friend or someone I am in a relationship with, there are times I want to share these special moments. Like when the monkey at the Malak temple grabbed my leg or when the Buddhist monk invited me into his drumming circle, it would have been fun to share it with someone. I am a big Facebook user, mostly because I like to keep in touch with people and it is the easiest way to do that. My timeline shows my friends starting to settle down, get engaged and married, have kids, or my other friends who are building their careers and having amazing experiences in cities with other people.

Would it be great to have a partner with me on this adventure? Definitely. It would enhance the experience in different ways, and I probably would have endured less inappropriate moments with men. And while a friend or boyfriend would have been great, I am grateful that I am doing this by myself. This is my experience, both the good and the bad. I didn’t wait for someone to make a ‘Let’s Go to India” pact.  I did this on my own, because I wanted to live and work in India. I have fallen in love with this country, and as a result of my solo Indian adventure, I have learned to love myself a little more. Just like our friend in Paris Je T’aime, my favorite moments are the quiet ones where it is just me with no restriction and no barrier, and I am thrust into this unique and colorful culture. At times it is risky, but the lessons and memories I have garnered as a result of me being here and taking those chances are invaluable. Because right now in my life, I find so much more satisfaction out of saying, “I did it” rather than “We did it.”

On a lighter note…

Love.

This last month was my birthday! We had a Bangalore Birthday Celebration. Ted, Brian, and Gayatri joined Swathi and me in the city, and we proceeded to do everything that I can’t do in Rishi Valley. I ate only meat, drank cold drinks and beer, went to the movies, and got pedicures. Our Friday night ended with a stirring karaoke event with Ted and I singing “I’ve Got You Babe.” He was obviously Cher while I supported him as Sonny. However, the show that stole it all was Ted and Brian’s rendition of Garth Brooks “I Got Friends in Low Places.” I have loved getting to know my other fellows, and my times with them have been fairly epic. Here is to lifelong friends!

Ted and Brian…. Best picture of the fellowship

I want to take a quick second to promote our whole group fellowship project. We have decided to compile a literary magazine, with my good friends Ragini, Anusha and Liz spearheading the endeavor. Our magazine will focus on behavior change in development, and will present writings from yours truly and other phenomenal Clinton fellows. We are currently raising money through Kickstarter to make this magazine a reality. We only need about $1500 to publish, so if you are interested in contributing, please click here to see how you can fund our dream!

Also… here is our puppy break!!! Enjoy the pictures! They are darling. I have named three of the seven so far. There is Batman, Madi, and Dr. Chubbs (because he is enormous). Hopefully the other four will have names in the near future….

 

Emily believes education is the most important public service. This conviction was formed during her year with AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corps assisting in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina where she witnessed firsthand the effects of poor educational systems. Much of her relief work directly affected Americans who had little option following the storm due to a lack in education. During her undergraduate coursework at Seton Hall University's Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Emily focused her studies on the causal link between gender equality in education and international sustainable development cumulating into her senior thesis project. Since graduating, she has spent the last two years expanding her knowledge of education reform as a founding 2010 Louisiana Delta Teach For America corps member teaching 5th grade in the rural town of Tallulah. Emily worked to expand her teaching beyond just the classroom, and helped to create several initiatives that promoted community development for students and their families. She advocates for international social development rooted in educational equity and quality.

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4 thoughts on “Single White Female Traveling Through India Seeks Adventure, Risk, and Reward

  1. emily, this has been my favorite thing to read on the internet in at least a weak (and there’s a lot of stuff on the internet!). Your experiences have kind of helped me to put a lifetime of wonderful, weird, and even horrible experiences in India into some context and perspective. Life as a single woman can be terrifying, and the trick is to make it not be paralyzing, and the way you’ve done that is really inspiring and motivating to me. I’m not naive enough to think that the bad things I’ve experienced here can’t happen in America; we’re reminded everyday that they can and do. It’s the lack of outrage and response that shocks me here for the most part, and i hope you’re right in that this response is changing.

    the puppies are beautiful. that bottom one is eating another one’s face – has he met ted?

    also: i’ve been trying to name a kitten batman for years but it just won’t stick.

  2. Emily,
    If anyone calls I will let them know that you will be home on July 2nd, 1:30pm, and not one moment earlier – darn it anyway. Maybe I will invite them to the house that afternoon so they can see for themselves that you are home and safe.
    Love you and see you in 61 days. Not that I am counting!!
    Mom

  3. Emily: You continue to amaze me! I am so jealous! I wish I could have been seated behind you on the bus to “give what for” to the bums who attempted to assult you! We (Dee and I) look forwards to seeing you in July. Safe passage! Lowell

  4. To all the single ladies,
    I am exactly were you are Emily you are so right about the alone time!
    I was just feeling down then I read your blog and you are completly right!!!
    Visit me in Hamburg some time, how is our dog?
    Lots of Love

    Carina

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